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Alabama prison guards allegedly beat, hog-tied, ignored inmate who later died: Secret report
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Billy Smith and his mother, Teresa. Smith died in November 2017 after he was beaten in an Alabama prison. (Courtesy Teresa Smith | Injustice Watch)
By Adeshina Emmanuel | Injustice Watch
Originally published Feb. 18, 2020, this article is the first in an Injustice Watch series detailing problems in Alabama’s prisons. Injustice Watch is a nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in Chicago.
An Alabama prisoner died weeks after he was allegedly beaten by a fellow inmate, beaten again and hog-tied by prison guards, and then denied treatment by a nurse, according to a secret Alabama Department of Corrections report obtained by Injustice Watch.
The report contains shocking details about the death of Billy Smith, including apparent efforts to conceal the timeline of events and obscure the roles that correctional employees played in his fatal ordeal.
Smith, 35, was found dazed and injured on the floor of a bathroom at Elmore Correctional Facility in November 2017 after another man allegedly punched him in the head and knocked him out over a bungled drug deal.
Inmates took Smith, bloodied, to the shift command office, where witnesses said he complained about head pain and refused to wait outside. Officers then allegedly beat Smith, hog-tied him, and left him strapped to a gurney.
Smith lay untreated for at least an hour, witnesses said in the report, bleeding heavily from his nose and pleading for help.
Officers then took him to a nearby prison medical facility, where a nurse refused him treatment. When authorities returned with Smith, he was unconscious and trembling.
Prison officials then sent Smith back to the medical facility, and paramedics took him to a hospital. Smith, who suffered a fractured skull and brain bleeding, never woke up again. He died 26 days later from blunt force head trauma.
Smith’s mother, Teresa Smith, said the Alabama Department of Corrections never reached out with condolences or an explanation. Smith, who left behind three children, was serving time for a 2006 murder.
“For him to have to die like that — he got the death penalty in my view,” Teresa Smith said in an interview with Injustice Watch. “People say he deserved what he got, but nobody deserves to suffer like that. I know that inmates are prisoners, and maybe they are there for a reason, but they’re not animals; these are people’s sons, brothers, and daddies.”
Teresa Smith’s son, Billy Smith, died as a prisoner at Elmore Correctional Facility in December 2017. (Adeshina Emmanuel | Injustice Watch)
The details of how guards allegedly left Smith without prompt care for his wounds and then inflicted more injuries were included in the confidential investigative report that the Alabama Department of Corrections has kept secret from the public. In the report, inmates contradicted the explanations correctional staff gave investigators.
Some prison supervisors first denied seeing Smith hogtied, but later revised their statements or were otherwise called into question by video described in the report. An office log was found apparently altered, with notes about Smith missing and a dubious signature. One sergeant failed a polygraph exam, and an assistant warden edited her time card without explanation, according to the report.
Injustice Watch emailed the Alabama Department of Corrections with a long list of questions and sought interviews about what investigators found. Officials responded with a statement confirming that they had probed the circumstances around Smith’s death and forwarded findings to prosecutors, but declined to say much more, “out of respect for the legal process.”
Bryan Blount, who was serving time at Elmore for a 2002 murder, is scheduled to go on trial for manslaughter next month for allegedly causing Smith’s death. So, too, is former correctional officer Jeremy Singleton, who prosecutors say struck Smith multiple times on his head and failed to seek timely medical attention for the inmate.
Mickey McDermott, Singleton’s lawyer, said his client is innocent. Blount’s attorney didn’t return calls for comment. Neither did the state medical examiner who investigators said concluded that Blount was responsible for Smith’s death. Injustice Watch also reached out to the other officers accused of abusing Smith, the nurse who denied his care, and prison supervisors mentioned in the report. All either failed to respond to requests or refused to answer questions about what state investigators found.
The Shift Commander’s Office
Late in the afternoon of Nov. 13, 2017, prisoners found Smith with a bruised forehead and a bloody nose in a prison dormitory. Two officers were watching the dorm, according to the report, which houses nearly 200 inmates.
Prisoners told investigators that Blount punched Smith in the head about 5:30 p.m., knocking him to the concrete floor. The fight was over money — Blount accused Smith of shorting a package of synthetic marijuana. Prison officials alleged that Smith smuggled drugs for Blount from a nearby trade school where Smith attended classes. Smith, of Arab, Alabama, had struggled with addiction and crime since his teen years, his mother said.
