Out Of Sight
At an Illinois prison, evidence of abuse in a camera blind spot went ignored for years: “Those officers thought … ‘We can completely get away with this.’ ”
Out Of Sight
At an Illinois prison, evidence of abuse in a camera blind spot went ignored for years: “Those officers thought … ‘We can completely get away with this.’ ”By Shannon Heffernan
David Kerstein thought there must be a mistake. The prison warden told him that if he wanted to meet with prisoner Roger Latimer he had to be at Western Illinois Correctional Center by 7 a.m. He had driven five hours from a Chicago suburb. Now staff were telling him there was no record of a scheduled legal visit. Kerstein was furious. He argued with staff and, according to Kerstein, it took four hours until they agreed, with one condition: A guard would be watching the whole time.
Latimer was a prospective client who’d been convicted for possesing child pornography. Kerstein didn’t like the idea of a guard observing a legal visit. But, he’d driven through the night — he didn’t want to leave empty handed. So he agreed.
Immediately Kerstein could tell that may have been a bad idea. Latimer has autism. He was loud, seemingly unaware that he should keep his voice down if he didn’t want the guard to hear. And he seemed to have no filter. He kept telling Kerstein that guards there had severely beaten him. He said guards dragged him down the sidewalk between buildings and made him walk so fast he kept falling.
There’s a spot in the prison without security cameras, Latimer told him. A blind spot. And that’s where Latimer said they assaulted him.
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Kerstein was constantly aware of the guard about 10 feet away. He tried to get Latimer to lower his voice or return to the topic of his case. But Latimer was insistent. He thought that the guards might do it again. Maybe to him. Maybe to someone else. He begged Kerstein to do something.
Kerstein said he’d try to look into it — if Latimer was seriously injured there must be medical records. So on the way out, he asked staff for any hospital or prison records of the incident — they said there was nothing. Kerstein figured Latimer was either confused or delusional.
“I get people who tell me all sorts of things happen to them,” Kerstein said. “It’s like trust but verify. And I got no verification.”
He didn’t really think about it again until he heard about what happened to Larry Earvin.
“Got what he had coming”
Larry Earvin grew up in Chicago, a few blocks from the beach. His brother, Willie Earvin, said Larry had always been their mother’s favorite: “He was real nice, fun-loving, outgoing. He never met an enemy, always had friends. You know, people were always around him.”
But Larry Earvin had bounced between group homes and prison for years. He was living with mental illness, and his brother would track him down at one of the homes to visit him. Sometimes Larry was so medicated that Wille said it was difficult to hold a conversation. “And you can’t say, ‘Oh, how you doing?’ cause I see where you are,” Willie said.
The last time Larry Earvin was arrested and sent to prison, he was homeless. According to a police report, he stole watches from a hospital gift shop, then attempted to sell them on the street to a woman. He and the woman agreed on a price — $11 — and, as she was handing over the cash, he grabbed it, smacked her hand and started walking away. The victim followed him and called 911. According to the arrest report, when an officer stopped Earvin, he admitted he had stolen the money and the watches and agreed to sign a sworn statement. The crime landed him behind bars for three years.
On May 17, 2018 Earvin was transferred from a housing wing at Western Illinois Correctional Center to segregation, a unit where prisoners are sent for discipline. It was the same building that Latimer said he’d been beaten in eight months earlier. By the end of the day, Earvin was in the hospital. Six weeks later, he was dead.
He had 15 broken ribs, a punctured colon and injuries all over his body — his arms, his face, even his toes. The medical examiner’s report lists his death as a homicide after an “altercation with correctional staff.” He was 65 years old.
Video has become the main way victims of law enforcement brutality prove their case, and it’s rare that an incident involving law enforcement gets attention without a recording. Prisons are covered with cameras.
But those cameras are controlled by prison staff — they decide where cameras are located and if footage is publicly shared. WBEZ fought for nearly two years to get videos from the day Larry Earvin was allegedly beaten to see how he ended up in the hospital with such serious injuries. By October 2020, WBEZ obtained the footage.
The first video covers the initial conflict between Earvin and guards as he’s removed from the prison tier where he was housed. Most of the confrontation occurs under a walkway that connects the two sides of the prison wing on the second floor. Because Earvin and the guards are standing under that bridge, you see only their feet and legs for several minutes. Staff reports say at some point Earvin bit a guard, but that can’t be seen because of the angle of the camera. Guards rush onto the wing, and a dozen of them surround Earvin as they walk him out.
