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Bentley Announces Grants to Organizations that Help Victims of Abuse

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) announced several grant awards on Wednesday to charitable groups whose purpose is to provide help to abuse victims.

These include the St. Clair Children’s Advocacy Center which was awarded a grant of $37,851.  The center helps children who were victims of physical and sexual abuse.

According to Gov. Bentley’s written statement, “The center provides a child-friendly, non-threatening environment for victims to talk about the abuse. Interviews are recorded and shared with law enforcement agencies so victims provide only one account of their ordeal and avoid the stress of multiple interviews with multiple agencies.   After the interview, a victim can receive therapy through the center without charge if parents are unable to pay. The center also offers support groups and conducts preparation sessions for children going to court.”

Bart Lonergan is the President of the Center’s Board.  The groups has to raise matching funds of $9,462.

Gov. Bentley also announced a $75,608 grant to Opportunity House which helps provide domestic violence victims in Covington, Conecuh and Monroe counties with a safe haven.

According to Gov. Bentley’s written statement, “Opportunity House offers victims safe shelter, a 24-hour crisis telephone line, individual and group counseling and transportation. The organization’s court advocates prepare victims for legal proceedings and accompany them to court appearances.”

ChaLea Tisdale is the President of the organization’s board.

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Gov. Robert Bentley has awarded a grant to the Baldwin County Family Violence Project for $213,519.  They operate the Lighthouse Shelter that serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Baldwin and Escambia counties.  Lighthouse operates and emergency shelter and provides a 24-hour crisis line, as well as counseling and advocates to help victims navigate through the criminal justice system.

Sherry Dewberry is the board president of the Baldwin County Family Violence Project.

Gov. Bentley also awarded a $48,800 grant to the Regional Child Advocacy Center to assist child abuse victims in Choctaw, Clarke and Washington counties.

According to Gov. Bentley’s  statement, “The center employs a counselor to help young victims cope with and begin recovering from abusive situations. A victim’s advocate assists children and their families throughout the investigation and prosecution of cases.”

Michael Goldman, is the Chairman of the Regional Child Advocacy Center’s board.

Bentley also announced that the Escambia County Regional Child Advocacy Center has been awarded a $42,566 grant to help child abuse victims in Conecuh, Escambia and Monroe counties.

According to Bentley’s statement the Escambia County Regional Child Advocacy Center, “Coordinates abuse investigations with a team of representatives from law enforcement and social service agencies. Victims are interviewed about the abuse in a child-friendly facility and have access to counseling and other assistance.”

Stephen Billy is the chairman of the Escambia County Regional Child Advocacy Center’s board, that the grants had been approved.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) is administering the grants from funds made available by the U.S. Department of Justice. ADECA administers a wide range of programs which support law enforcement, economic development, infrastructure upgrades, recreation, energy conservation, water resource management, job training and career development.

 

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with six and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook.

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Health

Tuscaloosa mayor: “We have entered into a danger zone” as hospitalizations rise

Chip Brownlee

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While Montgomery County and the River Region of Central Alabama remain the top area of concern for state officials responding to COVID-19, Tuscaloosa County is showing signs of a worsening outbreak as cases and hospitalizations spike.

“We have entered into a danger zone,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox in an interview. “And if we continue to see trends of doubling hospitalizations over the next week, then we probably enter into an area where Montgomery is currently at. The good news is that we’re handling this. The bad news will be if the trend continues to rise.”

Over the past thirteen days, the number of COVID-19 cases in Tuscaloosa County has more than doubled from 345 on May 17 to 699 as of Friday evening. During the early months of the pandemic, Tuscaloosa saw relatively stable case increases, a trend that broke about two weeks ago.

Testing has also increased in Tuscaloosa County, but the percent of tests that are positive in the county over the last seven days, on average, is about 10 percent, up from as low as 2 percent in early May.

Many of the new cases in Tuscaloosa have been connected through contact tracing to institutional settings, Maddox said, including nursing homes, the metro jail and the state’s Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatric Center. At least two patients at Harper have died from COVID-19.

“Those are the main drivers in what we’re seeing,” Maddox said.

But contact tracing has also shown that, in at least once case, the virus entered a facility through an asymptomatic carrier, showing that community transmission of the virus is ongoing, in many cases unnoticed, and is affecting more vulnerable populations like those in long-term care facilities and jails.

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“That to me is kind of getting into what the public needs to know,” Maddox said. “We have to continue to apply common sense. That means wearing a mask when going out in public, practicing social distancing and assuming that everyone that you come in contact with is a potential carrier.”

