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Alabama’s Prison Dilemma

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Alabama’s state prisons are currently operating at almost two hundred percent of capacity. As a result of overcrowding the state’s prison have become a dangerous place where guards are more captives than the inmates. A person with intimate knowledge of the Alabama prison system who wished to not be identified in this report said, “Because of the overcrowding situation in Alabama prisons the inmates are basically running the prisons.”

According to records from the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the inmate population as of December 25, 2011, totals 31,046.

The break down of the prison population is as follows:

Black Males: 17,200    White Males: 11,338    Other Males: 41
Black Females: 823    White Females: 1644    Other Females: 1
Total Males: 28,579    Total Females: 2467    Total Inmates: 31,046

Some estimates state that more than 200 inmates are being guarded by one corrections officer.

Our source says, “The guards have no choice but to stand back and just try to keep the prisoners from getting out of hand. But one day, one of these facilities is going to have a full-scale riot and the Governor is going to be forced to call out the national guard.”
He further said, “If you think the media is giving the state a black-eye over immigration, just wait until the cameras are rolling as the Alabama National Guard—carrying automatic weapons and blasting tear gas and percussion grenades—lays siege to a prison, there will be hell to pay.”

The ADOC operates 29 facilities within the state. Five are considered maximum security: Holman, Kilby, St. Clair, Donaldson and Tutwiler. Eleven are considered medium security, with a total of 13 minimum camps, work release and community work centers.

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With an operating budget over $450 million the state is being face with tough choices.

Record show that Alabama spends about $42 dollars a day per inmates which is statistically the lowest of any state, however, faced with budget shortfalls the Governor is being forced into looking for ways of shoring up the prison system.

State Attorney General Luther Strange said in November, “We have a … [prison] population that’s about 195 percent of the designed capacity, so we understand the problems.”

The Governor and Legislature are looking for ways to solve not only the short-term problem but also address structural problems that have brought the prison system to the brink.

Senator Cam Ward (R-District 14), is the chairman of Alabama’s Joint Oversight for Prison Committee. Ward said, “We have to have alternative sentencing. I know people who shy away from that, but I can tell you right now, without alternative sentencing you will not fix this problem. It can’t be done.”

Alternative sentencing has in the past been ignored because politicians did not want to appear soft on crime. But realities have overtaken political posturing and there is a reasoned approach emerging that lays open the fallacies of some of the tough on crime rhetoric.

“The current system we have right now is softer on crime than anything else, because we have let non-violent offenders take up bed space, we have created a situation that is actually soft on crime and dumb at the same time. Right now, violent offenders are being released earlier and earlier because of the way this situation has been handled,” said Ward.

Ward said that he and others in the judiciary are looking at how other states have handled their situation. Ward believes the state must look at programs such as drug courts, half-way houses and any other kind of intervention services. This echoes what has been heard in many courthouses around the state.

“We are looking at changing some sentencing guidelines,” said Ward. “And we also are working to make sure that violent felons stay in prison for a longer part of their sentence and make sure there is room for them. You keep the non-violent offenders in alternative programs so the violent offenders can stay in [prison] longer.”

Many DAs and judges around the state are welcoming more local control for sentencing.  Judges, district attorneys and law-enforcement are local citizens and know many of the people who come before them in court. They generally know which ones can benefit from alternative sentencing and those that need to be locked up without impunity.

Ward said, “They do need more local control because what happens right now is we have the mandatory minimums that we have put into place and by putting those mandatory minimums in place for non-violent offenders you are tying the local law enforcements hands.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first in-depth report on federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws in 1991. Twenty years later, it has released its second in addressing mandatory minimum. The commission reports that, mandatory minimum sentences are too harsh, are not applied fairly or evenly, fill our prisons with small fish, and have contributed to overcrowded prisons and a budget crisis.

The Commission’s report does not renounce all mandatory minimum sentences, however, it does urge Congress to reform some aspects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

A politico who wish to not be named in this article said, “Alternative sentencing maybe the right way to go, but it doesn’t play well back home. And the AEA and others are going to beat you over the head with the idea that you are taking money away from kids and giving it to prisoners.” They added, “It is a political looser, period.”

Erik Luna, a law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law and an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute spoke before the United States Sentencing Commission, on May 27, 2010. Read full testimony.

In her opening statement before the commission, Luna said, “The basic critique of mandatory minimum sentencing schemes is well known and becoming more widely accepted. To begin with, mandatory minimums do not serve the traditionally accepted goals of punishment. All theories of retribution (and some conceptions of rule utilitarianism) require that punishment be proportionate to the gravity of the offense, and any decent retributive theory demands an upper sentencing limit. The notion of proportionality between crime and punishment expresses a common principle of justice, a limitation on government power that has been recognized throughout history and across cultures, and a precept ‘deeply rooted and frequently repeated in common-law jurisprudence.’”

