Roger Latimer says he was beaten by guards in a security camera blind spot at Western Illinois Correctional Center. He complained at the prison. He complained to local officials. He asked medical staff to take pictures. Nothing happened. Then another prisoner, Larry Earvin, died after an altercation with guards in the same blind spot.
WBEZ broke the story of Earvin’s death. The feds have since charged three guards. One has pleaded guilty, and the trial for the other two has begun.
In this episode of the “Motive” podcast, we track the pattern of beatings in that blind spot, surfacing nine additional cases, sometimes involving the same guards, using very similar behavior in the same location. We ask the question of why this pattern persisted, even as prisoners like Latimer tried to stop it.
Exposing violence and cover ups, Season 4 of “Motive” investigates the hidden world of big prisons in small towns. Places where everyone knows each other and difficult truths get buried.
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About the host
Shannon Heffernan (@shannon_h) is the host and a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ in Chicago. She has spent much of her career reporting on prisons. The work for this podcast began nearly four years ago when she got a call that an inmate at a prison had died under suspicious circumstances.
Motive is a production of WBEZ Chicago. Reporting by Shannon Heffernan (@shannon_h). The producers were Colin McNulty and Jesse Dukes (@CuriousDukes). Marie Mendoza (@marieannmendoza) is our associate producer. Joe DeCeault mixed this episode. Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. Our editor is Rob Wildeboer. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Tracy Brown is our Chief Content Officer. We had additional production and reporting help from Arno Pedram and Candace Mittel Kahn. Original music by Cue Shop.
A QUICK WARNING, THIS PODCAST HAS DESCRIPTIONS OF VIOLENCE.
(AMBIENT SOUND FROM WESTERN ILLINOIS CORRECTIONAL CENTER)
UNIDENTIFIED PRISON GUARD: Coming out.
SHANNON HEFFERNAN, HOST: Can you walk me through what happened that day?
VANOKA WASHINGTON: Uh yeah. (BREATH) Several inmates had assaulted correctional staff in Western, Illinois, which caused a statewide shakedown.
(AMBIENT SOUND FROM WESTERN ILLINOIS CORRECTIONAL CENTER)
UNIDENTIFIED PRISON GUARD: Keep your head down.
HEFFERNAN: In September of 2017, Vanoka Washington was locked up at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, Illinois. Guards from all across the state came to the prison to do a search for contraband. Washington says things with staff had been particularly tense. And after the search— some guards came back to his wing.
WASHINGTON: And they started using their sticks banging on the doors telling everybody to get up and step out of the cells.
HEFFERNAN: Washington says guards lined up around the cell house. One of the officers stood in the middle. He started making a speech.
WASHINGTON: ‘You motherf*****s starting to believe that y’all going to put y’all’s hands on us and get away with it. That’s bulls****, man, we’re going back to cracking heads like we was doing in the old times. He further says that only cowards bully on and intimidate people who they feel cannot fight them back.
WASHINGTON: I started laughing. It was an uncontrolled urge. I just laughed.
HEFFERNAN: Laughing because the guards had shields, helmets and sticks. Washington says the guard making the speech called him to the front of the wing.
WASHINGTON: All of the tactical officers, they all simultaneously step forward, you know in a ready position. And made they, they battle cry. WHOOO. (REVERB)
HEFFERNAN: The guard making the speech got in Washington’s face.
WASHINGTON: And he says what the f***’s so funny? And I said man look, you just said only cowards bully and intimidate on people who can’t fight them back. Man, I’m handicapped, I got one hand and I go home in a year. I’m not trying to fight you. And his words to me then were ‘well, you just f***ed up.’
HEFFERNAN: Washington says the guards cuffed him. Because he only has one hand, they chained that hand to his waist. Then some guards escorted him to segregation, seg, a part of the prison where you go if you are in trouble.
HEFFERNAN: There are lots of cameras in prisons. But there’s an area in Western without any. And Washington says guards know it.
WASHINGTON: Whatever’s not seen on the camera, you know, in a court of law is not truth.
HEFFERNAN: Washington says the guards beat him. Beat him right in that spot with no cameras, between two doors, in the entryway to seg.
HEFFERNAN: I’m just having a hard time visualizing it. Would you be able to draw it?
WASHINGTON: There’s no camera there, the only camera there is the officer. The side of this door, these sliding doors, it’s a blind spot.
