In 2016 Deputy Commissioner of Women’s Services, Wendy Williams went to all three of Alabama’s Department of Corrections facilities and held conferences in front of women that she’d handpicked. Everyone of us inmates were convicted of either Class A or Class B felonies that they classify as “violent”.
She told us that according to a new classification manual called the Women’s Risk Needs Assessment (WRNA) that was being implemented later that year, we were going to be able to work again for the first time since Governor Siegelman‘s order to remove all “violent” offenders from the work release programs back in the late 1990’s. It is now 2020 and four years since Commissioner Williams announcement to us, yet none of us have been allowed to work a single day.
In truth the Class A & B offenders have long held some of ADOC’s most trusted and responsible jobs, being van drivers, transporting workers to and from their work places, Governor’s Mansion workers, Department of Motor Vehicles workers, Department of Transportation workers, road crews that clear litter and garbage from our highways, courthouse workers, State Trooper office workers, ADOC fleet maintenance workers etc.
When considering allowing first time Class A & B offenders the ability to work, we feel that the positive aspects far outweigh any negative or political aspects which include but are not limited to:
Increasing revenue back into the work release coffers
Paying off outstanding fines and restitution
Contributing to the offenders upkeep instead of being a costly liability to the state
Helping each woman prepare and transition back into society
Proving to the public and to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles that the women are worthy and capable of being productive, law abiding citizens of society.
In 2018 a special docket loaded Class A & B offenders who were specially picked by the Central Review Board, due to the qualifications they had met for their accomplishments throughout their incarceration, and were due to be considered for early paroles in late September, these women already having served the bulk of their sentences.
Due to the grievous actions of a “non violent” parolee, the entire docket was pulled and a moratorium from Governor Ivey stopped all early paroles on Class A & B offenders who had not served 1/3 of their sentences, even though some of these early parole dates, had been issued years in advance by the previous parole board. Us women that were eligible for parole having excellent institutional records and home plans have had that taken away from us due to actions that were far beyond our control.
Jimmy Lee Spencer was considered a non violent offender in prison even though he had been in and out of prison for most of his life, he had numerous violent disciplinary actions brought against him and he was considered confrontational and argumentative at the best of times, these traits should have been reviewed and considered as part of his parole consideration hearing, obviously they wasn’t for whatever reason.
Given the fact that most first time Class A & B offenders receive such lengthy sentences, parole is usually our only hope for regaining our liberty. Why should we be held accountable for something that we have no control over? We are being used by politicians and other public officials as the scapegoat for jimmy Lee Spencer.
We are trying to right our wrongs, we are not our past mistakes, but we are trying to create a future that we can all be proud of. All we are asking for is the opportunity.
Sincerely, First time Class A & B women offenders of ADOC
There is nothing in the Alabama Department of Corrections administrative regulations that we could find that details what they are doing to the women’s mail at this facility. As mail arrives, it is photocopied, be it letters, birthday cards or photographs, they then destroy the originals and give the women the black and white photocopy.
They claim this arbitrary practice is in order to stem the supply of drugs into the facility, however, despite not having visitation for over 3 months now due to the pandemic, the drugs are still readily available which proves what we all suspected anyway, in that the drugs are not brought in by an inmates family and friends at visitation, but rather its being smuggled in by ADOC’s own staff or via legal mail.
The key dealers in this facility know how to easily circumvent ADOC’s ineffective drug screening and detection protocols, they would rather punish every woman by destroying their mail, even mail that is sent from 3rd party online services, than deal with the culprits effectively.
Morale and self esteem is at an all time low, visitation has been put on hold with no time frame of when it will resume. This work release facility should be preparing women to go back into the free world after years of suffering within these hell hole facilities where they have been deliberately denied even the most basic of human rights, but ADOC is doing the opposite, they are locking down, they are taking away, they are disregarding and punishing those that have already been punished with the loss of their liberty in some cases for decades already, now they can’t even receive a picture drawn by a child to its mother.
We are sick and tired of how they treat our loved ones.