Another security camera picks up on the sidewalk outside the housing unit. Earvin looks like he is having trouble walking. His arms are cuffed behind his back and guards are pulling them up, causing Earvin to lean forward. His pants sag and eventually fall to his ankles. A guard steps on them, so they come off, and then the guard throws the pants into the grass.
Another camera picks up, just outside the segregation building. It shows Earvin, still handcuffed with a guard on each side, walking into the doors of the segregation building — toward the blind spot Latimer talked about. There is no video of what happened there.
The next video of Earvin shows him on a stretcher. Prison records show he was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. From there he was airlifted to St. John’s hospital in Springfield. Taylorville prison correctional officers said they were called in to take over and guard Earvin. According to staff reports from that prison, a guard from Western told them that Earvin had assaulted staff and “got what he had coming.”
Earvin died June 26, 2018, from blunt trauma to the chest and abdomen, just a few months before he was scheduled to be released. “I was told that … he was beaten severely. And they sent pictures of him laying in the hospital bed, his feet chained to the bed … and he did not survive from that point,” Willie said. “He was my brother and didn’t deserve that treatment. None of us do.”
Federal authorities launched an investigation into the death, and, in December 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of Illinois charged three guards for beating Earvin. According to the indictment, Todd Sheffler of Mendon, Willie Hedden of Mt. Sterling and Alex Banta of Quincy assaulted Earvin “without legal justification while he was restrained and handcuffed behind his back and while he posed no physical threat to the defendants or other correctional officers.”
The federal indictment also alleges that the guards falsified reports about the incident and misled state police when they denied they had any knowledge of the assault. One of the guards, Hedden, has pleaded guilty. Sheffler and Banta are scheduled to go to trial later this month. Lawyers for the three guards did not answer requests for comment or declined to talk.
The Illinois Department of Corrections has refused WBEZ’s repeated requests over the course of two and half years for an interview about guard misconduct.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections defended the agency, and said they launched an investigation immediately following the incident with Earvin and fully cooperated with federal authorities. All three guards who were charged are suspended from the Department of Corrections, pending an outcome in court. The spokesperson said the use of excessive force will in no way be tolerated.
But prison records suggest excessive force was repeatedly used by these same guards — and that staff knew about a blind spot in the entryway to segregation where staff allegedly beat prisoners long before Earvin’s death.
The blind spot
Five days after Earvin’s beating, a staff member at Western went into a co-worker’s office at about 11 a.m., shut the door and said she needed to get something off her chest. According to a prison record, she confided that she’d known for a while about a spot in segregation where staff would take prisoners to beat them because there were no cameras. She told her co-worker that one of the guards, Blake Haubrich, had cornered her and told her “she needed to keep out of what goes on down there.”
The exchange is documented in an incident report filed by the employee who was told the story.
Haubrich was not criminally charged over Earvin’s death. But he is named in a civil lawsuit filed by Earvin’s family over the alleged beating. According to documents reviewed by WBEZ, Haubrich has also been accused of assaulting prisoners during transfers to segregation, including in the alleged blind spot.
A lawyer who is representing Haubrich in the civil case over Larry Earvin’s death, did not answer requests for comment. Haubrich continues to work for the Illinois Department of Corrections, but is on paid administrative leave.
In reviewing lawsuits, WBEZ found eight other prisoners, besides Earvin and Latimer, who say they were beaten on their way to segregation, in a location where staff and prisoners had long said there were no cameras.
Five of the cases involve at least one of the guards indicted in Earvin’s death, Hedden, Sheffler or Banta. Three others involved Haubrich. The incidents usually started with a conflict between a guard and prisoner, and, as a result, the prisoner was sent to segregation for discipline.
The cases often include startlingly similar details: Prisoners say staff transferred them to segregation in handcuffs, bent over so they were facing the sidewalk, and forced to walk so fast that they fell over. Several report that staff picked them up and rammed them into doors. Two, like Earvin, mentioned the guards taking off their pants or stepping on their pants so they came off. The alleged beatings all occurred, at least in part, in or near the entry to segregation. The state has paid to settle three of the cases. A judge sided with the department against one prisoner and dismissed another for technical reasons. The other three cases are still moving through the courts.
