A federal judge last sentenced a former Alabama correctional officer to nine years in prison for allowing another officer to beat two handcuffed inmates.
Willie Burks III, 41, a former lieutenant, is to serve nine years in prison and two years of supervised probation after his release, the U.S. Justice Department said in a press release. Burks was convicted by a federal jury on July 1, 2021.
Three other officers at the Elmore Correctional Facility have already pleaded guilty in connection with the beatings. Former corrections officer Ulysses Oliver pleaded guilty to unlawfully assaulting two handcuffed inmates. Briana Mosley and Leon Williams pleaded guilty for failing to stop Oliver, according to court records.
According to Oliver’s plea agreement, on Feb. 16 Oliver watched surveillance footage of what another officer said may be two inmates picking up a package of contraband outside of the visitation area’s fence line. After watching the video Oliver “became enraged” and went into a room where both inmates were sitting quietly and with their hands handcuffed behind their backs, according to court records.
“Burks then stood and watched as Oliver pulled the second inmate from the observation room, threw him on the floor, and beat the inmate with his feet and his collapsible baton,” the DOJ said in the release. “Despite having the duty, ability and opportunity to intervene to stop Oliver from beating the second inmate, Burks only stood by and said, “it’s fair.” Other ADOC correctional staff who reported to Burks were present for some or all of the assaults, but none intervened to stop Oliver from beating the inmates.”
“After the assault, Burks allowed Oliver to come back into the observation room where the victims were held. As Burks again stood by and did nothing, Oliver entered, stood over the victims, and shoved the tip of his baton into the face of one of the victims, lacerating the victim’s face,” the DOJ continued.
“Those working inside our jails and prisons have a duty to intervene in the face of unlawful and violent conduct being carried out by their colleagues,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Under the Constitution, correctional officers may not physically assault inmates for violations of prison rules, and any officials who see this happening must do what they can to stop it. The Department of Justice will vigorously prosecute officers who stand by and do nothing while other officers brutalize inmates in their charge.”
Arnaldo Mercado, Alabama Department of Correctons Law Enforcement Services Division’s chief law enforcement officer, in a statement said the unacceptable actions of Willie Burks in no way reflect the “hard and tireless work of our corrections staff, who endeavor each day to provide a safe and rehabilitative environment for all incarcerated people.”
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms Burks’ behavior and blatant violation of his sworn oath to serve. Any and all incidents such as this are thoroughly investigated and, if appropriate, referred to the proper prosecuting authority. We extend our thanks to the Department of Justice for their assistance in bringing forth justice in this case,” Mercado said.
The DOJ is suing Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections for what the federal government says is the state’s failure to protect incarcerated men from physical and sexual violence and death, despite years of warnings from the federal government.
The DOJ in the amended complaint in May 2021 — signed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland — describes the pattern of violence in Alabama’s prisons for men as “pervasive and systemic” and explains the state has failed to address the deep-seated problems since being notified in 2019.
Violence at the hands of correctional officers also continues, despite warnings by the DOJ in 2019, according to the complaint.
“In October 2020, an officer used a baton to strike three compliant prisoners in the Draper intake area. The strikes broke one prisoner’s arm. Another officer witnessed the assaults and failed to intervene,” the complaint reads.
“In March 2021, a federal grand jury indicted two security staff, including a supervisor, for assaulting a prisoner at Staton. Security staff struck the prisoner with their feet and a baton, and one security staff member walked on the prisoner. The security staff subsequently made false statements in an attempt to cover up the assault,” the DOJ wrote.