On December 18, 2019, I watched Alabama’s parole board deny relief to every case it considered that day. It was the last day of parole hearings for the year, and I decided to observe the process in action after monitoring the data for months as paroles plummeted like an elevator with snapped cables. Under new leaders appointed by Governor Kay Ivey, the number of scheduled parole hearings dropped by more than half compared to the year before and parole grants fell to a new low of 15 percent.
I watched the three board members deny release to people convicted of both violent and nonviolent offenses, to people whose families practically begged for parole and promised to provide a stable home, and to people who were within six months of reaching the end of their sentences. I wondered why those cases were even scheduled for hearings when there are thousands of people with long-term sentences that could be considered. Between cancellations and fewer hearings under this regime, the backlog of parole-eligible people inside Alabama prisons has ballooned to over 4000.
Only two victims out of the 18 cases scheduled that day spoke out against paroling the person who committed a crime against them, but an officer with the attorney general’s office voiced opposition in 15 of the cases. The officer began testimony against each person with the same boilerplate introduction- “We are here to protest the parole of this inmate-” never saying the person’s actual name. She pointed out their prison disciplinary infractions with no context, and went over facts from their criminal cases like she was retrying the crime in court.
In one case, she argued against paroling a man who had served over 11 years for third-degree robbery. She casually mentioned that he agreed to a plea deal after first being charged with a more serious crime, suggesting that he was more dangerous than his record indicated. A parole hearing is not the place to relitigate criminal cases, or bring up accusations against someone that didn’t pan out in court. But apparently everything in these hearings is fair game, even holding people to a standard beyond their actual convictions.
The officer with the attorney general’s office sat at a table with members of a victim’s advocacy group, who accompanied the crime victims during testimony. On the table sat cups, a pitcher of ice water and a box of tissues. Conversely, the friends and loved ones who supported parole sat at an empty table across the room. There was no one to gently usher them through the intimidating process of speaking out in support of someone who has committed a crime. Many who advocated for parole stumbled through their statements, then silently filed out of the room after hearing the decision, shoulders hunched, faces cast down. It was an exercise in shaming, much like incarceration itself.
Whether we like it or not, parole is an integral part of Alabama’s criminal sentencing structure. We have indeterminate sentences, which means judges almost always impose a range of time someone must spend in prison, with parole being the most tangible way to cut that time and return to one’s family and community. Ideally, parole gives incarcerated people something to strive for, an incentive to stay out of trouble and participate in rehabilitative programs. It should be the vehicle to pull people out of incarceration, but our current parole apparatus finds new ways to punish, to demoralize, to take away the one thing left to cling to in the dark: hope.
It has always been difficult to make parole in Alabama, but never more so than today. We are one of only two states that does not allow the person being considered for parole to participate in their own hearing. Our system has always been fraught with politics, cloaked in opacity. In 2019, Alabama received an F in a study by the Prison Policy Institute that graded fairness in state parole systems. That failing grade was before Governor Ivey appointed Charlie “lock-em-up” Graddick as executive director for the agency, with a salary of $172 thousand a year, $68 thousand more than his predecessor.
For months after Graddick began, the agency doubled as a tough-on-crime propaganda machine, issuing a daily list of parole candidates it referred to as “murderers, rapists and robbers,” along with sensational details of their crimes lifted from media reports. Press releases on parole results included celebratory headlines- “Board denies parole for 14 violent felons.” The inflammatory rhetoric calmed down only after lawmakers questioned why the very agency that decides who gets out of prison seemed intent on making everyone in prison look as terrible as possible.
This board has denied parole in 85 percent of cases, only granting 133 paroles out of 866 cases considered so far this fiscal year. In the last fiscal year, 1,337 paroles were granted out of 4,270 cases considered, and those were the lowest numbers in 15 years worth of data. This board seems particularly hellbent on denying parole for anyone serving time for a violent offense, even when they’ve served decades in prison and demonstrated rehabilitation. Multiple studies show people typically age out of criminal behavior and there’s little public safety benefit in long-term sentences. Additionally, a 2018 study on recidivism by the U.S. Department of Justice found released property offenders are much more likely to be arrested than released violent offenders.
