We need governors to act immediately so that we can protect the lives of people who are currently incarcerated in prisons, jails and detention facilities across the country. The Innocence Project has signed on to a letter issued by a coalition of organizations calling on governors to act immediately to help protect people in prisons and jails and the larger community. We ask you to call your governor by filling out the form above and you’ll be connected.
Below are a few of the most vulnerable people who need relief:
Prioritize the immediate release of the elderly and medically vulnerable, including individuals who are pregnant or who have asthma, chronic illness, lung disease, or heart disease.
Release anyone who is within 18 months of his/her release date.
Urge a hold to all new state prison sentences for anyone who is currently not detained.
Release all people held on probation and parole technical violation detainers or sentences. Ensure no new jail or prison sentences based on technical violations.
Ensure that all people released from prison have a transition plan that includes seamless access to medical care and health-related services.
Ask parole boards to release all individuals who are currently on parole and develop an emergency process that can expedite parole hearings.
Create a framework that facilitates the expedient release of as many incarcerated individuals as possible.
For the link to the Innocence Projects action page for petitioning your governor
Governor’s panel to release suggested fixes; lawmakers to consider bills addressing corrections system
By Arian Campo-Flores
MONTGOMERY, Ala.—One afternoon in October, the warden at the prison where Sandy Ray’s son was serving time called to say he was hospitalized in critical condition, she recalled. He had fought with correctional officers who accused him of rushing at them with handmade weapons, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.
When Ms. Ray arrived, her 35-year-old son, Steven Davis, lay in bed unconscious, his face swollen and disfigured, photos she took show. “He was unrecognizable,” Ms. Ray said in an interview after a demonstration for prison reform where she spoke publicly. “He looked like a monster.”
Mr. Davis died the following morning, and a medical examiner ruled his death a homicide by blunt-force injuries to his head. The state corrections department said the matter remains under internal investigation and has been referred to a district attorney, who will decide whether charges should be filed.
The case illustrates the challenges Alabama officials face as they seek to overhaul the state’s violent, overcrowded and understaffed prison system. Pressured by a Justice Department investigation and a federal lawsuit, Alabama has made some strides adding correctional and mental-health staff in recent years. But inmate homicides and the prison population are rising.
Other states are grappling with troubled prison systems as well. Recent rioting and fights in Mississippi’s correctional institutions have left seven inmates killed since late December and triggered a lawsuit backed by rap artists Jay-Z and Yo Gotti over prison conditions. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday the state would implement several measures to address the problems, including screening for gang affiliations. Florida lawmakers also are weighing criminal-justice proposals to address staffing shortages, inmate assaults and other issues.
Pushed to the Brink
Though Alabama’s in-house prison population declined for years, it recently has crept up again, while assaults in correctional institutions continue generally to climb.
When the Alabama legislature convenes on Feb. 4, addressing the prison crisis is expected to be one of its priorities. Lawmakers say they plan to consider a number of bills and seek additional funding, guided in part by recommendations due to be released soon by a criminal-justice panel formed by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.
“We’ve done a great job of identifying the issues,” said Democratic state Rep. Chris England, a member of the panel. “But if we can’t muster up the political will to actually invest in the system, then all this is meaningless.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center and others sued Alabama in federal court in 2014 over alleged failures to address the medical and mental-health needs of prisoners. Three years later, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found the correctional system’s handling of those needs “horrendously inadequate” and criticized severe staff shortages. He later ordered the state to hire more than 2,000 additional correctional staff by 2022.
Separately, the Justice Department last year issued the results of its investigation of Alabama’s men’s prisons, saying conditions there likely violated inmates’ constitutional rights. “An excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama’s prisons on a regular basis,” the report said.
The homicide rate in Alabama’s prisons—already the highest in the U.S., according to the Justice Department—is increasing. In the fiscal year that ended in September, 11 inmates were killed—more than in any year on record in the corrections department’s available data, which goes back two decades. In October, another three inmates were killed.
Faced with the possibility of a Justice Department lawsuit, the state is in continued discussions with the agency over how to address the problems cited, said a spokeswoman for Ms. Ivey. The Justice Department declined to comment.
The governor’s criminal-justice panel is expected to release its recommendations this week. They are likely to include proposals such as expanding pretrial intervention programs to keep people from entering the system and bolstering training programs for inmates due for release, said Republican state Sen. Cam Ward, a member of the panel.
Ms. Ivey also is pursuing a plan to build three new prisons that would replace around a dozen old facilities and allow for improved mental-health, vocational and other services. The arrangement calls for a private contractor to build the prisons and lease them to the state. Proposals by four developer teams are expected by spring.
“Our infrastructure was not designed to rehabilitate. It was designed to warehouse,” said Jefferson Dunn, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. “We’re trying to update that.”
The state has made gains in prison mental-health staffing, increasing the number of contracted positions to 263 in September 2019 from 212 in December 2017.
