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Bad Behavior: Key to Getting Promoted for Alabama Prison Officials

The fatal beating of Billy Smith while a prisoner at the Elmore Correctional Facility in November 2017 sheds some light on ADOC’s condoning violence and abuse in Alabama’s prisons. Smith, 35, was hogtied and beaten allegedly by three guards, including Jeremy Singleton, while supervisory staff ignored Smith as he screamed for help. Hours later, he was unresponsive with snoring respirations — a sign of a major head injury. He died in December 2017 from a fractured skull, autopsy results showed.

Singleton was promoted to sergeant. He resigned in August 2019 after a grand jury returned a manslaughter indictment against him and Smith’s fellow prisoner, Bryan Blount. In the 21 months that lapsed after Smith’s death, ADOC conducted an internal investigation and delivered its findings to the Elmore County District Attorney’s office, which presented a case to the grand jury that indicted Singleton and Blount.

But who was in charge during this beating? Records show that Lt. Kenny Waver stood by as Smith suffered lethal injuries at the hands of his guards. He was in charge the night of the beating. Waver, a former textiles worker, was hired by ADOC in 1997, when it used a hitching post to punish prisoners. They would handcuff a prisoner to the post, forcing him to stand for an extended time.

After arriving at Elmore in 2007, Waver’s disciplinary record grew longer. He was suspended at least three times for abusing prisoners — “abusive or excessive physical force in dealing with inmates,” as one incident report described it. Nevertheless, ADOC then promoted Waver to lieutenant at Elmore. And he kept getting suspended for things such as falsifying reports and lying to supervisors. Yet, he remains in charge.

A wrongful death suit filed in November 2019 by Smith’s estate alleges “a state of lawlessness” at the prison, where guards and supervisors “were not disciplined or removed from the prison population in response to previous acts of violence.” The suit names Waver as a defendant, along with other ADOC officials. Waver denied responsibility for Smith’s death in a February 2020 response to the suit. The case has not yet gone to trial.

Another Elmore lieutenant, Gerald Tippins, had been suspended at least six times before transferring to the prison. In a 2008 incident, he failed to report the escape of a prisoner who went on to kill a man whose truck he stole. Records show that Tippins falsified the prison count to cover up the missing prisoner. He kept his job because ADOC concluded that his actions didn’t directly lead to the prisoner’s escape.

And then another prisoner escaped under Tippins’ watch in 2016, after he authorized the housing of prisoners in an area he was told was unsafe. He kept his job and was suspended just two days for not following orders.

As of May 2020, both Waver and Tippins still work at Elmore.

Trouble with leadership at Alabama’s prisons is nothing new. In 2014, a report by the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) showed a pattern of abuse by ADOC guards. When LeePoseyDaniels was warden at Elmore, he “paraded a severely injured man in front of other inmates and announced that the beating was intended as a warning.” This “management through force” is a longstanding practice and the root of the problems at Elmore, said Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney at EJI. “The willingness to misreport and cover-up instances where the use of force is excessive,” she continued, “is a big part of why we have this culture of violence.”

When Daniels was transferred to Staton in 2015, Joseph Hedley was brought in to Elmore, and violence between prisoners more than doubled in 2017, according to an EJI report. Headley was since transferred to Staton Correctional Facility in 2019 to replace Daniels, who retired. Right after Headley’s arrival, Walter Green — one of the guards accused of beating Smith to death at Elmore, who had been transferred to Staton — was promoted to sergeant. Green’s disciplinary record lists at least 12 suspensions. He currently works under Headley at Staton.

The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 2019 on mismanagement at ADOC. It recommended that the state assess whether ADOC supervisors had the skills needed to run the prisons.

But prisoner abuse continued at Elmore. In early 2019, guard Ulysses Oliver beat two handcuffed prisoners with his baton numerous times on their hands, feet, and faces. He pleaded guilty to assault and is scheduled to be sentenced in August 2020. Lt. Willie Burks, who supervised Oliver during this beating, was indicted in September 2019 for allowing the assault to happen and for lying to a grand jury. Unsurprisingly, Oliver had a disciplinary record of suspensions for abuse and violence against prisoners.

In a statement to Injustice Watch about the abuse of prisoners by ADOC guards, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) essentially gave a nonresponse, calling the situation “a multifaceted problem requiring a multifaceted, Alabama solution,” and citing “decades of neglect and an outdated model where inmates are warehoused instead of rehabilitated.”

Experts cite overcrowding — Elmore was designed to hold 600 prisoners but houses 1,200 — and understaffing as part of the problem. Steve J. Martin, a correctional consultant with over 50 years’ experience in prison systems who has overseen reforms at Rikers Island in New York City, called ADOC a “very poor system, in terms of both leadership and pay.”

 “They simply do not put enough prison staff into their operations,” he said, “and they don’t have the quality of leadership for who they do put in there.”

ADOC’s promotion process favors experience — that is, they promote guards who’ve simply worked there longer — over other qualifications. In other words, ADOC promotes guards who have been trained in and have worked in a system that promotes abuse and violence against prisoners, under conditions that are unconstitutional.

One prisoner at Elmore, who spoke anonymously to avoid retaliation by ADOC guards, said nothing has changed in the years since Smith’s death. Prisoners still expect a beating by guards for even the appearance of disrespect to staff, “like what happened to Billy,” he said.

“If you’re an officer in here, and you don’t condone the corruption, the abuse, you’re going to be a loner in here,” he added. “You’re going to be shamed by your fellow officers.”