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.
Over the last 5 or 6 years we’ve seen Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioners, come and go, we’ve seen State Governors come and go, we’ve seen a lurch towards the extreme political & evangelical right challenging long standing laws protected under Federal law, we’ve seen lawsuits filed by the SPLC, EJI & ADA gain traction in the Federal court, with Judge Myron Thompson ruling that ADOC must immediately hire hundreds of extra correctional officers and improve the mental health care for inmates, we’ve heard Gov. Kay Ivey claim that she will fix the prison system by appointing a management team and building huge new prisons at a cost of approximately $1 Billion to private companies, and then lease them back at a cost of approximately $80 Million per year to us the taxpayers.
The state also hired an attorney that exasperated many during the inaugural meeting of Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, when the attorney representing the state denied that state prisons are overcrowded, you really couldn’t make this up, and oh the taxpayers are paying him too.
Prison overcrowding is well-documented by the Alabama Department of Corrections as well as the United States Department of Justice investigations that threaten a prison takeover unless changes are made swiftly. At the December 4th 2019 Study meeting, many friends and family members of those incarcerated were there as well as members of the ACLU, and Alabamians for fair justice, that were allowed to address the panel and tell their stories of how there loved ones have been over charged, over sentenced, by over zealous prosecutors and judges and then warehoused in these hell hole prisons, to try and survive being raped, extorted, pimped out, beaten, stabbed and in many cases now, even murdered.
Jefferson Dunn, The current Commissioner of ADOC who incidentally had no prior correctional experience before being appointed as the head of the Alabama Department of Corrections, looked out of his depth and uncomfortable at the statements of these people that were relaying what they and their loved ones have endured during their incarceration, and he lacked cognitive responses to their questions. The retired Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons seemed completely out of touch with reality when he asked one speaker if she was saying that Alabama prisons have a drug problem, to which literally every person in the room physically gasped or shouted are you serious? He then asked, well then how do the drugs get into the prisons, to which he was told the officers are the ones that take them in, along with phones and other contraband that they make hundreds of dollars on, by selling them to inmates.
ADOC has not been able to retain or recruit enough officers, indeed they have now resorted to training a new class of officers that do not have the full training or authority as that of a fully qualified corrections officer, these are known as “Basic” correctional officers.
Gov. Kay Ivey has appointed a retired and somewhat notorious Judge as head of the Alabama Board of Pardons & Paroles and as such the rate at which eligible inmates are now paroled is at an all time low, compounding the fact that the already dangerously over-crowded prisons, will continue to see the prison population grow.
When do any of these people ever go into a prison? What exactly are we paying them for? Why has Jefferson Dunn never gone unannounced to any of the facilities that he is responsible for, to see how they really work? Its no good, him or any of the other commissioners going there on a scheduled tour like in the women’s facilities, where the women will have been made to paint the walls, clean everywhere and sit on their beds out of site whilst the commissioner strides around and is then never seen or heard of again? Why have none of the commissioners ever rolled their sleeves up and really gotten to grips with what is going on within the prisons and attempted to remedy the situation?
We are sick and tired of seeing our loved ones continually punished by the system. The “punishment” imposed by the court, is the loss of liberty, it did not state that they would be subject to abuse of every kind, demeaned, degraded and dehumanised and treated worse than second class citizens, it didn’t state that us family members would be humiliated by officers, discriminated against or would have the huge cost of phone calls and video visitation thrust upon us in an effort to maintain critical contact with our loved ones, or the heavy cost of commissary prices and hygiene or food packages. As women, they are often sentenced harsher and actually serve more time than a man would if convicted of the same crime. The hypocrisy is breathtaking where in Alabama, justice treats the rich and guilty better than they do the poor and innocent. Our public officials that are supposed to serve us, for too long have used their belief systems to sway political opinion and claim some moral righteousness to hand out Biblical justice, an eye for an eye right? Many people feel the same until they have a loved one that becomes involved in the system, then they see how Alabama justice really works.
The powers that be, want their transgressions and sins overlooked, all the way up to the highest levels of power in the land, they want to be forgiven and given a second chance, but they don’t want to extend the same courtesy to our loved ones that are sat behind bars. They will spend millions of dollars filing politically charged and frivolous lawsuits pretending to protect Alabamians rights, when in fact as shown in the Federal courts, they are not protecting our rights so much as they are pushing their beliefs and agenda upon us, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that ADOC receives per year from the Federal government and numerous other revenue sources, but they haven’t spent anything on maintaining the facilities, or on making improvements that may benefit the inmates, so where exactly has the money been going?
