- Parents of a man who died in an Alabama prison last month learned of his death from a fellow inmate.
- The inmate said he watched as the man, known as DL, bled out on the floor with no guards around.
- The prison has had major staffing issues for years, and the DOJ has sued the agency overseeing 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.
“‘Mama, some things I don’t even mention ’cause I don’t want y’all to know,'” his father, Alfagus Smith, recalled hearing his son tell his mother, Linda Smith, who said “it was just too hard for him to talk about.”
But legal- and civil-rights experts have known for years about the problems at Donaldson, where a fellow inmate, not the facility, reported Smith’s death to his parents.
Though his cause of death, along with that of six others, is still under investigation, according to Bill Yates, the chief deputy coroner of Jefferson County, an inmate texted Alfagus Smith early in the morning on October 1 and told him “somebody killed” DL and that there had been “no security in the dorm” when it happened.
“He sat in here and lost to much blood before they got him out of here,” the inmate wrote, saying the noise from the fight woke him up. Then he saw DL “covered in blood” and heard the other inmates “hollering for the police to get him to the infirmary, but the officers was nowhere to be found.”
Prior to the fight, DL had requested a transfer out of Donaldson, according to his parents and Joel Caldwell, the Smith family attorney. It’s unclear when he made the request, but he “badly” wanted to leave “due to the living conditions he and other inmates were subjected to at Donaldson as well as to be closer to his family,” Caldwell said.
He at one point successfully transferred to Limestone Correctional Facility, but when he tried to move to a prison closer to home, prison administration sent him back to Donaldson, where DL said officers didn’t seem concerned about what happened to him or anyone else.
“They don’t care what you do in there,” Linda Smith said. “They don’t care what nobody do.”
Too many homicides, not enough staff
Data from the Justice Department shows about 12 in 100,000 state prisoners died from homicide in 2019 — a rate of 0.0001%.
Donaldson, with at least four deaths ruled as homicides by the medical examiner in 2022, according to a spreadsheet from the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office, is already nearly 20 times more deadly, and that does not take into account the deaths, including DL’s, still pending investigation.
Donaldson was at 145% capacity as of 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 house a maximum of 968 people, according to the report.
“Sometimes only a handful of people are supervising well over 1,000 men” at Donaldson, Carla Crowder, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing civil rights in Alabama, said. “They’re just really desperately short-staffed, and so the control of the dorms is with the incarcerated people, and the officers have no control.”
About half the mandatory posts in the prison where correctional officers must keep watch are normally vacant, according to Alison Mollman, a senior counsel at the ACLU of Alabama. And at night, she said, there’s often just one officer who sits at the gate that leads into the main areas of the prison, and there might not be any guards inside.
The lack of staffing provides ample opportunities for violence, Mollman said.
“There’s literally dormitories with 100, 200 men that have no staff supervision,” she said. “So it’s a situation where people have to fend for themselves.”
Mollman and Crowder told Insider that it’s not uncommon for inmates to provide their own medical care, stitching each other up in the common spaces or the dormitories because they don’t want to snitch about who injured them or because they believe they won’t receive medical attention quickly enough if they go through the proper 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 a statement from the ADOC, but “life-saving measures were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced deceased.”
It’s important to “continue to talk about these unnecessary deaths, this horrific mismanagement, this slaughterhouse,” Crowder said of Donaldson.
Donaldson reflects rampant problems with the ADOC system
Donaldson is one of 14 major correctional facilities the ADOC runs, and many of them have similar issues with staffing and violence, according to civil-rights lawsuits filed against the agency.
A legal memo included in a 2014 lawsuit filed with the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama said the ADOC’s lack of staff contributes to a “culture of violence.” The lawsuit is still ongoing.
ADOC inmates filed a class-action lawsuit in 2014 against the agency for failing to provide “adequate medical care,” “mental-health care,” “due process when medicating persons against their will,” and “accommodations and services” to people with disabilities in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“ADOC is so woefully understaffed that 98.5% of the incarcerated population lives in a facility which is unable to operate safely, provide regular access to mental-health care, and should be under a constant state of being in lockdown,” the memo read.
The ADOC has been aware of its own staffing problems for years, the memo reads, adding that quarterly staffing reports dating “all the way back to their inception shows this reality.”
In a response, the ADOC wrote that it’s taken steps to mitigate staffing concerns by lobbying “to modify standards to broaden the range of eligibility” of new correctional officers and increasing recruiting efforts.
An ongoing lawsuit the Justice Department filed in December 2020 claims that “the conditions at Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Constitution because Alabama fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.”
The violence can be attributed to overcrowding and lack of staffing, the DOJ claims, noting that in 2018, Alabama’s prisons for men had the highest homicide rate in the nation for a state-prison system.
ADOC correctional officers use excessive force against inmates and bring drugs into the facilities, the suit said.
There was an “increase in overdoses during COVID when there were no visitors, no family members, no outside program providers permitted in, and yet, dangerous contraband drugs continued to flow into the facilities,” Crowder said. “Unquestionably, the Department of Corrections officers and staff are bringing in drugs.”
The ADOC did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment.
The lawsuit also alleges a culture of indifference among officers within ADOC facilities, a characterization the Smiths said accurately described their son’s experience at Donaldson.
Sometimes, Alfagus Smith told Insider, DL seemed to worry he’d die at Donaldson. In phone calls with his parents, he asked if they had heard on the news that an inmate died or mentioned that he watched others bleed out after an injury.
Mollman said she’s heard of cases in which inmates in trouble or in need of medical attention yell 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, it’s like that,” Mollman said of Donaldson.