- Parents of a man who died in an Alabama prison last month learned of his death from another inmate.
- The detainee said he saw the man, known as DL, bled to death on the floor with no guards around.
- The prison has had severe staffing problems for years, and the DOJ is suing the agency that oversees it.
Denarieya Letrex “DL” Smith, a 30-year-old man who was serving a life sentence when he died in prison last month, had complained of “problems” at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County, Alabama, only hinting at the carnage, his parents told Insider.
“‘Mom, some things I don’t even mention because I don’t want you all to know,'” his father, Alfagus Smith recalled hearing his son say to his mother, Linda Smith, who said “it was just too hard for him. talk about it “.
But legal and civil rights experts have been aware of the problems in Donaldson for years, where another inmate, not the facility, reported Smith’s death to his parents.
Although his cause of death, along with that of six others, is still under investigation, according to Bill Yates, the deputy chief coroner of Jefferson County, one inmate sent a message to Alfagus Smith early in the morning of October 1 and DL said “someone was killed” and that there was “no security in the dorm” when it happened.
“He sat here and lost a lot of blood before they took him out of here,” wrote the inmate, saying that the sound of the fight woke him up. Then he saw DL “covered in blood” and heard the other inmates “call the police to take him to the infirmary, but the officers were nowhere to be found.”
Prior to the fight, DL had requested the transfer of Donaldson, according to his parents and Joel Caldwell, the Smith family’s attorney. It is unclear when he made the request, but he wanted to “badly” leave because of the living conditions he and other inmates in Donaldson were subjected to and to be closer to the family than him, “Caldwell said.
At one point he successfully moved to Limestone Correctional Facility, but when he tried to move to a prison closer to home, the prison administration sent him back to Donaldson, where DL said officers didn’t seem worried about that. that had happened to him or anyone else.
“It doesn’t matter what you do in there,” said Linda Smith. “It doesn’t matter what anyone does.”
Too many murders, insufficient staff
Data from the Department of Justice shows that about 12 in 100,000 state prisoners died from murder in 2019, a rate of 0.0001%.
Donaldson, with at least four deaths declared homicides by the coroner in 2022, according to a spreadsheet from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office, is already nearly 20 times more lethal and that doesn’t account for deaths, including those of DL, yet. pending investigation.
Donaldson had a 145 percent capacity in August 2022, according to a monthly statistical report released by the Alabama Department of Corrections, the state agency that oversees the prison. There are 1,367 inmates there, but the facility is designed to accommodate a maximum of 968 people, according to the report.
“Sometimes only a handful of people control over 1,000 men” in Donaldson, said Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing civil rights in Alabama. “They are just desperately understaffed, so the control of the dorms is with the people in jail and the officers have no control.”
About half of the mandatory posts in the prison where prison officers must guard are normally vacant, according to Alison Mollman, a legal counsel at the Alabama ACLU. And at night, she said, there is often only one officer sitting at the gate leading to the main areas of the prison, and there may not be any guards inside.
The understaffing offers ample opportunities for violence, Mollman said.
“There are literally dormitories with 100,200 men who don’t have staff supervision,” he said. “So it’s a situation where people have to look after themselves.”
Mollman and Crowder told Insider it’s not uncommon for inmates to provide their own medical care, mending each other up in common spaces or dorms because they don’t want to spy on who hurt them or because they believe they won’t get medical care quickly enough. if they go through the appropriate channels.
Caldwell told Insider that there should have been security guards around to prevent DL’s death. Prison staff eventually transported him to the infirmary, according to an ADOC statement, but “the life-saving measures were unsuccessful and he was declared dead.”
It’s important to “keep talking about these needless deaths, this horrible mismanagement, this mess,” Crowder said of Donaldson.
Donaldson reflects rampant problems with the ADOC system
Donaldson is one of 14 major correctional facilities run by the ADOC, and many of them have similar problems with staffing and violence, according to civil rights lawsuits filed against the agency.
A legal notice included in a 2014 lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of Alabama stated that the understaffing of the ADOC contributes to a “culture of violence.” The lawsuit is still pending.
ADOC detainees filed a collective action in 2014 against the agency for failing to provide “adequate medical care”, “mental health care”, “due process when treating people against their will” and “housing and services “to persons with disabilities in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The ADOC is so woefully understaffed that 98.5% of the incarcerated population live in a facility that is unable to operate safely, provide regular access to mental health care and should be in constant isolation.” , reads the memo.
ADOC has been aware of its staffing problems for years, the note reads, adding that quarterly staffing reports dating back “to their inception show this reality.”
In a response, the ADOC wrote that it has taken steps to mitigate staff concerns by lobbying “to change standards to broaden the eligibility range” of new prison officers and increasing recruitment efforts.
An ongoing lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in December 2020 claims that “conditions for men in Alabama prisons violate the Constitution because Alabama does not provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and the sexual abuse of prisoners. on prisoners, it does not provide security and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff. “
The violence can be attributed to overcrowding and understaffing, the Justice Department says, noting that in 2018, Alabama’s men’s prisons had the nation’s highest murder rate for a state prison system.
ADOC prison officers use excessive force against inmates and bring drugs into facilities, the cause said.
There was an “increase in overdoses during COVID when there were no visitors, no family members, no outside program providers authorized to enter, and yet, contraband dangerous drugs continued to flow into the facilities,” Crowder said. . “Unquestionably, the officers and staff of the Correctional Department are introducing drugs.”
The ADOC did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment.
The lawsuit also supports a culture of indifference among officers within ADOC structures, a characterization that the Smiths accurately described their son’s experience with Donaldson.
At times, Alfagus Smith told Insider, DL seemed worried he would die to Donaldson. In phone calls with his parents, he asked if they heard on the news that one inmate had died or did they mention seeing others bleed after an injury.
Mollman said he has heard of cases where inmates in distress or in need of medical attention scream for up to 45 minutes before security responds.
“If you think of a building and it’s on fire and no one can get out, that’s it,” Mollman said of Donaldson.