Their idea of justice is my idea of a one sided dog and pony nightmare where prosecutors can lie, withhold evidence, commit all kinds of ethics violations and even in the case of the 20th judicial district, according to a study by the EJI, put more people on death row than the states of Maryland, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado combined, even though it had a population of less than 100,000 at the time of writing, and no one in the Government thought to question why? No one stopped to wonder if maybe something is wrong in Houston County, or maybe they just have the worst population in the state? No one apart from the Equal Justice Initiative apparently took the time to measure the impact that this kind of “justice” would have long-term on the prison population. How many other counties operate the same way? Those prosecutors and judges won’t be held personally liable for any wrongdoings, but a poor defendant that can’t afford effective counsel, most certainly will be.
The Alabama criminal justice system needs complete reform.
Look i digress, my point has been that back in 2003 Tim Roche studied and then compiled a report which showed how the ADOC could safely release literally hundreds of women from ADOC’s work release facilities, even those branded with the political term “violent offender” which is extremely misleading, the report and recommendations are just as relevant today as they were back then, in my opinion the measures are even more desperately needed now.
Taking note of Mr Roche’s now 17 year old recommendations makes complete sense and it is truly baffling to try and understand why the ADOC would not use their discretion to move these hundreds of women through the system and allow them back into the community. Even the so called “violent offenders” are some of the most trusted, and hard working women that have been incarcerated for 10-15 years or more, often these women went into the criminal justice system having suffered domestic mental, physical and sexual abuse, they are most likely to have been suffering from depression or other mental illness and abuse alcohol or other substances, some are addicted to pain medication, they are strip searched frequently, have low self esteem and continually beaten down by the system, post conviction relief is extremely difficult with the statute of limitations, its also very expensive and as usual, its the poor that stand less chance of seeing any real kind of fair justice.
I wonder if any of those commissioners have ever stood and watched hundreds of women stand in line to use the only microwave in a facility, or stood in line to get a cold shower with brown water, or to hear the constant din of officers barking commands over the loud speaker, living in these conditions warehoused in dorms, packed in like sardines, seeing the known drug dealers have an easy life, when a woman that has kept her nose clean and done what’s she’s been told to do and followed the rules, gets routinely woken in the night for a complete shake down and strip search or be told she can no longer wear a pair of coloured socks, shows that it is incredibly frustrating for those that have made the effort to stay citation free and to improve themselves over the time of their incarceration. It is truly a wonder to me that these women haven’t committed the violent crimes such as occurs in the mens prisons, surely that alone is testament to how far many of the women have come in rehabilitating themselves. The long timers are the ones that keep some kind of stability and order, and for those long timers that have an impeccable institutional record having being forced to live in conditions that they’ve been subjected to, they deserve to be paroled as soon as they are eligible. Set Our Women Free! .
I can see how releasing to either community custody or paroling these women who are statistically speaking, the least likely to ever reoffend, would benefit the over all prison system. It would make sense and free up a complete facility or two, and the correctional officers that are attached to those could be redeployed to bolster numbers at the mens prisons where the rapes, beatings, murders etc, are occurring, surely, reducing the prison population starting off with the women is the common sense way to go, so if i can see it, and other tax paying citizens that have their loved ones incarcerated can see it, then why can’t or won’t the Governor, the Commissioner for ADOC or the parole board or any of those other parties that have a vested interest in keeping Alabama’s prisons the most deadly and unconstitutional in the entire country?
Read Tim Roche’s full report and recommendations from 2003 here and see if you can understand or comprehend why ADOC has never acted on it, because i can’t.
This summer, Governor Kay Ivey commissioned monthly study group meetings to address the groundswell of issues within the Alabama prison system. However, although these meetings began in June, there has never been an opportunity for directly impacted people to speak.
But on Wednesday, December 4, this finally changes.
This December meeting will give formerly incarcerated people a chance to speak directly to Alabama lawmakers about how they have been negatively impacted by the state’s prison system.
Join us at the Alabama State House in support of the brave people calling on Alabama lawmakers to reform our state’s prisons.