HEFFERNAN: I asked the Department of Corrections about this alleged beating, but they wouldn’t answer any questions. In a lawsuit, the guards deny wrongdoing and the case was dismissed.
HEFFERNAN: I’ve been reporting on prisons for years now. The prison system, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is huge. Chances are, just statistically, that a lot of you listening know someone who has been locked inside, or maybe you’ve been locked up yourself. And something that big, that fundamental to how society functions, can start to feel normal— like just the way it is. So people simply stop looking.
HEFFERNAN: Prisons are full of blind spots. Places with no cameras. But also, all kinds of other ways things are hidden. The staff is hesitant to talk. Government officials deny documents for security reasons.
Prisons are often far away from big cities, hard to get to for lots of loved ones— and letters and calls to family, or journalists, are monitored. Sometimes censored. It’s a good place to try and hide something.
So this season of Motive. We are craning our necks and trying to see inside one prison system: The Illinois Department of Corrections.
HEFFERNAN: I’m going to share multiple stories— inside and outside the walls. Sometimes people will reappear and the stories will overlap. But we start with one investigation… about a tiny corner of an Illinois prison, and what happened there.
From WBEZ Chicago, I’m Shannon Heffernan and this is Motive.
Episode one: The Blind Spot.
HEFFERNAN: How long have you lived here?
ROGER LATIMER: Um, gee about, let’s see, I guess a year and a half.
HEFFERNAN: Roger Latimer is white and in his fifties. He lives in a suburb just outside of Chicago. His apartment is compact and neat. When I visited him he’d been out of prison for about a year and a half. There was a tidy plate of cookies set out for me.
HEFFERNAN: Could we scoot a little closer, if that’s OK. Thank you.
HEFFERNAN: Latimer’s a big guy and he’s perched on this tiny chair, fiddling with the buttons on his shirt. He told me that he sometimes gets nervous around people. He’s autistic and said he can get overwhelmed.
LATIMER: You know, back, back when I went to school, people didn’t understand high functioning autism. It was, it’s okay to try to trip them in the hallway or, you know, it’s like, it’s like, just being bullied.
HEFFERNAN: Latimer spent two and half years in prison, some of that time at Western Illinois Correctional Center. He says one morning there, he woke up feeling dizzy. He thought some food might help and he was scheduled to go to commissary. But, by the time he got up and out of his cell, a guard told him he was too late. He’d missed his chance to go buy a snack. The guard told Latimer to go back to his cell.
LATIMER: And I said, I don’t think you understand. I’m not even sure I can go back to my cell. They said well you got to go to your cell, and I said no I think I really need to see medical.
HEFFERNAN: In documents, prison staff say Latimer lunged at an officer, so they grabbed him and quote ‘guided him to the ground.’ Latimer says he didn’t lunge, he just argued with them. But he says he does sometimes have trouble with social cues, so maybe he moved in a way that was unintentionally threatening. But either way, at this point correctional officers cuff him and take Latimer to seg.
LATIMER: My hands are handcuffed behind me and they’re lifting up my arms. People call that the chicken walk, you know, you’re, you’re bent over in a bow. They’re just walking me faster and faster. And I said, I can’t keep up this pace. They’re pulling my the handcuffs to make me like fall over. And the torture of, of knowing that your head is going to hit the cement.
LATIMER: At some point, I fall on the cement. That didn’t stop them from, from, from keeping up the pace.
HEFFERNAN: Latimer says guards dragged him down the sidewalk, until they arrived at the doors in front of segregation.
LATIMER: They open the first door, but then there’s a second door behind the first one.
HEFFERNAN: So he’s between two doors, in a kind of foyer.
LATIMER: That’s when I was, like, pushed really hard again onto the floor this time. It was quite obvious that it was done, you know to be outside of the range of cameras.
LATIMER: At that point, the officer on the left, starts kicking me with his boots over and over again. It was very terrifying. I thought I was, this is the way I die is just I get kicked, kicked to death.
HEFFERNAN: He says guards picked him up, and slammed his shoulder right into the doorway. Latimer says he was in terrible shape. Bleeding. Clothes ripped.