State Health Officer Scott Harris echoed that plea Thursday.

“Some of those are outbreaks,” Harris said of counties with rising cases. “And yet again, those are still attributable to community spread. The people in the nursing home didn’t go out in the community and catch it. Someone brought it into them, presumably, and so there has to be transmission going on in the community for that to happen. We need to find a way to get people to take seriously these social-distancing guidelines.”

But hospitalizations — a more precise, though delayed, indicator — show an even more worrisome trend.

At DCH Health, the main hospital system in Tuscaloosa County, the number of COVID-19 positive inpatients more than doubled in a week’s time from 36 on May 22 to 83 as of Friday afternoon.

“In Tuscaloosa, we took early action, and it’s given us the ability to deal with the higher number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations,” Maddox said. “At this point, we are at the ability to manage what we’re facing.”

As of Friday, 74 of the DCH Health’s ICUs are in use — including both COVID and non-COVID patients — which would exceed the hospital system’s typical ICU bed capacity had it not expanded its capacity.

Hospital officials, including those in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery, have been clear to say that they are still able to treat additional patients, though the hospitals are under strain.

Twenty-two of the patients in ICUs are COVID-19 patients, according to the hospital system. Twelve of the patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 are on ventilators. But there remain 52 others who are hospitalized pending tests for COVID-19. Eleven of those are in ICUs, the hospital reported Friday afternoon.

In total, DCH Health System has 90 ICU beds available, after adding ICU bed capacity by retrofitting hospital rooms. Normally there are only 72 ICU rooms between DCH’s main hospital in Tuscaloosa and its smaller hospital in neighboring Northport. Eighteen hospital rooms were adapted for ICU use to increase capacity.

The number of COVID-positive patients in ICUs has also doubled from May 22. There are also more patients pending test results in ICUs in Tuscaloosa than on May 22.

Like many hospital systems in Alabama, DCH also serves surrounding counties without adequate health care infrastructure. Neighboring Greene and Hale counties — part of Alabama’s Black Belt region — have among the highest per capita case rates in Alabama at 1,147 cases per 100,000 people and 1,051 cases per 100,000 people, respectively.

Though the situation in Tuscaloosa County is not as immediately dire as in Montgomery, Maddox said he is concerned that Tuscaloosa could soon be in a situation similar to Montgomery and the River Region, where hospitals temporarily ran out of formal ICU beds.

As of Friday, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said about 4 percent of area hospitals’ ICU beds were available.

“I want to make sure I emphasize to you, while we do have a shortage of beds and we are reaching a dangerous capacity load in ICUs, there is room to treat people who are sick,” Reed said.

Meanwhile, case counts in Montgomery continue to rise.

“Unfortunately our numbers have not plateaued, but are significantly increasing,” Reed said, adding that “more testing does not mean that we should see patients in worse conditions with fewer ICU beds.”

Maddox urged all residents to abide by social-distancing recommendations and wear masks.

“The stage that we’re entering into now,” Maddox said, “it’s going to be more on the individual than ever before. By doing the smart things, they can protect themselves, they can protect their family members, they can protect their community, they can save jobs, and they can help us get out of this sooner rather than later. And that would be my message to everyone. Let’s continue to do the smart things. If we do that, we will reclaim our lives.”

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Health

Less than 1 percent of Alabama inmates have been tested for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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As the number of prison workers in Alabama who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 continues to rise, the number of cases among inmates in the state’s dangerously overcrowded prisons has remained flat, and that likely comes down to testing. 

Inmates in Alabama are only tested if they are exhibiting symptoms and a physician recommends the test. On the contrary, prison workers seek out tests on their own and are asked to voluntarily self-report positive results. 

As of Thursday evening, 58 prison workers self-reported positive COVID-19 results, while just 11 inmates have had confirmed cases, two of which remained active, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, just 155 had been tested for the virus as of Wednesday. That’s less than 1 percent of Alabama’s prison population.

ADOC says the department is following the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines for correctional facilities, which currently do not state that inmates who aren’t exhibiting symptoms should be tested, but many other states have begun blanket or universal testing in prisons, and they’re finding that many who showed no symptoms had the virus and are spreading it to others. 

Advocates for the incarcerated say those serving behind the fences cannot keep themselves safe from coronavirus, that social-distancing in overcrowded facilities isn’t possible and sanitation is subpar. 

As the number of confirmed cases in Alabama continue to rise, those advocates worry that without broad testing, outbreaks inside the prisons become much more likely, and the virus won’t stay inside the prison, as workers can bring it with them back into their communities. 