GOVERNORS STUDY GROUP MEETING
Alabama is experiencing a prison crisis, and we’re calling on lawmakers to end it.
Wednesday, December 4, 10 a.m.
Alabama State House
11 S Union St.
Montgomery, AL 36130
Please note: This link will take you to a third-party website, Facebook.com
Who: Freedom fighters inside Alabama prisons, Alabama women and children with incarcerated loved ones, Local and National Prison Slavery Abolition Organizations What: “Alabama to DC: End Prison Slavery” Rally and press conference with speeches from inside, banners, personal stories, music When: Friday, September 20, 2019, 4 PM to 6 PM Where: Pershing Park, corner of 14th St NW & Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC
Washington DC — On September 20, Unheard Voices OTCJ, along with DC Abolition Coalition and allies will gather from 4 PM to 6 PM with a delegation of women and children from Alabama who have been personally impacted by the Alabama DOC to confront the Department of Justice for their inaction after finding ongoing, egregious 8th amendment violations in Alabama prisons earlier this year. As one voice from the inside declares, “the prisons in Alabama are functioning in the same exact manner. Men are being murdered, assaulted, raped, overdosing and being denied mental and medical care constantly. These conditions have become frequent and ADOC is failing to report the many incidents that take place in order to gain favor in the eyes of the Federal agencies involved in investigating ADOC and to gain favor with you, the public.”
We demand that the DOJ follow through on their commitment to file suit against the Alabama prison system! We demand that U.S. Attorney General William Barr uphold his oath of office. We demand #NoNewPrisons!
We know that Alabama politicians and Alabama Attorney General Jay Town are not going to protect the rights of incarcerated individuals and hold their own accountable and prosecute the civil rights violations of prisoners and criminal activities of the ADOC. We know that their priority is only building three new private prisons which will exacerbate the human rights abuses and expand prison slavery in Alabama.
Those gathered at this family-friendly event will amplify the cry heard from behind the walls: “We are MEN!” These words are an echo of those spoken on the first day of the 1971 Attica Rebellion — a reminder of our past, a call to action, and an insistence on the humanity of incarcerated individuals whose constitutional rights require equal protection and enforcement by the Department of Justice.
Most of the recent talk has been about the mens prisons in Alabama and the unconstitutional conditions within as well as the rape, stabbings extortion etc that goes on, on a seemingly regular basis, what hasn’t had a lot said about it is the subject of the women in Alabama’s prisons. You see, we spoke with the Department of Justice several years ago, and they, the DoJ assured us that the women’s prisons were being investigated as well. We passed to them many letters that were written by the women incarcerated in these facilities. Most people know about how bad Tutwiler women’s prison is, but most have not heard about Montgomery Women’s facility which is located behind kilby mens prison and the Birmingham work release centre.
Montgomery Women’s Facility is basically a metal cow shed with no Air Conditioning that holds 300 women, its a medium custody facility, they have had frequent overspilling of raw sewage in the bath rooms, and although the health department has been called numerous times, the guards there do not let the officials in to inspect it, until its all been cleaned up by the women. The 300 women are warehoused in a large dormitory, like i said its a metal building with no A/C which is brutal to live in during the summer in Alabama, surrounded by swampland the flies and other insects are everywhere, we heard too, that recently the whole facility was without toilet paper for weeks on end.
Have you ever been inside a women’s prison and heard the constant screaming and shouting? The din of voices competing to be heard above the others in a confined space? Or seen 300 women lining up to use one microwave oven to heat the food that they’ve purchased from a vending machine rather than eat what is prepared by other inmates at the canteen or to see them stand in lines for their medicine to be handed out, toothless, raggedy looking and rapidly aged in excess of their years.
Women that request a dental visit may end up waiting months for an appointment, those women in Birmingham are taken to St Clair mens prison for a dental appointment, many are too scared to go to St Clair and suffer agonising abscesses until it bursts and self medicate with regular Tylenol purchased from a vending machine, given the recent revelations of the conditions in St Clair, i can’t say that i blame them, i wouldn’t want to go there either, usually the only treatment they’ll be given is a tooth extraction. If the woman’s family has dental insurance for her and are willing to pay, then there is a local dentist that can be utilised, but again this can take many months before such an appointment is booked and the woman is escorted there due to the lack of officers and an apparent unwillingness of these same officers to have any sense of urgency when it comes to inmate care.
