John McMillion spent much of his 40s, 50s, and 60s behind bars. At age 67, the elderly inmate was scheduled for a parole hearing and possible release. It was all he could talk about, according to fellow inmates at New York’s Great Meadow Correctional Facility (“GMCF”).
Unfortunately for McMillion, he never got to his parole hearing, and he was released from prison in a pine box. In January, McMillion got into a fight with a guard – not for the first time during his years in incarceration –and succumbed shortly after that.
Officially, he died of a heart attack, according to his autopsy. Inmates who saw the altercation tell a different story. In their version, McMillion died as a result of a fierce beating by guards.
Four inmate witnesses viewed the fight scene, and their versions are remarkably similar. One inmate told the New York Times that there was blood all over after the beating, and McMillion was “screaming” in pain. “They killed that man,” said the witness of the guards. Inmates rarely speak out against guards for fear of retaliation, but these men wanted the truth about McMillion’s death to come to light.
According to the witnesses, McMillion asked to go back to his cell after returning from dinner. When told he could not go to his cell, he then started behaving “erratically,” according to the inmates, but he was not violent.
A female guard then approached McMillion and hit him in the face. Soon, several other guards began beating him, including one who choked him. Another witness said guards stomped McMillion, with blood ending up on the floor and a nearby guard’s station. The stomping only ceased when McMillion stopped moving.
Body Camera Footage
The guards deny they were beating McMillion and claimed they were just attempting to restrain him. According to state prison officials, the body camera footage from the guards support this version of events, but no official footage has been released. Inmates later said they did indeed suffer retaliation at the hands of guards after speaking with state investigators about what they saw and heard.
A Culture of Brutality
Located upstate, GMCF has long been considered to harbor a “culture of brutality,” where lockdowns are common due to inmate fighting. The maximum security institution houses 1,415 inmates. In 2016, GMCF ranked third among all New York prisons for the number of assaults on staff and inmates.
Of all New York maximum-security prisons, GMCF had the highest rate of guards “using force” against inmates. That has resulted in various inmate lawsuits charging guards with brutality.
Strangled, Then Deemed a Heart Attack
When McMillion’s sister contact the coroner’s office regarding her brother’s death, she was initially told he was strangled. There were visible marks on his face and body indicative of strangulation when the family viewed it at the funeral home. After the autopsy, the cause of death was deemed a heart attack.
History of Mental Illness
Like many prison inmates, McMillion had a long history of mental illness. He had been behind bars since 1995, convicted of two armed robberies in which a store manager was shot and wounded. His sister admits McMillion started getting into trouble in adolescence, beginning with car theft but says he was fine as long as he took his medication. He later faced charges of robbery and attempted murder.
McMillion’s mental health history includes diagnoses of schizophrenia and anxiety, along with substance abuse. He also had epilepsy. Before his death, he had been involved in numerous fights with fellow inmates and two assaults on staff members.
John McMillion never made it out of prison. Were it not for the statements of some inmates who had everything to lose and nothing to gain, the official circumstances of his death may have gone unquestioned. They spoke not only to a reporter but to prisoners’ rights groups and state investigators. When one inmate was asked why he spoke up, he replied, “If it had happened to me, I would want someone to do the same thing.”
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