• Donald V. Watkins

U.S. Asks Judge to Seal Mack Smith's Medical Files


By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on May 6, 2020

Mack Smith (Reg. No. 59923-019) died in a Birmingham, Alabama hospital's palliative care unit on April 24, 2020 while in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP). He was an inmate at the Talladega Federal Prison Camp. Mack lived in T-Dorm exactly two cubicles across the aisle from the cubicle George Dunn, Jr. (Reg. No. 61181-019) and I shared. We have since moved to another cubicle in the dorm.

On April 27, 2020, Devon Williams, a fellow inmate in T-Dorm, filed an emergency motion for an immediate release under the compassionate release provisions of the First Step Act. Williams' motion was filed one day after I published an article titled, "Did COVID-19 Start at the Talladega Prison Camp?"

In his motion, Williams stated that five staff members at the Talladega prison facility tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and noted that "Mack Smith, an inmate [in T-Dorm] exhibited coronavirus symptoms, and passed away on April 24, 2020."

On April 28, 2020, U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall in New Haven, Connecticut ordered the Government to Show Cause why the release sought by Williams should not be granted. Judge Hall also set a hearing on the motion, via telephone, for May 4, 2020 at 11 a.m. EST.

On April 30, 2020, the Government filed its opposition to Williams' motion for immediate relief. The Government also asked Judge Hall to seal (a) an unredacted version of its Response in Opposition to the Williams' motion, (b) Mack Smith's medical records, and (c) an unspecified email. The email in question is believed to be an April 25, 2020 email from Williams to his attorney about Mack Smith's death and Williams' subsequent request for a COVID-19 test. The Health Services unit at the Camp told Williams he would not be tested unless he showed symptoms of the virus.

On the same day Williams filed his motion, another inmate was taken out of T-Dorm because he was reportedly running a fever. There is no word on this inmate's condition.

Camp officials have steadfastly maintained that no inmate in their custody has the coronavirus. The BOP's website, however, has acknowledged that five staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

Mack Smith Long Slow Death

Mack was a 69-year-old non-violent, first-time offender who was serving a sentence on tax-related charges. He was one of the oldest inmates in T-Dorm and the second longest resident of the dorm. At 71-years-old, I am the oldest inmate in T-Dorm and the second oldest inmate in the Camp.

Mack, who was white, was a successful self-made businessman in the outside world. As an inmate, Mack was respectful, polite, and considerate of the needs of his fellow inmates.

Mack befriended me shortly after I arrived at the Camp on August 28, 2019. His health was rapidly deteriorating, and he was seeking a compassionate release from the Camp for this reason. Mack was already using a walker with wheels for mobility and was having difficulty with his breathing. By early December, Mack was in very bad physical shape. His coughing was non-productive and incessant. He was visibly weak from his respiratory illness.

During the entire time Mack was an inmate at the Camp, he was living and breathing air in a dorm that is encased in black mold that is trapped behind the exterior walls of the dorm. The concentration, growth, and spread of the black mold in the Camp's dorms pushes the old black mold from inside of the exterior walls to the outside of these walls. One does not need an environmental engineering degree to detect the presence of this black mold. It is literally within plain view to the naked eye.

Mack Smith was a proud man who never received the standard of healthcare in BOP custody that his chronic medical condition warranted. As a result, Mack suffered in silence and agony. His repeated requests for a compassionate release fell upon deaf ears within the BOP. Even when the Camp considered a transfer to home confinement for Mack during the COVID-19 crisis and scheduled it for April 14, 2020, the transfer was rescinded before he died.

Inmate George Dunn, Jr., Tried to Save Mack Smith

George Dunn, Jr., repeatedly spoke to Camp officials in an effort to get adequate medical help for Mack Smith. Dunn, who is a tall distinguished looking 62-year-old black entrepreneur from Atlanta, helped Mack whenever he was too weak to walk through the dormitory or too incapacitated to get out of his bed. Dunn also cleaned up behind Mack whenever he was unable to make it to the bathroom in a timely manner.