Mr. Graddick recently announced parole hearings will resume in May after canceling hundreds of hearings due to concerns about COVID-19. But it’s not enough to just resume hearings. To mitigate the swelling backlog, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must aggressively increase the number of scheduled hearings. Since November, current leadership has slated an average of 173 parole hearings a month, less than half the average number of monthly hearings in fiscal year 2019. If an estimated 300 people become eligible for parole each month, the board would need to hear approximately 460 cases per month for the next 2 years just to catch up. Right now 141 hearings have been scheduled for the entire month of May.
The urgency to fix this crisis is truly a matter of life and death and all state leaders should insist that no more time be wasted. The state needs to establish an infrastructure, so all sides are supported in the parole process, not just crime victims and law enforcement. Alabama needs to provide a prison system that allows people to work toward achievable parole goals, instead of allowing unmitigated violence, corruption and apathy. And lastly, leaders must restore a meaningful chance at parole by demanding that the parole board evaluate people according to who they are now, not who they were when they committed their crimes. Every person waiting for a parole hearing, along with each person denied relief is yet another Alabamian at risk of having a prison sentence turn into a death sentence in the most overcrowded, violent prison system in the nation, which now faces the additional threat of COVID-19.
Sam Levine in Tuscaloosa
Thu 27 Feb 2020 17.30 GMT First published on Thu 27 Feb 2020 11.00 GMT
The fight to vote – Alabama
Alfonzo Tucker Jr is just one of millions of Americans who have been entangled in a racially biased system – and deprived of their democratic right
In 2018, with the midterm elections approaching, Alfonzo Tucker Jr was particularly eager to vote. The mayor of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Tucker’s hometown, was running for governor, and the year before he had canvassed for Doug Jones, a Democrat running in a closely watched US Senate race.
But Tucker wasn’t able to cast a ballot – state officials refused to even let him register. It wasn’t until weeks later that he learned why he had been deprived of the right to vote.
He owed the state $4.
The US is founded on the promise of democracy and fair representation, but it is also the country where minorities are frequently disenfranchised for political gain. Among the most vulnerable are millions of Americans, disproportionately African Americans, like Tucker, who have been entangled in America’s racially biased criminal justice system, and lose civil liberties like voting as a result.
The barriers facing Americans like Tucker, advocates say, are modern adaptations of poll taxes and other devices which were designed to keep people from the voting booths during the Jim Crow era – when white politicians used the law to curb the civil rights of African Americans. Alabama is one of 30 states that requires people with felony convictions to pay back the financial obligations associated with their sentence before they can vote again.
Tucker’s case is particularly glaring. He lives less than a hundred miles north-west of Selma, the birthplace of the voting rights movement in America. This week, civil rights leaders are commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Martin Luther King Jr and civil rights activists as they protested against laws preventing African Americans from voting. Many were brutally beaten in Selma during the protests.
The specific policy that had ensnared Tucker dates back to the turn of the 20th century when Alabama leaders, openly seeking to preserve white supremacy, stripped anyone convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude”, among other offenses, of the right to vote.
“What is it that we want to do? Why, it is within the limits imposed by the federal constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state,” John Knox, the chair of the convention, said at the time. “If we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law – not by force or fraud,” he added.
Tucker said the legacy of that discrimination affects the lives of people like him today.
“I read about the challenges during the 60s, 50s, that black people had to overcome just to vote,” Tucker said. “It’s the same thing going on in 2020.”
Tucker, who sometimes goes by Zo, speaks softly and deliberately. He has lived in Tuscaloosa his whole life, now in a modest house 10 minutes outside of downtown. He says he would have left the city where he grew up, but never had the money.
Sitting in his living room, surrounded by pictures of family, Tucker said things are much different now for him than they were in the early 1990s, when he was much more “aggressive”. In the late 1980s, he got into a fight at a club with a University of Alabama football player and wound up being convicted of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. A few years later, he fought with a police officer and was convicted of second-degree assault, a felony. He wound up going to prison for two years and serving several more on probation.
After he got out of prison, Tucker rebuilt his life, working at steel factories and in maintenance, and chipping away at the approximately $1,600 that the court had ordered him to pay. He had two more children, which made him want to stay out of trouble. He joined the Nation of Islam.
