Despite talks of reform, Alabama’s prisons remain deplorable

Article Originally published here on January 09, 2017 at 3:35 PM, updated January 09, 2017 at 3:39 PM
Inmates sitting on their bunks in a dorm in Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka. (Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com)
Inmates sitting on their bunks in a dorm in Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka. (Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com)

By Dr. Larry F. Wood, retired clinical and correctional psychologist

I spoke out on the prison reform issue two years ago after working in Tutwiler women’s prison as a prison psychologist. Even after 25 years of professional experience in prisons, I was unprepared for the immensity of the problems. In particular, mental health and medical care were severely inadequate. The administration of the prison was unprofessional and abusive. Two years ago, I described the prison environment as a culture of abuse.

In the past two years, a federal investigation has continued and a trial is under way. The State of Alabama continues to deny that the conditions are unconstitutional. No substantial improvements or program changes have been announced. Governor Bentley has focused on borrowing money to build more prisons.

I have been disappointed that little seems to have happened over the past two years. State Senator Cam Ward has spoken eloquently on the subject, but there seems to be no political will to address the problem directly.

One core of the problem is the simple overuse of imprisonment to deal with social problems other than aggressive criminality. The most extreme example is mental illness. State hospitals were closed because of abusive conditions and now, most of the seriously mentally ill in our state are in prisons. Many other inmates are intellectually inadequate, socially unskilled, or drug addicted. Many were traumatized by a lifetime of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

Prisons were initially used to control and punish the overtly dangerous. Their role has been expanded over many years to include the chronically disruptive in society. Such people are arrested numerous times and are backed up in county jails, waiting for beds to house them in prison. Prison, as a punisher, is not appropriate or effective for many such inmates.

Simply stated, Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded because too many people are being held in expensive, high security lockups. If our prisons were reduced to recommended population levels, they could be operated safely and professionally. Minimum security facilities with focused treatment and programs would be far less expensive than prisons for most inmates.

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Dormitory Representatives Meeting Notes

During a meeting on November 7th 2016 at Montgomery Women’s Facility, questions concerning classes and education were asked. The response from Captain Katrina Moore (Brown) was “No you all think the community/society cares if you’ve had parenting or have your GED?”

With this being said, considering that prison is supposed to teach & rehabilitate, can you, as the community/society tell us, do you care? What do you expect for us prisoners in the Alabama Dept of Corrections?

Note: Some of the women are willing to find a way to pay for their education themselves, or their family is willing to help better themselves. What kind of people would society rathe have released? The Capt. Shut it down & said she doesn’t care.

Transcribed from a letter by inmate T, identity withheld for fear of retaliation
Dormitory Representatives Meeting Notes
Dormitory Representatives Meeting Notes

Good behavior often goes overlooked in prison

Out of approximately 300 women that are held in Montgomery Women’s Facility, its estimated that 80% are active drug users. This includes smokers of Marijuana and Spice, alcohol can be obtained and even intravenous drugs are acquired and consumed.

How is this right? How is this allowed or even possible you may well justifiably enquire? The answer is insidiously simple. The officers know who the troublemakers are and they tend to let them get away with illicit activities to keep the peace among the inmate population. Inmates who maintain model conduct in order to have an impeccable institutional record are unable to distinguish themselves in any significant way because the correctional officers pays them no mind. Simply put, It doesn’t pay to be good.

Good behavior often goes overlooked in prison. Let me re-state that again, Good behavior often goes overlooked in prison.

Women bond in groups, some women adopt a “state child”,  often younger inmates they show the ropes to, someone that they can share their experiences with and they help to steer them out of troubles way, they show them how to adapt and to maintain some semblance of a normal life during their incarceration, they get called mom, it builds that family unit so often craved, caused by the want and desire of being a parent, but being absent from their own biological offspring. Some officers have “state children”too, that they use to do their bidding.