(MUSIC ENDS ABRUPTLY)
HEFFERNAN: Later that day, staff called an ambulance and Latimer went to an outside hospital. According to medical documents, staff treated him for four rib fractures. He was bruised. And had a concussion. After he’s treated, the guards take him back to prison and put him in segregation, where he doesn’t have access to a phone.
LATIMER: I have no way of reaching out to my family. I mean, nobody will ever know the truth. I was worried not only for myself, but I was, you know, is this what goes on?
HEFFERNAN: Latimer did everything he could to document what he said happened to him. He talked to Internal Affairs - Department of Corrections staff that investigate problems behind bars. He wrote a grievance— official forms incarcerated people can fill out to file complaints. And he tried to tell people outside the prison too. Like his lawyer— David Kerstein.
Kerstein was scheduled to come to talk to Latimer about his conviction and sentence. He was new to the case, and wanted to see him face to face. At this point, the lawyer doesn’t even know about the alleged beating— that’s not the point of this legal visit. He drove to Western from just outside Chicago— a long drive.
DAVID KERSTEIN: I was told that I had to be there at a very unusual time, seven in the morning. So I had left literally at one in the morning to get there to make it there by seven.
HEFFERNAN: But once he got there— Kerstein says the guard told him ‘Sorry, we have no record of your meeting.’
KERSTEIN: I said ‘wait a minute, wait a minute. I have an arrangement. I have an appointment. I drove here all night. Let me in. What’s the big deal?’ I was angry. There was no question I was angry.
HEFFERNAN: And what are you thinking is happening? At this point, do you think this is just a mix-up?
KERSTEIN: I think that just somebody screwed up and they didn’t get things to, to go through and now they’re stuck with me over here.
HEFFERNAN: Kerstein raised hell and staff said ‘OK OK, we’ll check.’ Kerstein says he ended up waiting for four hours. Until finally the guard came back and said ‘we will let you meet with your client. But a guard is going to watch the whole time.’
KERSTEIN: And I thought that was totally inappropriate. There’s attorney client privilege. You have a fundamental right to absolutely have your client have an unfettered access to you to speak about the way that he feels without having anybody know about what’s going on. I was angry but I came this far and I’m not going to go away empty handed.
HEFFERNAN: So Kerstein reluctantly agreed to the condition. He says he was allowed to talk to Latimer, but a guard was there about ten feet away.
KERSTEIN: As soon as I saw Roger, I knew that he had some sort of issues. I don’t want to say the incorrect thing, I couldn’t diagnose him. But I do know that his ability to talk in a guarded way. It wasn’t going to happen. There was no um, what I would call… a filter.
LATIMER: You know, he, I didn’t have a face-to-face. I was still behind this plexiglass. I talked to him, told him this whole story.
HEFFERNAN: The story of the beating. Which, remember, was not what Kerstein was expecting to talk about. He kept trying to guide Latimer back to talk about his sentence. The lawyer was very aware of the guard right nearby.
KERSTEIN: While we’re talking about the case, it always returned to one thing, ‘do you know that I got beaten up, you know that I got this and that.’ And I’m saying, ‘OK, I’ll check it out. I’ll check it out.’
LATIMER: I went to the hospital for treatment. So that should have, that should have been, first of all, treatment of what? That should have been the first question.
(LATIMER FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: But you’re listening, you’re taking the information in, you hear that something…
KERSTEIN: Sure, but I’m trying to be respectful at the same time knowing that I got somebody over there listening 10 feet away, and knowing that I have a potential client that doesn’t have a filter.
(LATIMER FADES UP)
LATIMER: At the beginning of the incident, when I’m in the housing unit, I don’t have any injuries. And somehow I get these injuries, and I’m brought for treatment.
(LATIMER FADES UNDER)
KERSTEIN: He’s, he’s in anguish. He’s in both physical pain and he’s in mental pain too. Nobody believes me. Nobody cares about me. And he feels like the guards are just snickering at him and just like trying to mock him. He realizes he’s an easy target and nobody else is gonna do anything about it.
HEFFERNAN: As Kerstein is hearing Latimer talk, he’s trying to sort it out. Trying to decide if he believes him about the beating and the injuries.
KERSTEIN: So then afterwards, I said, ‘Look,’ to the guards later. ‘Can you show me there’s any medical history? Can you show me any stuff to verify?’ and there’s nothing and there’s nothing. So I’m thinking to myself, okay, I don’t know if this is fascination on Roger’s part. Because to me, it’s just unworldly that there would be no medical report whatsoever.
