Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced today that her administration will seek bids for building three regional prisons for men, at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion – part of a larger effort to address the state’s dangerous and overcrowded prison system

Southern Poverty Law Center responds to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison construction plan

We greet Gov. Ivey’s announcement about her plans for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) with hope mitigated by concern. We agree with many of the governor’s observations and are encouraged by her acknowledgment of the crisisAlabama is facing. She’s right that any solution to Alabama’s prison crisis will require increased correctional staffing, which has been mandated by a federal judge.

At least some of the existing prisons should eventually be replaced with facilities that promote constitutional conditions and provide prisoners with access to rehabilitative programming. Gov. Ivey is correct that 95 percent of the people in ADOC custody will eventually return to their communities, and providing them with more opportunities while incarcerated to become productive citizens upon release is in both their interest and that of the taxpayers.

However, we are concerned that the governor’s plan fails to address the roots of Alabama’s prison crisis. Alabama continues to incarcerate its people at among the highest rates in the nation, and has drastically overcrowded prisons as a result.

Alabama passed sentencing reforms in 2015 but left multiple opportunities to safely reduce the prison population on the table. Neighboring Southern states have moved forward with reforms like minimizing criminalization of marijuana related offenses and increasing threshold amounts for property related offenses that Alabama could consider during the forthcoming session.

Implementing these reforms could help reduce Alabama’s prison population from the 160 percent of capacity it is at now to levels that will be safer, more manageable, and less costly to the state. The governor and Legislature should investigate these cost-saving, public safety-improving measures with at least as much zeal as they are pursuing a costly prison construction plan.

We are also gravely concerned that the governor’s budget proposal to fund 500 correctional officers falls terribly short of the steps necessary to comply with the federal court’s order that ADOC hire approximately 2,000 correctional officers by 2022, nor does there appear to be a concrete plan for compliance with the court’s order.

Most pressing of all is the staggering loss of life happening within ADOC prisons right now that a multi-year prison construction plan will not solve. Gov. Ivey’s request for proposals does nothing to address the suicide epidemic or the pervasive violence that endangers both officers and incarcerated people daily and is currently under active investigation by the Department of Justice.

To end Alabama’s prison crisis, Gov. Ivey and Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn must engage with advocates to negotiate a comprehensive solution that addresses all of the factors contributing to this crisis by adopting sentencing reform, increasing staffing and decreasing violence, and providing medical and mental health care – in addition to brick and mortar construction.  We stand at the ready to work with the governor and the commissioner, and extend an invitation to them to collaborate with us on this endeavor to craft meaningful Alabama solutions.

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Inmates’ attorneys say Alabama has prison suicide emergency

Betty Head, choked with emotion, talks about her son, Billy Thornton, who took his own life at Holman Correctional Facility last year. Jerri Ford, whose husband took his own life at Kilby Correctional Facility in January, comforts Head as she tries to speak. (Mike Cason | mcason@al.com
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Lawyers representing state inmates said today the suicide rate in Alabama prisons has risen to a level that constitutes an emergency and that it shows the state is not fixing what a federal judge ruled in 2017 was an unconstitutional lack of mental health care for inmates.

Lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center held a news conference this morning in front of the Alabama State House and were joined by grieving family members of inmates who took their own lives in prison in the last year.

The SPLC said 13 inmates have committed suicide in Alabama prisons since December 2017. The latest is Daniel Scott Gentry, 31, who was found hanging in his cell at William Donaldson Correctional Facility on Wednesday.

Those numbers place the suicide rate at four times the national average for prisons, SPLC attorney Maria Morris said. The SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program represent inmates in the federal case.

Last month, they asked U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson for an emergency order to block the placement of inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness in segregation, or individual cells, because the isolation causes their conditions to worsen and increases the risk of suicide. Thompson cited the risk of isolating mentally ill inmates in his 2017 ruling that mental health care was “horrendously inadequate.”

But Morris said the practice persists and that ADOC needs to immediately take steps to stop it.

“They need to step up and treat this like what it is, a life and death emergency,” Morris said. “ADOC needs to act now to stop this extraordinary loss of life.”