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Alabama has the fourth-lowest COVID-19 testing rate among inmate populations in the U.S., according to the Covid Prison Project, a group of public health scientists who track the virus in U.S. prisons. (Statistics for 17 states were incomplete.)

Alabama had tested 5.66 inmates per 1,000 as of Thursday. 

Alabama also had the sixth-lowest percentage of confirmed cases among inmates, according to the Covid Prison Project, with just .41 confirmed cases per 1,000 inmates. 

“Currently, inmates are tested for COVID-19 only with the order of a physician, who makes a medically informed decision to do so if certain CDC criteria are met. This is in-line with CDC guidelines for correctional institutions,” ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose wrote to APR in a message Friday. 

“At this time, the ADOC is not testing asymptomatic inmates with the exception of those moved to level-two quarantine,” Rose said. “However, all inmates referred to a community physician, health center, or local hospital for non-emergent appointments or medical procedures will be tested for COVID-19 upon medical provider or facility request, or in accordance with their testing requirements/protocols.” 

Regarding ADOC’s future plans for universal testing, Rose said that the department continues to monitor closely COVID-19’s evolving impact on the correctional system, state and country “and gather additional data around which informed and strategic operational decisions can be made.” 

“As we have since the onset of this pandemic, the Department’s intent is to keep the public apprised, without compromising security, of our ongoing and evolving response to COVID-19 in our facilities,” Rose continued. 

“It is important to note the measure of success relative to COVID-19 in our facilities is the same as it in the free world, and that measure is not about zero positive tests. It’s about slowing the impact of the virus and maintaining critical medical services, which we believe we are doing and will continue to do,” Rose said in the message. “It’s about doing everything we can to protect those who may be have been exposed, and preventing them from potentially infecting others while contagious. Finally, it’s about caring for those who do get sick and helping them to fully recover wherever possible. This is what we are doing, and this is what we remain committed to in addition to the important mission of the Department.” 

While the CDC does not currently recommend testing inmates who are asymptomatic, several states are doing so, and the results have been a massive jump in the number of confirmed cases. 

“When you look at other states that have begun to test more, or have even authorized mass testing, their cases immediately skyrocketed,” said Dillon Nettles, policy analyst for the ACLU of Alabama, speaking to APR on Friday. 

In Ohio, 78 percent of all inmates at the Marion Correctional Institute tested positive for coronavirus after prison officials there decided to test the entire prison population. 

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday ordered the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to test every inmate in the state for COVID-19, according to The Herald-Dispatch

“Most all of the other states have had a really bad go of it with their prisons,” Justice said during his daily press briefing, according to the newspaper. “All of these people are in an area that’s confined and, naturally, they interact in a closer area so, therefore, they’re more exposed. I hope and pray that what we’re doing is the right thing and, at the end of the day, it will protect people because they deserve to be protected.”

Public health officials in California in late April broadened the scope of who could be tested to include prisoners, who are more at risk of the virus due to their confined living spaces and lack of sanitation. 

While the CDC does not currently recommend testing asymptomatic inmates, a recent CDC report does say that screening alone isn’t enough, and that perhaps testing may be an important strategy in slowing the spread of the virus inside prisons. 

The CDC’s report on COVID-19 in correctional facilities released May 6 found that only 69 percent of jurisdictions reported data to the CDC, but among them, 53 percent only reported confirmed cases among staff, and said there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates. 

Information on the percentage of inmates and staff tested was not available, according to the CDC report, so it’s unclear whether inmates were being tested in the 53 percent of jurisdictions that reported no cases among the incarcerated. 

The CDC report noted that although symptom screening is important, it’s not enough to stop an outbreak in prisons. 

An investigation of a COVID-19 outbreak in a skilled nursing facility found that about half of cases identified through facility-wide testing were among asymptomatic people, who likely contributed to the virus’s spread inside the facility, the report states. 

“These data indicate that symptom screening alone is inadequate to promptly identify and isolate infected persons in congregate settings such as correctional and detention facilities,” the CDC’s report reads. 

“Testing might become an important strategy to include when it is more widely available and when facilities have developed plans for how the results can be used to inform operational strategies to reduce transmission risk,” the report continues. 

Nettles with the ACLU of Alabama said the organization rejects ADOC’s statements that the department is doing everything within its power to maintain the health and safety of people in state facilities. 

“That wasn’t true before COVID-19 and it’s certainly not true now,” Nettles said. “The only true way to put the best interests of the people who are incarcerated forward is to first, ensure that there is mass testing for those who are inside the facilities, for each and every individual.” 

