State corrections officials fired five guards at a state prison in Washington Parish this summer after an inmate death investigation revealed one officer used too much force against him and all of the officers failed to obtain medical treatment for the dying man after he vomited into a mask covering his face.
Anthony Carl Smith, 55, was found unresponsive in his cell at B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn Correctional Center in the town of Angie on March 10, 2019, according to a medical summary from the prison. A nurse began to administer CPR and later applied a defibrillator while emergency medical services was contacted.
Half an hour later, Smith was pronounced dead.
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Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said Rayburn Correctional Center notified the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office immediately following Smith’s death and they launched a joint investigation into the incident.
On Aug. 10, after the investigation concluded, the DOC terminated Capt. Brink Hillman, Sgt. Gary King, Sgt. John Crain, Sgt. Fredrick Coker and Sgt. Dustin Rodgers. The men have appealed to the Louisiana State Civil Service and have a joint hearing set at the prison this month. Their attorney, William Arata of Bogalusa, declined to comment.
Because the criminal investigation is still open with the local district attorney, Pastorick said, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections cannot comment further.
While the exact circumstances surrounding Smith’s death are unclear, termination letters for the five officers submitted by Rayburn Warden Robert C. Tanner detail a narrative that began with a medical emergency on the morning of Smith's death.
Smith, whose maladies included diabetes, hypertension and heart problems, was serving a 30-year-sentence on forcible rape and second-degree kidnapping convictions from 2013.
He had sought medical attention around 11:15 a.m. on March 10.
“I just want you to check on my medicine,” Smith told medical personnel, according to a health care request form from the prison. “I want all my meds.”
While in a treatment room, the disciplinary letters say, a "use of force" incident occurred when Smith threatened to spit on Crain.
At this threat, Hillman ordered that a “spit mask” be placed on Smith.
Pastorick said spit masks are used to protect corrections officers, staff and other offenders from being spit on, which may expose them to communicable diseases that may be transmitted through saliva or blood. He said DOC does not track the use of spit masks in its facilities.
During the encounter, two officers saw King deliver “knee strikes” to Smith while they were restraining him in the treatment room. One officer said during the investigation he also saw Hillman kick Smith, though he later changed his story.
The use of force reports are mentioned in the men's termination letters. Any originals created on the day of Smith’s death would not be public records, Pastorick said.
After the use of force, a staff nurse observed that Smith was “agitated” and “uncooperative,” according to a health care request form filed with the prison. Smith insisted there was nothing wrong with him and the nurse noted there were “no signs of or symptoms of injury or neurological deficits.”
Following a medical staff review, the termination letters say, Smith was transported to his cell in a wheelchair.
Smith was “limp and unresponsive,” one letter says, forcing officers to lift him from the wheelchair and place him on a bed in his cell. One officer later told investigators Smith was “making grunting noises as if he was in pain” as they moved him.
When the officers left the cell, Smith was lying on his back, still wearing the spit mask.
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According to Pastorick, once inmates wearing spit masks are back in their cells, unrestrained, and with officers at a safe distance outside the cell, the inmates are allowed to remove the spit masks themselves.
Later, the officers returned to transport Smith to a new cell, according to the letters. They verbally ordered Smith to come to the bars to be restrained, but Smith was again “limp.”
When Smith failed to respond, Hillman ordered two officers to hold Smith in place while he was restrained. Smith “grunted and mumbled something,” according to the letter, but still had to be lifted into a wheelchair for his transfer.
Video footage reviewed during the investigation shows the officers returning to the new cell minutes later to take the required photo of Smith’s face for the use of force report, a letter says.
At this point, Smith was still unresponsive, though one officer reported he was “breathing, grunting and mumbling.” Officers had to position Smith to be handcuffed, as he did not move at their request.
When the officers initially removed the spit mask, they found Smith had vomit on his face.
