Inside America’s most violent prison system
The Bloody Truth
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - I thought they were photos from a battlefield of war. Bodies torn open by wounds, crude and jagged. Splattered blood, gushing red streams flowing from ripped skin, a panicked triage underway. The faces of the victims appear vacant, in shock, but a few contort in agony. Some of them are dead now.
These are not photos of soldiers, but men incarcerated in an Alabama prison. They’re not at war, but they might as well be. The people Alabama locks away have been fighting a battle to survive for decades, serving time in a prison system that turns even short stays into hellish torture, or a death sentence.
WBRC received the photos on a jump drive that arrived in an envelope with no return address, only a note inside titled “Read Me.”
I am a concerned officer at St. Clair Prison located in Springville, Al. This content is very disturbing and is currently located on the computer in the segregation office. What you will see in the photos are the many instances of violence at St. Clair Prison. These photos are never before seen by anyone outside of the prison staff. Pictures are very graphic, both dead and still living. These represent only a small portion of the injuries from inmate on inmate violence in the past three years. This prison is currently under a settlement agreement from a federal lawsuit brought by the Equal Justice Initiate and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This agreement stands little to no chance of making this a safer place to work. The day to day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair. Until major fundamental changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men it will only continue to get worse. I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated day after day and year after year.
We wrestled with the question of how to use the photos. Most are far too graphic to publish in a single story. But taken as a collective, the photos, over 2,500 of them, give us an unprecedented and visceral window into what we’ve been reporting for years, but have never actually seen. Alabama prisons are a slaughterhouse, where rape, stabbings, murder and extortion happen around the clock, as confirmed in the recent Department of Justice investigation.
In this age of mass incarceration, prisons and jails across America are vicious places, but Alabama’s brutality is exceptional. Hitching posts, chain gangs, botched executions, our tough on crime state has a long legacy of piling terror and deprivation on the people we imprison. But these photos, a virtual trove of prison gore from inside an especially rotten facility, represent a perversion of the notion that prison should be hard. We now have real evidence that incarceration in Alabama is homicidal and suicidal. A volunteer prison minister once told me he believes the places are demonic. It is hard to look at, but important to see.
Victor Russo is one of the men that appears in the photographs, sitting battered and bleeding on an exam table in the prison infirmary. Three photos show Russo’s face and upper body with multiple injuries; a swollen cut below his eye, an open gash on his shoulder, streaks of red across his chest.
Russo spent the last 32 years in Alabama prisons and managed to avoid being a victim to violence until only recently. Since 2016, Russo has been stabbed in two separate assaults at two different prisons, both required outside treatment at a hospital. His story demonstrates the ground truth of the escalating violence inside Alabama’s prisons, particularly prisoner-on-prisoner incidents, which the DOJ pointed out have increased dramatically over the last five-and-a-half years.
Russo, 57, called me from a prison phone, and said even though he was almost killed twice, he tries not to think about the constant danger posed by violent, out-of-control inmates.
“I’ve been stressed out, but there’s nobody to help,” he said. “These dudes walk around without a lick of sense, thinking they can do anything they want to and they’re in charge.”
In 1987, Russo was sentenced to life without parole after he pleaded guilty to robbery and murder. On the surface, a tough guy convicted of a terrible crime, but Russo said once locked up, he wanted to do his time peacefully and avoid trouble. Back then, the prisons were less crowded and well-staffed. He didn’t worry constantly about getting attacked.
Russo’s problems began in 2013 at St. Clair Correctional Facility when an officer issued him a citation for failing to obey a direct order to shave with a razor. ADOC rules require incarcerated men to be clean shaven, unless they have a religious exemption or a “shaving profile,” a waiver issued by medical staff that allows them to maintain a small amount of facial hair.
Russo said he told the officer he had a shaving profile in his record, but the officer, who is black, told him, “since he wanted to be a smart mouth cracker she was going to make sure he got what he was looking for,” according to a lawsuit Russo filed against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) for failing to provide sufficient security that could have prevented his assault. Russo was also a plaintiff in a 2014 class-action lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) over conditions inside St. Clair Correctional. In 2017, the two sides reached a settlement, but are now back in mediation after ADOC did not follow through on promised reforms, according to the DOJ.