Before his conviction, Tucker had never voted. But in prison, Tucker had read about Medgar Evers, who fought for equal citizenship and was assassinated in Mississippi in 1963. When he got out, he started regularly voting in elections. He and his wife Narkita would bring his young children into the voting booth with them, wanting to teach them about the importance of a single vote, and the long struggle African Americans had faced to gain access to the ballot.
But in 2013, Tucker got a letter from his state officials saying he could no longer vote.
He was angry and upset, but didn’t act immediately – the letter didn’t tell him anything about how to get his voting rights back. Then came another letter, a few years later, this time addressed to his son, Alfonzo Tucker III, who had just turned 18, and claiming that he too was ineligible to vote. The younger Tucker, however, didn’t have a criminal record. It was a mistake, possibly because he shared his father’s name.
Tucker got his son registered to vote, but the episode lit a fire in him. As the 2018 midterm elections approached, he went to an event where activists were helping people with felony convictions learn about their voting rights, and called up the Alabama board of pardons and paroles to talk about his case. Two weeks later, the board sent him a letter saying he still owed $135.10 in connection with his conviction.
Tucker, who relies in part on disability income, borrowed money from his sister to pay off the debt. But just when he thought it was settled, a courthouse clerk told him he owed money for another decades-old criminal offense – an additional $5,535.47 which she said he had to pay back to gain back his vote.
Faced with the staggering amount, Tucker contacted Blair Bowie, an attorney at Campaign Legal Center, a Washington DC voting rights group. It took Bowie 15 minutes to realize Alabama officials made a huge mistake.
Under Alabama law, people with felonies only have to pay off the money originally assessed as part of their criminal conviction to regain their voting rights. By 2018, Tucker had paid back most of what he owed. But, unbeknown to him, the state had added an additional debt of $131.10, a fee that was irrelevant to whether he could vote because it was not part of his original conviction. And the $5,535.47 debt was from a misdemeanor offense, Bowie saw, which does not cause someone to lose their voting rights in Alabama.
All that Tucker actually owed in order to vote was $4.
“What is voter suppression if not officials wrongly telling you that you can’t vote?” Bowie said. “That’s been a classic way of disenfranchising people, particularly in Alabama.”
After he paid the $135.10, Tucker drove two hours to Montgomery, the state capitol, with a friend to hand-deliver the receipt to a staffer at the board of pardons and paroles.
Alfonzo Tucker holds his receipt for payment showing he paid the amount owed to restore his voting rights.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Alfonzo Tucker holds his receipt for payment showing he paid the amount owed to restore his voting rights. Photograph: Johnathon Kelso/The Guardian
But weeks later he had not heard anything back. The elections came and went, and Tucker couldn’t vote. The parole board declined to comment on Tucker’s case.
Bowie eventually referred Tucker to John Paul Taylor, an organizer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who followed up with the board and got Tucker registered to vote in 2019.
Bowie and Taylor said Tucker shouldn’t have had to rely on experts to get his voting rights back.
“Here’s a very clear example of a person who has jumped through every single hoop that you’ve given them and they’re still being denied because of something that they really don’t even know about,” Taylor said.
Meanwhile, Tucker and Bill Foster, the friend he went to Montgomery with, helped start a group in Tuscaloosa to assist people with felonies get their voting rights back. Tucker’s story helps people understand that they can in fact vote once they complete their sentence, said Larry Tucker, his cousin. And Alfonzo said he’s met other people who have wrongly been told they owe the state money.
So far, Tucker estimates that they’ve been able to help about 10 people – people like Terrance Gray, 49, who learned he was eligible to vote last year. Gray believed he had been ineligible to vote since he was released from prison in 1996.
“He told me that it will make a difference if more people go and vote,” Gray said of Tucker. “He’s always been on me about that.”
Tucker plans to cast his first ballot since the ordeal this year (he says he likes Bernie Sanders). He thinks the state should give him back the extra $131.10 that he paid.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Today, the ACLU of Alabama sent a second public records request to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) asking for any policy that is guiding the bureau to schedule far fewer people for parole hearings. A previous open records request to ABPP was sent back with references to the Alabama Code and ABPP’s Administrative Code, which Campaign for Smart Justice investigative reporter Beth Shelburne analyzed before sending a second public records request.