HEFFERNAN: Kerstein said he called some of the local hospitals, but couldn’t get any information about Latimer having treatment. He also reached out to civil rights lawyers to tell them about Latimer. But without better documentation he said there wasn’t much he could do.
KERSTEIN: I get people who tell me all sorts of things happen to them and you hear it. And you gotta say, okay, it’s like trust but verify and I got no verification.
HEFFERNAN: When it comes down to it: The official word, whatever staff says, usually stands. Latimer knows that. He was in prison, and he has a conviction that he knows once some people hear about, they will just automatically dismiss him. Possession of child pornography.
He says he’s innocent. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s true. And I’m not going to go down a whole true crime rabbit hole here— did he or didn’t he? Yes: There are innocent people in prison. But there are also people who’ve done really bad things. They’ve all been convicted. They’ve all been sentenced. None of them deserve to be beaten.
HEFFERNAN: Latimer got transferred to another prison not long after the alleged beating. He was relieved to be out of Western. But he was still determined to get the word out about what happened.
(AMBIENT SOUND FROM WESTERN ILLINOIS CORRECTIONAL CENTER)
HEFFERNAN: So he’s talking about it all the time: on the bus when he’s getting transferred, to other guys in nearby cells. And he says he ended up meeting someone who told him that he too was beaten in a blind spot at Western. When I talked to Latimer, he didn’t remember the guy’s name, but he described him. A black guy, with one hand.
WASHINGTON: Whatever’s not seen on the camera, you know, in a court of law, is not truthful.
HEFFERNAN: I’d heard Vanoka Washington’s story about a year before I’d met Roger Latimer. He’s the guy from the beginning of the episode. The alleged beatings of Latimer and Washington were just four days apart in 2017. And when I heard Latimer bring Washington up, It starts to click into place for me.
HEFFERNAN: The similarities between their stories. The location.
WASHINGTON: So there’s two doors that leads to the segregation unit.
LATIMER: They opened the first door, and then that’s when I was pushed really hard again onto the floor this time. And and it was quite obvious that it was done, you know, to be outside of the range of cameras,
HEFFERNAN: The guards slamming their bodies into the doors as they are being transported.
WASHINGTON: That’s when they started using me as a battering ram, slamming my head up against the walls and the door. Oops, I’m sorry. Oops I’m sorry.
LATIMER: He pulls me suddenly and then and then bangs my shoulder into the into the doorway.
HEFFERNAN: The being restrained in handcuffs and kicked in the ribs.
WASHINGTON: They open me up. I got a footprint in my chest. And my arm is on fire. I’m like crying. I can’t do anything. I’m more hurt than anything because I can’t defend myself.
HEFFERNAN: And it’s clicking into place for Latimer, too.
LATIMER: The question too is, how many other people have been beaten? I mean, how often does this happen?
WASHINGTON: Society looks at us like, you know, we deserved it, you know. He’s a prisoner. He in jail for something.
LATIMER: What’s going to prevent this from happening to other people? So, so like people need to be aware of this, this can happen to another person.
WASHINGTON: And it’s only in extreme and severe cases that something is brought to attention or something is being said. When they kill someone.
(MUSIC STOPS ABRUPTLY)
HEFFERNAN: When they kill someone. Could that have happened?
A man named Larry Earvin died in the summer of 2018, less than a year after Washington and Latimer say they were beaten. He was a 65-year-old black man.
The medical examiner’s report listed the cause of death as homicide after a quote ‘altercation with guards.’ He had 15 rib fractures and a punctured colon. Prison documents show he was handcuffed and being transferred to segregation.
Whatever happened to him, and whatever caused his injuries, it happened in a place with no cameras.
HEFFERNAN: After the break… What happened to Larry Earvin.
(MUSIC FADES OUT)
HEFFERNAN: On average, about 100 people die in Illinois prisons every year. And the amount of information on how they die— it’s scarce. There’s a new state law that’s supposed to change that, but historically, documents we got from the prison often failed to even note the cause of death.
HEFFERNAN: I say this to say: prison deaths, even when they may involve bad medical care, violence between cellmates, or from staff— It’s been another one of those blind spots.
