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In mid March a group of reporters from print, television and internet were invited to tour the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

I was the internet reporter. Accompanying us was Kim Thomas, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections; State Sen. Cam Ward; Capt. Lloyd Wallace, the president of the Alabama Correctional Organization; St. Clair Correctional Facility’s Warden Carter Davenport and others.

Over my career I have toured a few prisons none of them were places I want to stay, none of them were what might be called nice. The ones I have visited have served one major purpose, to punish those individuals who have committed crimes. They were little pieces of hell on earth.

The St. Clair Correctional Facility is one of those prisons. It is old, worn-out and as dismal as those who are held there. Opened in the 1980s the slow passage of time has not been kind, the prison looks its age and then some. The bare concrete walls stained and shifting, the stairs steps grooved from the tedious hourly flow of inmates, feet, leather upon steely stone. The stair handrails are rough to the touch as paint over paint had given it the feel of cold wrinkled skin. The door to the cells, solid and unforgiving, holding men and hiding secrets best not discussed in polite society. Danger is everywhere, sudden violence waits for opportunity or emotion. The men who are housed in the St. Clair Correctional Facility are prisoners, criminals, offenders, lawbreakers, felons, jailbirds, cons, crooks and lifers. Housed in the prison’s belly are men who are not fit to walk, work, wake or sleep among the law-abiding citizen. St. Clair is home to some of the worse humans of Alabama. Murders, rapist, child molesters and others, these people committed crimes, they put themselves in prison through their own actions. Now, we the state, must keep, them feed, clothed, sheltered and constantly watched.

Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, estimated at approximately 193 percent of capacity they are a time bomb for riot, mayhem and disaster.

On the day the media toured St. Clair, there were almost eight hundred men in the prison, most were not behind bars, they were where they were supposed to be at any given time, but they had complete freedom of movement within those confines. The only thing standing between them and the outside world was a razor wire topped wall and five men. Five Correctional Officer, keeping us safe, the prisoners safe and the people of Alabama safe. Don’t ever call a corrections officer a guard, it is disrespectful, and they get enough disrespect from the convicts, they don’t needed it from us.

The things I have noticed over the years is that no matter the size, age or location of a prison, they always have three things in common they are clean, orderly and lifeless.

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They are lifeless because the men living behind the walls are resolved, just doing time, most are use to that, no big deal.

Alabama is tough on crime, the men and women who stand watch and ensure the will of the people is carried out are a tough breed, perhaps even a breed apart, they choose to be locked up everyday, to protect us.

The media was invited to St. Clair to get a close up view of what the facility was really like, it was also in a way to showcase some of the reforms that are before the Alabama Legislature.

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The Alabama Department of Corrections is headed by Commissioner Kim Thomas. Thomas is a fit man, with a polite and gentlemanly manner, he speaks quietly as one who has the self-assurance that he doesn’t need to be loud to be heard. He is tall and erect and his stride is smooth and determined.

Thomas knows who he is and he knows his job, he became a correctional officer after completing his university degree, he served as a rank-and-file officer working his way through the ranks to become Commissioner. Thomas is not a hired bureaucrat, he learned the job from the bootlaces up. Not every correctional officer will become commissioner but every commissioner must have been a correctional officer.

As we all gathered to receive our instructions for the tour, Commissioner Thomas spoke first, saying, “There are three things I want to make sure I talk about and you see today.”

The first thing was that we would understand that Alabama has been tough on crime. He added, “Now, we must be smart of crime.”

Secondly, he wanted us to understand the high caliber of staff that worked in Alabama’s correctional system saying, “They deal everyday with the people that no one wants.”

Thirdly, the commissioner said that he wanted us to understand that Alabama’s prison budget is leaner than any other state, Alabama spends approximately $42 dollars per inmate per day. Most state pay around $85 dollars, only six states spend under $60 dollars a day.

Alabama is tough on crime as is witnessed by the burgeoning prison population. While lock them up throw and away the key is a good campaign slogan, it is not as easy as it sounds.

