The U.S. Department of Justice announced last Friday that former Alabama Department of Corrections lieutenant Willie M. Burks III was sentenced in federal court to nine years in prison, followed by two years of supervised release, for failing to stop an officer under his command from assaulting an incarcerated man at Elmore Correctional Facility.
Mr. Burks was convicted on July 21, 2021, after a three-day trial in federal court.
The Justice Department said the evidence at trial showed that, on February 16, 2019, former Correctional Sergeant Ulysses Oliver Jr., who was under Mr. Burks’s command, took a handcuffed and unresisting man out of an observation room and beat him with his fists, feet, and collapsible baton.
After Mr. Oliver finished beating this man, Mr. Burks came into the hallway, and then stood by and watched as Mr. Oliver took a second handcuffed and compliant man from the observation room, threw him to the ground, and then kicked and beat him with a baton.
“Despite having the duty, ability and opportunity to intervene to stop Oliver from beating the second inmate,” federal prosecutors said in a statement, “Burks only stood by and said, ‘it’s fair.’”
Mr. Burks then allowed Mr. Oliver to go back into the observation room, where he again stood by and did nothing while Mr. Oliver shoved the tip of his baton into a man’s face, lacerating the victim’s face.
Mr. Burks is the fourth Alabama correctional officer to be convicted in federal court in connection with these assaults. Mr. Oliver pleaded guilty on April 2, 2019, to assaulting the two men, and former correctional officers Bryanna Mosley and Leon Williams pleaded guilty in May and July 2019, respectively, to failing to intervene to stop the assaults.
“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.”
The Elmore/Staton correctional complex has been the focus of numerous investigations into violence and mismanagement. Two incarcerated men have been killed there in the past six weeks alone.
Over the past five years, six officers, including a lieutenant and two sergeants, have been criminally indicted for abusing incarcerated people at the complex, including Billy Smith, who died of blunt force trauma to the head after being assaulted by both inmates and officers at Elmore/Staton in 2017. Officers hogtied Mr. Smith and left him on the ground for several hours as he cried for help and vomited on himself.
The Justice Department is suing Alabama and ADOC for the state’s failure to protect incarcerated people from physical and sexual violence.
In an amended complaint filed last May, DOJ said that despite being warned about unconstitutional conditions in 2019, the state has failed to address “pervasive and systemic” violence in its prisons.
Alabama correctional officers continue to attack men under their care, the complaint said, detailing assaults by officers in 2020 and 2021.