Resuming parole hearings is not enough

By Beth Shelburne April 24th 2020

On December 18, 2019, I watched Alabama’s parole board deny relief to every case it considered that day. It was the last day of parole hearings for the year, and I decided to observe the process in action after monitoring the data for months as paroles plummeted like an elevator with snapped cables. Under new leaders appointed by Governor Kay Ivey, the number of scheduled parole hearings dropped by more than half compared to the year before and parole grants fell to a new low of 15 percent.

I watched the three board members deny release to people convicted of both violent and nonviolent offenses, to people whose families practically begged for parole and promised to provide a stable home, and to people who were within six months of reaching the end of their sentences. I wondered why those cases were even scheduled for hearings when there are thousands of people with long-term sentences that could be considered. Between cancellations and fewer hearings under this regime, the backlog of parole-eligible people inside Alabama prisons has ballooned to over 4000.

Only two victims out of the 18 cases scheduled that day spoke out against paroling the person who committed a crime against them, but an officer with the attorney general’s office voiced opposition in 15 of the cases. The officer began testimony against each person with the same boilerplate introduction- “We are here to protest the parole of this inmate-” never saying the person’s actual name. She pointed out their prison disciplinary infractions with no context, and went over facts from their criminal cases like she was retrying the crime in court.

In one case, she argued against paroling a man who had served over 11 years for third-degree robbery. She casually mentioned that he agreed to a plea deal after first being charged with a more serious crime, suggesting that he was more dangerous than his record indicated. A parole hearing is not the place to relitigate criminal cases, or bring up accusations against someone that didn’t pan out in court. But apparently everything in these hearings is fair game, even holding people to a standard beyond their actual convictions.

The officer with the attorney general’s office sat at a table with members of a victim’s advocacy group, who accompanied the crime victims during testimony. On the table sat cups, a pitcher of ice water and a box of tissues. Conversely, the friends and loved ones who supported parole sat at an empty table across the room. There was no one to gently usher them through the intimidating process of speaking out in support of someone who has committed a crime. Many who advocated for parole stumbled through their statements, then silently filed out of the room after hearing the decision, shoulders hunched, faces cast down. It was an exercise in shaming, much like incarceration itself.

Whether we like it or not, parole is an integral part of Alabama’s criminal sentencing structure. We have indeterminate sentences, which means judges almost always impose a range of time someone must spend in prison, with parole being the most tangible way to cut that time and return to one’s family and community. Ideally, parole gives incarcerated people something to strive for, an incentive to stay out of trouble and participate in rehabilitative programs. It should be the vehicle to pull people out of incarceration, but our current parole apparatus finds new ways to punish, to demoralize, to take away the one thing left to cling to in the dark: hope.

It has always been difficult to make parole in Alabama, but never more so than today. We are one of only two states that does not allow the person being considered for parole to participate in their own hearing. Our system has always been fraught with politics, cloaked in opacity. In 2019, Alabama received an F in a study by the Prison Policy Institute that graded fairness in state parole systems. That failing grade was before Governor Ivey appointed Charlie “lock-em-up” Graddick as executive director for the agency, with a salary of $172 thousand a year, $68 thousand more than his predecessor.

For months after Graddick began, the agency doubled as a tough-on-crime propaganda machine, issuing a daily list of parole candidates it referred to as “murderers, rapists and robbers,” along with sensational details of their crimes lifted from media reports. Press releases on parole results included celebratory headlines- “Board denies parole for 14 violent felons.” The inflammatory rhetoric calmed down only after lawmakers questioned why the very agency that decides who gets out of prison seemed intent on making everyone in prison look as terrible as possible.

