This is from 22nd Nov 2011, in the Huffington Post:
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Late on the night of August 4, 2010, a badly beaten young man arrived at the trauma ward of Jackson Hospital here. Although the patient was hardly a flight risk, security was tight and prison guards crowded into the emergency room as doctors began treatment.
The patient’s limp body spoke to the savagery of an assault that had left deep contusions on his legs and torso, and inflamed knots bulging from his head and face. He was unresponsive, with fixed and dilated pupils, and doctors quickly diagnosed a traumatic brain injury. Only a ventilator kept him alive. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.
His name was Rocrast Mack. An Alabama prison inmate, his death at age 24 came at the hands of six corrections officers, who took turns battering him with their fists, feet and batons in retribution for a minor altercation with a female guard earlier that night, according to witness accounts and prison records.
Civil rights advocates call Mack’s death an avoidable tragedy, the inevitable product of a profoundly dysfunctional state corrections system in Alabama that ranks among the very worst America has to offer.
It is a system flooded with low-level drug offenders like Mack, who was sentenced to 20 years behind bars after pleading guilty to selling $10 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover cop in 2009.
Alabama is also emblematic of a broader problem facing America’s prison system: In many states, there simply isn’t enough room to hold all of the people who are incarcerated. Against that tableau, inmates often born and bred in hard luck circumstances now find themselves mired in a loop of violence that extends from the street and into prisons themselves.
Yet even in a nation that has little to boast about in terms of prison efficiency and quality, Alabama stands out for what appears to be the sheer brutality and freewheeling nature of its corrections system.
Starved of funds, the state’s aging prisons suffer from the worst overcrowding in the nation, operating at an average of 190 percent of their design capacity. Ventress Correctional Facility, where Mack died, is an outlier even by this standard. Built in 1990 and designed to accommodate just 650 men, the facility now holds 1,665 prisoners — more than 255 percent of its capacity.
Alabama has not ignored Mack’s death. Last month, more than a year after it occurred, the Alabama attorney general charged the ranking officer at the scene, Lt. Michael A. Smith, with intentional murder for the beating.
The charge, which could put Smith behind bars for life, is unusual. Even when excessive force is alleged after an inmate death, prosecutors rarely bring charges above manslaughter or negligent homicide, according to Gene Atherton, a former prison administrator and consultant on use of force in prisons and jails.
Federal prosecutors have also taken action. On Nov. 18, the Justice Department said a junior officer involved in the assault, Scottie T. Glenn, had pleaded guilty to two felonies: violating Mack’s civil rights and conspiring with fellow officers to cover up the assault.
Civil rights advocates welcome the charges, but say they don’t go nearly far enough. What is truly needed, they say, is widescale reform to alleviate brutally harsh conditions that foster violence by inmates and guards.
“What happened with Mr. Mack is almost predictable,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, a prisoner legal assistance group based in Montgomery.
It is not just independent groups calling for reform. Conditions are so dire that senior Alabama lawmakers recently warned fellow legislators that the prison system risks seizure by the federal courts and a mandatory mass release of inmates. In California, when the Supreme Court recently ordered the release of 30,000 inmates on constitutional grounds, the state’s prisons had an overcrowding rate of about 170 percent.
“Alabama is facing a crisis with its prisons — too many inmates and not enough beds,” Cam Ward, the Republican chairman of the state senate’s judiciary committee, wrote in an editorial in the Birmingham News earlier this month.