According to the facts: Alabama’s prisons are severally overcrowded, the budget to maintain the prisons we have teeters on collapse and there is no will to raise taxes to build more prisons.

There are only two ways to control prison population without building more facilities, one is to release more prisoners the other is to put fewer people in prison.

No one wants to see the prisons emptied of violent offenders and no one wants criminals walking the streets unpunished, so, we must look at alternatives.

State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) who was a part of our tour group has offered a solution. Known as the “The Sentencing Reform Act,” Ward has offered a creative solution to a complex problem.

The Legislation also known as SB386, would put forward guidelines for non-violent offenders, reduce prison population and put the state on a path to Truth in Sentencing.

“Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the United States. This bill will allow us to alleviate some of that,” Ward said.

Ward makes the point that with Alabama’s prison population hovering at 193 percent of capacity that measures were needed to not only address sentencing but the growing threat of takeover by the federal government. According to federal statute once a correction system reaching a 200 percent capacity the feds takeover and mandate the prison system.

“About 65 percent of the states inmates are non-violent offenders, and we don’t want a situation where the federal courts take over and begin releasing inmates,” Ward said. “This is a creative solution to that problem.”
He also said that this bill will allow judges to sentence non-violent offenders to community corrections, mental health court and drug court. This will slow the prison population growth allowing violent offenders to remain in prison longer.

This may not be the perfect situation in everyones’ mind but it is a solution that has received wide agreement between law-enforcement, victim’s advocates, DOC, justice and others.

This is a method of being smart on crime that the commissioner wanted us to see on our tour.

The second thing that Commissioner Thomas wanted us to see and understand was the quality of men and women who serve in the DOC.

As an observer, it is some what disturbing to be surround by so many inmates in dressed in white and so few correctional officers in blue.

When standing in line at chow time, there are only specks of blues infrequently seen flowing between heavy rows of white. Only five men to guard around eight hundred are not the kinds of odds a man would want to bet his life on. But everyday these men and woman place their training and skill against the odds.

According to the department, the DOC is the largest law enforcement agency in the State of Alabama with more than 3,100 correctional officers and 1,000 non-uniformed support personnel, managing an inmate population exceeding 31,000.

The training the officers receive is as tough and rigorous as most in law enforcement and tougher than many. However, starting pay for a correctional officer is under $28,000 per year lower than their peers outside of correction.

While a patrol officers or beat cop knows that there will be danger, a correctional officer knows danger is always present and imminent.

Just a few weeks before our visit to St. Clair an inmate coming out of the mess hall, suddenly thrust a homemade knife into the body of a fellow convict. The man went down and suddenly a nearby officer was faced with the bloody blade.

In an instant, the officer grabbed the man wrestled him to the ground and disarmed him, all while being surround by other, some hostile inmates. It was preparation that saved the officer, his training and skill won the day.

Of course most of the time we never hear about the officer that stopped a brutal attack or kept prisoners from rioting, we only hear about the poor inmate.

How soon society is willing to forget that the men and women behind bars committed crimes and that is why they are in prisons.

Those who serve in our prisons have a heavy burden to bare in the best of times. But without money, staff or modern tools they still work to keep the prison, safe for the inmates and safe for us.

Yes, living conditions are meager for prisoners, but beyond cruel or unusual punishment they should have no complaints under our constitution.

Almost the lions share of inmates at St. Clair are doing life without patrol, this means these men have nothing to lose and little to gain by following the rules.

There are only two televisions in the facility and they are an important tool in keeping discipline within the wall. Prisoners will obey rules, do their jobs and work together so that they may be allow to watch TV.
One of the things that must happen with so few officers and so many prisoners is to keep the inmates busy. Exercise, classes and TV are just a few of the tools.

The third thing the commissioner wanted to impress upon us was how lean a budget the DOC operated under.
According to the DOC the department spend $42 a day per inmate. This is half of what most states spend.
For all of the uncompromising attitude towards prisoners coming out of Arizona they spend over $61.00 a day on inmates.