There are those who will contend today that sentencing reform or any attention given to prisoners is a potential third rail in Alabama politics.

Ward says that the sentencing commission has some very good recommendations that are forthcoming that should be considered as part of solution to the problems facing our prison system.

Ward said, “There is a great simple presentation that the sentencing commission has done and it talks about exactly how we compare to other states. Everybody talks about Arizona with Sheriff Joe. Did you know that Sheriff Joe, even with his tent cities spends more per prisoner than we do in our prisons?

“The system that we have is just so broken,” said Ward, “If we don’t do something soon we are going to be in a world of hurt.”

Ward said he believes that the fix is available. Most believe it will just take a will to change the system and a good deal of work, wisdom and planning.

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Health

Two more inmates at Staton prison die after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two more inmates who had underlying medical conditions and were serving at the Staton Correctional Facility died after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Wednesday. 

The latest deaths follow the deaths of two other men from Staton prison who died recently. The virus had spread throughout the infirmary there, and as of Wednesday, 17 inmates and 23 workers at the prison had tested positive. In total, nine inmates have died after testing positive for the virus. 

Billie Joe Moore, 73, who was serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, died on June 27. He was being treated at a local hospital for advanced lung cancer and tested positive for the virus after his death, according to the department. 

Henry Robinson, 56, was taken from Staton Correctional Facility to a local hospital for treatment of chronic health conditions and tested positive for coronavirus at the hospital. He died on Tuesday at the hospital. 

Daniel Everett, 74, who had been housed in Staton’s infirmary due to previous illnesses, was tested after another inmate in the infirmary, 80-year-old Robert Stewart, tested positive for the virus and died on June 14. Everett died Tuesday as well. 

Confirmed cases among prison staff continue to balloon. ADOC announced Wednesday that four more workers self-reported positive test results.

An employee at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, one at the Fountain Correctional Facility, another at the Holman Correctional Facility and one at the Ventress Correctional Facility all tested positive for the virus. 

A worker at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women became the first prison staff to have died after testing positive for COVID-19, the department announced last week. 

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Eighty-two of 169 confirmed cases among staff remain active, and 40 of the 70 among inmates remain active, according to the department. Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 396 had been tested as of Wednesday.

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Health

Camp counselor at YMCA’s Camp Cosby tests positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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A camp counselor at YMCA’s Camp Cosby in Talladega County has tested positive for COVID-19, the organization confirmed to APR on Wednesday. 

Dan Pile, president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Birmingham, in a statement to APR said that they learned that the counselor had tested positive for the virus Wednesday afternoon. 

“The counselor is no longer at camp and is quarantining from home and is asymptomatic. Parents were notified to pick their children up this evening by 9 p.m.,” Pile said in the statement. “We are taking every step to ensure camper and employee safety including testing of all staff, and we will conduct deep cleaning of all cabins and camp facilities. Out of abundance of caution our next session will be canceled. The remaining sessions are being assessed as further information is received. We are committed to our staff and camper safety with full transparency.”

The 135-acre Camp Cosby in Alpine is a weeklong sleep-away camp for boys and girls aged 6 to 16, according to YMCA’s website. According to the website’s “Camp Cosby 2020 COVID-19 Frequently Ask Questions” page, camp started on June 14 at a 50 percent reduced capacity. 

“We will not allow more than 120-130 campers per session. 5-6 campers per cabins will only be permitted,” the website states. 

Additionally, the camp was to be cleaned and sanitized regularly, hand sanitizer used before entering buildings, hand washing stations were installed throughout the camp and temperature checks at check in and twice daily, according to the website. 

Gov. Kay Ivey on May 21 announced amendments to her “safer-at-home” order that included the opening of summer camps.

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Health

Mobile approves face mask ordinance amid rising COVID-19 cases

Eddie Burkhalter

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Mobile City Council members on Wednesday voted to require the public to wear masks as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Mobile County continue to rise. 

The ordinance, which passed in a 6-1 vote, requires individuals — ages 10 and older — to wear masks when in public, including inside of businesses open to the public for a period of 30 days. The ordinance makes an exception for outdoor activities, as long as social distancing is maintained.

That exception does not include parking lots or crowded sidewalks.  

The ordinance is to take effect after its publication in the Press-Register newspaper, according to public notice requirements, which could happen as early as Friday, according to WKRG.

Persons who have trouble breathing because of physical or mental health difficulties, including anxiety, or because they are unconscious, are not required to wear masks, according to the ordinance, read aloud by the city clerk. 

Failing to follow the mask order can result in a $50 fine for a first offense and $100 fines for all subsequent offenses. 

Mobile now joins Montgomery, Selma, Jefferson County and Tuscaloosa, all of which have approved similar mask requirements for the public.   

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson told Council members before the vote that COVID-19 threatens the city’s health care system and hinders the ability of businesses to reopen. 

