By Eddie Burkhalter, Researcher

Donaldson Correctional Facility. Photo by Gigi Douban.

It’s been eleven days since Derrol Shaw walked the hallways of William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility carrying a semi-automatic pistol, and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has yet to publicly mention the gun or provide the public with assurances that whatever security failures led to the bizarre series of events that unfolded on Facebook Live have been addressed.

In a video shared widely on social media, Shaw can be seen holding that pistol inside the maximum-security prison on Sunday, and in another Facebook Live video that morning Shaw speaks of going out “in a blaze of glory.”

That did not happen, but what exactly did occur during the early morning hours on Sunday, Aug. 13, has not been explained by the department, by anyone in law enforcement, or by anyone in state government.

Interviews with several incarcerated men at Donaldson prison and their loved ones paint a picture of a prison fully out of ADOC’s control, one where injuries could have been much more serious were it not for other incarcerated men who ended the incident themselves. It was those other incarcerated men who secured the gun from Shaw and wheeled an injured Shaw outside in a wheelchair, those men told Appleseed. 

A handgun inside the highest security level prison in Alabama represents a serious security breach within the largest law enforcement agency in the state, and yet conditions within Alabama prisons have deteriorated to the point where this incident was a blip in the news cycle, and ADOC leadership has refused to even acknowledge the gun.

ADOC came close to using the word pistol once, in a followup press release later that Sunday after the incident in which the department shortened Shaw’s charge of Certain Persons Forbidden to Possess a Pistol to “certain persons forbidden to possess.” No other mention of the gun has been used by the department, which had repeatedly declined to discuss how the department believes the gun entered the prison, citing an ongoing investigation.  

While the details of what happened at Donaldson prison are not completely clear, in those interviews and statements to Appleseed, several men serving there described seeing numerous officers leave the prison through two exits shortly after the incident began. No other officers could be seen anywhere in the prison for several hours afterward, those men said. The facility was abandoned to the incarcerated, the men said– one of them, Shaw, had a gun. A SWAT team and an ADOC correctional emergency response team (CERT) arrived outside the prison after daybreak, two of those men told Appleseed. 

It’s unclear how Shaw got the pistol. Two men told Appleseed he forcibly removed it from a female officer – officers aren’t allowed to carry guns in the prison – but another man at the prison was adamant that the gun had been in the prison for some time prior to that day. Asked if the gun was loaded, the man said “it was loaded.” 

The men said that early on during the incident Shaw ordered a female officer inside a cubicle to remove her uniform, which he then wore himself before gaining access to another area of the prison where he took a male officer’s vest, which he wore for much of the remainder of the morning, as can be seen in the Facebook Live videos. 

With no officers in sight, Shaw unlocked numerous doors which would allow the other incarcerated men to roam freely, those men told Appleseed. 

Derrol Shaw is seen holding a gun during a Facebook live video at an incident at Donaldson Correctional Facility on August 13, 2023.

In those videos Shaw can be seen bleeding from his arms, which appeared hastily bandaged. In one of those videos Shaw said he injured himself on razor wire. One of the men who spoke to Appleseed said Shaw injured himself while moving from one area of the prison to another, and that one of the inner fences outside of the prison is electrified, meaning Shaw couldn’t have attempted to scale that fence without disabling the system that electrified the fence. Shaw then made his way to the prison’s honor dorm, where one man told Appleseed he watched Shaw tending to his wounds. 

The men said Shaw moved into another area of the prison, where at least two of the three videos were shot. In the videos he can be seen smoking what Shaw said was marijuana. 

It was in that location that one incarcerated man eventually convinced Shaw to hand over the gun, which the man placed into a trash can, walked the can outside and told an officer in a watch tower what he was doing. That man was himself questioned for much of the rest of that day, incarcerated people told Appleseed. 

With the gun no longer in the prison, several of the men turned their attention to Shaw, who was bleeding badly, the men said. Several of those men wheeled Shaw outside in a wheelchair, they said, bringing an end to what could have been a deadly day in Donaldson prison. The men said there was concern Shaw could bleed to death or be beaten by officers if they didn’t intervene. 

Shaw is serving a life without the possibility of parole sentence after pleading guilty to four murder charges in 2006.

Appleseed asked ADOC to respond to the description of the incident the men provided, and in a response Tuesday afternoon the department declined to do so. “There are no further updates at this point. The LESD investigation is active and ongoing. Additional charges are pending additional findings. Donaldson Correctional Facility is back to normal operations with controlled movement, including external communications,” the statement reads. “The ADOC cannot confirm any statements made by unsubstantiated sources.”

After the incident Shaw was charged with possessing the gun, promoting prison contraband, and making a terrorist threat, according to ADOC, but as of Wednesday none of those charges appear in the state’s online legal database, Alacourt. Asked why that was, an ADOC spokesperson told Appleseed that “I have no idea why they aren’t showing up in Alacourt.” 

The presence of the gun inside Donaldson comes after the department last year confiscated 4,921 weapons made by incarcerated people and 432 “free world” weapons, which are manufactured weapons to include knives, during 2022, according to ADOC’s quarterly reports

A total of nine firearms were confiscated by the Alabama Department of Corrections last year, one of which was reported stolen from the guard tower outside a prison. A former correctional officer is charged with that theft. None of those firearms were found inside prisons, according to the department. The large numbers of weapons inside Alabama’s prisons contribute to the soaring levels of violence and homicide in the state’s prisons for men, which are currently being sued by the United States Department of Justice for unconstitutionally dangerous conditions

In addition to weapons, contraband cell phones are also rampant at Donaldson, and within the last few months, cell phone video has been shared showing incarcerated men barbecuing chicken in the prison yard on makeshift grills, men sleeping in makeshift beds in prison common areas and similar evidence of disarray. 

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