If the women have a low enough custody level then some women can be housed in Birmingham’s work release centre. This facility is pretty run down, but the conditions are far more preferable than either of the other 2 facilities, it also holds about 300 women. An inmate in Alabama that is allowed to work in the community (lowest custody level, can wear civilian clothes, they go to work everyday in fast food restaurants, they work in hotels etc) will have 40% of their wages taken by Alabama Department of Corrections for fines, restitution etc, they are expected to pay $5 daily for the van rides to and from their place of work, they pay for their own laundry costs too, Women that are allowed to work on road crews picking up litter etc (Minimum out custody, still wear white prison uniforms) earn $2 per day. All women pay high costs for canteen goods. Prices are marked up at least 75% plus cost, if they put in a sick call they are charged $4 co-pay, and any resulting medicine they are also charged for, what we would pay pennies for in a local store, the women are charged in dollars. Of course most of the charges are born by the families that support these women by providing money on their books, when you add to that 21 cents per minute for phone calls and $20 for 30 minutes video visitation that is of a poor quality and constantly drops connection, having a loved one in prison is extremely expensive.
Women commit crime for very different reasons than men do, many studies from all over the United States and indeed all over the world bear this fact out, in addition many of these women struggle with poverty, substance abuse, mental illness and long term physical and sexual abuse, its mainly women too that commit heat of passion crimes. Unfortunately many courts in the Deep South, do not take these mitigating circumstances into consideration during trials and sentencing.
Women are seemingly given stiffer sentences and actually end up serving more time, than men do for committing similar crimes. The imprisonment of a woman that has children, has a far more detrimental effect than if its the man that is imprisoned. The consequences for those kids too, can be just as life changing. Many studies have shown that women, especially those convicted of a violent crime, do not go on to reoffend with a violent crime. ADOC could safely release literally hundreds of women that have served well over a decade in prison, many having already served decades.
Many of these so called violent offenders have historically been denied any chance at working in the community or from work release participation because of “administrative” or “politically” motivated decisions, yet it is these very women that have served long sentences that are frequently the most cooperative, hardest working and motivated people that pose no reasonable threat to public safety despite the nature of their crimes, which was born form the circumstances mentioned earlier.
Many studies have been completed specifically for ADOC to use as a guide to reducing the prison population, but ADOC would rather move Women form one facility to another, even driving them around in vans whilst the Federal investigators were likely to have stopped by, in an effort to show the facilities as less crowded than they really are. ADOC back in the early 2000’s paid a private prison in Louisiana £2.6 Million to house 300 female inmates from Alabama in an effort to show fewer numbers of female inmates on their books.
Alabama has some of the harshest and longest sentences than most other states, it also makes any post conviction relief extremely difficult with its statute of limitations and by having legal documents held by Alacourt online which are very expensive to access. The poor that get entangled in Alabama’s criminal justice system are at a distinct disadvantage. From the moment their mugshot is published, along with headline grabbing bonds being set, many people automatically assume that the suspect must be guilty, and the presumption of innocence therefor has already been eroded.
This is how Alabama rolls when it comes to treating women inmates, its nothing new, it has been like it for a long time, the current commissioners and their predecessors should be asked some very direct and difficult questions such as what exactly have they been doing all these years in a role that is supposed to be overseeing the day to day running of the prison system and why the Federal Government has had to step in and make them do the jobs that they are paid for. We the electorate, the family and friends of those that are held in these atrocious conditions demand to know.
On Monday, law enforcement agents from the Investigations and Intelligence Division of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) arrested a correctional sergeant at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore.
Lashay Stinson, a 35-year-old officer from Montgomery, was arrested and charged with unlawful possession of marijuana at approximately 10 p.m. after a K9 unit detected and found a small cellophane bag containing a controlled substance in her possession during a vehicle inspection.
“The Alabama Department of Corrections is committed to eradicating corruption and decreasing the presence of contraband in each of its facilities,” said Arnaldo Mercado, director of the Department’s Investigations and Intelligence Division. “Our Division is fully dedicated to leading the Department’s efforts to ensure our correctional facilities provide a safe, rehabilitative environment.”
