By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—On Friday, a press conference was held to release the findings of an investigation into conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
ALDOC Commissioner Kim Thomas ordered the review of Tutwiler after allegation of sexual misconduct were made by the Equal Justice Initiative. In May 2012, the non-profit filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that Tutwiler officials discourage the reporting of sexual abuse. In the report, the group said that Tutwiler’s warden and officers “punish and humiliate women who report sexual misconduct.”
Rather that sweeping the allegation under the carpet, Commissioner Thomas did what few in government ever do and that was call for an independent audit of the women’s facility. Thomas engaged NIC (National Institute of Correction) which is an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Institute is headed by a director appointed by the U.S. Attorney General.
In November, NIC returned its finding on Tutwiler which resulted in a 37-page report concerning issues facing the safe operations of the women’s prison.
Thomas opened the press conference by saying, “Understand from the beginning that I am 100 percent committed to ensuring that whatever problems that we found or may exist and be found we want to correct them. We will not ignore the issues.”
Thomas said that steps had already been taken to, “increase safety for inmates, and those steps will continue to taken in earnest.”
The NIC inspectors listed among the “challenges” at Tutwiler was that inmates and support staff did not “feel physically or sexually safe.”
The report also said that, “The women and staff report that Tutwiler is a repressive and intimidating environment.”
Construction on Tutwiler was completed in 1942, little has change to the facility in intervening 70 years. The facility was built to house a maximum of 400 woman. It currently is home to approximately 700 inmates, including Alabama’s female death row prisoners.
Thomas says that the prison is only at 60 percent of its needed correctional officers. Alabama’s prison system is the least funded system in the country with an average cost of $42.00 a day per inmate.
An antiquated facility, which is overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded has led to a prison culture that opens the door for violence and intimidation of prisoners as well as staff.
It is important to note that before the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act, female correctional officers exclusively guarded female prisoners. This gender specific employment is no longer permissible under federal law.
Senator Cam Ward, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman for the Joint Oversight Committee for Prisons said, “I am concerned with the allegations that have been raised at Tutwiler. This report confirms that our state must do more to address abuse, overcrowding, and understaffing in our corrections system. I believe Commissioner Thomas was correct in asking for an outside, independent organization to come in and audit our system. The Bentley administration has been proactive in addressing these concerns, and I look forward to working with them to do whatever is necessary to address the challenges outlined in this report.”
So, it is that NIC found many needed improvements for Tutwiler. One such challenge is that showers and bathrooms were more or less communal and being watched over in many cases by male correctional officers.
Thomas made it clear that the ALDOC is working toward installing more privacy and is also hoping for $1.8 million in funding to place security cameras though out Tutwiler. However, it is difficult to imagine the legislature approving such an upgrade at the women’s prison when just a few months ago a constitutional amendment was needed just to fund the bare minimum to keep Alabama prison system from financial failure.
Thomas and his team have laid out an exhaustive agenda to insure inmate protection and to enhance standards at Tutwiler.
“We are going to make a good thing out of this report and allow a lot of positive change to come from this,” said Thomas.
In April 2012 the Bureau of Justice Assistance released the guidelines for the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
A major part of Thomas’ plan for Tutwiler is to vigorously institute the PREA guidelines. In fact, Thomas and team have been working on this even before the standards were completed.
Among Thomas’ action items is to, “establish a training curriculum and provide instruction on topics of gender sensitivity and Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) for staff who are assigned to and work overtime at female facilities. This training will be in addition to the 2013 Annual Training Curriculum.”
At the press conference Thomas said that he would not tolerate custodial rape saying, “Let me make it very clear that in 29 years of working in corrections and being a former correctional officer the act of sexual custodial misconduct to me is the most despicable abuse of power, one we cannot tolerate.”
Another action item on the agenda is a working collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative.
Thomas said that since the report came out he and his team have worked tirelessly to implement a plan of action. He also said that, “Since this report has come out we have seen a decrease in reports of sexual misconduct at Tutwiler.”
He indicated he understands this was just the beginning of a long process, but he and his team are moving decisively and quickly. Thomas’ agenda is aimed at insuring humane treatment for all the women in state custody.
“Every complaint we receive we investigate fully. We take every complaint very seriously and turn them over to the district attorney, then we assist the district attorney in a way we can,” said Thomas.
Perhaps a rarity in today’s world of government bureaucracy but Thomas, excepts responsibility, works to improve those things under his care and does not pass the buck when times are tough.
Three mental health crisis centers coming to Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville
“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear said.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday announced an $18 million project to create three new mental health crisis centers to be located in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville.
