“[A] precise cause of death” has not been determined, said Justice of the Peace Tom Gilliam III. “Several things were found wrong with the body.”
Officials have been tight-lipped about the details of Joseph’s murder, and his family members are frustrated at being kept in the dark.
“I think it’s sad that I lost my son and I can’t get answers from nobody,” said Joseph’s mother, Leah Crutchfield. “It’s probably over something they [prison officials] did.” Erika Joseph, Ronald’s sister, questioned how her brother could be killed in his cell while the unit was on lockdown.
Prison officials confirmed that the unit was locked down at the time of Joseph’s death due to an unrelated incident. In Ms. Joseph’s mind this only confirms her suspicions of the prison’s culpability. “That prison is always on lockdown. They need to do something,” she said.
Joseph had already served four years on his 10-year sentence. Prior to arriving at the Beaumont facility in September 2006, he had spent time in Atlanta and Terre Haute, Indiana federal prisons. Erika Joseph said her brother literally feared for his life at USP Beaumont.
“My brother told me if he didn’t get out of there soon he was coming home in a pine box,” she stated. “He said people were getting stabbed every day,” said his mother.
Prior incidents indicate that Joseph had reason for concern. Keith Barnes was stabbed to death by three prisoners at the Beaumont prison on May 7, 2005. Gabriel Rhone was murdered at the facility on November 28, 2007, also by stabbing. Prison and FBI officials admit that four prisoners have been killed at USP Beaumont since it opened in 1997; however, other sources indicate as many as six homicides have occurred at the federal prison.
Attorney Jennifer Robinson had been hired by Joseph’s family to see if he qualified for a sentence reduction. Robinson noted that the U.S. Sentencing Commission had changed the guidelines last year for crack cocaine convictions; she said she intended to see if Joseph qualified for relief, in March 2008.
He didn’t survive that long. When Joseph failed to make his usual phone call home after his family sent him money, his mother and sister became worried. Days later their worst fears were confirmed. “This should never have happened,” said Erika Joseph. “The system failed.”
USP Beaumont has been failing to protect its prisoners for years. [See: PLN, Sept. 2005, p.10]. Many remember “Thunder Dome” as the title of a 1980’s Mad Max movie where two caged contestants fought to the death. For prisoners at USP Beaumont that phrase is part of a grim reality. For Luther Plant, it was an apt description of his last day alive.
On January 5, 2001, Plant was beaten and stomped to death as he shared a 15-by-20’ recreation cage with Shannon Wayne Agofsky. Agofsky, skilled in martial arts, was convicted in June 2004 of murdering Plant. The jury assessed the death penalty when evidence revealed that he had continued to kick Plant in the head and throat even after he was unconscious. Agofsky now sits on federal death row.
Rumors circulated following Plant’s death that guards might have purposely pitted rival prisoners against each other. Joseph’s mysterious murder has rekindled those suspicions.
USP Beaumont isn’t alone among Texas federal prisons in recent homicides. On March 29, 2008, Servando Rodriguez, 38, serving 4 1/2 years on drug charges, was killed during a riot at the medium security Three Rivers Federal Correctional Institution. Twenty-two other prisoners were injured during the brawl, which reportedly involved rival gangs.
Rodriguez was murdered just two weeks after Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin testified before Congress about a rise in prison violence and the need to increase prison staffing levels.
Sources: Associated Press, Beaumont Enterprise, Houston Chronicle
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