Stinson did not immediately resign, but administrative disciplinary actions are being finalized. ADOC has a zero-tolerance policy concerning contraband and continues to evaluate effective tactics to mitigate and eliminate its presence in facilities, including routine searches of facilities, inmates and ADOC staff.
The public should submit all information that may lead to the arrest of anyone attempting to introduce illegal contraband into state prisons to the ADOC Investigations and Intelligence Division by calling 1-855-WE R ADOC (937-2362) and to law enforcement by visiting the ADOC website athttp://www.doc.alabama.gov/investigationrequest
Four men inside diagnose a hellscape the Department of Justice called cruel and unusual.
In handwritten letters, four men who together have served more than 100 years told us what it’s like inside.
On April 2, the Department of Justice issued a horrifying report on Alabama’s prisons, with graphic accounts of prisoners who were tortured, burned, raped, sodomized, stabbed and murdered in largely unsupervised dorms. (In hundreds of reports of sexual abuse, for example, the investigators did not find a single instance of a guard intervening. Officers are so outnumbered, the report said, that they stay in a secure area rather than patrol.)
The report underscored the conditions depicted in more than 2,000 photographs, sent to The New York Times, of violent incidents and contraband inside St. Clair prison northeast of Birmingham.
Not only are the prisons bad, the Department of Justice report said, but Alabama has known for years that they are bad, and has made only marginal attempts to improve them. It is not that the prisoners are particularly violent, but that the prisons are understaffed and overcrowded, with some holding two or three times the number of people they were designed for. They are also, the report said, lousy with corruption and rife with drugs, cellphones and large, sharp knives, which many prisoners consider necessary for self-protection. In 2017, inspectors found that not a single building had a working fire alarm.
In a matter of days, the Alabama Department of Corrections, now under threat of a federal lawsuit, plans to unveil a new strategic plan. Since the report was issued, three correction officers have been attacked and at least one prisoner has been stabbed.
We asked three men sentenced to life without parole — two for murder and one for robbery — and one serving a 28-year sentence for murder to tell us what it was like inside. Together they have served more than 100 years. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. In their letters, which were handwritten because in Alabama, prisoners do not have access to email, they focused on the root causes of the mayhem and expressed skepticism that the department could restore a culture of integrity on its own.
Here are excerpts, condensed for length and clarity:
“A Fatal Combination of Indifference and Incompetence”
St. Clair Correctional Facility
While it’s easy to understand and champion the Alabama Department of Corrections’ mandate to protect the public from us, it seems people have a harder time accepting that they have an equally important mandate to protect us from each other. And when they habitually fail to do so because of a fatal combination of indifference and incompetence, that becomes criminal.
No one feels safe here. Not the inmates, nor the officers. No one feels safe here when supervisors up to the warden level stand behind the fence of the barricaded, secure area and tell inmates who have fled there looking for protection that they need to go get a knife. No one feels safe here when there are hundreds of inmates roaming around and not an officer in sight. No one can or will answer the uncomfortable questions of why all the veteran officers quit or why the new ones don’t stay.
There are many assumptions you could make about who is the least safe here. Young white men are at extreme risk for sexual assault, and white men of all ages are targets to be assaulted and robbed or to have their property stolen. But when it comes to who is least safe, the facts speak for themselves. Time and time again, young black men are the victims of the most violent assaults. Young black men are the most likely to die. The prevailing attitude seems to be that, as they say in the South, when young black men kill young black men it’s just the trash taking out the trash.
“This is Alabama”
Donaldson Correctional Facility
I’ve never seen so many guys on drugs — I mean cheap drugs that have them falling out and throwing up everywhere, stealing everything they can get their hands on and selling everything they own, and in too many cases it’s their body. Officers allow other inmates to deal with those that wig out because it happens far too often.
This has always been the case in prison, it’s only now that people are beginning to pay attention. We didn’t just start dying and getting hurt in prison, there were far, far more rapes 20, 30 and 40 years ago, and the prison administration was well aware of it and society didn’t care. Prison graveyards are filled with bodies buried on top of bodies of men that have been murdered or died of old age or lack of proper medical care since the late 1800s. This is Alabama.
Too often you would have to stab, beat down or kill someone to get the point across that you’re not to be [expletive] with, sometimes more than once.