No one in an Alabama’s prisons is living a life of luxury, in fact it is just the opposite. Men are stacked up and down and side by side, because of overcrowding.

The beds are small with a mattress when compress looks to be about one inch thick.

The prisoners and correctional officers make do with what is on hand, keeping it clean and serviceable, more “Green mile,” than Hilton Head.

About an hour after our tour of the St. Clair Correctional Facility ended, the Governor was forced by budget constrains to declare proration for the State. This meant a 10.6 percent cut on most government services and facilities including prison.

To head off a crisis that would lead to releasing inmates from prisons, Sen. Arthur Orr introduced a bill in the Legislature that would allow the DOC to operate at its September 2011 budget. The bill has passed the Senate and is excepted to pass the House sometime next week.

Faced with a dilapidated and failing infrastructure the men and women of the Alabama Corrections department carry on. Faced with overcrowding and under manning, the men and women of the Alabama Corrections department carry on. Faced with low wages and grueling work the men and women of the Alabama Corrections Department carry on.

This is a small picture of what our prisons are like. There is more to be reported as the above portion of the story only covers the first 30 minutes of a two hour tour.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Alabama’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, cases continue rise

Average daily hospitalizations continue an ongoing increase as cases nationwide surge.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Alabama hit 863 on Wednesday, the highest daily count since Sept 4, as average daily hospitalizations continue a steady increase and cases nationwide surge.

UAB Hospital in Birmingham on Wednesday was caring for 72 COVID-19 inpatients — the highest number the hospital has cared for since Aug. 21. 

In the last two weeks, Alabama has reported an increase of 15,089 new COVID-19 cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and APR‘s calculations.

That number is the largest increase over a 14-day period since the two weeks ending Sept. 9. On average, the state has reported 1,078 new cases per day over the last two weeks, the highest 14-day average since Sept. 9.

The state reported 1,390 new confirmed and probable cases Thursday. Over the last week, the state has reported 7,902 cases, the most in a seven-day period since the week ending Sept. 5. That’s an average of 1,129 cases per day over the last seven days.

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Alabama’s positivity rate, based on 14-day case and test increases, was nearly 16 percent Thursday, the highest that rate has been since mid-September.

Public health experts say the positivity rate, which measures the number of positive cases as a percentage of total tests, needs to be at or below 5 percent. Any higher, and experts say there’s not enough testing and cases are likely to be going undetected. 

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“I really won’t feel comfortable until we’re down to about 3 percent,” said Dr. Karen Landers, the state’s assistant health officer, speaking to APR last week

While new daily cases are beginning an upward trajectory, the number of tests administered statewide is not, contributing to the increasing positivity rate. The 14-day average of tests per day on Thursday was 6,856 — a nearly 10 percent decrease from two weeks prior. 

Over the last two weeks, ADPH reported 206 new COVID-19 deaths statewide, amounting to an average of 15 deaths per day over the last 14 days.

So far during the month of October, ADPH has reported 303 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. In September, the total was 373. Since March, at least 2,843 people have died from the coronavirus.

The number of new cases nationwide appear to be headed toward a new high, according to data gathered by the COVID Tracking Project. The United States is now reporting nearly 60,000 cases per day based on a seven-day average. At least 213,672 Americans have died, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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Courts

U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama can ban curbside voting

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, allowed Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill to ban curbside voting, staying a district court injunction that had allowed some counties to offer curbside voting in the Nov. 3 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court’s majority in its order declined to write an opinion, but Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor’s five-page dissent is included.

The lawsuit — filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program — was brought on behalf of several older Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, closed using the words of one of the plaintiffs in the case. 

“Plaintiff Howard Porter Jr., a Black man in his seventies with asthma and Parkinson’s disease, told the District Court, ‘[So] many of my [ancestors] even died to vote. And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – We’re past that time,’” Sotomayor wrote. 

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill on Wednesday applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. 