Some women become “gay for the stay” entering into relationships, not always sexual, but a relationship none the less, often fulfilling the role desperately sought outside of prison walls, some women revel in the limelight, being wanted, desired, cared for, provided for…some will engage in sexual activities, some will have sex with officers, after all, they know the best times and the best places in order to make it happen, in some cases its exciting, for some its done for extra privileges or extra canteen purchases, for most, they are a pawn in a game of abusive power. Knowing which groups to socialise with and those which should be avoided at all costs soon becomes apparent and before long you will probably find yourself having to choose, before the decision is made for you.

Montgomery Women’s Facility is considered a work camp although it does hold women up to the medium custody level. That means that it used to be considered a privilege to serve your time there. Approximately 10-15% of the women there go to work everyday in regular jobs. They work in fast food restaurants, hotels and the like. Alabama Department Of Corrections (ADOC) charges each inmate that works, $5 per day for the ride to work in one the several vans. The van can hold approximately 13 inmates, thats a lot per day just in van rides. Then ADOC takes 40% of the net pay inmates salary, in order to recuperate court costs, fines and restitution.

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Air Conditioning Is a Human Right

Jeff Edwards and Scott Medlock July 21, 2016
Air Conditioners are desperately needed throughout Alabama's prison system
Air Conditioners are desperately needed throughout Alabama’s prison system

Edwards and Medlock are trial lawyers with Edwards Law in Austin.

Texas, like other states, does not air condition its prisons—and by doing so, it kills people.

In 2011, the State of Texas convicted Larry McCollum of forgery, for passing a bad check. He was supposed to serve a short prison sentence of two years, then go home to his family. Instead, the conditions inside Texas prisons gave him a death sentence. He died of heat stroke—indoors.

Over 120,000 beds in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system do not have air conditioning, including the Hutchins State Jail near Dallas, where Mr. McCollum was imprisoned. As a result, the indoor heat index—the combination of temperature and humidity—frequently exceeds 100 degrees on hot summer days. Shortly before Mr. McCollum died, the Hutchins’ warden received multiple emails from the risk manager, who took a thermometer around to the dorms, stating the temperature inside the inmate dormitories reached 102 degrees by early afternoon, and that the heat index inside was likely 123. While Mr. McCollum baked inside his dormitory, his body temperature rose to 109.4. Eventually, his body began to seize, and he was hospitalized. When his wife and adult children were summoned, they learned his body temperature had permanently damaged his brain, and he would not survive.

According to the National Weather Service, in an average year, heat kills more people than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. In all, during the past 18 years, over 20 men have died with the cause of death of heat stroke inside prison buildings constructed and maintained by the State of Texas. Though the count is likely much higher: When temperatures go over 90 degrees, the medical risk of heat stroke increases markedly, and it can lead to other causes of death, especially for people with certain common medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or asthma, or who take certain medications, including most mental health prescriptions.

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Fears For Inmates Health as Summertime Temperature’s Soar

No More Heat Deaths
No More Heat Deaths

Nation Inside is hearing reports from prisoners and families across the country regarding abusive heat conditions, an issue of life and death as summer rolls in and climate disruption brings triple digit temperatures. Let’s protect those inside by putting the pressure on prison officials to fix oppressive heat conditions.

Hundreds of prisons, jails, and detention centers are already sweltering. Where facilities fail to take appropriate measures to cool inmates, there will be illness, needless suffering and death. Exposing those inside our nation’s prisons to lethal temperatures is wrong. It’s unconstitutional —amounting to a form of cruel and unusual punishment—and a violation of basic human rights. Help those inside by joining the national “Stop the Heat” campaign.

Far too often, non-air-conditioned cells are also overcrowded, putting lives in jeopardy.According to a Columbia University report, members of the prison population have a number of risk factors “including advanced age, poor mental and physical health, and the use of medications,” that make them especially vulnerable to hyperthermia and other heat related conditions. The 300 women held in Montgomery Women’s Facility in Alabama, are housed in an uninsulated tin shed, in which the doors are kept closed and they have only several fans circulating the hot air within. Summertime in the South is hot, with the average temperature being in the high 90’s with high humidity.

