Set Our Women Free!

Set Our Women Free!
Set Our Women Free!

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.

 

Real leaders invest in PEOPLE, NOT PRISONS.

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

As Governor Ivey recently experienced with the fierce opposition to the building of a new Mobile Bay Bridge, that would have placed additional expenses to the daily commuter in the form of tolls, Governor Ivey is advocating the building of 3 huge private prisons to be built and run by companies which will cost tax payers hundreds of millions of dollars per year, but won’t fix the underlying cause of the overcrowding and mass incarceration.

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.

Don’t worry ladies, we haven’t forgotten about you!

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.
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)
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.

‘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.

Inside America’s Black Box: A Rare Look at the Violence of Incarceration

Would we fix our prisons if we could see what happens inside them?

Prisoners at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama made knives out of fan blades and other materials.

March 30th 2019 By Shaila Dewan and published here

The contraband is scary enough: Homemade knives with grips whittled to fit particular hands. Homemade machetes. And homemade armor, with books and magazines for padding.

Then there is the blood: In puddles. In toilets. Scrawled on the wall in desperate messages. Bloody scalps, bloody footprints, blood streaming down a cheek like tears.

And the dead: a man kneeling like a supplicant, hands bound behind his back with white fabric strips and black laces. Another, hanging from a twisted sheet in the dark, virtually naked, illuminated by a flashlight beam.

These were ugly scenes from inside an American prison, apparently taken as official documentation of violence and rule violations.

Prisons are the black boxes of our society. With their vast complexes and razor wire barriers, everyone knows where they are, but few know what goes on inside. Prisoner communication is sharply curtailed — it is monitored, censored and costly. Visitation rules are strict. Office inspections are often announced in advance.

So when prisoners go on hunger strikes or work strikes, or engage in deadly riots, the public rarely understands exactly why. How could they? Many people harbor a vague belief that whatever treatment prisoners get, they surely must deserve. It is a view perpetuated by a lack of detail.

But some weeks ago, The New York Times received more than 2,000 photographs that evidence suggests were taken inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama. Some show inmates as they are being treated in a cramped, cluttered examination room. Others are clinical: frontal portraits, close-ups of wounds.

[The Department of Justice found a “flagrant disregard” for Alabama prisoners’ right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.]

It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore. It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.St. Clair is the most violent prison in Alabama, which has the country’s highest prison homicide rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

St. Clair is the most violent prison in Alabama, which has the country’s highest prison homicide rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

As I scrolled through them, shock rose from my gut to my sternum. Was I looking at a prison, or a 19th-century battlefield? Those pictured betrayed little emotion and certainly none of the bravado broadcast by their tattoos: South Side Hot Boy, Something Serious, $elfmade.

After considering the inmates’ privacy, audience sensibilities and our inability to provide more context for the specific incidents depicted, The Times determined that few of these photos could be published. But they could be described.

St. Clair is known to be a deeply troubled institution in a state with an overcrowded, understaffed, antiquated prison system. Alabama has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates and, as measured by the most recent counts of homicides available, its deadliest prisons, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery. Suicide is epidemic as well — there have been 15 in the past 15 months

For years there have been complaints that St. Clair inmates are heavily armed — some for self-protection — and allowed to move freely about the compound. In fact, St. Clair is more deadly now than it was in 2014, when the Equal Justice Initiative brought suit against it for failing to protect prisoners. There have been four stabbing deathsthere in seven months.

Last June, the group said the prison was failing to comply with a settlement agreement.

Prison officials dispute that, saying the Alabama Department of Corrections is committed to improving safety and security. The department has requested money to raise salaries and increase the number of officers. Multiple law enforcement agencies recently teamed up to conduct a contraband search at St. Clair that recovered 167 makeshift weapons, said Bob Horton, a department spokesman. 

But as of October, the prison was still severely short staffed, with more vacancies than actual officers. 

A second lawsuit, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group in Montgomery, says the prisons have failed to provide adequate mental health care. (The photos show a message painted on the wall in blood, with letters about the height of a cinder block. “I ask everyone for help,” it read in part. “Mental Health won’t help.”)

An inmate held in solitary testified that his monthly mental health sessions lasted only five to 10 minutes.
He cut himself with razor blades and used his blood to write a plea for help.

The photos were given to The Times by the S.P.L.C., which said it had received them on a thumb drive. 

Bob Horton, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the department could not authenticate the photos. 

