Correctional Officer Commander Convicted in Assault Case; Civil Lawsuit Filed

Commander William Burks, with the Alabama Department of Corrections, convicted for failure to intervene in the assault of an inmate, and perjury
William Burks – photo by Melissa Brown

Fourth Conviction in Assault on Two Prisoners

(AL) – A fourth correctional officer has now been convicted in the beating of two handcuffed prisoners that occurred in 2019. Shift Commander Willie Burks, with the Alabama Department of Corrections, is the highest level officer to be convicted.

The assault occurred at the Elmore Correctional Facility. Two inmates were suspected of retrieving contraband material from the fence line of the facility. The two were placed in an observation room. Sergeant Ulysses Oliver saw something he did not like and brought out one of the prisoners. The sergeant then proceeded to beat the prisoner. Sergeant Oliver then brought out the second prisoner and proceeded to beat him too. Both prisoners were handcuffed at the time of the beating. Neither Command Willie Burks, nor any of the other officers present, ever attempted to stop the assault.

Excessive Force Cited in Press Release

The Department of Justice press release stated,

The evidence at trial established that when Burks watched calmly as his subordinate, Sergeant Ulysses Oliver, took a handcuffed and compliant inmate out of an observation room, threw him onto the ground, and then punched, kicked, and beat him with a baton. Rather than intervene, as Burks had been trained to do, Burks stood silent until the end of the beating, at which time he commented, “That’s fair.” When Oliver turned himself in for using excessive force, triggering an investigation, Burks instructed Oliver to write in his report that Burks had told him to stop, even though that was not true, in order to cover up his failure to intervene.

The Montgomery Advertiser uses initials for the two inmates who were beaten. Their article states,

There, Oliver beat C.H. with his hands and fists before pulling out his baton. He struck C.R. on the legs, head, arms, back and body approximately 19 times. 

He then did the same to the second prisoner, C.H., pulling him from the observation room and striking him three times. C.H. fell to the floor, where Oliver continued to beat him with his baton. 

Office of the Attorney General on Requirements of Law Enforcement Officers

Multiple agencies participated in the criminal investigation into the assault on the two inmates. The criminal investigation did come back with a finding of excessive force and a violation of civil rights. The press release by the Department of Justice gave quotes from people from different agencies. The Office of the Attorney General stated,

“The Constitution requires officers to take reasonable steps to stop excessive force when they know of it and have the power to stop it,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Defendant Burks defied the Constitution, and ignored his oath as a law enforcement officer, when he casually watched a handcuffed and defenseless inmate in his custody being assaulted by an officer under his command. We stand ready to hold officers who commit federal civil rights violations inside of jails and prisons accountable for their misconduct.”

Burks’ Defense Attorneys Blame the System

The defense attorneys for Willie Burks are blaming the system saying that better policies need to be put in place. They are defense attorneys and they’re doing their job, but they know this is not a policy issue. Correctional officers are trained and know they aren’t allowed to beat inmates. The defense attorneys also tried to paint Willie Burks as being  so loyal an employee that he tried to work beyond his capabilities.

Montgomery Advertiser,

McPhillips said Burks had “serious physical health” problems, including back issues, at the time of the assault, and it would have been “practically impossible” for Burks to physically stop Oliver. McPhillips said Burks continued to work because of chronic understaffing.

“Maybe he shouldn’t have been at work, but he was,” McPhillips said. “They don’t teach how to stop it. The real culprit, and I’ll repeat it again and again, is the commissioner. They should have had better protocols. … It’s Monday morning quarterbacking to say he should have jumped in faster, he should have stopped it.”

This is ridiculous. Burks was command staff. All he had to do was say stop. Even if Sergeant Oliver had ignored him, Burks could have ordered the other officers to pull the sergeant away from the inmates. Burks did none of that. He made no attempt to stop the beating.

42-year old Willie Burks was convicted of “failing to stop the February beating of two handcuffed men at the Elmore Correctional Facility in addition to giving false statements to a grand jury.” He faces up to 10 years in prison. His sentencing will be held in November.

Inmates File Civil Lawsuit

The two inmates who were beaten have filed a civil lawsuit. With four convictions so far, it’s hard to see how they won’t win. They deserve to be compensated for the brutality they were subjected to.

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