Former Elmore correctional officer Joel McClease told Injustice Watch that an inmate brought him to the bathroom, where he found Smith lying on the floor by a toilet. Other prisoners told him Smith was intoxicated. McClease remembers helping Smith to a shower, saying he was conscious but unsteady on his feet. McClease said guards were typically advised to send injured or sick inmates to the shift office so that supervisors could then take them to a nearby prison health facility where nurses could evaluate their condition and fill out a “body chart.”
McClease said he radioed supervisors and requested that an “ambulance unit” of inmates come with a stretcher and transport Smith to the front shift command office.
According to the report, one of the inmates in the ambulance unit told investigators he remembered finding Smith lying on the floor, possibly intoxicated, wearing only boxers and a sweatshirt after his shower. He had a cut atop his head and a bloody nose.
Smith stood and was helped into the gurney. He was taken to a grassy area outside the shift commander’s office, where it was cool and raining. About an hour had passed since the fight.
Nurse Tara Parker was in the office passing out medicine to a long line of inmates. Singleton had just arrived to work an overtime shift as a transport agent, moving inmates from prison to prison. At least two supervisors, Sgt. Jonathan Richardson and shift commander Lt. Kenny Waver, were in the office as well.
Waver, according to the report, said he threatened Smith with a can of mace when Smith first arrived on the gurney because he refused to sit down. But both shift leaders denied hitting Smith or seeing anyone abuse him, and both failed to return calls and letters seeking comment.
Smith continued to complain that he was cold and that his head was hurting badly. According to what several inmates told investigators, Smith defied correctional officers who told him to stay out of the office for fear he would track blood inside.
As the situation escalated, Singleton allegedly smacked Smith hard in his face and head, punched him twice in the ribs, and swept his feet from under him, causing him to fall on his side, three prisoners who helped guards transport Smith said in the report. McClease told Injustice Watch that he left his post to smoke a cigarette, looked down toward the shift office, and saw Singleton hit Smith.
“Singleton was coming out of the door, and Billy was standing on the wall right next to the door, and Singleton turned around and punched him,” he said. “And everybody who was in the pill call line scattered.”
Several prisoners also accused other officers in the report of attacking Smith. Officer Ramus Johnson allegedly “grabbed inmate Smith by the shirt with his left hand and slapped him twice with his right hand and pushed him to the ground,” according to one account. Another prisoner claimed to have seen Officer Walter Green punch Smith in the ribs after putting on gloves with hard plastic knuckles. Neither of the officers responded to repeated requests for comment.
At some point, witnesses alleged, Singleton punched Smith in the face and then “hogtied” him with help from other officers. They cuffed his hands behind him, shackled his feet, and then connected the cuffs to the shackles. Many law enforcement agencies have banned this sort of dangerous restraint method. Some critics liken it to torture.
Smith was laid on his stomach on the gurney, strapped in, and left behind the office beyond the view of cameras, yelling for help for at least an hour or more, according to the report. After he began to vomit, Waver ordered Singleton and rookie officer Ell White to take Smith to the health care unit down the road at Staton Correctional Facility. White, whose personnel file says he is a motor transport operator for the Alabama National Guard, did not return requests for comment.
Inmate runners said the officers unstrapped Smith and that he walked to a prison transport van near the back gate. Video footage showed the van leaving the prison about 9 p.m. Smith entered Staton under his own power, Singleton and White said. But he didn’t leave that way, according to the report.
On Nov. 13, 2017, paramedics took Billy Smith to the emergency room at Jackson Hospital with a fractured skull and a bleeding brain. He died 26 days later. (Adeshina Emmanuel | Injustice Watch)
Parker, the nurse, told investigators that she left the shift office at Elmore Correctional Facility and returned to Staton to find the officers in a hallway with Smith. Parker said she told the officers that she needed a few minutes to get settled, but would return. The officers placed Smith in a holding cell to wait.
The officers told investigators they saw Smith sitting on a bench with his eyes closed, and that he eventually slid off and began kicking, hitting his head on the floor, and grabbing at Singleton’s legs. They said they didn’t hit Smith or let him fall.
White said Smith collapsed when officers tried to get him to stand up. Smith became unresponsive, so White rapped him lightly on the back of his neck to wake him. It was “nothing ruthless,” he said. White declined to take a polygraph about that account.
