‘No One Feels Safe Here’: Life in Alabama’s Prisons

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.

[Read more about the Department of Justice’s findings of “flagrant disregard” for the rights of people in Alabama prisons.]

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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:

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.

A raid on Feb. 28 at the St. Clair prison found 167 makeshift weapons.

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.

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.

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The killing fields inside Alabama’s prisons

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

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

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

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

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

Published By the editorial board of The Anniston Star here

Alabama leaders temporarily stop $10M prison contract

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

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

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

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

Article originally posted here

SPLC: Alabama prisons must address staffing needs and accept monitoring of failing mental health treatment

article published 10/20/2017 & originally posted here

An Alabama Prison
An Alabama Prison

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) must conduct a meaningful analysis of the staffing it needs to address an unconstitutionally inadequate level of care for prisoners who have mental illnesses, according to a brief filed in federal court yesterday by the SPLC.

ADOC will likely need more than double its current level of correctional staffing and nearly triple its mental health staffing, according to the brief. Additionally, the court should appoint security and mental health monitors to ensure that ADOC is carrying out the court-approved remedies, the brief states.

The filing is in response to a plan that ADOC proposed to the federal court last week, claiming that it would increase spending for mental health care workers – and would double staffing in those positions – but only if the state legislature provides enough funding next year.

“Compliance with the U.S. Constitution is not optional, and the state can delay no longer. Mental health staffing is woefully inadequate in ADOC prisons, and the flagrant constitutional violations that result must be addressed immediately in order to protect prisoners with mental illnesses from an ongoing risk of serious harm,” said Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC. “ADOC’s plan to remedy these glaring staffing deficiencies is vague, unsubstantiated and incomplete. It must address these issues now.”

The filing is the latest development in the SPLC’s ongoing litigation against ADOC for failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care for people in its custody. U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson issued a sweeping, 302-page ruling in June declaring the mental health care system in Alabama prisons “horrendously inadequate.”

The court specifically found that “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff” are among the overarching issues that contribute to the inadequacy of mental health care in ADOC prisons.

The court also found that ADOC’s mental health caseload is substantially lower than the national average, and that this failure to identify prisoners with mental health needs is the result of a number of factors, including “insufficient mental-health staffing.”

Recruiting and retaining adequate staff will take time and funding, but ADOC already has the authority and funding to hire some correctional staff right now. For example, ADOC does not need legislative approval to fill its existing, authorized staffing levels.

“Throughout this case, the court has repeatedly made it clear that lack of funds is not an excuse for ADOC’s failure to provide constitutionally mandated care to prisoners with mental illnesses,” Morris said. “ADOC officials have known for years that they need more staff, but they have delayed addressing the problem. Now, they want to delay even further, leading to more pain, suffering and possibly even death.”

Morris said: “The state has an immediate duty to hire enough qualified staff to address the crisis in care for the mentally ill. Over the long term, however, the only solution to this and other problems in the Alabama prison system is to decrease the prison population by getting people the help they need to stay out of prison in the first place. The state should ensure that people with mental illness get treatment, instead of just locking them up and throwing away the key.”

 

Alabama’s prisons don’t have working fire alarm systems

Inmates in a dormitory at Staton Correctional Facility Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Elmore, Ala. (Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com) (JULIE BENNETT)
Inmates in a dormitory at Staton Correctional Facility Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Elmore, Ala. (Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com) (JULIE BENNETT)

 By Christopher Harress | charress@al.com article originally posted here

Not one of Alabama’s 15 state prisons has a functional fire alarm system, according to Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, who spoke to lawmakers earlier this week about overcrowding inside state correctional facilities.

“It’s pervasive in our system … that we have deficiencies in our fire alarm systems,” said Dunn. “So what we do, we have corrections officers posted throughout and if there’s an issue, we do it through a verbal system. Obviously, we have procedures if we have a fire to evacuate either portions or all of the facility but the aural fire alarms, we have deficiencies around the state.”

The revelation comes during a trying time for the state’s prisons. The system is at approximately 180 percent of capacity while the number of correctional officers required is dangerously low, according to previous AL.com reporting.

In 2016, Governor Robert Bentley put forth what’s known as the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative (APTI), a plan to build four mega prisons at a cost of $800 million. While the initiative passed through both the House and the Senate, it did not gain final approval. In the coming session this year it’s expected that Bentley will raise the issue again with some amendments to help it pass.

Dunn conceded that other problems did exist in terms of infrastructure and health and safety. “I think the salient point is that (failing fire alarms are) just one of a dozen things that we face,” Dunn said. “While I don’t disagree about the fire system, you’ve got problems with electrical, you’ve got problems with plumbing, you’ve got problems all over that need to be addressed.”

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Alabama Department of Corrections Healthcare is a Joke and thats not the half of it…

Alabama Department of Corrections likes to put out numbers concerning the amount they spend on inmates healthcare, but they are lies. We have to fill out a sick call for each thing that is wrong with us, and pay $4.00 each time. Any over the counter medicine given to us costs $4.00 for each medicine.