Alabama’s prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years.

SPLC President Richard Cohen said Gov. Kay Ivey and ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn have not confronted the problems and criticized the plan under consideration by the Ivey administration to build three new prisons at an expected cost of about $1 billion. 

Former Gov. Robert Bentley also proposed building new prisons in 2016 and 2017, but the Legislature would not grant its approval.

“Now, the governor and her staff behind closed doors are creating a new scheme to get around the wisdom of the people,” Cohen said.

During her inaugural address last month, Ivey said she would make an announcement soon on prison construction.

Today, Cohen called on the Legislature to tackle the prison problems with mental health care, medical care and violence.

“Everyone knows we can’t build our way out of these problems,” Cohen said. “Everyone knows we need to address the acute problems with mental health care, medical care, prison violence and we’re not going to be doing by simply building new prisons that may open sometime in the distant future.”

The governor’s office declined comment on the remarks from the SPLC officials today.

In a statement today, the ADOC said the spike in suicides is an ongoing concern that it will address. Experts retained by the ADOC and the SPLC are scheduled to issue a joint report on suicide prevention recommendations in March, the ADOC said.

Dunn has said replacement of aging, outdated facilities is one component of fixing the state’s prisons, including medical care and mental health care. The ADOC is also asking the Legislature for a $42 million increase in its General Fund appropriation next year, with most of the increase intended to hire 500 additional correctional officers and boost correctional officer pay by 20 percent to help in recruitment and retention.

But the ADOC needs to add more than 2,000 additional officers over the next few years according to the ADOC analysis submitted to the court, the SPLC said.

Dunn said in the statement today that the ADOC is committed to providing appropriate mental health care. 

“In addition to increasing our mental health staff, we also are developing a prison revitalization plan that will consolidate the delivery of mental and medical health care in a new state-of-the-art health care facility,” Dunn said. “More information about the plan will be made public in the coming days. I am focused on solving this problem.”

Jerri Ford joined the lawyers at today’s press conference. Ford’s husband, Paul Ford, hung himself at the Kilby Correctional Facility in January. Ford was in a segregation cell and had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, according to the SPLC. He was serving a sentence of life without parole for a 1995 murder conviction in Talladega County. Ford’s sister, nephew and granddaughter also appeared today.

“He was a very good person,” Jerri Ford said. “He thought a lot of other people. He was not selfish, by no means.”

She said the segregation and limited visitation opportunities took a toll on her husband, as well as she and the rest of the family.

“He got us through as much as we got him through, the situations that we were in,” Jerri Ford said. “Without each other, that’s just how it goes.”

Morris said the state cannot ignore the problem of prison suicides.

“These are our brothers and our sisters, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters,” Morris said. “They’re in our prisons and they suffer hopelessness and desperation and many of them suffer from mental illness. Alabama needs to address this problem and it needs to do it now.”

By Mike Cason | mcason@al.com

The killing fields inside Alabama’s prisons

Holman Correctional Facility just north of Atmore.Photo by Phillip Tutor/The Anniston Star

How a state treats the less fortunate, the infirm, the young and the imprisoned says a great deal about its value of human life.
Alabama hasn’t expanded Medicaid — a deplorable missed opportunity rooted in a heartless political stance — despite the federal government’s offer to pay nearly all of the added costs for several years.
Alabama hasn’t committed to the fiscal and administrative changes required to propel its public schools into the nation’s upper tier.

And the latest example: Alabama has allowed its overcrowded and underfunded prison system to become a killing field on par with Third World countries.
That isn’t hyperbole.
It’s truth.

In December, 29-year-old Vaquerro Kinjuan Armstrong, an inmate at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, was murdered by an inmate. Two weeks before, inmate James Lewis Kennedy was murdered by an inmate at Elmore Correctional Facility. Those killings raise the homicide total at Alabama’s prisons to 19 in the last two years, including nine this year, and 35 at Alabama Department of Corrections facilities in the past five years. The St. Clair facility has been the site of nine homicides. Twenty-one have happened at medium-security facilities. The location doesn’t seem to matter.
For perspective, let’s turn to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, a renowned advocate for equality in the criminal-justice system:
“Alabama’s rate of over 34 homicides per 100,000 people incarcerated is more than 600 percent greater than the national average from 2001 to 2014 … (Last) week’s violence at Holman along with violent incidents at Elmore and St.Clair have created an unprecedented crisis in Alabama prisons with regard to the safety of prisoners and staff.”
This is our fault — the fault of our politicians, the fault of our justice system, the fault of our voters who have not used the ballot to force sweeping reforms in this inhumane situation.