Yet the number of correctional officers and supervisors only began increasing notably in the third quarter of last year. As of September, the tally reached 1,659, still far short of the target number of 3,826 under the federal judge’s order.
The state’s record-low unemployment rate of 2.7% makes it challenging to lure applicants.
Though changes to sentencing guidelines in the past decade helped reduce the prison population, it has been climbing for more than a year. In October, the most recent reporting period, Alabama’s inmate population in prisons operated by the corrections department was 21,081, at 170% of facilities’ capacity.
Leesha Thomas, who has a husband and three brothers in Alabama prisons and regularly speaks with them, said the atmosphere inside is volatile. Clashes erupt constantly, she said, and inmates equip themselves with handmade weapons to defend themselves.
“It’s either fight and defend yourself, or they’re going to jump on you, rape you and take all your food,” Ms. Thomas said.
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.
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.
Alabama has 28,296 people in prison.
We can reduce that number.
Imprisonment is a brutal and costly response to crime, which traumatizes incarcerated people and hurts families and communities. It should be the last option, not the first. Yet Alabama has one of the most overcrowded systems in the country, and in April 2019, the Department of Justice released a report calling the conditions in the men’s state prisons to be so bad that it is “likely unconstitutional.”
JUST LOOK AT THE FACTS:
In Alabama, the incarcerated population has skyrocketed since 1980, growing five-fold as of 2017. This growth is forcing state-run prisons to operate at 164% capacity, which ranks as the most overcrowded prisons in the country.
Most of the people in Alabama county jails have never been convicted of a crime — more than 70% are awaiting trial.
In addition to the rate of incarceration, which ranks third nationally in the rate of people imprisoned, Alabama also has around half of people in Alabama’s prisons serving a sentence of 20 years or more.
One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys, compared to one of every 17 white boys. At the same time, women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States, and Alabama ranks sixth nationally for the rate of women imprisoned.
Alabama’s prison system costs taxpayers $478 million of its general fund on corrections in 2016, which is a 126% increase since 1985. This money should be spent building up, not further harming our communities. Investment, not incarceration, is how we improve safety.
Originally published by the ACLU here
The violence, rape and sexual assault, the lack of medical, mental and dental health care that has been grossly inadequate for decades, the lack of sentencing reform to reduce the overall prison population shows a clear lack of desire or vision and many studies have been presented to the Alabama Department of Corrections and the legislature for years but largely went ignored.
The answer is not to tax the citizens of this state and expand the industrial for profit prison complex when the Federal Government has already stated that Alabama’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
We need to speak out loud and clear like the residents of Baldwin and Mobile Counties, so that Governor Ivey understands that we the people want a common sense approach and politics out of the criminal justice system, and we want reform, not more prisons. Simple.
As violence continues to plague the state’s prisons, new data from the Alabama Department of Corrections shows that the department is rapidly erasing much-needed reductions in the prison population. The prison population declined 3.6 percent last year, but that progress has been almost completely reversed in the first half of this fiscal year as the population rose 3.3 percent (an increase of 890 people) between last October and this April.
Admissions to ADOC custody for the current fiscal year are 9.5 percent higher (8332 people) than the same time last year (7607). And while admissions are climbing, releases have plummeted to 11.4 percent fewer so far this year (7704) than the same time last year (8698).
This dramatic rise in Alabama’s prison population coincides with changes in parole policy last fall. Since October, 37.2 percent fewer people have been paroled (1482 people) than were paroled by the same time last year (2360).
The rise in admissions and increasing limits on parole mean Alabama will experience a growth in the prison population that will add new challenges to the existing crisis in conditions in the state’s prisons. The data also undermines prison officials’ assertions that sentencing reforms are lowering the incarcerated population and easing overcrowding in the state’s prisons.
Alabama’s extraordinary prison homicide rate has already reached new crisis levels this year, with eight homicides in the first six months of 2019. Alabama had 10 homicides in 2018; 11 in 2017; 3 in 2016; and 8 in 2015.
The unprecedented level of violence, including sexual and lethal violence, that has plagued the state’s prisons for the last five years was the subject of a scathing findings letter issued by the Department of Justice this spring, and it has only gotten worse.
Since the Justice Department report was released on April 2, two incarcerated people have been killed in medium-security facilities. Joseph Holloway was serving a 40-year sentence for robbery when he was stabbed to death on June 5, 2019, at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama. Jeremy Bailey was serving a 7-year sentence for a drug conviction when he was stabbed to death 10 days later at Fountain Correctional Facility in Atmore.
Violence at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville has also continued unchecked. During Memorial Day weekend, unconfiscated weapons and drugs, combined with staff failure to regulate prisoner movement, resulted in the stabbing of four men by a single armed and intoxicated incarcerated man. One of the victims was classified as minimum-out custody, had been in prison less than three months, and had repeatedly sought protection, notifying officials in the days before he was attacked that he was at risk in the housing unit and feared for his life.
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.
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.
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.
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