Though they took an initial use of force report photo of Smith in this condition, the officers then wiped the vomit from Smith’s face with a T-shirt and took a new picture. Investigators discovered the first picture was later deleted; Hillman admitted he deleted it because it showed the vomit.
Officers then rolled Smith onto his right side and left the cell. It is unclear from reports whether they replaced the spit mask after the pictures were taken.
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Hillman said during the investigation he turned Smith on his side out of habit, because he had dealt with inmates in the past who were intoxicated and had vomited.
The autopsy and prison death report show Smith died from inhalation of gastric content. Under a microscope, food particles could be seen in his lung tissue. Dr. Roger Casama, Washington Parish Coroner, ruled his death accidental.
Later that afternoon, security footage showed King never made two of his required rounds on the tier where Smith was held. When King eventually approached Smith’s cell, he called Smith’s name with no response, according to his termination letter.
King then touched Smith on the foot with an ink pen, the letter says, but Smith still did not respond. Though King discovered Smith at 2:15 p.m., he did not return to the cell after notifying his supervisor, Hillman, until 2:32 p.m.
Coker and Rodgers claimed they were concerned about Smith’s health after they took the picture for the use of force report, their termination letters note, but neither called for medical assistance.
Hillman, the housing unit supervisor, told two officers to change their versions of the events after they submitted detailed reports. To one, he said, "Dial it down."
All the officers were fired for, among other misconduct allegations, falsifying documents or making false statements.
In their appeals, each guard says inadequate training, insufficient crisis intervention procedures and a lack of support and medical staff contributed to the incident on March 10.
King, Rodgers, Coker and Hillman did not respond to calls for comment on this story. Crain said Smith should never have been housed at Rayburn in the first place.
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“Anthony Smith was incapable of living in a max-custody unit,” Crain said. “He should have been at Elayn Hunt Facility for medical reasons. My professional opinion is, Anthony Smith, as an offender, should have been somewhere where medical people could observe him because he was incoherent of his own medical status.”
Rayburn Warden Robert C. Tanner was not available for comment because the DOC could not comment on an investigation still under review by the District Attorney.
Diane Smith, Anthony Smith’s sister, said her brother had faced harassment from guards earlier in his prison sentence. Smith reported to family he was beaten all the time, and his nose had been broken at least five times.
Since she lives in Seattle, Diane Smith rarely had the opportunity to visit her brother, though when she did, she often found herself barred from seeing him for a variety of reasons. Each time, she said she feared her brother had been beaten and the prison was hiding his condition. She was notified of her brother’s death on March 11.
“They stated that they found him in his cell,” she said. “They didn’t say what happen. They informed my sister that they think he had a heart attack.”
The family has hired a lawyer.
"Correctional staff like Hillman, King, Rodgers, Coker and Crain control every aspect of the lives of the men imprisoned at Rayburn,” said Sarah Grady, a civil rights lawyer for a Chicago firm representing the family. “When they fail to do their jobs adequately, it is concerning. But when they affirmatively seek to end the lives of the men under their control, it is abhorrent.”
Diane Smith said the results of her brother’s death investigation have not been released to her. To her knowledge, the District Attorney’s office has not reached out to her or her family.
Chief Deputy Mike Haley with the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office said they could not comment on the investigation.
“It has gone to the DA’s office,” Haley said. “The DA’s office has taken it to the grand jury. Of course, grand jury proceedings are not made public.”
Washington Parish District Attorney, Warren Montgomery, declined to comment for this story.
“We hope that the district attorney's office takes swift and decisive action to hold accountable those officers who denied Anthony Smith his basic humanity and took his life," Grady said.
Diane Smith, for her part, said she believes prison personnel at Rayburn mistreat those inmates who "they don’t think people care about." These guards can escape disciplinary action, she said, because the inmates they are harassing seem to be forgotten.
“I hope they file charges against those guys,” Diane Smith said. “They could have saved his life. I know he was in there, but if you don’t want to do that job, you shouldn’t even be there. You shouldn’t have to let somebody die.”