HEFFERNAN: So when I got a call from someone telling me about Larry Earvin’s death after an altercation with guards, I was determined to learn more. To know what happened to this man, but also if it was part of something bigger— a pattern. And if it was, why no one did anything about it, before Earvin died. How did that happen?
HEFFERNAN: One of the first documents we got about Earvin’s death in prison was his autopsy. Almost half his ribs were fractured, and he had injuries everywhere— his face, his arms, even his toes. I obviously couldn’t interview Earvin to see if his story was like Roger Latimer’s or Vanoka Washington’s. So instead I tried to track down witnesses from Western Illinois Correctional Center.
HEFFERNAN: Can you tell me your name and let me know if you want me to use your name or keep your name anonymous?
WILLIE SMITH: My name is Willie Smith, ID number ENI3078. That good enough?
HEFFERNAN: You’re not worried about retaliation?
SMITH: I’m in Sheridan. I don’t think they’re going to retaliate here in Sheridan.
HEFFERNAN: I’d found Smith, because I’d heard people who witnessed the Earvin incident were moved out of Western, and Smith’s name was on the transfer list.
HEFFERNAN: So, tell me what you saw.
SMITH: Well, I didn’t see the strikes because they had already did that. I saw the after effects.
HEFFERNAN: You were in the cell across from him?
SMITH: Right across from him, directly across. To be honest with you. I was like you got to be s****ing me. But I said, that’s what they did to that little, that little man?
HEFFERNAN: Another witness told me he was bloody, and his clothes were ripped. And according to a prison nurse’s report Earvin was vomiting.
SMITH: They literally beat the living hell out of him. And you can see, that it looked like he had a fight with a f***ing Mack truck.
HEFFERNAN: A fight… With a f***ing Mack truck.
SMITH: My exact response was, these motherf*****s trying to kill us down here. That was my exact response. But I just said they’re trying to kill us down here. Because I know that’s not the first one that they did like that.
HEFFERNAN: Prison incident reports show Earvin had just been transported to seg, just like Latimer and Washington. Officers say Earvin was moved because he bit a guard.
HEFFERNAN: The officers’ reports say Earvin was resisting… Refusing to walk. Those officer reports also say.. He was transferred, quote, ‘without further incident.’ They didn’t note anything major that could result in big injuries. Staff reported that once in seg, Earvin was treated for pepper spray, some scratches and bruises, which considering his autopsy, seemed weird.
HEFFERNAN: When there’s accusations of law enforcement abuse. And you want to prove what happened, it can feel like these days, you gotta have video. Like— that’s the truth. The ultimate objectivity.
HEFFERNAN: But almost any video taken inside a prison is a video that was taken by the prison. Cameras that they placed and had control over. We fought with the state to get security footage from that day. It took over a year. And help from lawyers. We eventually got videos from security cameras, throughout the prison.
HEFFERNAN: The first video is inside the cellhouse. You see some guards walk up to Earvin. He’s sitting at a table. The video is from far away and the view is obstructed. Then you can see a bit of a commotion— shuffling feet. It’s not clear enough to know if Earvin actually did anything to the guards, like bite them. Then suddenly, over a dozen guards rush on to the wing and cuff Earvin. There is a guard holding on to each side of him. They take Earvin away.
HEFFERNAN: A different security camera picks up here. Outside, on the sidewalk, on the way to seg. In this video, it looks like Earvin is having trouble keeping up with the guards. They’re holding his arms up, behind his back. He’s bent forward, looking at the ground, just like the chicken walk Latimer described.
HEFFERNAN: At some point, his pants fall down around his ankles. A guard grabs them and throws them into the grass. It’s an odd moment. They keep moving. Then the next camera— still outside. The video shows Earvin walking with multiple guards into the segregation building.
(MUSIC STOPS ABRUPTLY)
HEFFERNAN: And that’s it. Now he’s in the blind spot. No cameras. I can’t see him. The next time there is a video of Earvin, he is on a stretcher being carried to an ambulance.
HEFFERNAN: I wanted to get the perspective of prison staff on all of this. I reached out to the Department of Corrections. Despite years of requests for an interview, IDOC officials only provided the most basic written statements about Earvin’s death, saying things like, they cooperated with federal authorities and placed staff on leave.