Some of the injuries are less serious, like bruises and scratches. But in one lawsuit, a man named Steven Kellman’s medical records show he was treated for multiple bone fractures in his face on the day he said guards beat him in February 2017 at the entrance to segregation. According to prison records, the injuries required surgery. Prison staff reported Kellman was being transferred to segregation after he cursed at a guard for not letting him see a counselor and then took a “boxing stance.” The lawsuit, which names Banta as one of the guards involved, remains unresolved.
In another incident, a man named Rafael Kennedy says guards gave him a black eye and knocked out a tooth while transferring him to segregation.
Staff reported Kennedy had thrown water on a guard. The state paid $4,500 to settle the case, and the incident was investigated by internal affairs. Documents from that investigation show the department found no wrongdoing by staff, but an investigator did identify a blind spot in the entryway to segregation where there were no cameras. That was in 2017, more than a year before Earvin’s death.
There are other indications staff knew about the blind spot. A court filing shows Western Illinois Correctional Center’s Warden, Cameron Watson, told law enforcement that staff knew that there were limited cameras in segregation.
Another filing says Sheffler, one of the officers accused in Earvin’s death, told federal investigators it’s common knowledge there are no cameras covering portions of the segregation unit, and “that it is institutional practice at WICC not to report excessive force committed by its officers.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said in the last year, the department installed 79 new cameras at Western Illinois Correctional Center, including ones that cover the alleged blind spot. The department claims security footage is exempt from public disclosure laws, but the Illinois State Police and FBI may access the footage “when necessary.”
The spokesperson refused to answer basic questions about what appears to be a culture of abuse and coverups, citing pending litigation.
WBEZ continues to seek an interview with IDOC Director Rob Jeffreys to ask how the department is grappling with the larger issues not addressed by the installation of new cameras.
Ringing the alarm bells
After Roger Latimer got out of prison, he heard about Earvin’s death. A light bulb went off. Just like Latimer, Earvin was being transferred to segregation and, just like him, he had fractured ribs. According to prison records, Banta, who is charged in Earvin’s death, was on the scene the day Latimer says he was beaten. Another guard who transferred Latimer was Haubrich, the guard accused by a staff member of telling her to stay out of what happened in segregation.
“It’s so upsetting because I tried to reach out,” Latimer said.
Latimer had started trying to ring alarm bells the day of his alleged beating but each layer of oversight failed. Red flags were ignored. Internal prison investigations withered. External investigations were scuttled. The pattern was repeated over and over until federal authorities stepped in, something that happened only after guards allegedly beat Earvin to death.
Latimer was treated at an outside hospital the day he was injured, according to medical reports Latimer gave WBEZ after his release from prison. The records show he had four fractured ribs, a concussion, and various cuts and abrasions. The hospital nurse wrote in her medical records that Latimer wanted to report the incident to police and that she had tried to take pictures of his injuries, but guards stopped her.
She wrote the guards told her: “We have spoken to the major at the prison twice and he says no pictures. If [the patient] keeps talking about filing a report we are to take him back to the prison and he will be taken care of in the infirmary.”
She continued: “The [patient] stated ‘They are just trying to cover this up. No one will know what they did to me if you don’t take the pictures.’ ”
She also wrote that prison staff told her that there are cameras all over the prison and the department would conduct an investigation into the beating allegations. According to documents from the prison, internal affairs, a part of the department that investigates wrongdoing behind bars, did start an investigation and took pictures of Latimer’s injuries, but the investigator never finished. Follow-up documents say he was working on other cases and was “overwhelmed.” Prison officials say they’ve now given the information to the FBI. The FBI would not confirm or deny if they had an open investigation into the incident.
The prison did, however, complete an investigation of Latimer within two weeks of the incident. A prison-run committee punished Latimer with three months in segregation, restricted his contact visits for six months and revoked two months of his good time credits, essentially extending his sentence. Prison officials claimed just before he was transferred to segregation, where the alleged beating took place, Latimer lunged at a staff member. In interviews, Latimer denied that but said he argued with staff about going back to his cell because he was feeling dizzy. A document detailing a disciplinary hearing also said Latimer admitted he has trouble reading social cues, and it was possible he unintentionally moved in a way that guards interpreted as threatening.After Latimer had learned about Earvin’s death, he tried to reach out to the local prosecutor’s office in Mt. Sterling, the town where the prison is located. But that attempt also led nowhere.