Alabama Department of Corrections Healthcare is a Joke
Alabama Department of Corrections Healthcare is a Joke

For example, if we sign up for a cold, we are charged $4.00 for the visit, $4.00 for the Ibuprofen, $4.00 for the Sinus pills, and $4.00 for the decongestant. They rarely give out antibiotics. We have to sign up at least 3x before we can see the nurse practitioner or Doctor. When we have an accessed tooth, they put us on the Dental waiting list, sometimes it takes 2 months before you see the Dentist, and then you have to be given antibiotics to get rid of the infection, before the tooth can be pulled.

We’ve had girls with their cheeks swollen 3x the normal size because of an accessed tooth and yet health care will not let them see the Doctor to get started on an antibiotic, whilst waiting to see the Dentist.

Those on chronic care for high blood pressure, have to pay $4.00 if we feel that our blood pressure is up and ask to have our blood pressure checked. If you complain about the healthcare at Montgomery Women’s Facility too much, they will send you back to Tutwiler, where no one wants to go. Its their way of punishing us for speaking out against their mistreatment. We call healthcare, deathcare and most of us try to avoid their type of care.

Correctional Medical Services, which later became Corizon, held the contract from 2007 to 2012. ADOC awarded Corizon the healthcare contract in 2012, through to Sept. 30, 2017, under extension, it was the only company to submit a bid. The $181 million extension will bring the total cost of the contract to $405 million. State funds pay 100 percent of the cost. So why the hell are inmates forced to pay for each appointment despite having to wait in some cases months to see a healthcare professional and then pay extortionate prices for over the counter medicine which cost pennies in the free world and where the hell are they supposed to get the money from in the first place?

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program have sued Alabama Department of Corrections, over the failure to provide adequate medical care, mental health care and accommodations for the disabled violates the constitution and federal law. Despite ADOC claiming their “healthcare” is adequate, it has agreed to improve conditions for inmates with disabilities, the lawsuit is ongoing and in fact, The SPLC, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the law firm of Baker Donelson have asked a federal judge to certify its lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) as a class action, which would allow rulings in the case over the inadequate medical and mental health care of 43 prisoners named in the lawsuit to apply to the 25,000 people held in a prison system that has had one of the highest mortality rates in the country.

 

Despite talks of reform, Alabama’s prisons remain deplorable

Article Originally published here on January 09, 2017 at 3:35 PM, updated January 09, 2017 at 3:39 PM

Inmates sitting on their bunks in a dorm in Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka. (Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com)
Inmates sitting on their bunks in a dorm in Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka. (Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dormitory Representatives Meeting Notes

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

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

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

Transcribed from a letter by inmate T, identity withheld for fear of retaliation

Dormitory Representatives Meeting Notes
Dormitory Representatives Meeting Notes

No Warden, No Classification Officer and Now, No Canteen Lady

Montgomery Women’s Facility has been without a full time Warden since Mr Edward Ellington left to take over at Draper Correctional Facility in March 2016. Wardenship passed temporarily to Warden Terrance during which time conditions within the facility took a drastic turn for the worse, Ms Terrance left in August and the Captain has been acting as warden since.

Alabama Department of Corrections staffing woes and their impact, are still negatively felt throughout all aspects of ADOC, it has been reported that at other facilities, Correctional Officers have gone on strike citing the dangerous conditions that are festering as the upper echelons of Alabama Department of Corrections struggle to get a grip on a system that is failing from the top all the way down. Its not just an issue of safety and security, the absence of a classification officer as at Montgomery Women’s Facility increases stress, tension and creates an additional bottleneck in an already dangerously over crowded prison system, people that have served their sentences, especially those that are considered long-timers should be high on the list of priorities as they approach their parole and end of sentence dates.

Classification Officers are supposed to interview and assess amongst other things the custodial level biannually, effectively allowing those that have a low enough custody level, to be able to work and be in preparation for their release. Having no classification officer is a serious issue and it keeps women held on higher custodial levels than which they are entitled too, in an already over populated, neglectful and abusive prison system, common sense you would have thought, would be a priority, facilitating the lowering of custodial levels to those eligible, effectively freeing up bed space and hastening the transition back into society, not to mention raising moral, giving hope to those that have often served many years from dubious convictions.

Bear in mind too, that Alabama cases are difficult for many reasons, for example Post-conviction records are exceptionally hard to obtain in Alabama, and there is no specific post-conviction DNA testing statute except in capital cases. New evidence often must be brought before a court within six months of discovery, which can be extremely difficult and at times, impossible. Alacourt.com controls public court records in Alabama and charges exorbitant access fees, making the records virtually inaccessible to those incarcerated or their families which are generally on low incomes, Alabama needs to rethink its policy on locking people up and throwing away the keys, giving fair hearings, trials and sentences would be a great start.

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