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Small Issues Tell a Bigger Story of Reverse Racism at Montgomery Women’s Facility

I never thought I’d see it, but it happens everyday here ~ reverse racism. We have roughly 70 Alabama Department Of Corrections employess and Officers and supervisors here and only 2 are white, and one is from Romania. Our Warden is black as well as our Captain and all supervisors.

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Small issues tell a bigger story of reverse racism at Montgomery Women’s Facility

The black inmates as well as Officers can call us honkies and crackers and nothing is said. I stood in pill line and watched the black Officer make a white inmate walk all the way around the tables to get to her seat, yet a few minutes later, she let 2 black inmates take the short cut, the white inmate was denied and yelled at for trying to take.

This same Officer made a white inmate get to the end of line for a minute to retrieve her ID and would not let her get her spot back. When there are disagrements between black and white inmates, Officers and Supervisors always side with the black inmates.

Parole board has been granting parole to black females with violent crimes these past 3 years, but us white females with violent crimes have been denied parole and set off 5 years. No one is helping us and we are without hope at this corrupted facility ran by Alabama Department of Corrections.

Transcribed by admin from a statement by an inmate , identity withheld as she is in fear of retaliation.

D.O.C (Dummies Over the Convicted)

Mass confusion is an everyday occurrence inside the walls of Montgomery Women’s Facility. There are rules written out in the S.O.P’s (Standard Operating Procedures) that aren’t set forth and then there are rules given by the Warden, the Captain, the Lieutenants, the Sergeants, and Officers. On a daily basis a new rule is issued and usually unbeknownst to all inmates, therefore most are unaware.

Alabama D.O.C (Dummies Over the Convicted) an inmates statement alleging blatant disregard for rules and regulations at Montgomery Women's Facility.
Alabama D.O.C (Dummies Over the Convicted) an inmates statement alleging blatant disregard for rules and regulations at Montgomery Women’s Facility.

We never know which rule to go by because there aren’t any memo’s posted and most of the rules are contradictory to other rules. We also have to be aware of Staff members (Cynthia Steele) reading confidential mail from an inmate to the warden, to another inmate, which could have caused a major uproar between the two inmates. There’s no one here to trust with crucial problems that arise.

There are posters, posted everywhere stating that we should report our concerns about abuse and extortion, but when we do, the accused is forewarned by the P.R.E.A (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Officer Lt. Bentford. The accused lies and states that there was no such of an occurrence and then the investigation is thereby dropped. No witnesses for the defendants are ever called.

On one occasion during a P.M smoke break, Officer Williams walks through a crowd of inmates who are smoking “Spice“. She makes the sound of a siren, forewarning the “Smokers”. On another occasion, Officer Dickerson walks by a table outside where there are about 10 inmates who are smoking “Marijuana”. She passes them by to go to an inmate who is sitting in an open “wooden closet” to tell her she can’t sit there.

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Homewav Web Access Visitation at Montgomery Women’s Facility

In 2014, Montgomery Women’s Facility implemented a Web based Visitation System provided by Homewav. We are unsure as to how much Alabama Department Of Corrections takes in kickbacks, but CenturyLINK takes a cut of 40% of the extortionate $36 fee that is charged for a 60 minute “visit”. Homewav also charges a $1 handling fee every time money is added to the account so its effectively $37 for a 60 minute video call.

Whilst the idea of web based visitation is a good one if done ethically, Homewav certainly do not consider the inmates or their families in their business plan, all they care about is profit. For example, they claim that internet based visitation reduces the number of in-person visitation, by 75%  and the families of those incarcerated don’t understand how cutting in-person visits from family and friends is in anyway beneficial to them.

The benefits of visiting with family and other supportive individuals are well documented throughout literature, research, and from the voices of the incarcerated men and women and their families. In person visiting can build and strengthen family connections and provide hope and encouragement for those incarcerated, lets not even entertain the thought of removing it in order to provide these predatory companies with even more of your hard earned cash.

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