The CDC recommends additional strategies, including reducing prison populations by releasing some inmates. 

“Some jurisdictions have implemented decompression strategies to reduce crowding, such as reducing or eliminating bail and releasing persons to home confinement or community supervision,” the report states. 

Although some municipal judges in Alabama have begun releasing a portion of local jail inmate populations to reduce the number of incarcerated people during the coronavirus outbreak, none of those measures have been taken up by officials who oversee Alabama’s prisons to specifically address the pandemic. 

Nettles said ADOC and the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles should be working to release as many inmates as possible from the overcrowded prisons. 

Instead, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles last week increased the prison population by revoking probation of more inmates than the bureau released on parole, Nettles said. 

Nettles said there’s also a concern that large outbreaks in prisons could tax an already overburdened hospital system, and noted a shortage of intensive care beds in Montgomery, a city that recently had been sending COVID-19 patients to hospitals in Birmingham due to the scarcity of ICU beds. 

Shon Hopwood, an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said during an online press briefing Thursday that many prisons are located in small rural communities, which poses a risk to everyone living nearby. 

“It’s not just a concern with the people in prison. This is eventually going to get out and overwhelm these small communities where our prisons are located, and our health system is ill-equipped to be able to handle that sort of large scale outbreak,” Hopwood said. 

“Everything that is recommended to all of us on the outside in terms of social distancing, in terms of hygiene and sanitation protection is almost impossible on the inside,” said Marc Howard, a professor and director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University speaking at that same press briefing Thursday. “And so when you have prisons that are overcrowded the way American prisons are, to a degree that’s unprecedented across the world and throughout history, you cannot separate people so that they’re not in contact with each other.” 

Howard described prisons and jails as tinderboxes for the spread of COVID-19, and said  while there’s been some work as of late in some areas to prevent its spread inside the fences “unfortunately, it’s come much too late, because COVID-19 is really rampant throughout most prisons and jails.” 

“Ultimately, I think it’s a tragic situation that you have people who are essentially helpless, and we need as a society on the outside to really care about that, and to feel the pain and to learn from it,” Howard said. “So that this doesn’t happen in the future, and hopefully so that some deep decarceral measures can be taken now.” 

Howard said studies have shown that almost half of Americans have a relative in their family who is, or was incarcerated. 

“But because of the stigma they don’t talk about it. They keep it hidden, and this is actually much closer to home than we realize,” Howard said. “And what I think we need to think about, especially when hearing about these horrible stories about infection running rampant throughout prisons and jails, is that these might be our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our mothers and fathers. Our children.”

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Merrill’s opinions on vote by mail not supported by facts

Josh Moon

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Voting by mail does not lead to fraud. 

We know this because voting by absentee ballot is essentially the same thing as voting by mail. And it is so safe that millions of people, including the U.S. military, the current president, most of his family, a good chunk of Alabama legislators and about half of Congress, do it every year and still the incidents of fraud are less than 1 percent. 

There have been exhaustive studies and audits completed to prove this point, including “research” conducted by a committee formed by Donald Trump three years ago. That committee found no real evidence of widespread voter fraud of any kind, only unique instances in which bad actors with access to ballots committed crimes. 

The rate of fraud in the 2016 election was 4 in more than 130 million votes cast. There was no evidence of undocumented workers voting. No evidence of in-person fraud. No evidence of widespread absentee ballot fraud. No evidence of hacking. No evidence of dead people voting. 

And most importantly, in states, such as Florida, that allow for mail-in voting, there was no evidence that casting a ballot by mail has ever spurred any increase whatsoever in voter fraud. 

These facts are apparently lost on Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who, in an effort to attract the eye of Trump on Twitter, declared that Alabama would not have a direct vote-by-mail option to provide citizens with a safe, secure alternative to voting in person in the middle of a pandemic. 

Merrill then followed that up with an appearance on CNN — an appearance he is apparently proud of since he’s retweeted a clip of the interview about a dozen times over the last two days — in which he bemoaned the clear and present danger that mail-in voting clearly brings. 

And how does he know that voting by mail will increase fraud in elections? Because in Alabama, there has been voter fraud and 83 percent of the fraud committed has been absentee ballot fraud. 

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Case closed. 

Well, except for a couple of minor points. 

First, 83 percent of what number? 

Six. Yes, Merrill’s 83 percent figure that he cited to support his position that mail-in voting is unsafe was reference to the 5 out of 6 convictions in voter fraud cases over the past eight years. (It’s likely that there have been just six convictions — out of millions of ballots cast — over the last 12 years, but searching for specific charges in Alabama’s online court filing system is nearly impossible.)