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“I’d rather see our officers hand out face masks and encourage social distancing rather than issue citations,” Stimpson said. 

Mobile County has added 533 new COVID-19 cases within the last week and 63 on Wednesday. There have been 3,697 confirmed coronavirus cases in Mobile County as of Wednesday.

Councilman John Williams spoke of his concerns over what he identified as vague language in the ordinance, including that masks be made of “suitable fabric,” and he said it’s unfair for police officers to have to decide what fabric is suitable.

Williams was the sole no vote on passage of the ordinance. 

“The doctors have written the prescription. We need to take the prescription,” said Councilman Joel Daves before the vote, speaking in favor of the ordinance. If the city waits until the hospitals are filled with COVID-19 patients it will be too late, he said. 

Councilwoman Bess Rich said it’s a matter of the health and wellbeing of the citizens of Mobile. 

“We can’t afford to shut down, and if this helps to limit the exposure and the stress on our hospitals, and on our health care officials, then it is the least we can do,” said Councilwoman Bess Rich.

Councilwoman Gina Gregory said that while she hates the idea of forcing the people to wear masks, she believes it’s needed to slow the spread of the virus. 

“We got the numbers in from the health department. More cases were diagnosed this week. More people are in the hospital. It is not a hoax,” Gregory said. 

Councilman C.J. Small, who is also president and funeral director at Small’s Mortuary Service, said he’s not a first-responder, but he is a “last responder” and that “the horror stories that I hear when I have different families coming to my office is very, very sad.” 

Heather Hardesty, a resident of Saraland in Mobile County, spoke against the measure and falsely claimed to council members prior to the vote that COVID-19 is a “hoax” and began “the very day the unsubstantiated claims of impeachment against our president ended.”

Hardesty was one of several who spoke out against a mask order, some calling it “tyranny,” while several members of the public spoke in support of the mask ordinance as well. 

One man from the public who declined to give his name and address told Council members he didn’t want to identify himself because of concern over “the pinko commies that let Antifa in here.” The council declined to let him speak without identifying himself, as is required of all speakers. 

“I can assure you that our effort is going to be to help our citizens comply with this order,” Stimpson said after the vote. 

Earlier this week, the city bought 4,000 masks, which police officers will be able to hand out to the public, Stimpson  said. Another 10,000 masks have been ordered and are to be delivered soon, he said. 

“We look forward to working with everybody in the community to make this work, and I really believe that we can make it work,” Stimpson said. 

After the council meeting was closed, a woman in attendance, apparently seated in the public seating area, could be heard to yell “Heil Hitler,” drawing disbelief from some council members, who could be heard on a video of the meeting.

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Courts

Lawsuit claims governor ignored nomination process to appoint probate judge

Micah Danney

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James "Jim" Naftel II

A lawsuit filed Wednesday is challenging Gov. Kay Ivey’s appointment of Birmingham attorney James “Jim” Naftel II as Jefferson County probate judge place 1.

The suit, filed the day Ivey announced the appointment, alleges she circumvented the Jefferson County Judicial Commission’s nominating process. She should have selected an appointee from a list of three nominees provided by the commission as the state’s Constitution requires, the suit says.

“Because Judge Naftel was not lawfully or properly appointed as Probate Judge of Jefferson County, he is currently usurping, intruding, and unlawfully holding that office,” the suit alleges.

Ivey’s office said she disagrees with the suit’s interpretation of the law. 

“The state constitution gives the governor the authority to fill this vacancy,” said Gina Maiola, Ivey’s press secretary. “Judge Naftel is highly qualified to serve as probate judge, and the governor looks forward to his many years of excellent public service to the people of Jefferson County and the state as a whole.”

Barry Ragsdale, an attorney with the firm Sirote & Permutt, P.C., said that he has no issue with who Ivey chose, only how she did it.

“I frankly have nothing but respect for Judge Naftel,” Ragsdale said. “I think he’ll make a great probate judge. I think he’s going to end up being the probate judge, but it’s about protecting a process that we’ve had in Jefferson County for 70 years.”

Jefferson County was the first of six counties to create such a commission. It originally applied only to Jefferson County Circuit Court, but that was expanded in 1973 to include any judicial office, the suit says — including probate judges. 

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Ragsdale said it is important because the process is meant to provide local input into whom potential judges are. Commissioners are local citizens who likely know the people they nominate, whereas a governor probably doesn’t. 

“That takes most of the politics out of it,” Ragsdale said. He noted that before the first commission was created in 1950, George Wallace appointed his relatives to the bench when vacancies opened. A local screening process prevents that, Ragsdale said.

“We have that, we fought for it, and we fought governors for decades to follow the process,” he said.

Ragsdale believes this is a case of a governor simply wanting to exercise power, he said.

“She’s absolutely wrong about what the law says, and we intend to prove that,” Ragland said.

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