The reason I’ve avoided getting stabbed or raped was God, because I wasn’t a killer, not all that smart, and I’ve never been so lucky. Somebody must have really prayed for me, because I didn’t have sense enough to pray for myself as much as I should’ve.
Pick out your friends slowly and wisely. Seek out educational programs. Borrow nothing from no one. Don’t make the officers your friends nor enemies. Never overspend on the commissary.
“The Embezzlement Economy”
Limestone Correctional Facility
Living in prison is expensive. The contracted companies control the phone prices, shoe prices, hygiene and food package prices, medical co-pay and the supply of goods sold at the prison stores and canteens. Most of those prices range from inflated to ridiculous. There is no competition, no other options, no consumer protection. Montgomery is responsible for all economic policy decisions.
A trove of photographs depicting brutalized and murdered prisoners in Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility has thrust the treatment of our nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated people into public view. The first horror is what these people have endured in prison. The second horror is that while shocking, it is not a surprise.
As a lawyer who has represented prisoners for more than two decades, I have come to expect such violence and degradation of human beings held in appalling conditions like those seen in these photos. The only thing that’s unusual is that, for a brief moment at least, the curtain has been pulled aside and the everyday brutality of our prisons laid bare for all to see.
Transparency is like daylight — applied directly, it can be a disinfectant. And to protect the health and lives of incarcerated people across our country we need full transparency of how they are treated.
That is not the case currently. Prisons are closed institutions, literally walled off from public view. To some extent, this is unavoidable and understandable. While journalists and members of the public can freely wander into the Department of Motor Vehicles, in prisons safety and security considerations preclude similarly unfettered access. Those same considerations require some monitoring and control of communications between prisoners and the outside world.
But to a large extent, the hidden nature of U.S. prisons represents a deliberate policy choice — one that is unique among the democracies we think of as our peer nations.
Many countries have an independent national agency that monitors prison conditions and enforces minimal standards of health, safety, and humane treatment. In Great Britain, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has the power to conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons; a similar agency operates in Canada. In countries that have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture(OPCAT), prison monitoring by a national oversight body is supplemented by periodic visits by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.
By contrast, the United States has no independent national agency that monitors prison conditions. The U.S. also has not ratified OPCAT or any other treaty that would provide for outside monitoring. The bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons concluded that “[f]ew [U.S.] states have monitoring systems that operate outside state and local departments of corrections, and the few systems that do exist are generally underresourced and lacking in real power.”
Perhaps for this reason, the main vehicle for oversight of conditions in U.S. prisons has been the federal courts. Litigation can permeate prison walls and allow us into the housing units and the solitary confinement cells where prisoners live and die. It allows us to review videos and records otherwise shielded from public view. It allows us to compel prison officials to testify publicly and under oath.
But the federal courts’ oversight role has been sharply limited by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA subjects lawsuits brought by prisoners in the federal courts to a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no other litigants. Consequently, there has been a significant decline in judicial oversight of prison conditions. Between 1995 and 2000 alone, the number of states with fewer than 10 percent of their prison populations under court supervision more than doubled, from 12 to 28.
The lack of public knowledge about our prisons has real costs. Most obviously, a lack of oversight facilitates neglect and mistreatment of prisoners and prevents accountability when such misconduct occurs. But there are other consequences as well. Prisons represent the ultimate in big, coercive government — in many states, they represent one of the largest line items in the state budget. They are empowered to confine thousands of people against their will for years or decades and, in some circumstances, to use lethal force against them.
Given these high stakes and the potential for abuse, prisons should be subject to the most exacting scrutiny and public oversight. The reality, though, is just the opposite. Prisons are among the least transparent and accountable government agencies.
Many states ban in-person interviews with prisoners, and prison officials have barred specific journalists whose reporting they considered too critical. Some states have amended their freedom of information laws to limit their application to prisons, even barring prisoners from submitting requests. The federal prison system enacted a rule banning prisoners from publishing their writings under a byline; the rule was later invalidated by a federal court. Arizona went so far as to pass a law making it a crime for prisoners to post information on the internet; that statute, too, was overturned as a violation of the First Amendment.
As long as the public is kept in the dark, horrors like those at the St. Clair Correctional Facility will continue unseen. Increased transparency and oversight are just first steps in correcting the dreadful conditions in our prisons, but make no mistake — the need for them is as immediate as it is urgent.