Inmates at a northern Michigan correctional facility where a prisoner was allegedly killed last week by his cellmate say prison staff ignored requests from the pair to be separated ahead of the killing. The issue between the two, the prisoner sources say, was the victim's sexual orientation, making the case the latest example of what advocacy organizations call a systemic failure to address the plight of LGBTQ people behind bars.
Rodriguez Montez Burks, 23, was serving a 2-10 year prison sentence at the Alger County Correctional Facility for fleeing and eluding officers in Livingston County last year when he was killed on July 20. The Muskegon native had nine months until he was eligible for parole.
Michigan State Police were still investigating the circumstances surrounding the killing at the time of this printing, but two inmates who stay in neighboring cells tell Metro Times they heard Burks and his cellmate repeatedly request bunk reassignments in the days leading up to the killing.
"Old boy was like, 'Hey I am not gonna be locked in here with a fag,'" says inmate Todd Wentworth. "And the guard was like, 'It's not our problem.'"
The suspect in the killing has not yet been named, but corrections officials say he has been isolated. According to Wentworth, the prisoner had been transferred to the Alger maximum security facility from a supermax facility and bunked with Burks two days before he killed him. He had replaced Burks' former cellmate, who sources say was also gay.
"This gentleman told [the guard] very clearly, 'Look I'm gonna hurt this guy if you don't move me out this cell,'" says inmate Edward Spear. "Burks also told [another staffer], 'I can't lock with this guy; we're having issues, we can't do this.'"
According to a 2011-2012 study from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, LGBTQ prisoners are more likely to experience mistreatment, harsh punishment, and sexual victimization behind bars than straight or gender-conforming inmates. Special safeguards do not exist for such inmates, though, under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, inmates are identified as possible victims or aggressors and bunked in a way that is intended to mitigate harm. Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz says prison staff also do what they can to accommodate cell reassignments if a prisoner feels their safety is in jeopardy.
Yet, inmates say it was not one, but two prison staffers who failed to act on both prisoners' requests for a reassignment last week at Alger. In addition to asking a guard to separate them, inmates say the pair appealed to the resident unit manager as she made her rounds throughout the facility the morning of the killing. Wentworth says the unit manager was unsympathetic.
"She was like, 'You're not here for convenience.' Basically, we're not moving you 'cause you wanna move — this ain't the Holiday Inn," he says.
Wentworth says that exchange occurred at 11:30 a.m. At 11:40 a.m., he heard shouts from the cell across the way and then silence. He believes Burks was strangled, though he later saw streaks of blood on the floor and heard medics describing puncture wounds to the young man's lungs.
Burks was pronounced dead around 2 p.m. An official cause of death had not been released as of this printing.
MDOC's Gautz could not speak to whether the inmate was gay or if prison staff failed to properly respond to requests for cell reassignments, but said "every aspect of the incident" would be investigated by an inspector at the prison or, if necessary, MDOC's internal affairs department.
"If it [is] determined there was a work rule violated, an officer or any staff member could face repercussions," says Gautz.
The inmates MT spoke with say they plan to file grievances against the officers who failed to heed reassignment requests, though they did express concern that their complaints would go ignored or lead to retaliation from prison staff. The advocacy group Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS) says that kind of response is not uncommon within the Michigan Department of Corrections.
MAPS spokesman Alejo Stark points to a case last year at the Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, where he says inmates reported that a guard was sexually harassing LGBTQ prisoners. MAPS says the complaint was denied due to "insufficient evidence" — despite the fact that seven inmates, one of them heterosexual, testified to the problem — and the guard was returned to the same unit where the reported harassment occurred in violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
"The same people you are asking to investigate the situation are the same people that are repressing you inside," says Stark. "The guards are actively dissuading people from filing grievances because ultimately they know that you're filing grievances against them ... and their job is on the line."
As inmates who say they know what happened to Burks go through what they call the painstaking process of trying to hold MDOC staff accountable, staffers at the prison have apparently grown more willing to move gay inmates for their safety.
Wentworth tells MT that since Burks' death, a gay inmate "so scared for his life" has had his request to move to a protection unit of the prison granted.