HEFFERNAN: I also reached out to individual staff, but none would go on record. What I have instead of interviews with staff are reports they wrote that week. Most are fairly bland. But a couple stuck out to me.
HEFFERNAN: One report is from officers who guarded Earvin while he was at the hospital. They say guards at Western told them that Earvin had assaulted staff and quote, ‘got what he had coming.’
HEFFERNAN: Another official report, is about a staff member, who told another staff member, she’d known about incidents in seg. Guards beating people in a spot without cameras. She said one of the guards, a guy named Blake Haubrich cornered her and basically told her to stay out of what goes on down there. She also said she believed guards once beat up a guy, just because they were bored.
HEFFERNAN: A year and a half after the alleged beating, the feds brought charges against three guards— Todd Sheffler, Alex Banta, and Willie Hedden. They were charged with violating Earvin’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment when they beat him to death. They were also charged for lying to police and falsifying reports.
HEFFERNAN: None of them would talk to us. Hedden has since pleaded guilty. Sheffler and Banta have pleaded not guilty and are on trial. But what if someone from the state had done something before Larry Earvin’s death? Because the warning signs were all there. Roger Latimer saw them.
LATIMER: It was like, gee, it sounded like he was dragged down a sidewalk and kicked in the ribs. It’s like, it’s like, so this is still happening.
HEFFERNAN: There were so many similarities between Earvin and Latimer’s stories that I wondered if the same guards were involved. Latimer didn’t know the names of the guards who allegedly beat him. But we got prison paperwork. One of the officers who escorted Latimer to seg, Alex Banta, is also charged in Earvin’s death. Another officer who transferred Latimer to seg was named Blake Haubrich. He’s not charged, but he’s the same guard who the staff member said cornered her and told her to stay out of what goes on in seg.
LATIMER: It’s so upsetting because I tried to reach out.
KERSTEIN: Roger got a hold of me and, and told me that the same people that were involved with him, are now on trial for murder. For murder!
HEFFERNAN: The charges aren’t technically murder charges, but these men are facing trial because Earvin died from the alleged beating. When lawyer David Kerstein heard about Earvin’s death… he thought back to that day he visited Latimer at Western. The way the guards tried to keep him from seeing Latimer. The way they told him there was no record of Latimer complaining, or even going to an outside hospital. By this point, Latimer was out of prison and he had gotten access to his hospital records. He showed them to Kerstein.
KERSTEIN: As soon as I saw the record, I saw fractures. And that to me. There’s no way that he didn’t go to a hospital without them knowing about it at that time. He’s in jail. He’s in custody. It had to be done. It had to be known by everybody in that place. Everyone. From the supervisor to the warden, all the way up.
HEFFERNAN: Latimer gave me a copy of this hospital medical report. It has notes from a nurse. Someone outside the prison. In addition to showing the injuries, four rib fractures and other various abrasions, there was something else. The nurse had written that Latimer wanted to make a police report about the alleged beating. And that she and another nurse had tried to take pictures of Latimer’s injuries.
LATIMER: I did say please take the pictures. I definitely do want the pictures taken. And I was very adamant about it. Yes please take the pictures.
(LATIMER FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: But the guards stopped the nurses.
(LATIMER FADES UP)
LATIMER: No. They said absolutely no pictures. It seemed like the nurse…
(LATIMER FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: The nurse wrote that the guards told her quote “there will be no pictures taken. We have spoken to the Major at the prison twice and he says no pictures. If he — 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. 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.’” End quote.
LATIMER: You know, this is like, like, I’m a property of the state somehow they have no right to take these pictures. And that we’ll take our own pictures.
HEFFERNAN: The nurse also wrote that prison staff told her that a Department of Corrections investigator would be looking into the beating accusations. And an investigator did open a report. And did take pictures for the prison. But he never finished his report. I saw the notes in the file. That investigator said he was working on other cases and overwhelmed.
HEFFERNAN: Latimer’s convinced— this is just one more way, it got swept under the rug.
LATIMER: I was told that, you know, hey, this prison is in this small town area. Everybody knows everybody. You know that that’s kind of a family thing. And it’s hard really for anybody to go against that.
KERSTEIN: This was systematic. This was guards who covered for guards.
HEFFERNAN: Lawyer David Kerstein.