This board has denied parole in 85 percent of cases, only granting 133 paroles out of 866 cases considered so far this fiscal year. In the last fiscal year, 1,337 paroles were granted out of 4,270 cases considered, and those were the lowest numbers in 15 years worth of data. This board seems particularly hellbent on denying parole for anyone serving time for a violent offense, even when they’ve served decades in prison and demonstrated rehabilitation. Multiple studies show people typically age out of criminal behavior and there’s little public safety benefit in long-term sentences. Additionally, a 2018 study on recidivism by the U.S. Department of Justice found released property offenders are much more likely to be arrested than released violent offenders.

Mr. Graddick recently announced parole hearings will resume in May after canceling hundreds of hearings due to concerns about COVID-19. But it’s not enough to just resume hearings. To mitigate the swelling backlog, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must aggressively increase the number of scheduled hearings. Since November, current leadership has slated an average of 173 parole hearings a month, less than half the average number of monthly hearings in fiscal year 2019. If an estimated 300 people become eligible for parole each month, the board would need to hear approximately 460 cases per month for the next 2 years just to catch up. Right now 141 hearings have been scheduled for the entire month of May.  

The urgency to fix this crisis is truly a matter of life and death and all state leaders should insist that no more time be wasted. The state needs to establish an infrastructure, so all sides are supported in the parole process, not just crime victims and law enforcement. Alabama needs to provide a prison system that allows people to work toward achievable parole goals, instead of allowing unmitigated violence, corruption and apathy. And lastly, leaders must restore a meaningful chance at parole by demanding that the parole board evaluate people according to who they are now, not who they were when they committed their crimes. Every person waiting for a parole hearing, along with each person denied relief is yet another Alabamian at risk of having a prison sentence turn into a death sentence in the most overcrowded, violent prison system in the nation, which now faces the additional threat of COVID-19.

ACLU OF ALABAMA DEMANDS TRANSPARENCY FROM BUREAU OF PARDONS AND PAROLES

JANUARY 24, 2020

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Today, the ACLU of Alabama sent a second public records request to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) asking for any policy that is guiding the bureau to schedule far fewer people for parole hearings. A previous open records request to ABPP was sent back with references to the Alabama Code and ABPP’s Administrative Code, which Campaign for Smart Justice investigative reporter Beth Shelburne analyzed before sending a second public records request.

These requests come in response to the drastic decline in parole rates, noted in a new ACLU report issued in early January. In 2018, the agency averaged 600 hearings per month, while approximately 150 hearings were scheduled for January 2020. In November and December 2019, the board granted parole to only 17 people, denying release to 92 percent of eligible people.

Beth Shelburne, Investigative Reporter, Campaign for Smart Justice:
“We’ve asked to see the specific policy or procedure that guides the scheduling of parole hearings. We’ve also asked to interview any supervisor within the agency who can walk us through the process, but I was told today that my interview request would not be granted.

We’ve submitted a new request, renewing our commitment to hold this state agency accountable. The Governor and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must follow through on transparency and answer our questions about this important policy.”

Read ACLU of Alabama report on parole rates here: https://www.aclualabama.org/en/press-releases/aclu-report-shows-dire-eff…

Below is a copy of the letter in its entirety:

Beth Shelburne
P.O. Box 320635 Birmingham, AL 35232

January 24, 2020

Terry Abbott
Director of Communications
Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles 100 Capitol Commerce Boulevard Montgomery, AL 36117

Dear Terry,

On January 14, 2020 I received your response to my open records request that I sent to you on December 17, 2019 asking for the specific policy or practice that is guiding the scheduling of inmates for parole hearings. Your response included information that you already sent to me on December 16, 2019, which referred me to the administrative rules for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. Your latest response also referred me to the statutory codes for which the rules are based on. I have reviewed Act 2019-393, Code of Alabama sections 15-22-28, 15-22-26, and 15-22-37. I have also reviewed Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Administrative Code Chapter 640-X-3ER: Scheduling Parole Consideration. None of these documents answers the open records request.