Mark Vincent, the Brown County State’s Attorney at the time, said the evidence Latimer presented was credible and he looked into the allegations. But he also said there are many challenges in bringing a case against a guard. Vincent added it’s difficult for city or county police to investigate in the prison because of security concerns — so he’s forced to rely on the facility to provide evidence. He said he’s sometimes frustrated with the lack of documentation he is able to get, and quality video recordings are rarely available.
“There is video, but in my 12 years here … it’s actually not as good as you would think,” Vincent said. “They don’t have a lot of coverage in areas.”
Video is key evidence, Vincent said, and without video or other evidence, prosecuting a guard for abuse comes down to credibility. “Who will you believe? The offender? Or these three officers who were right there?”
Vincent said without strong evidence, he can’t ethically pursue a case.
“To prove anybody guilty of a criminal offense, offender or staff, guard or anybody, the burden is the same,” he said. “It’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And my jury here in Brown County would be made up of Brown County citizens. And they’re going to hear whatever evidence there is. And unless I’ve got something that proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s going to be a ‘not guilty.’ ”
And there is an obvious chasm between the prisoners, many of whom are from the Chicago area, and the jurors in Brown County where much of the economy revolves around the prison and residents have close connections to the institution. Vincent himself has many close connections: His brother, sister-in-law and wife all work or have worked at the prison.
Vincent never brought charges in Latimer’s case, but said he referred it to federal authorities. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney said there have been no charges as of yet in Latimer’s case.
“A habit of beating people”
When David Kerstein, the lawyer who met with Latimer in prison, heard about Larry Earvin’s death, he thought back to his visit at Western Illinois Correctional Center. He remembered how staff had tried to stop him from having a legal visit and told him there was no record of Latimer going to the hospital.
“They clearly lied to me,” Kerstein said. He believes guards covered up the incident. “At one point, you stop being a criminal and you start becoming a victim. … I screwed up. I should have believed [Latimer]. I should have done something.”
Latimer believes one of the reasons his complaints went ignored is because he was convicted for possessing child pornography — and many people automatically dismiss him. He also thinks he, and some of the other alleged victims, were brushed aside because they have developmental or psychiatric disabilities.
“Those officers thought … ‘We can completely get away with this. We can drag somebody down the sidewalk and kick him in the ribs and there’s no consequences,’ ” Latimer said. “And because they were able to do that with me, they felt secure in their decision to be able to do that to other people, like Larry Earvin.”
The family of Earvin is suing Department of Corrections staff over his beating and death. Their attorney, Jon Erickson, said if someone had paid attention to any of the warning signs, including Latimer’s story, perhaps his client’s life could have been saved.
“We were witnessing a murder that was perpetrated by people who have a habit of beating people,” Erickson said.
Erickson is one of six attorneys and two law students with cases at Western Illinois Correctional Center. He said his group has reached out to lawmakers in an attempt to bring attention to the alleged blind spot, abuse of prisoners by staff and the lack of oversight.
“We see an awakening, a spotlight shining on a national problem of the lack of police accountability when they engage in excessive force,” Erickson said. “But there is no spotlight shed on the … complete lack of accountability when it comes to correctional officers and wardens and what goes on in our prisons.”
Earvin’s brother, Willie, said he doesn’t think the cameras the state added will solve the problems at Western Illinois Correctional Center. He believes what his brother needed was mental health support.
“We have these people that are untrained and … probably sick of prisoners mouthing off at them and … don’t realize that it’s not a discipline problem. It’s a mental health issue” Willie Earvin said. “So, ‘We going to beat some sense into him. And then we kill him and try to deny it.’ ”
Willie said as far as he knows there was no funeral for Larry, and he doesn’t know who buried him. But the family learned he was laid to rest in Centralia, a few hours away from Western Illinois Correctional Center.
The family made the trek to visit the grave. WIllie said the cemetery was nice and well kept, and employees showed him a map so he could find the spot where his brother was buried. They found the plot, but there wasn’t a headstone with his brother’s name. No marker or sign — nothing at all to show his brother was there. He thought the prison should at least provide a headstone.
“I guess the disgusting thing is, you beat a prisoner to death and put them in a cemetery in an unmarked grave,” Earvin said.
To him, it was as if the state was saying that it never happened at all.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter. Follow her @shannon_h.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the director of the Department of Corrections. The correct spelling is Rob Jeffreys.