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“I am proud to report the U.S. Supreme Court has now blocked a lower court’s order allowing the fraudulent practice of curbside voting in the State of Alabama,” Merrill said in a statement. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked diligently with local election officials in all 67 counties to offer safe and secure voting methods – including through the in-person and mail-in processes. I am glad the Supreme Court has recognized our actions to expand absentee voting, while also maintaining the safeguards put into place by the state Legislature.”

“The fact that we have already shattered voter participation records with the election still being 13 days away is proof that our current voting options are easy, efficient, and accessible for all of Alabama’s voters,” Merrill continued. “Tonight’s ruling in favor of election integrity and security is once again a win for the people of Alabama.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, expressed frustration after the ruling in a tweet.

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“Another devastating loss for voters and a blow for our team fighting to ensure safe voting for Black and disabled voters in Alabama. With no explanation, the SCOTUS allows Alabama to continue making it as hard as possible for COVID-vulnerable voters,” Ifill wrote.

Curbside voting is not explicitly banned by state law in Alabama, but Merrill has argued that because the practice is not addressed in the law, he believes it to be illegal. 

A panel of federal appeals court judges on Oct. 13 reversed parts of U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Sept. 30 order ruling regarding absentee voting in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but the judges let the previous ruling allowing curbside voting to stand. 

In his Sept. 30 ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”

Caren Short, SPLC’s senior staff attorney, in a statement said the Supreme Court’s decision has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable Alabamians.

“Once again, the Supreme Court’s ‘shadow docket’ – where orders are issued without written explanation – has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable citizens amidst a once-in-a-century public health crisis. After a two-week trial, a federal judge allowed counties in Alabama to implement curbside voting so that high-risk voters could avoid crowded polling locations,” Short said. “Tonight’s order prevents Alabama counties from even making that decision for themselves. Already common in states across the South and the country before 2020, curbside voting is a practice now encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It should be a no-brainer to implement everywhere during a pandemic; the Alabama Secretary of State unfortunately disagrees, as does the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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Education

SPLC files complaints in Pike County over suspension of two Black students

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday filed two complaints with an Alabama juvenile court alleging the Pike County Board of Education arbitrarily suspended two students in violation of their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights project, in a statement. 

“This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should not be taken lightly,” Tafelski continued. 

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

The complaints state that on Nov. 22, 2019, both students were approached by the school’s principal “in connection with alleged rumors that a group of students had ‘smoked’ that same day in the parking lot at school.” The principal alleged he had video security footage of them doing so, but wouldn’t show the students the footage, according to the complaints. 

Both boys told the principal that they had not used marijuana, but had both accompanied another student to their car in the parking lot, and both left when the other student showed them what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.

“The students, both seniors at the time, denied the allegations and even took drug tests that showed they had no drugs in their system that day. But the school refused to consider this evidence,” the SPLC said in a press release. 

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The complaints state that the district failed to provide the students proper notice, including details about their charges, evidence of wrongdoing, a meaningful opportunity to be heard or to present evidence of their own and question witnesses during their hearings. 

“Only you know what did or didn’t happen in that vehicle … you dodged a bullet here because we didn’t have the proof that we need,” said one school board member to one of the students during his hearing, according to the complaint. 

“There was no proper investigation at all,” said Shatarra Pelton, Dakarai’s mother, in a statement. “It was unorganized and overblown. The school was unable to produce any evidence other than hearsay.” 

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After a brief hearing, both seniors were suspended for the rest of the school year, missing out on a chance to finish their high school athletics and potentially missing out on college football scholarships as a result, the complaints state. 

Prior to their suspensions, both students had no disciplinary referrals and were making good grades, according to the complaints. 

“On Jan. 13, the students appealed the Council’s decision to the Pike County Board of Education, and the board agreed to consider allowing the students to return to GHS if they participated in drug treatment classes, passed urine and hair follicle drug tests and maintained perfect attendance at the alternative school. After completing all the requirements, the students returned to school on Feb. 21 – three months after their removal,” the SPLC said in the release. 