These requests come in response to the drastic decline in parole rates, noted in a new ACLU report issued in early January. In 2018, the agency averaged 600 hearings per month, while approximately 150 hearings were scheduled for January 2020. In November and December 2019, the board granted parole to only 17 people, denying release to 92 percent of eligible people.
Beth Shelburne, Investigative Reporter, Campaign for Smart Justice:
“We’ve asked to see the specific policy or procedure that guides the scheduling of parole hearings. We’ve also asked to interview any supervisor within the agency who can walk us through the process, but I was told today that my interview request would not be granted.
We’ve submitted a new request, renewing our commitment to hold this state agency accountable. The Governor and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must follow through on transparency and answer our questions about this important policy.”
P.O. Box 320635 Birmingham, AL 35232
January 24, 2020
Director of Communications
Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles 100 Capitol Commerce Boulevard Montgomery, AL 36117
On January 14, 2020 I received your response to my open records request that I sent to you on December 17, 2019 asking for the specific policy or practice that is guiding the scheduling of inmates for parole hearings. Your response included information that you already sent to me on December 16, 2019, which referred me to the administrative rules for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. Your latest response also referred me to the statutory codes for which the rules are based on. I have reviewed Act 2019-393, Code of Alabama sections 15-22-28, 15-22-26, and 15-22-37. I have also reviewed Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Administrative Code Chapter 640-X-3ER: Scheduling Parole Consideration. None of these documents answers the open records request.
Sections 15-22-28, 15-22-26, and 15-22-37 set forth guidelines for reviewing inmates for parole eligibility, granting paroles, managing inmates on parole, Christmas furloughs and similar details irrelevant to my questions. Chapter 640-X-3ER roughly mirrors Act 2019-393 in detailing the procedure for setting an inmate’s initial parole consideration date and setting consideration dates if an inmate’s parole is denied.
There is a difference between the date on which an inmate becomes eligible for parole consideration and the date on which the same inmate is actually considered for parole at a public hearing held by the parole board. On current practices, it appears the agency is setting an inmate’s eligibility date according to the requirements of Act 2019-393 and Chapter 640-X-3ER. However, none of these documents specifies when or how the agency schedules the public hearing of a specific inmate’s case once he or she becomes eligible for parole consideration. A procedure is clearly being followed to determine which cases, from among all the eligible inmates, are being scheduled for public hearings. The public deserves to know these specific policies and procedures because, at present, this side of the parole process is completely opaque.
As I stated previously, my mission is to try to understand why fewer inmates are being scheduled for parole hearings, and why they are not being scheduled in order of their consideration dates. I specifically asked for any writing that could explain the policy or practice for scheduling hearings that has been transmitted to the Bureau and/or Board employees who are tasked with creating the hearing dockets. That writing would include emails, memos and any other writing, formal or informal. You have not sent me any writing of this nature, which would be a proper response to the Public Records Request.
As a result, I am submitting a new request for all documents, emails, and other written communication, formal or informal, that sets forth the policies and procedures determining or specifying the following: 1) How many days each week the Board holds public hearings; 2) How many cases are considered each day that hearings are held; 3) How many files case workers are instructed to review each day, week, or month; 4) The criteria or process used in selecting cases to be scheduled for public hearings among the inmates who are eligible to be considered; 5) Who determines which cases are selected for public hearings, whether it’s the actual parole board, administrators at the Bureau, or some other person or group.
Additionally, you did not address my request to speak to a supervisor who can walk me through the process currently being utilized. Please consider that request current and ongoing. I look forward to hearing your response to these requests.
This week, the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice released a new report regarding the dramatic drop in paroles. Since Governor Ivey appointed a new director at the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, the board has denied release to 92 percent of all scheduled hearings.
Meanwhile, the number of scheduled hearings has also dropped dramatically from over 600 per month in 2018 to approximately 150 scheduled for January 2020.
For individuals trying to survive inside Alabama’s violent and overcrowded prisons, the board’s actions can truly be a life or death decision. And if this trend continues, the prison population that is already over capacity will explode in 2020, leading to even more violence against the incarcerated population and correctional officers.
That’s why we’ve been asking them to release their policies on how they schedule parole hearings, but they haven’t answered.