But Maria Morris, a staff lawyer at the S.P.L.C., said the environment shown looked like St. Clair, and some photos had identifying information that corresponded to known inmates or showed men that the S.P.L.C. recognized as its clients (S.P.L.C. removed the identifying information before giving the images to The Times).

The man who painted the blood on the wall, referred to in the lawsuit as M.P., had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and repeatedly tried to kill himself. He testified that he had been held in solitary confinement for six years, allowed to exercise one hour a day in ankle shackles.

Ms. Morris has specialized in prisoner’s rights litigation for more than a decade. She hears accounts of rape, beating or stabbing on a daily basis. I asked what it was like for her to see the photographs. 

They made it impossible, she explained, to retreat into that small, self-protective corner of her mind — the place where it was possible to imagine that her clients’ stories might not be as bad as they sounded. 

“Seeing what had been done to those people’s bodies — it just stripped away all of the numbing,” she said. “It was very painful to see that all of the suffering that I’ve been hearing about and trying to relate to the court — how deep it goes.”

The thumb drive included a document titled “READ ME FIRST” and claiming to be from a corrections officer. It said the photos represented only a “small portion of the injuries from inmate-on-inmate violence in the past three years.”

The writer said that the current legal agreements governing the prison stood no chance of working: “The day-to-day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair. Until major fundamental changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men it will only continue to get worse. I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated day after day and year after year.”Testimony shows that fires in solitary confinement are common, and are sometimes used to get attention in a medical emergency.

Testimony shows that fires in solitary confinement are common, and are sometimes used to get attention in a medical emergency.

The photos show dozens of wounded men. One had been stabbed at least 10 times. Another had a hole in his lip you could stick a pencil through. A pair of handcuffed wrists displayed 15 precise slashes. There was a recurring palette of pale red and sickly, Mercurochrome yellow. One man’s back had a shiv at least an inch wide still buried in it, right between the shoulder blades.

There were three individuals pictured in a folder called “Dead men” and seven in a folder called “Murders,” all of whom could be identified through news reports, press releases and booking photographs. 

But most disturbing were the images that seemed to echo the most painful aspects of African-American history. 

Many convincing arguments have been made that our penal system was at least partly designed to extend control of black people and their labor, particularly in the South, where after slavery ended black men were conscripted into chain gangs for offenses like vagrancy and “selling cotton after sunset.”

Amid the St. Clair pictures were 19 taken of a black man who was completely naked but for a pair of handcuffs, photographed from the front, back, left and right. In one frame two white officers, standing guard inches away from him, avert their eyes.

Another image brought to mind the photos of the monstrously disfigured face of Emmett Till, the teenage victim of a 1955 lynching in Mississippi, which galvanized the civil rights movement when they were published by Jet magazine.

Though separated by more than half a century and by a wide gulf in circumstances, the St. Clair photos showed another mutilated, African-American face, this time belonging to Emory Cook, a 54-year-old prisoner killed in a cell three years ago. Under Alabama’s harsh version of a three-strikes law, Mr. Cook had been serving a life sentence for third-degree burglary. 

As a prisoner, he was entitled to be protected from harm. He looked like he had been hit with a plank. 

Correction: April 1, 2019 An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization. It is in Montgomery, Ala., not Birmingham.

Shaila Dewan is a national reporter and editor covering criminal justice issues including prosecution, policing and incarceration. @shailadewan

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.”

 

Attorneys say Alabama prison plan inadequate, vague

The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s plan to improve correctional and mental health staffing in state prisons is vague and inadequate, attorneys for inmates told a federal judge last week.

The attorneys for inmates criticized the state’s proposal submitted to U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson.

“Commissioner Jefferson Dunn and Associate Commissioner Ruth Naglich appear not to recognize that they have been found to be running a correctional system that provides horrendously inadequate mental health care,” wrote Maria Morris, an attorney representing the inmates.

Thompson ordered Alabama to overhaul conditions in June after finding that psychiatric care of state inmates is so “horrendously inadequate” that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. One of the inmates committed suicide days after testifying in federal court about his treatment in prison.

Thompson ordered the state to submit a plan to address shortages of correctional and mental health staff.

The Department of Corrections told the judge in a filing this month that it was increasing staff and conducting a comprehensive analysis to determine security staffing needs, and had begun some of those steps before Thompson’s ruling.

Inmates’ attorneys argued the state should have deadlines for increasing staff and benchmarks for caseloads or the plan “will remain nothing more than words.”

Thompson scheduled an Oct. 30 hearing on plaintiffs’ request for additional information about the state’s plan.