The officer that ordered Russo to shave cited him with a disciplinary violation and he lost his housing assignment in the prison’s “honor dorm,” a voluntary faith and character-based housing unit found in major ADOC facilities, where residents follow a strict set of guidelines but have additional benefits. The honor dorms are considered the safest places to live within ADOC’s maximum and medium-security facilities.
Russo was transferred into general population and claims within the first hour, he was robbed of his commissary items by three prisoners with knives, whom Russo suspected were high on methamphetamines. When he went to report the incident to correctional staff, Russo said an ADOC Captain suggested he get a knife to protect himself. Russo asked to be moved to a safer dorm, but did not want to identify the men who robbed him out of fear of retaliation, so another Captain sent Russo to administrative segregation and issued a new disciplinary citation for “creating a security, safety or health hazard,” according to Russo’s lawsuit.
As soon as Russo arrived in segregation, he said he identified the assailants to a Captain and the prison eventually placed the trio on Russo’s enemies list. His lawsuit states that two were transferred to other prisons, but the ringleader, an alleged gang member named Edward Carrington, who goes by the nickname “Blood T,” remained in general population at St. Clair while Russo sat in solitary confinement for months, “a placement he perceived to be punishment for reporting his own victimization.”
The DOJ cites numerous examples of ADOC unnecessarily disciplining prisoners who are victims of assaults or have sought protection from threats of violence.
“By focusing on the reporting victim’s past misconduct instead of allegations of abuse, ADOC misses an opportunity to prevent violence while simultaneously discouraging other prisoners from coming forward,” the report states.
In November, 2015, Russo was back in population and Blood T was in segregation, charged with another alleged robbery and stabbing. Russo claims several prisoners affiliated with Blood T’s gang came into his cell with knives and threatened him.
“Do you want to end up like Birdman?” they asked, referring to another prisoner who had been murdered a month earlier because he refused to retract his enemy list. The gang members told Russo he needed to lie to prison staff, claiming he owed a debt he couldn’t pay, and ask to be moved to segregation. According to Russo, the gang members saw this as the easiest way to get Blood T out of segregation, because he was on Russo’s enemy list and prison rules required them to be separated.
Russo told me he did what he was told. He made up a story to officers about owing a “storeman,” a prisoner who loans money with interest. Russo was given a disciplinary infraction and sent back to segregation until February, 2016, when Blood T was involved in a robbery with another gang member known as “Black Jesus.” According to the lawsuit, the pair tried to rob two prisoners and Black Jesus was stabbed. Blood T returned to segregation, so Russo cycled back into general population.
Russo said he requested a meeting with staff, where he told a warden and three other officers that Blood T’s gang members were harassing him and forced Russo into lockup so Blood T could be released back into population. The staff members told Russo they would remove Blood T from his enemies list so he wouldn’t have any more problems with the gang. Russo said that didn’t happen.
On April 20, 2016, as he was unlocking his cell door after a meal, Russo spotted an alleged gang member walking toward him with two others following behind. His lawsuit details the attack. They rushed in, threw a jacket over Russo’s head and put him in a “sleeper” hold, placing an arm around Russo’s throat from behind. They held his arms and legs and tightened the grip around Russo’s neck, telling him, “this was going to be the last time he could be the cause of Blood T being in lock up.” Russo passed out.
When he regained consciousness, the three assailants came back to Russo’s cell and asked if he would comply with their order to return to segregation so Blood T could be released. Russo told them no.
“Next thing I know, they’re stabbing me in the back, in the head,” Russo told me. “After about five minutes of stabbing and beating me, they took off running. The whole dorm had cleared out. They get the word out about what’s fixing to happen and everybody runs and hides, even the police.”
Russo had been stabbed 16 times. Bleeding and disoriented, he told me he hobbled out of the dorm and asked an officer for help. An infirmary nurse cleaned up his injuries and called an ambulance. Russo spent three nights at UAB hospital, where he received 28 staples in his wounds and a tube placed in his chest to drain fluid around his organs, according to the class-action lawsuit filed by EJI. The same day, according to Russo’s lawsuit, another prisoner in his dorm was stabbed in the same way.