Understand that we are not naive about prisons. They are compounds of steep personal restrictions, a place to house the convicted, a way to protect the populace from those who rob, steal, rape and kill. They are not, and should not be, compounds of comfort.
But the imprisoned are humans, and they deserve basic protections given to all Alabamians. On this, our prison system is failing.
The incremental improvements in the size of Alabama’s inmate population have failed to prevent this appalling number of homicides.
The Legislature’s efforts to ward off federal intervention in our prisons have failed to radically change the reality inside the Department of Corrections.
And Alabamians — including us — have failed to fully understand how profound this problem is.
No state has a prison system more lethal than Alabama’s, where, the EJI writes, “thousands of prisoners (are) vulnerable to abuse, assaults and uncontrolled violence.” Our prisons exist for a reason. They shouldn’t be Marriotts for the convicted. But they shouldn’t be killing fields, either. And that’s on us.

Published By the editorial board of The Anniston Star here

Alabama leaders temporarily stop $10M prison contract

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Alabama legislators have put a temporary hold on a $10 million contract between the state Department of Corrections and a company that could analyze prison needs and design new facilities.

Al.com reports the Legislature’s contract committee paused the plan Thursday amid questions about its reliability, considering construction plans for new prisons failed in 2016 and 2017. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn says planning for new prisons is a better use of tax dollars than putting more money into older prisons that need to be replaced.

He says it would cost about $1 billion to build three new regional prisons, including one that can accommodate inmates with high-need mental health issues.

One committee member said the Legislature is unlikely to pass a $1 billion prison plan.

Article originally posted here

This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall

We are living in boom times for the private prison industry. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest owner of private prisons, has seen its revenue climb by more than 500 percent in the last two decades. And CCA wants to get much, much bigger: Last year, the company made an offer to 48 governors to buy and operate their state-funded prisons. But what made CCA’s pitch to those governors so audacious and shocking was that it included a so-called occupancy requirement, a clause demanding the state keep those newly privatized prisons at least 90 percent full at all times, regardless of whether crime was rising or falling.

Occupancy requirements, as it turns out, are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full. (The report was funded by grants from the Open Society Institute and Public Welfare, according to a spokesman.)

All the big private prison companies—CCA, GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation—try to include occupancy requirements in their contracts, according to the report. States with the highest occupancy requirements include Arizona (three prison contracts with 100 percent occupancy guarantees), Oklahoma (three contracts with 98 percent occupancy guarantees), and Virginia (one contract with a 95 percent occupancy guarantee). At the same time, private prison companies have supported and helped write “three-strike” and “truth-in-sentencing” laws that drive up prison populations. Their livelihoods depend on towns, cities, and states sending more people to prison and keeping them there.

You might be wondering: What happens when crime drops and prison populations dwindle in states that agreed to keep their private prisons 80 percent or 90 percent full? Consider Colorado. The state’s crime rate has sunk by a third in the past decade, and since 2009, five state-run prisons have shuttered because they weren’t needed. Many more prison beds remain empty in other state facilities. Yet the state chose not to fill those beds because Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and CCA cut a deal to instead send 3,330 prisoners to CCA’s three Colorado prisons. Colorado taxpayers foot the bill for leaving those state-run prisons underused. In March, Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, estimated that the state wasted at least $2 million in taxpayer money using CCA’s prisons instead of its own.