Dunn, who is affectionately called the "Governor" by fellow inmates because of his strong advocacy for basic human rights and compassion for deserving inmates, finally succeeded in getting Mack and about 9 other inmates quarantined when an outbreak of a flu-like virus that swept through the Camp in December. Prison officials often belittle Dunn at Town Hall meetings in front of the inmate population in our dorm for speaking up on behalf of fellow inmates who needed help in dealing with the hardships of prison life. Even under this pressure, Dunn never backs down from trying to help inmates in need.

Even though Mack was still coughing in January and he showed visible signs of a weakening physical condition, Camp officials returned him to T-Dorm after 2 weeks in quarantine. Again, Dunn pleaded with Camp executives to get Mack much needed medical help. Eventually, a white inmate from Kentucky, whose name I will withhold because I do not have permission to publish it, stepped up to help Mack clean his cubicle, make up his bed, retrieve his food from the dining hall, and cleaned up Mack from a personal hygiene standpoint. This inmate is the person who summoned Camp officials when Mack deteriorated to the point where he needed hospitalization.

Dr. William Mark Holbrook, MD, a Family Medicine physician and the Camp's Clinical Director, never visited Mack in his dormitory cubicle the entire time I have resided in T-Dorm. Nurse practitioners attended to Mack's medical needs, as best they could.

No Money for Healthcare, But Plenty of Money for Yamaha Baby Grand Pianos

While Mack Smith was suffering terribly from the BOP's questionable standard of medical care, the Talladega Prison and Satellite Camp was busy purchasing two Yamaha Baby Grand Pianos. One of these pianos, with a price tag of $7,000, was placed in the music room in the Camp's recreation area. The Camp offers no formal music classes and only one inmate uses the Baby Grand piano.

Mack's case was not an isolated occurrence. On October 4, 2019, inmate Travis Paul (Reg. No. 63706-037) reported damage to his lungs when he was forced by a Camp supervisor to empty chemical foam-filled fire extinguishers into an open water-filled dumpster without proper safety training and the personal protective equipment required by OSHA for doing the job. Paul, 48-years-old, has pleaded with Health Services to be seen by a pulmonary physician who specializes in injuries to the lungs. Since October 4th, Paul's non-stop coughing has continued, unabated. Paul believes he may be suffering from pulmonary fibrosis caused by the incident. If true, this condition would place Paul in one of the highest at-risk groups for the conronavirus. Despite Paul's repeated requests to Health Services to visit a pulmonary physician, no such appointment has not been scheduled for Paul.

Last month, Dr. Holbrook stated that the Camp's healthcare services for COVID-19 conformed to the generally accepted standards of medical care established by the BOP and the Alabama Department of Health. Historically, the Alabama Department of Health's low standards of medical care have been used over the decades to support or justify: (a) involuntary medical experimentation on 600 unsuspecting patients in Tuskegee, Alabama, (b) the forced sterilization of poor female inmates and mentally ill patients in state prisons and mental health facilities, (c) involuntary lobotomies as a the treatment for mentally illness in state-run mental health facilities, and (d) recent bills in the Alabama Legislature to authorize the castration of male inmates.

Epilogue

Mack Smith's organs eventually failed him during his hospitalization. He was then placed in a palliative care unit of a Birmingham hospital. All life support equipment was removed from Mack on April 23, 2020. To this date, the official cause of Mack Smith's death has not been determined.

The Government's request to seal Mack Smith's medical records suggests that the BOP wants to construct and control the narrative around Mack's death. Why?

Did Mack Smith die from respiratory complications due to his long-term exposure to black mold at the Talladega Prison Camp? Alternatively, did the coronavirus contribute to Mack's demise, directly or indirectly? Was Mack's death on April 24, 2020 preventable? Only an independent forensic autopsy can answer these important questions with the confidence needed to restore public trust in the BOP during the coronavirus pandemic.

I extend my personal condolences to Linda Smith (Mack's widow) and to the entire Smith family. It was a pleasure to have met and known Mack Smith. I will never forget him. I hope the Smith family gets the answers it seeks as to why the BOP denied Mack a timely compassionate release, and why he died in BOP custody.



PHOTO: Janet C. Hall, the judge who is hearing the Compassionate Release proceedings in the Devon William's case.

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© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.