In a second interview, White said that he picked up a water cooler inside the cell and began pouring water over Smith to wake him up. He also said Singleton poured water and ice over Smith, but Singleton denied it. Nurses later discovered the sound of water in Smith’s lungs, according to the report.
When Parker got to the cell, she said there was blood smeared on the walls, and that she found Smith rolling around on the floor, thrashing and yelling. Parker remembered the officers saying that Smith was “wigging out” on drugs, investigators said. In Parker’s statement, she admitted that she made two big mistakes: The nurse did not complete a body chart on Smith, and she ultimately refused to treat him, she said, because he was acting erratically.
Parker initially told investigators she didn’t see water on the ground in Smith’s cell and didn’t see anybody pour water on him. More than two months later, Parker gave a second statement, telling investigators that she did see White pour water over Smith in the holding cell.
Once Parker refused to treat Smith, the officers said they loaded Smith into a wheelchair and rolled him to the van. Singleton said that the officers buckled Smith into the van, but that he unbuckled himself and tore at his clothing. But White, in his second interview, had a different story than Singleton: Smith was not moving when they got to the van, and the officers didn’t buckle him into his seat.
The van was captured on camera returning to Elmore just after 10 p.m., about an hour after Smith was taken to Staton. At least two inmate runners helped unload Smith. They saw him lying on his left side, unresponsive, stuck between two benches, with his shirt over his head, his pants around his ankles, and his boxers down to his thighs, according to the report. One of the runners said that he pulled a trash bag filled with ice from between Smith’s chest and one of the seats.
The inmates who transported Smith, as well as a supervisor who saw him after he returned to Elmore, offered the same account: Smith was wet, shaking uncontrollably, and making a strange snoring noise. “Oh my god,” Waver exclaimed when Smith was rolled back to the shift office, according to one inmate runner’s account. Supervisors then ordered him taken back to Staton.
Parker and one of the inmate runners said that Smith returned to Staton with several marks on his body that were not there before. Parker told investigators it appeared Smith had been dragged. After nurses evaluated his condition, they gave him medicine meant to treat drug overdoses, but it had no effect, according to the report. After that, authorities took Smith to Jackson Hospital, in Montgomery, but the report doesn’t say when.
There are discrepancies in different witness accounts. Some inmates, including retired officer Joel McClease, said that they saw Smith walking on his own closer to 10 p.m.
One of the prisoners who helped transport Smith initially declined to talk to investigators until he was transferred to another prison, 25 miles away. There, he gave investigators a statement largely supporting the descriptions of how Smith was mistreated. He later told investigators that Singleton unexpectedly visited him, saying, “I suppose I know why you are up here.”
The prisoner said Singleton confided that “they are trying to pin that inmate’s death on me,” and then told him to “stay strong.”
The prisoner told investigators that he took the statement to mean he should stay quiet about what happened to Smith, according to the report.
John Crow, who was the warden at Staton during Smith’s incident but has since moved on to another facility, didn’t return calls for comment. And nurse Parker, contacted in February by Injustice Watch, refused to answer questions about what happened at the shift office or the medical facility in 2017 when Smith suffered fatal injuries while she was on duty.
“Please respect the fact that I do not want to talk about this case,” she said. “I do not want to be bothered anymore about the situation.”
Department of Corrections
State investigators interrogated many of the correctional employees named in the Billy Smith case at Alabama Department of Corrections headquarters, in Montgomery, Alabama. (Adeshina Emmanuel | Injustice Watch)
The Alabama Department of Corrections’ Investigations and Intelligence Division began looking into Smith’s injuries on Nov. 14, 2017, the day after he arrived at the hospital.
Investigator William D. Favor and a partner, T.A. Wallace, found Smith unconscious, visibly battered, and recovering from an emergency brain surgery when they arrived at the hospital. A nurse told the investigators that Smith had a fractured skull on the left temporal area of his head and a swollen brain that had shifted to the right. Favor wrote in his report that Smith was brought to the hospital “due to a possible drug overdose.”
The investigators reviewed his body and observed: “several cuts to the top of his head, abrasions and bruising on both legs, hips, shoulders, however; he did not appear to have any defensive marks or bruising on his arms nor did he have any cuts to his knuckles and hand that would indicate hitting any object with his fist.”