That’s just one example of how private prison companies keep the dollars rolling in, whether crime is rising or waning. Not surprisingly, In the Public Interest’s report calls on local and state governments to refuse to include occupancy requirements and even ban such requirements with new legislation. “With governmental priorities pulling public funds in so many different directions, it makes no financial sense for taxpayers to fund empty prison beds,” the report says. Read the full report below:

Originally published by Andy Kroll here

Alabama’s Prisons Are Deadliest in the Nation

Data drawn from Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) statistical reports and the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.



On Monday December 3rd, Vaquerro Kinjuan Armstrong, was murdered at Holman Correctional Facility.  It follows the stabbing death of James Lewis Kennedy at Elmore Correctional Facility on November 18, 2018.  This violence reflects new findings which show that Alabama’s prisons are the most lethal in the nation.  With 19 homicides in the last two years, and nine homicides in 2018, Alabama’s rate of over 34 homicides per 100,000 people incarcerated is more than 600 percent greater than the national average from 2001 to 2014.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the level of violence in Alabama state prisons.  Serious understaffing, systemic classification failures, and official misconduct and corruption have left thousands of prisoners vulnerable to abuse, assaults and uncontrolled violence.  

St. Clair Correctional Facility witnessed three homicides this year alone. In 2018, the homicide rate at St. Clair is set to exceed 300 homicides per 100,000 incarcerated people.  

Thirty-five prisoners have been murdered in ADOC facilities in the past five years.  Nine of the homicides occurred at St. Clair.  Twenty-one of the homicides occurred at medium security facilities: seven at Elmore, four at Bullock, four at Bibb, and four at Staton, one at Ventress and one at Kilby. This week’s violence at Holman along with violent incidents at Elmore and St.Clair have created an unprecedented crisis in Alabama prisons with regard to the safety of prisoners and staff.  

The mortality rate within Alabama prisons is at a record level. The number of deaths in Alabama prison, many of which are from non-natural causes including homicide, suicide, and drug overdoses greatly exceed what other states are seeing. The mortality rate in Alabama’s prisons has more than doubled over the past 10 years. Between 2008 and 2014, Alabama’s prison population decreased by 2 percent from 25,303 to 24,816 while mortality in Alabama prisons nearly doubled, going from 61 deaths in 2008 (241 per 100,000 people incarcerated) to 111 in 2014 (447 per 100,000 incarcerated). This trend continued in 2017 as the prison population fell 14 percent to 21,213 even as 120 people died in ADOC facilities, for a mortality rate of over 565 per 100,000 incarcerated people. This is more than double the national mortality rate of 275 deaths per 100,000 incarcerated people in 2014 (the most recent year in which data is available) and makes Alabama an outlier among its neighboring Southern states of Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Data drawn from Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) statistical reports and the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Documented instances of abuse by correctional staff have aggravated the culture of violence within state prisons. EJI filed a complaint with the Department of Justice in 2013 after an investigation revealed a pattern of excessive physical violence at Elmore, where correctional staff at the highest levels have been found to have engaged in extreme and excessive violence against inmates. In multiple incidents, correctional officers at Elmore illegally stripped and beat inmates while they were handcuffed and shackled, and have punched, kicked, and struck them with batons and other objects.

“The conditions are getting worse, and state officials must act now,” said EJI Attorney Charlotte Morrison. “This epidemic of violence has once again created a crisis that requires a more committed and effective response from state leaders.”

EJI re-initiated its investigation at Elmore this year after receiving dozens of reports of stabbings, assaults, extortion and excessive use of force. Inadequate staffing has created serious security conditions where prisoners are at risk of unprecedented levels of violence. According to multiple sources, a single officer is typically assigned to a dorm of 198 prisoners and there are periods at the prison where a total of eight officers are responsible for managing the entire prison with a population of over 1200 men. As a result of the freedom of movement and absence of staff, stabbings, assaults, and extortion are regular features of daily life.

The data on violence in Alabama’s prisons makes clear that the security crisis in state correctional facilities is worsening and needs an urgent and immediate response from elected officials.

Article originally published here

SPLC: ADOC should be held in contempt for missing mental health staffing deadline

 Published 4:40 p.m. CT Dec. 10, 2018

Ten months after a federal judge ordered Alabama Department of Corrections to increase its mental health staff numbers, the department may be held in contempt for failure to meet required staffing deadlines.