Russo said he was not allowed to call his mother, Rosemary Collins, but she found out about the incident from another prisoner who called to tell her Russo had been hurt. I showed Collins the photos of her son’s injuries, but she wasn’t shocked or surprised.
“There are a lot of people who don’t really understand how bad it is in there,” she said. “I can’t worry about something I can’t control. It will drive you crazy. I just have to pray.”
When he was discharged from the hospital, Russo was taken to Kilby Prison, where he was held in solitary confinement for weeks.
“It was like I was being punished for being stabbed,” Russo said. He was eventually transferred to Donaldson Prison.
I asked ADOC’s spokesperson whether Edward Carrington, also known as “Blood T” has had any additional criminal charges against him in connection to assaults on other prisoners, including Russo’s stabbing three years ago. He responded in an email to say the ADOC Investigations and Intelligence Division indicates charges are pending and the investigation is ongoing.
In the summer of 2018, Russo told me he was walking through a corridor at Donaldson when he was attacked from behind, stabbed in the back of the head. He said the assailant was trying to “catch out,” when a prisoner intentionally commits a conduct violation in order to get sent to segregation for his own protection. Usually the assailant fears for his own safety, so he targets a random person unrelated to his own conflict. Two former correctional officers told me this is a regularly occurring phenomenon in the quagmire of Alabama prisons.
“Catch out moves happen every day, all the time,” recently retired correctional officer David Ellis said.
Russo said a nurse in Donaldson’s infirmary attempted to bandage his head with an adult diaper, but it failed to contain the bleeding, so an officer drove Russo to a hospital in the back of prison van where Russo was handcuffed and shackled, vomiting into his own lap. Russo said he received a unit of plasma at the hospital and was then returned to the prison and back to the same block where he was stabbed in the head.
Victor Russo’s story is one of hundreds, maybe thousands. The photographs we received are crime scenes showing death in real time, men bleeding out on the exam table, close-ups of injuries, a knife jammed all the way to the handle in an unidentified man’s back. We also see the gruesome aftermath of murder, with men strangled or beaten in their own beds, some are tied up, one is kneeling with his hands bound behind his back.
There are also suicides, slashed wrists, a man hanging in a cell. One mentally ill prisoner cut himself and wrote on the wall in his own blood. That prisoner testified about the incident in the trial over the system’s mental healthcare, which a federal judge found in 2017 to be “horrendously inadequate.”
Q. Did you ever do anything with your blood?
A. I wrote on the wall one time.
Q. You wrote on the wall?
Q. Can you tell us what you wrote?
A. Mental health wasn't helping. Ms. Coogan wasn't helping. Pills not working.
Q. Who is Ms. Coogan?
A. The nurse practitioner over mental health
I showed the photographs to two former St. Clair correctional officers who both confirmed their authenticity. My email request to ADOC asking for a response to the photos went unanswered.
WBRC was not the only recipient of the photographs. Lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center also received a copy in the mail and shared it with the New York Times, which published a few photos and posed the important question, “Would we fix our prisons if we could see what happens inside them?”
Alabama leaders are on the clock to answer that question. If they do not present an adequate plan to address the concerns by the DOJ’s deadline of 49 days, the federal government could sue Alabama and take over the prisons.
Alabama Senator Cam Ward, who chairs the state’s Prison Oversight Committee, said he wasn’t surprised by the DOJ report, and he has seen the horrific photographs that leaked from inside St. Clair.
“There are some people out there that to this day, would look at that and still wouldn’t care,” he said.
Is this why it’s so hard to fix Alabama’s legacy prison problems? Indifference to human suffering justified by contempt for criminals, how does it persist in a place full of people who claim to be Christian?
The majority of people in Alabama prisons are poor and black. The people who care about them have been drowned out by a mindset of tough on crime, regardless of the consequences. The DOJ report finally gives voice to their heartache and the photos we received show us their faces, their abused bodies, their pain. Will Alabama see this through or continue to look away? The clock is ticking.
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