Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rocrast Mack Murder At Alabama Prison Followed Trail Of Violence By Guards


First Posted: 11/22/11 05:11 PM ET Updated: 11/22/11 06:45 PM ET

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Late on the night of August 4, 2010, a badly beaten young man arrived at the trauma ward of Jackson Hospital here. Although the patient was hardly a flight risk, security was tight and prison guards crowded into the emergency room as doctors began treatment.

The patient's limp body spoke to the savagery of an assault that had left deep contusions on his legs and torso, and inflamed knots bulging from his head and face. He was unresponsive, with fixed and dilated pupils, and doctors quickly diagnosed a traumatic brain injury. Only a ventilator kept him alive. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.

His name was Rocrast Mack. An Alabama prison inmate, his death at age 24 came at the hands of six corrections officers, who took turns battering him with their fists, feet and batons in retribution for a minor altercation with a female guard earlier that night, according to witness accounts and prison records.

Civil rights advocates call Mack's death an avoidable tragedy, the inevitable product of a profoundly dysfunctional state corrections system in Alabama that ranks among the very worst America has to offer.

It is a system flooded with low-level drug offenders like Mack, who was sentenced to 20 years behind bars after pleading guilty to selling $10 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover cop in 2009.

Alabama is also emblematic of a broader problem facing America's prison system: In many states, there simply isn't enough room to hold all of the people who are incarcerated. Against that tableau, inmates often born and bred in hard luck circumstances now find themselves mired in a loop of violence that extends from the street and into prisons themselves.

Yet even in a nation that has little to boast about in terms of prison efficiency and quality, Alabama stands out for what appears to be the sheer brutality and freewheeling nature of its corrections system.

Starved of funds, the state's aging prisons suffer from the worst overcrowding in the nation, operating at an average of 190 percent of their design capacity. Ventress Correctional Facility, where Mack died, is an outlier even by this standard. Built in 1990 and designed to accommodate just 650 men, the facility now holds 1,665 prisoners -- more than 255 percent of its capacity.

Alabama has not ignored Mack's death. Last month, more than a year after it occurred, the Alabama attorney general charged the ranking officer at the scene, Lt. Michael A. Smith, with intentional murder for the beating.

The charge, which could put Smith behind bars for life, is unusual. Even when excessive force is alleged after an inmate death, prosecutors rarely bring charges above manslaughter or negligent homicide, according to Gene Atherton, a former prison administrator and consultant on use of force in prisons and jails.

Federal prosecutors have also taken action. On Nov. 18, the Justice Department said a junior officer involved in the assault, Scottie T. Glenn, had pleaded guilty to two felonies: violating Mack's civil rights and conspiring with fellow officers to cover up the assault.

Civil rights advocates welcome the charges, but say they don't go nearly far enough. What is truly needed, they say, is widescale reform to alleviate brutally harsh conditions that foster violence by inmates and guards.

"What happened with Mr. Mack is almost predictable," said Charlotte Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, a prisoner legal assistance group based in Montgomery.


"We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of complaints coming into our office concerning guard-on-inmate assaults," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI. "Physical assaults of inmates by guards have become an accepted part of the culture in a lot of Alabama prisons."

Facilitating the abuse are outdated standards for monitoring guard and inmate interactions -- video cameras, common in most state and federal prison systems, are rare in Alabama, for instance -- and follow-up investigations after assaults that are haphazard at best, critics say.

Such shortcomings in oversight allow problem officers to operate without consequences until they inflict a catastrophic injury on a prisoner, as in the case of Mack, according to Sarah Geraghty, senior staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta civil liberties group that works extensively in Alabama's prisons.

"The department has been on notice a long time that they have a serious problem with how they investigate reports of brutality," she said. "Their approach has been to bury their heads in the sand."


Allegations of widespread inmate abuse at the prison are further bolstered by a sworn statement made by Paul T. Costello, a Ventress guard, filed in late October in U.S. District Court in Montgomery in response to an inmate lawsuit.

The document indicates that in July 2009, a group of Ventress guards, including two senior officers, witnessed Smith's violent assault on an inmate, then falsified internal reports and perjured themselves in federal court by denying their involvement in the incident.


In at least once instance, he found, the violence had had fatal consequences. In 2005, guards at Donaldson beat a mentally ill prisoner to death, in an incident with clear parallels to the killing of Rocrast Mack.

The inmate, Charles Agee, 40, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was repeatedly struck in the head with batons and punched in the stomach by several officers after he swung a plastic chair at a guard, causing him to stumble and sprain his ankle, internal prison reports show. Carried bloody and unconscious to a medical station, Agee was thrown forcefully into a chair, causing him to pitch forward and strike his head on a wall, a prison nurse later testified.

He went into a seizure and died a few minutes later. A coroner ruled the death a homicide after an autopsy found four broken ribs, a punctured lung and a lacerated spleen, and determined he died of massive internal bleeding. But no criminal charges were ever filed, and the officers involved kept their jobs, court records reveal.

In 2009, the state settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by Agee's family for an undisclosed sum and without admitting wrongdoing.

Yet despite the class-action suit's allegations of widespread guard-on-inmate violence, the Alabama Correctional Organization, a professional association representing hundreds of Alabama prison guards, including 25 Donaldson officers, filed a highly unusual brief in support of the prisoners' case. (Alabama corrections officers are not represented by a union.)

"Without intervention and relief, a number of prisons in the system, including Donaldson, can appropriately be characterized as a ticking time bomb," Lloyd Wallace, the group's president, and a captain at a nearby maximum-security prison, wrote in the brief.



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