A contempt hearing regarding the matter is scheduled for Tuesday and is part of an extensive ongoing lawsuit regarding health care within Alabama prisons filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Last year U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson called ADOC’s mental health care “horrendously inadequate” and ruled it violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

A February order required ADOC to fulfill the required mental health staffing level (263.2 full-time equivalents or FTEs) by July 1.

ADOC currently has only 76 percent of the required level (201.1 FTEs).

“They (ADOC) have asked to amend, alter or vacate the order that says they have to reach this number of staff and have asked for specific ways of counting the number of staff they have,” said SPLC senior staff attorney Maria Morris. “We have opposed that. I think there are simple, straightforward ways of counting the number of staff hired, and they proposed this deadline so they should meet it. If they haven’t, they should be held in contempt.”

ADOC did not immediately reply to a request for comment or verification of its mental health staffing numbers.

ADOC Public Information Manager Bob Horton said last week ADOC has increased the department’s mental health staff by 24 percent since April.

The SPLC filed the motion to hold ADOC in contempt for violation of the order one day after it missed the July 1 deadline.

Judge Thompson granted the motion and during a September contempt hearing, ADOC asked for clarification as to what the order required in terms of staffing.

The hearing was then postponed pending mediation between the two sides, and Thompson later clarified that ADOC was required to staff 263.2 FTEs, a number ADOC listed in its 2017 health care provider request-for-proposal as the minimum staffing requirement. That RFP eventually resulted in ADOC contracting with health care service vendor Wexford Health Sources.

At the time of Thompson’s initial ruling last year, 19 percent of Alabama’s inmates were diagnosed with mental illness.

The mental health care concerns being litigated were made real during the trial by the suicide of Jamie Wallace, a mentally ill inmate who committed suicide 10 days after testifying to the lack of care in Alabama prisons in December 2016.

According to court filings, Wallace went on suicide watch five days after his testimony. After his death, plaintiffs’ attorneys said “records produced thus far” showed no counseling was provided to Wallace during or after his time on suicide watch. Wallace was left unattended “most of the day of his death,” according to the filing.

“Without question, Wallace’s testimony and the tragic event that followed darkly draped all the subsequent testimony like a pall,” Thompson wrote in his decision.

In Fiscal Year 2018, which the Alabama Department of Corrections uses to report its data, seven people were killed and six committed suicide. Nearly 40 inmates attempted suicide.

SPLC attorneys have acknowledged that ADOC faces a difficult road to address due to the costs associated with hiring more staff, but Morris said ADOC has no choice but to provide adequate health care in prisons.

“One thing we don’t have a choice about is providing constitutional conditions, and if we want to have the size of prisons system that we currently have, we have to pay more for it,” Morris said. “We have to pay to have more guards and pay to have more mental health staff. If we can’t decide to pay more for it we need to downsize the system because we need the guards and we need the mental health staff.”

Reporter Melissa Brown contributed to this report. 

Most Women In Prison Are Moms — Advocates Want You To Remember Them On Mother’s Day, Too

By MORGAN BRINLEE

A Momma and her baby
A Momma and her baby

For most moms, Mother’s Day is a time to be celebrated. But for nearly 80 percent of the women currently incarcerated in the United States, Mother’s Day won’t mean flowers, pedicures, breakfast in bed, or even a day spent with their children. Instead it will mean another day behind bars, separated from family, and struggling with feelings of isolation and guilt. This Mother’s Day, however, advocates are working to raise awareness about the plights of incarcerated moms across the country.

In the last couple of decades, women have become the fastest growing group of people to be thrown behind bars, according to a 2016 report from the Vera Institute of Justice. Nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women in America are mothers with dependent children — a staggering statistic by any measure. And, more often than not, those mothers are single parents, the report found. That means that their children may be especially affected by the devastating consequences that can come along with having a mother incarcerated.

“When moms are jailed, the consequences for children can be devastating, from being shunted into the foster care system, to remaining home alone to fend for themselves,” Human Rights Watch has reported.

Formerly incarcerated women agree. “When you incarcerate women, you incarcerate the whole family,”

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