That’s right, Alabama has experienced a grand total of six voter fraud convictions over the past eight years. And five of those convictions were for tampering with absentee ballots. 

However, it’s worth noting that not a single conviction involved votes in a statewide or legislative race. Four of them stemmed from the same incident in which workers rigged a city commission race in Dothan. 

That’s probably because you can’t commit enough fraud to alter the outcome of such a race. You can’t have more votes than registered voters, and you can only steal so many ballots before someone catches on. 

Regardless, six is the number of fraud cases Merrill was leaning on to justify his decision to not simply mail out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. 

And here’s the second point that undermines this ridiculous argument: If absentee ballot fraud is so much of a problem that we can’t allow mailed ballots in a pandemic, then why hasn’t the Republican-dominated Alabama Legislature passed a single law to restrict absentee ballot access or make them more secure? 

The legislature certainly hasn’t been shy about passing voter ID laws to address in-person voter fraud. That type of fraud occurs at roughly .0000013 percent. In Alabama specifically, we’ve had one conviction for in-person fraud in the past 20-plus years. 

Still, the Alabama Legislature pushed through an absurd voter ID law a few years ago, requiring specific forms of government-issued photo IDs. 

But for the fraud that is so widespread that we’re prepared to ask people to risk their lives, nothing. 

Not a single bill. Not a single law. Not even a discussion of a bill. 

So weird. Mail-in fraud is so worrisome that we can’t risk even sending voters an absentee ballot application unless they ask for it, but not so worrisome that state lawmakers will do anything at all to address it. 

If I didn’t know better, I might think the Republicans running this state are really happy with some people voting by mail and scared to death of mail-in voting making it easy for massive numbers of Alabamians to cast votes. 

Making this whole matter even more absurd is the “fix” that Merrill and state leaders have come up with to address the concerns of people who don’t want to risk COVID-19 infection by voting in person: Lie. 

Alabama has included a new reason on applications requesting an absentee ballot. Voters can now select that they are “ill or infirmed” and unable to appear at the ballot box. Merrill, along with Gov. Kay Ivey, has instructed anyone who fears standing in line at a polling location during a pandemic to simply check that box. You don’t have to be ill or infirmed to do so. 

Swell. 

Merrill loves to repeat the line you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts, and he should live by that now. Because the facts are decidedly against him on this. 

There is no evidence that mail-in voting is more susceptible to fraud. There is no evidence that the absentee ballot system in this state has been subjected to widespread fraud. The only fraud Merrill can cite are six cases from small-town races, where the people involved had access to multiple ballots because of their employment. 

In truth, there’s only one reason mail-in voting won’t be an option here: The more people who vote, the fewer Republicans get elected.

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Courts

Alabama Parole and Probation Officers supervising nearly 9,000 violent criminals

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles released a report Thursday that was shared with state legislators and the media this week that shows Alabama’s 300 parole and probation officers are tasked with supervising 8,993 people convicted of violent crimes.

The officers are tasked with supervising more than 27,000 Alabama offenders as well as more than 3,600 offenders from other states who chose to move to Alabama following their incarceration in other states. Those are just the active cases.

There are an additional 22,947 inactive offenders for a total caseload of 50,055.

“The supervision of all these offenders that our officers provide daily is crucial to the safety of Alabamians and we are thankful for the selfless and dedicated work of these law enforcement officers,” said Bureau Director Charlie Graddick in a statement.

Graddick said that the Bureau put nine new officers into the field last week to begin supervising parolees and probationers and hopes to hire up to 138 more officers over the next three years — if the budget allows.

In the session that recently ended, the Legislature cut the bureau’s budget nearly in half.

“We are in need of more officers as we work to reduce caseloads,” Graddick said.

The report shows that 79 percent of the Alabama clients the bureau supervises were granted probation by judges throughout the state.

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Sixteen percent of the Alabama offenders are parolees who were granted release from prison by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Of the 6,078 Alabama parolees being supervised, 58 percent are violent offenders, some requiring much more intensive supervision.

Alabama has historically underfunded and understaffed the aging prison facilities managed by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is tasked with attempting to safely reintegrate parolees into society as well as to rehabilitate offenders sentenced to probation so that they do not re-offend and have to join the state’s prison population again.

A recent Department of Justice report claimed that Alabama’s prisons are among the most dangerous in the country.

The state has a critical need to increase prison capacity to reduce prison overcrowding and protect the public from crime and violence.

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