BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - David Ellis always kept his head on a swivel. He’d worked almost every post inside St. Clair Correctional Facility during his 25 years as a correctional officer. He’d been posted inside the infirmary, segregation, but he’d never felt more outnumbered than when he worked the G yard gate, sometimes the only officer watching up to 400 prisoners for hours at a time. Knives were everywhere, the potential for violence was constant.
“I’ve actually watched an inmate get stabbed to death,” Ellis said. “I got on the radio and called for backup, but by the time I could get there, the damage was done.”
Ellis was not surprised by what the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported in its 56-page findings letter released last week, arguing the conditions inside Alabama prisons violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. The agency gave Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) and Governor Kay Ivey 49 days to begin remedies or risk a federal lawsuit.
What did surprise Ellis was a photograph of an unidentified officer holding a sword that had been confiscated inside St. Clair. Ellis said he’s the officer in that picture and remembers the day vividly from 2017. He’d been by himself at the G gate for two hours when he spotted a prisoner without a shirt on headed toward the “breezeway,” where the shift offices are located. Ellis stopped the prisoner and told him he couldn’t go up there that way, and that he needed to go back to his block and get a shirt.
“He didn’t say a word, he didn’t get mad, he turned around and walked back to his block,” he said.
Ellis had stepped into the G Gate “guard shack,” a room the size of a closet, and not even two minutes later, he saw the same prisoner, now with a shirt on, but standing outside the door looking in, pointing a sword toward Ellis’s chest.
“Stay in the shack,” the prisoner said, but then cut his eyes toward another officer who had just arrived on the scene. That’s when Ellis stepped out and sprayed the prisoner with pepper spray and he took off running.
“And we took off running after him, all the other inmates on the yard were screaming,” he said. “Adrenaline kicked in, my instinct took over and all I could think is we’ve got to get him and that weapon.”
Ellis and the other officer chased the prisoner down, cornered him and took the weapon. Luckily, no one was injured, but if the prisoner wanted to inflict major damage on someone, he could have. The DOJ report said the majority of weapons recovered inside the prisons are homemade, but some are commercially manufactured and smuggled in. That wasn’t the case with the sword.
Ellis said they figured someone made it from a steel bar used in the prison’s welding shop, part of the prison’s trade school where incarcerated men go to earn professional certifications.
Ellis had seen plenty of prison-made weapons over the years. Knives made out of vent slats, ice picks sharpened from copper plumbing rods, homemade zip guns fashioned with a wooden block, a nail, rubber bands and a bullet. He’d never seen anything as large as that sword and when he got home from work that night, he realized he could have been killed.
“I don’t really drink a lot, but I keep a bottle of rum in the freezer,” Ellis explained. “If I came in from work and poured me a drink, my wife knew I had a bad day. I came in that day and didn’t even bother pouring a drink, I just turned the bottle up.”
Ellis decided to retire in February, 2019, partly because of the violence at St. Clair. The DOJ report confirmed that Alabama prisons have the highest homicide rate in the nation, approximately eight times the national average. Four men have been stabbed to death at St. Clair in the last seven months.
Ellis said when he first started working at ADOC, it was a good job and St. Clair was a controlled place. A prisoner assaulting an officer was unheard of, stabbings and fights happened occasionally, but nothing like the daily bloodshed happening today. Ellis might have stayed longer, but he’s 60-years-old and was diagnosed with a mild heart condition four years ago. His cardiologist talked to him about stress.
“I have no business going in there trying to fight with them kids every day,” he said.
Ellis has also worked as a rescue diver with the Etowah County Rescue Squad, but he stopped that a few years ago to cut back on stress. He struggles with PTSD from years of seeing so much violence and death. Several times a year, something will trigger his anxiety and he’ll dream of all the people he couldn’t save.
“People I’ve pulled out of car wrecks, people I’ve pulled out of the river, people I’ve pulled dead out of a cell block,” he said.
But he feels better now that he’s retired. His stress level has dropped and he’s hoping he can manage it without medication. He’s glad to leave his prison work behind, especially after the last few years that were marked by violence and razor thin staffing. After two and a half decades on the job, Ellis is thankful he never suffered a major injury. He knows it could have gone the other way.
“I’m not saying I was a badass, but I knew when and where to pick my battles,” he said. “Now I know every day when I get up and walk out the door, I won’t have to wonder, am I coming back tonight?”