“He had a rough senior year, to say the least,” said Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother, in a statement. “He missed senior night, he missed everything.” 

“They didn’t get to play not one game,” Martin said. “They had some coaches visit them while they were in alternative school but when the coaches found out that they couldn’t go back to school, they stopped coming. Our families were devastated; sometimes me and Ms. Pelton would be on the phone and just cry to each other. It has been really tough.”  

“I want schools to understand that it’s not just a moment you’re ruining, you’re ruining a lifetime,” Pelton said. “With no factual basis, only an unproven accusation, you have just completely deterred a student’s life. Most schools say that they are there for their students, but you are showing them the total opposite.”

Pike County Schools during the 2019-2020 school year referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing, according to the SPLC. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, and although Black students made up less than 50 percent of the student population, Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals.  On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district, according to the SPLC.

Both complaints can be read here and here.

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News

Biden urges Democrats to support Doug Jones

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

Brandon Moseley

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Former Vice President Joe Biden appears at a campaign rally in Birmingham with then-candidate Doug Jones in 2017. (CHIP BROWNLEE/APR)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Wednesday asked Democratic donors to support the re-election of U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

“I wanted to reach out to you about an old friend of mine: Doug Jones,” Biden said. “You might not believe this, but I met Doug more than 40 years ago, when I was a newly-minted junior senator, and he was in his early 20s, just beginning what would become one of the most impressive and dedicated careers of public service I’ve had the privilege of watching.”

“Doug has devoted his entire career to fighting for justice,” Biden said. “He’s the man who would not rest until the Klansmen who killed four young Black girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing were finally brought to justice. Doug has shown us, even in our darkest moments, that hope for the American promise is never lost — and what we can do when we stand united.”

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

“I need Doug’s help in the Senate,” Biden said. “He’s running neck-and-neck in his race in Alabama right now, and he needs our help to win.”

Biden said this election is “a battle for the soul of our country” and “few places are those stakes as clear as in Alabama.”

“I remember in 2017 when everyone counted Doug out,” Biden said. “When they thought that a message of unity would lose in a state where a long history of division still runs deep. But when I visited Alabama to help Doug, I saw what he saw – Alabama was ready to come together.”

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Biden was an early endorser of Jones in the 2017 special election, when Jones defeated former Chief Justice Roy Moore in that election. Jones returned the favor in the 2020 Democratic primary, endorsing Biden when the former vice president was having difficulty raising money and was polling well behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

Jones campaigned hard with Biden in Selma and other campaign stops across Alabama prior to Super Tuesday on March 3.

“His win gave me hope,” Biden said. “I was both honored and proud to have escorted him onto the floor of the Senate and stood behind him when he was sworn in as a United States Senator. And his record has been extraordinary – passing 22 bipartisan bills helping farmers, military families, and those devastated by natural disasters. And in perhaps the most crucial fight of all – our health care – Doug has been there again and again standing up for all of us, especially those with pre-existing conditions. Every time we needed him to stand up for us, Doug Jones was there. I’m going to need Doug’s voice in the Senate. Alabama and America will need Doug’s voice in the Senate.”

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“Doug and I share a vision for a united country – one that puts faith over fear, fairness over privilege, and love over hate. And Doug, his campaign, and his career remind us that it’s a vision we can only realize if we come together,” Biden said.

In an Auburn University Montgomery poll, Biden trails Trump in Alabama by 17 points. Jones trailed former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville by 12 points. The Jones campaign claims that there has been a tightening of the race since then and it is a statistical tie. The Tuberville campaign disputes that claim.

Republican insider Perry Hooper Jr. said, “Whether it is the AUM poll, the Al.com poll, or internal polls by the (Tuberville) campaign, the margin is between 12 and 18 points in favor of Tuberville.”

The Jones campaign has been inundating the state airwaves with TV and radio ads due to the vast advantage that Jones has had fundraising. More than 82 percent of Jones’ money raised in the third quarter reporting cycle came from outside the state of Alabama.

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