Sections 15-22-28, 15-22-26, and 15-22-37 set forth guidelines for reviewing inmates for parole eligibility, granting paroles, managing inmates on parole, Christmas furloughs and similar details irrelevant to my questions. Chapter 640-X-3ER roughly mirrors Act 2019-393 in detailing the procedure for setting an inmate’s initial parole consideration date and setting consideration dates if an inmate’s parole is denied.

There is a difference between the date on which an inmate becomes ​eligible for parole consideration and the date on which the same inmate is actually considered​ for parole at a public hearing held by the parole board. On current practices, it appears the agency is setting an inmate’s ​eligibility date ​according to the requirements of Act 2019-393 and Chapter 640-X-3ER. However, none of these documents specifies when or how the agency schedules the public hearing of a specific inmate’s case once he or she becomes eligible for parole consideration. A procedure is clearly being followed to determine which cases, from among all the eligible inmates, are being scheduled for public hearings. The public deserves to know these specific policies and procedures because, at present, this side of the parole process is completely opaque.

As I stated previously, my mission is to try to understand why fewer inmates are being scheduled for parole hearings, and why they are not being scheduled in order of their consideration dates. I specifically asked for any writing that could explain the policy or practice for scheduling hearings that has been transmitted to the Bureau and/or Board employees who are tasked with creating the hearing dockets. That writing would include emails, memos and any other writing, formal or informal. You have not sent me any writing of this nature, which would be a proper response to the Public Records Request.

As a result, I am submitting a new request for all documents, emails, and other written communication, formal or informal, that sets forth the policies and procedures determining or specifying the following: 1) How many days each week the Board holds public hearings; 2) How many cases are considered each day that hearings are held; 3) How many files case workers are instructed to review each day, week, or month; 4) The criteria or process used in selecting cases to be scheduled for public hearings among the inmates who are eligible to be considered; 5) Who determines which cases are selected for public hearings, whether it’s the actual parole board, administrators at the Bureau, or some other person or group.

Additionally, you did not address my request to speak to a supervisor who can walk me through the process currently being utilized. Please consider that request current and ongoing. I look forward to hearing your response to these requests.

Sincerely,
Beth Shelburne

 

Alabama Prison Population Rising Dramatically

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.

Article originally published here 

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.

How to fix the Alabama Department Of Corrections

I have read with great eagerness the coverage given to exposing the conditions within Alabama Department Of Corrections and by exploring ways of improving conditions within Alabama’s prisons and reducing the prison population overall. But then I would, I have a biased view, my wife is currently incarcerated in ADOC and has been for 11 years. We know how the ADOC works, I can only speak of that which I know and have experienced first hand, so my focus lies with the female population incarcerated within Alabama Department Of Corrections.

Ironically it seems to matter not, how serious a crime you are charged with committing, if you find yourself on the wrong side of the law, unless you or your family are financially secure, or are well connected with the old boy network, you have little to no chance of a fair trial, and if you happen to be female, the problem is even more acute. The issues are very complex and multi faceted and a lot of people have a vested interest financially and politically to keep things ticking over just as they are. I will raise the negative aspects first and then follow on with our suggestions on how to fix ADOC, ADOJ and the prison over population problem.

Firstly, as in my wife’s case the District Attorney and prosecutors will seek the most severe charges, and therefor the maximum penalties. They will withhold evidence, prevent witnesses at trial in order to weaken your case and strengthen theirs against you. Instead of a manslaughter charge, they will push for a murder charge. Instead of 10-15 years, you’ll be looking at life, possibly without the possibility of parole.

District Attorney’s, prosecutors and even judges should not be above the law. They should not be allowed to blatantly manipulate the law. They should not present unreliable evidence nor should they be allowed to get away with professional misconduct. They should present all evidence; they should uphold the constitutional rights of the accused and treat them as innocent until proven guilty. They should lay charges as per the crime, not try to convict for murder for example in a blatant manslaughter case in an effort to get another “Murder Conviction” notch on a belt, or another political gong to show just how “tough on crime” they are.

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