Days before a man who was serving at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility was found unresponsive with blunt force trauma and died, he was in a physical altercation with a correctional officer, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed to APR.
The Alabama Department of Corrections is not investigating the Feb. 25 death of 60-year-old Victor Russo as a homicide, however. Russo’s cellmate on Feb. 23 reported Russo had “passed out,” according to the department. He died at a local hospital two days later.
APR received tips from several incarcerated people that Russo had been beaten by a supervising officer before his death. Subsequent information reviewed by APR, but not yet confirmed, indicates the officer allegedly beat Russo in the head several times. APR’s attempts to reach Russo’s family have been unsuccessful.
Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kristi Simpson in a response to APR’s questions on March 3 said that on Feb. 16, seven days before he was found unresponsive in his cell, Russo “did not follow a direct order and was subdued by correctional staff.”
“Following the incident, Russo was moved to restrictive housing. A disciplinary hearing regarding this incident occurred on February 22, 2022,” Simpson wrote.
The department in the March 3 response to APR said that after Russo was found in his cell he was taken to a local hospital “for care of an injury he sustained because of passing out” and that “This injury is referenced in the county coroner’s report.”
Despite the department’s allegation that Russo got the blunt force trauma injury because of “passing out,” Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates’s statement on Russo’s death, released on Feb. 25, doesn’t connect the blunt force trauma injury Russo had when he was found with any specific incident.
“The circumstances of how the decedent sustained the injuries is unknown at this time,” Yates wrote in the statement.
Simpson in the department’s response explained that the department has no reason to believe the physical altercation with the officer on Feb. 16 and his death are connected.
“To confirm, there currently is no medical, physical, or circumstantial evidence collected or corroborated through the investigative process indicating that the February 16 incident and his passing out and subsequent death on February 25 are in any way connected,” Simpson wrote.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Alabama, the department underreports instances of homicides inside state prisons, misclassifies some deaths and simply doesn’t report others at all.
“ADOC’s statistical reports do not reflect all deaths from prisoner-on-prisoner homicides. For example, in November 2020, a 48-year-old prisoner at Bullock was beaten and stabbed to death, the federal government’s lawsuit reads. “Additionally, in February 2021, a 38-year-old prisoner at St. Clair was stabbed to death in an open dormitory. ADOC officials confirmed both deaths resulted from prisoner assaults in public news reporting, but they are not reflected in ADOC’s monthly statistical reports.”