KERSTEIN: They clearly lied to me. All at the expense of truly somebody who was, who was a victim. At one point, you stop being a criminal and you start becoming a victim. And now I’m, I’m angry at myself for not feeling quite so. So compelled to do something about it. I screwed up. I should have believed this guy. I should have done something well earlier on that I didn’t do, and I’m upset at myself for not going forward on it.
HEFFERNAN: I’ve been thinking about what Kerstein said, the part about ‘at one point, you stop being a criminal and you start becoming a victim.’ It’s easy to think of those two words, victim and criminal, as identities— are you this or that?
But most people who’ve done something wrong, have also been wronged. You switch what role you are in, over and over again. To solidify those as something you are or aren’t, it makes it easier to not think about what happens to people in prison. I think it’s one of the reasons all this was ignored, by so many people, until someone died.
HEFFERNAN: Latimer tried to get people to listen. He wrote a grievance about his alleged beating. He reported it to internal affairs. Asked the nurse to take photos of his injuries. And there’s one more person he reached out to, that we haven’t talked about yet: Mark Vincent. He’s the elected prosecutor in Brown County where Western Illinois Prison is located. It’s his job to prosecute crimes like murder and robberies… or assaults, whether they’re in a bar, or the prison.
MARK VINCENT: Yes, I know Mr. Latimer, he has reached out to me. He had enough evidence that made his allegations appear quite credible to me.
HEFFERNAN: But Vincent never brought charges. He handed it along to the feds, who so far, have also passed. Vincent didn’t want to talk much about Latimer’s case, but he did talk to me more generally about being a prosecutor in a tiny prison town.
VINCENT: I just, you know, I don’t want to participate in any kind of hit piece because I think the vast majority of everyone is trying to do their best. It’s a difficult industry to do corrections in general.
HEFFERNAN: Do you have much family or friends who work at the prison? I imagine in a fairly small town there’s a lot of connections you’d have.
VINCENT: Oh yeah, I know many people there at the prison.
VINCENT: My brother retired as a correctional lieutenant. I have a sister in law who works there and also my wife is the superintendent of industries there. They have a meat processing plant there.
HEFFERNAN: Vincent says he does get complaints about abuse from people locked up at Western, he says these cases are hard to pursue… For a bunch of reasons.
A big one: his office is small and he doesn’t have many resources— so he basically relies on the prison’s own investigations. He says getting information, or quality videos out of the prison.. It’s hard.
Also any case he brings…. He’s going to be doing that with jurors in a prison town. To put an inmate’s word against the word of a guard? He says in those cases you’re always going to have reasonable doubt.
VINCENT: They’re just honestly not worth pursuing. There’s no need to pursue them because there would never be any legal outcome, any prosecution to be had.
HEFFERNAN: I went looking for other cases to see exactly how big the blind spot pattern might be… to see how many people had stories like Washington, Earvin and Latimer.
I found eight additional prisoners who say they were beaten on their way to segregation at Western. Most of the victims are black. Five include at least one of the guards indicted in Earvin’s death. In one case, records show a man had multiple fractures in his face and required surgery. In another case, Internal Affairs did an investigation. And one of their findings?
Surprise! There is a blind spot. Right outside seg. That was an incident from 2016— about 2 years before Earvin was allegedly beaten to death by guards. So this blind spot, it was known to the prison. Officially documented. With plenty of time to act before a man died.
HEFFERNAN: In three of the cases I found, the state paid to settle lawsuits. The largest payout was 17,500 dollars. The Department of Corrections declined to answer questions because of the pending litigation. In a written statement, they said they’ve now installed cameras in the area we identified as a blind spot. But they still insist that the video footage should not be available to journalists and the public.
HEFFERNAN: As I was reporting this story, I thought a lot about Larry Earvin. After his death, I spent time plowing through his records. Reading these medical reports, that detail every inch of his body. It felt intimate, almost like a violation--- because of course I’m a stranger.
Records show Earvin had been in and out of prison since the eighties. The most recent crime, the one that had landed him in Western, was for robbery… of 11 dollars. He was homeless and he’d stolen a couple of watches and was selling them on the street. But then when a woman tried to buy them, Earvin grabbed the money and slapped her hand away. When Earvin died, he was three months away from his scheduled release.
