For the last couple of months, our KELOLAND News investigation has uncovered how staff shortages are affecting morale and safety in our state prisons.
We’ve looked at the problem with high turnover and security issues and how they’re dealt with at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield and the Women’s Prison in Pierre.
Now we turn our attention to the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls and one case in particular – that of a correctional officer who was severely beaten by a dangerous inmate.
KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke continues her investigation into our state prison system with an exclusive interview with Zane Mathis, who says the Department of Corrections failed to protect him or help him after he was attacked.
The Jameson Annex houses maximum security inmates; prisoners like Carlos Green, a violent offender serving time for strangling a woman, while out on parole from a Kansas prison.
On April 20, 2013, Correctional Officer Zane Mathis was assigned to the Delta Floor at Jameson.
“Carlos Green happened to be loitering and passing items for other inmates,” Zane Mathis said.
Mathis told Green to go to his cell, and Green mumbled something under his breath and Mathis asked him if there was a problem.
“And he said, ‘No if there’s an issue, I’d say it to your face.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, whatever,’ and he goes and locks up after pacing his tier–he was walking it back and forth–kind of in your face type of thing,” Zane Mathis said.
Mathis says that’s when Green hatched a plan with another inmate, Garrett Dumarce, to ask that Green’s cell door be unlocked, even though Mathis had issued a warning to the other officer on duty.
“I requested you to isolate the door and then an inmate just comes and ‘Hey can you open this door?’ And then they open it, which is also failed policy,” Zane Mathis said.
Mathis says that’s when Green came up and attacked him from behind.
“My face found the cell door; I fall to the ground and he continues to pummel my face,” Zane Mathis said.
The only thing Mathis remembers about the attack was waking up in the hospital as the doctor stitched up his face, with his girlfriend Amanda, whom he later married, by his side.
“He had cuts, he was covered in blood. Honestly it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen,” Amanda Mathis said.
“My jaw broke in two places. I currently have two plates down here, broke up here as well,” Zane Mathis said.
Mathis had to have his jaw wired shut for weeks. Doctors told him he had a “minor” traumatic brain injury, which resulted in memory problems.
“I think it was tougher than Zane wants to admit, watching him. He was really so strong–he was so tough about it and it was hard to watch him struggle sometimes,” Amanda said.
Even though it’s been three years since the attack, Mathis lives with constant reminders.
Zane Mathis: “Every time the jaw clicks, it’s like, screw you Carlos Green.”
Angela Kennecke: “And I heard you click it while we were talking.”
Kennecke: “That’s something you have to live with.”
But Mathis loved his job and was eager to get back to work. Less than three months after he was attacked by Green, he was back at the prison in his position as a correctional officer.
KELOLAND News asked South Dakota Secretary of Corrections Dennis Kaemingk what kind of help correctional officers like Mathis get after being attacked by an inmate.
“Counseling is offered to each and every one of them. I can’t make them go; But we will make sure they are offered that and are fit to duty when they come back,” Secretary of Corrections Denny Kaemingk said.
The state says Mathis had access to free counseling available to state employees as well as the victim’s assistance program through the Department of Social Services; But Mathis, who is in the Army National Guard, says he was told to get counseling through the military. Mathis says that wasn’t working for him and he struggled with nightmares.
“With the thought of drowning in my own blood; waking up and kind of…’glad I’m awake and not there,’ type thing,” Mathis said.
That’s when Mathis reached out for help.
“After working for a couple of months, well I probably should — I don’t think this activity is normal in my head. I shouldn’t wake up in sweats. I sent HR a message — Hey, I need some help,” Mathis said.
Mathis provided us with an email that he sent to Kirk Edison, Human Resource Manager of the Penitentiary in November of 2013. In it, Mathis writes he’s been having issues, he couldn’t sleep, was “stressed, and “looking for help.”
Edison replied that he would be gone for a couple of days but would have someone get together with him and wrote, “Hang in there young man.”
“When you ask for help, what more do you want from someone? He’s coming to you. He obviously wants the help, but whatever, ‘hang in there bud,’ it’s like come on now,” Mathis said.
Kennecke: “Did the system fail him after being beaten so badly?”
Kaemingk: “I don’t believe it did. It was a pretty horrendous assault. We certainly worked with him as much as we could to get him the help he needs.”
But Mathis claims he was not offered any help in the weeks between his request and when he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. A year later, when he returned, Mathis was anxious to get back to being a correctional officer.
“Just go back to work and pick up where I left off, you know,” Mathis said.
But Green’s case was still dragging through the courts.
“Really frustration, here we are two years later and we’re nowhere. We don’t even have a court date to get this guy and we’d been catering to him. He refused to show up for court and they’d just push it back out. You go to his cell and drag him here. And then you give him his sentence date, is what should have happened,” Zane Mathis said.
He says his frustration boiled over into comments he made in front of the attorneys in the case — a statement he did not want to repeat for us.
Mathis: “It would be taken as a threat ultimately.”
Kennecke: “You were angry.”
Mathis’ wife was in the room.
“For it to be taken out of context and for him to be told he was being unprofessional, rather than being human, and making a human error — it was unfair,” Amanda Mathis said.
A few days later, Mathis was called into the warden’s office.
“There are three guys in there and they say, ‘You messed up. Now we have mandatory counseling for you. We have a ride for you to get home,’” Zane Mathis said.
Mathis says he couldn’t believe it got to that point.
“A slap in the face; where was this help 18 months ago?” Zane Mathis said.
Kaemingk: “Comments made in a derogatory manner toward inmates will not be tolerated. And there are repercussions for words that we say.”
Kennecke: “But could you understand his anger at that inmate?”
Kaemingk: “I’m not going to tell you this specific case. But words do matter and inappropriate words about an inmate that any staff makes, are going to be dealt with.”
Mathis says in his case, the Department of Corrections dealt with it by taking him off the floor and putting him to work in the prison property office, engraving inmates’ personal items with their names. Mathis says he went to scheduled counseling appointments, but that he was told by state employees he wasn’t going to get his old job back.
So Mathis turned in his two week notice and quit.
But he did hope that procedures would be changed after his case. He says a notice was posted for officers, telling them not to allow an inmate to request a door be unlocked in the area where he was attacked, but it didn’t appear to be followed.
“And you still have inmates asking for doors to be popped. It’s kind of a big slap in the face again. What more does it take for them to realize, it can happen again?” Mathis said.
Kennecke: “Was there any one big change that happened after that incident?”
Kaemingk: “I can’t tell you that. I would have to go back through my notes and so on.”
Kennecke: “Do you feel like the Department of Corrections did everything possible for Zane Mathis?”
Kaemingk: “Yes I do.”
“It hurts because it hurts to watch him go from something he loves to something that causes a dark spot in our lives,” Amanda Mathis said.
Amanda and Zane now have a son, and are focusing on 2-year-old Liam and moving on with their lives. But they say they wanted to tell Zane’s story in hopes of prompting change for correctional officers who have followed him.
“They didn’t have a process or a standard for anything. They didn’t look for risk, or calls for help. I was just like, a guinea pig,” Zane Mathis said.
“I don’t ever want anybody else to have to go through this–ever. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Amanda Mathis said.
Green eventually plead guilty to assault on a correctional officer and in August of last year, Carlos Green was sentenced to 25 years with 10 suspended to be served consecutive to the sentence he was already serving. Green is serving out his sentence, which isn’t up until 2067, in New Jersey.
His accomplice Garrett Dumarce plead guilty to a misdemeanor in the case and got out of prison a year ago, after his sentence was up.