Then–Elmore Correctional Facility warden Joseph Headley, who didn’t return Injustice Watch’s requests for comment, was among the first people Favor interviewed. Headley, now the warden at Staton Correctional Facility, never indicated that guards or nurses had mishandled Smith, according to investigators. Instead, he helped connect investigators with alleged witnesses to Smith and Blount’s dormitory fight.
When investigators later approached prison leadership with harder questions about what had happened to Smith under their watch and asked whether officers had abused Smith, leaders responded with apparent defensiveness, deception, and a lack of cooperation, the investigators’ report shows.
Assistant Warden Gwendolyn Babers, who refused to be interviewed for this story, denied ever seeing an inmate abused, according to the report. A prisoner, however, alleged that Babers had exited out the front side door in view of the shift office, and spoke to Waver briefly while Smith was hog-tied. Investigators couldn’t confirm that inmate’s account. And Babers’ time card showed that she clocked out about 40 minutes before Smith was brought to the shift office, according to the report. However, investigators noted that Babers’ time card was edited on the day Smith was hurt, and that “the reason for the editing is unknown.”
Waver denied that any officers under his command struck Smith and denied seeing Smith hog-tied on the gurney, though in a later interview he acknowledged seeing Smith handcuffed and shackled on the gurney outside the office for an hour or more.
Richardson denied seeing any officer strike Smith and said he could not confirm if he was hog-tied. The corrections sergeant said he had only been outside the office once during Smith’s ordeal — when other witnesses said he was being beaten — but video later showed he had been outside at least six times, according to investigators.
Investigators also found that the original copy of a shift office log was missing notes about Smith’s first trip to Staton that a clerk remembered entering, and it lacked a required signature from a supervisor. A copy of the unsigned, incomplete log was found on a clipboard in the women’s bathroom. The purported original was later found in a locked file cabinet bearing Richardson’s signature.
Richardson denied knowing whether anyone had changed the shift log and insisted that he had signed the log. He failed a polygraph exam when agents asked him if he had seen Smith hog-tied, if he had signed the shift log after it had been altered and if he knew who had made the changes, the report shows.
A state autopsy concluded Smith had died of blunt force trauma. After hearing investigators describe the details of Smith’s fight with Blount and witness statements about Smith’s contact with officers, a medical examiner with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences attributed Smith’s fatal injuries to his fight with Blount.
In February 2019, one of the investigators referred a manslaughter charge against Blount to the Elmore County District Attorney’s Office.
Investigators declared the Smith probe “exceptionally cleared” and closed it in October 2018, due to the case against the inmate. But in July 2019, the grand jury returned indictments against both Blount and Singleton, who had been promoted to sergeant a year prior.
Prison officials put Singleton on mandatory leave after learning of the indictment, and he resigned about a week later, in August 2019, according to a statement from the Department of Corrections.
Both Singleton and Blount are scheduled to begin trial in December.
McDermott, Singleton’s lawyer, said “the state of Alabama can’t have it both ways” by charging both men with manslaughter even though a state autopsy concluded Blount was at fault.
He accused inmates of making false statements, and blasted corrections staff at Elmore for allegedly scapegoating Singleton while other employees got off the hook.
“Mr. Singleton has been sued civilly, he’s been charged criminally, yet if you read the report, the person who denied medical treatment to Mr. Smith was a nurse,” McDermott said. “The nurse has not been charged, she has not been sued, but clearly she refused medical treatment to this inmate, and I’m sorry, but if you look at it, it looks like her delay contributed to this man’s death.”
Smith’s mother, Teresa Smith, also rejects the notion that only Blount and Singleton are responsible. That is one reason why her family filed a civil lawsuit against Singleton, Warden Headley, who transferred to Staton last year, Waver, state prison chief Jeff Dunn, and former associate commissioner Grantt Culliver, who retired in 2018 amid a sexual misconduct scandal.
She hopes that the story of how her son died can help spur greater accountability at Elmore Correctional Facility and other Alabama prisons, and urge consequences higher up the organizational chart when corrections employees mistreat inmates.
“I want to save another mama, or another child, from having to feel pain like this,” she said. “I don’t really blame the prisoner, because I don’t think he killed my son. I know that the guards did it, and it wasn’t just one person involved.”
Click here to read the rest of Injustice Watch’s Alabama Prison Crisis series.
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