HEFFERNAN: It took me a while to track someone down who knew Larry Earvin. A lot of his family hadn’t heard from him for years— that’s not uncommon. When people are in and out of prison, It’s hard for the people who love them to stay in touch. Finally I found Willie Earvin. One of Larry’s seven siblings, the oldest.
WILLIE EARVIN: It just baffled me when I heard. And I knew he was getting out soon. You don’t really know what to say about it, you know, you can’t bring anybody back.
HEFFERNAN: Larry grew up in Chicago.
EARVIN: Larry was probably my 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. You know, some people have that outward personality.
HEFFERNAN: Willie said his brother had a mental illness. When Larry got out of prison, the state would often send him to these group homes.
EARVIN: You know, he’d get back in a little more trouble, and go back in for a couple years and back to a group home. And so that kind of became his lifestyle.
EARVIN: Couple times, I would find out where the group home was and go visit him. He wasn’t ah, you know it wasn’t, a whole lot of chit chat cause you know I guess he probably was on medication. We knew each other. And it was like, we knew each other like strangers. And you know, you can’t say ‘well oh how you doing,’ cause I see where you are, so that’s kind of stuff you don’t. It’s hard to bring up the subject. Your life situation is in that state.
HEFFERNAN: Willie’s aunt is the one who told him his brother Larry had gotten hurt while in prison.
EARVIN: 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, so. He was my brother and didn’t deserve that treatment. And none of us do. None of us do.
HEFFERNAN: There wasn’t a funeral, as far as Willie knows. And he doesn’t know who buried his brother. But the family learned he was laid to rest in a small town in Southern Illinois.
EARVIN: Probably doesn’t have a name on most maps.
HEFFERNAN: Willie went to visit Larry’s grave with some of his family.
EARVIN: And we were told where it was. And there was no marker. I guess the disgusting thing is, you beat a prisoner to death and put them in a cemetery in an unmarked grave. You at least put a marker as to where he was.
HEFFERNAN: Two of the guards who were accused in Earvin’s death are on trial. And one could view this, I guess, as a kind of justice. A potential resolution. Because when we think about guards, or police, or honestly, any profession… It’s easy to think, If we just get these specific guys out, it will be okay.
You know the cliché. The bad apples. It’s a phrase used so much that it’s corny at this point. But beyond being overused… it’s also maybe, I don’t know, not helpful?
Because when I think about Larry Earvin lying in an unmarked grave, I think about all the warning signs that went ignored. All the systems that allowed a death like his to happen. And all the people, working day to day… in ways that, to them, must seem entirely normal and benign. Not the bad apples. The whole orchard.
HEFFERNAN: Which is why on this season of Motive— you are going to hear a bunch of different stories, not just about Earvin. From all over the Illinois Department of Corrections. Sometimes they connect together, tangled like the system itself.
HEFFERNAN: We’re going to go to small town parades and hear low budget music videos, as rural towns compete to “win” prisons and get jobs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the season to find out the reason, is we is or is we isn’t going to get ourselves a prison. (CHEERS)
HEFFERNAN: We’re going to go to a courthouse, and see how judges and prosecutors elected in prison towns shape the way the prison functions.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So he went in for seven years. And all of a sudden he’s not coming home for a hundred years. And what in the hell happened that got us to that point?
HEFFERNAN: We’re going to hear a guard talk about plans to abuse prisoners… And cover it up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She said we were going to go into his cell and do whatever. We whoop up on him and she was going to have me bite her to make it look like he did it.
HEFFERNAN: Next week, we get to hear from two women, determined to make things better from the inside out. And what happens when they go behind the wall.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The inmates used to tell me that the guards were talking about following me home. And so they started telling me, Stop taking up for us, Miss Bates, stop advocating for us. They’re going to come after you and I would tell them I want them to come after me.
Thank you to Jeff Coleman, Jason Bradford and Emma O’Connor at Jenner and Block— without their legal work, this reporting would not be possible. And our thanks to ProPublica. Some of the reporting for this podcast was developed during Shannon Heffernan’s participation in their Local Reporting Network.
Thanks to everyone who listened to early versions and gave feedback, including Sylvia Goodman, Natalie Moore, Alexandra Salomon, Patrick Smith, Yohance Lacore, Jenny Casas, Sarah Geis, Katie Mingle and Noah Lepawsky.
Special thanks to listeners whose financial support of WBEZ made this podcast possible.