2014 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Susan Hanson

Brought to justice four prison guards who brutally beat and murdered an inmate, and exposed a culture of abuse in Alabama prisons.

When FBI Agent Susan Hanson examined the claims of corrections officers regarding the brutal death of 24-year-old Alabama prison inmate Rocrast Mack, they simply didn’t add up.

Serving a 20-year sentence for a drug conviction at the Ventress Correctional Facility, Mack died in August 2010 of severe bruises from his head down to his legs, his front teeth knocked out and his brain swollen from blows to the head.

Prison guards said Mack had gotten into an altercation with a female corrections officer, and they responded and acted in self-defense while trying to restrain an out-of-control inmate. They maintained their actions were consistent with protocol and that his death was the result of a fall.

Facing a lack of cooperation from prison officials, blatant lies from the corrections officers involved in the beatings and silence from inmates fearing retaliation, Hanson doggedly overcame the efforts to obstruct her investigation, painstakingly unmasked the truth and built an ironclad case that resulted in the indictments and convictions of four corrections officers for Mack’s death.

“It is a fact that there was a culture of corruption in not just this prison, but the whole Alabama prison system, and a culture that they can do whatever they wanted,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent William Beersdorf. “Through Susan Hanson’s thorough investigation and the subsequent prosecution, this case showed that no matter what your status, justice will be served.”

He said Hanson was relentless in overcoming every roadblock. “She was a bulldog. She would not take no for an answer,” said Beersdorf. “If she ran into an obstacle, she’d go around it and go over it.”

The events leading to Mack’s death began when a female prison guard caught him engaged in inappropriate conduct. She hit him, he retaliated and the officer radioed for help, beginning what turned out to be a series of brutal beatings in three prison locations over a 40-minute period. After Mack became unconscious and unresponsive, and he was transported out of the prison to a hospital, where he died approximately 14 hours later.

While an extreme example of abuse, the case provided further evidence of severe problems in Alabama prisons, one of the most overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded systems in the country, and shed further light on a pattern of brutality by Alabama corrections officers.

Hanson said the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alabama now is beginning to see some changes at Ventress, with “inmates feeling freer to launch a complaint and let it be known when their rights are violated.”

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Chris Higginbotham described the Mack case as the “most egregious” violation by a law enforcement officer that he’s ever seen.

“The thought of law enforcement officers brutally murdering an inmate was repulsive, and it drove Hanson not to miss anything,” said Higginbotham. “She gave her heart and soul to ensure that these perpetrators were brought to justice.”

Stephen Richardson, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Mobile, Ala., said everyone is afforded rights under the Constitution, a principle that Hanson’s work has upheld.

“It’s our job to ensure that the American people have the confidence in us to investigate violations no matter their circumstances or position in the community,” said Richardson.

With the help of two experienced attorneys, Patricia Sumner of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Jerusha Adams of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alabama, Hanson conducted hundreds of interviews, obtained the testimony of medical experts, arranged the use of specialized computer graphics detailing the assault locations and compiled volumes of evidence against the defendants. She also had to overcome the lack of cooperation from prison officials and break through the false stories provided by the corrections officers.

“There is no way that these hellacious injuries could have occurred the way they claimed,” explained Hanson. “It was clear they’d been coached. In these types of cases there’s a code: You band together and stick to the story.”

Hanson said she approached the case objectively, but it soon became personal. “If I didn’t take it personally, it would have been easier to just move on to the next case when I hit a wall, but I couldn’t.”

As a result of Hanson’s efforts, the main perpetrator, corrections supervisor Michael Smith, was convicted of violating Mack’s constitutional rights, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced in 2013 to 30 years in prison. Three other prison guards pleaded guilty; guard Matthew Davidson received a seven-year sentence, and guards Scottie Glenn and Joseph Sanders each received five-year sentences.

“This was someone’s son and brother paying his debt to society, and he was sentenced to death by those charged with keeping him safe,” said Hanson. “We couldn’t change that, but we could be sure that those responsible were brought to justice and ensure that it could never happen again.”