These centers, once in operation, will reduce the number of people suffering from mental health crises who are hospitalized or jailed, Ivey said during a press briefing in front of the Capitol Building in Montgomery.
“When these facilities are open and fully staffed, these centers will become a safe haven for people facing mental health challenges,” Ivey said.
Lynn Beshear, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, said during the briefing that the centers will provide “recovery based” care with “short term stays of a few hours, or up to a few days, to provide treatment, support, and connection to care in the community.”
“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Beshear said.
Beshear said AltaPointe Health in Mobile will operate one of the three facilities, and once built it is to serve Mobile, Baldwin, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Monroe and Washington counties with 21 new beds, including 15 temporary observation beds. Altapointe will begin with a temporary space while constructing the new facilities, she said.
Beshear said the Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority is partnering with the East Alabama Mental Health Authority and the Central Alabama Mental Health Authority to serve the 11 counties in Region 3 with 21 new beds, including 10 temporary observation and respite beds.
“The regional crisis center will be located in Montgomery, and will be open to walk-ins and for drop off by law enforcement, first responders and referrals from emergency rooms,” Beshear said.
Wellstone Behavioral Health in Huntsville was selected to open the third center, and will do so at a temporary site while a new facility is being built, with the help of an additional $2.1 million from local governments, Beshear said. That facility will eventually have 39 beds, including 15 for temporary observation and 24 for extended observation.
“There’s not a day that goes by that after-hours care is not an issue in our state,” said Jeremy Blair, CEO of Wellstone Behavioral Health, speaking at the press conference. “And so I applaud the Department of Mental Health and the leaders for their efforts in recognizing that and taking it a step further and funding our efforts here.”
Asked by a reporter why a center wasn’t located in Jefferson County, one of the most populous counties with a great need for such a center, Ivey said those residents will be served in one of the other regions.
“Plans are underway to continue this effort. Today’s beginning, with these three crisis centers, is just the beginning,” Ivey said.
Ivey added that request for proposals were sent out for these three centers and “it was a strong competition for the location of these three crisis centers.”
Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said during the briefing that more than a year ago, Ivey asked him what the state should be looking at, and that he replied “we’re failing miserably in mental health.”
Ledbetter said Ivey asked him to take on the challenge of correcting the state’s response to mental health, and a team was created to do just that.
“Working together, today’s announcement will not only change Alabamians lives, but will help to save lives,” Ledbetter said.
Ainsworth returns to work after testing positive for COVID
Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease.
Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Wednesday announced that he was returning to work that day and had met public health requirements for quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19 some time last week.
Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease.
“While many have battled with coronavirus, my symptoms never progressed beyond some mild congestion that I usually experience with seasonal allergies,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “During the quarantine period, I participated in several Zoom calls, caught up on some office work, spent some quality time with my family, and completed a number of overdue projects on my farm.”
Members of Ainsworth’s staff who were in close contact with him haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 but will remain in quarantine for a full 14-day period as a precaution, according to a press release from Ainsworth’s office Wednesday.
“Ainsworth once again urges all Alabamians to practice personal responsibility, which may include wearing masks, maintaining social distancing whenever possible, and taking other precautions to lessen chances of exposure to COVID-19,” the press release states.
Ainsworth still disagrees with Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask mandate, he said. According to the release, he considers such orders “a one-size-fits-all governmental overreach that erodes basic freedoms and liberties while removing an individual’s right to make their own health-related choices.”
The wearing of cloth or medical masks has been proven to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 and the more people who wear masks, the better. While not perfect, masks limit the spread of respiratory droplets that may contain infectious virus shed from the nose and mouth of the mask wearer.
It is possible — even likely — for symptomatic, pre-symptomatic and mildly symptomatic people to spread the virus. That’s why it’s important to wear a mask even when you’re not sick.
Cloth masks offer only minimal protection from others who are not masked, meaning that masks are not simply a matter of personal safety but safety of others. Masks are also only effective when worn over both the mouth and the nose. [Here’s a guide on how to wear masks properly.]
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told Ivey after she announced the statewide mask order that it was a “brilliant” idea. The order has been credited by Alabama infectious disease experts as having dramatically reduced the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks after the order went into effect.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told APR on Tuesday that from personal observation he is seeing more people not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, and said the state could dramatically reduce the risk of COVID-19 if the public regularly wore masks and wore them properly.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time since Aug. 31 — a sign that Alabama may be headed for another peak in hospitalizations as the state prepares for winter and flu season.
Faith in Action Alabama calls on law enforcement to protect voters from harassment
“In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.”
Nine clergy members from across the state have signed an open letter calling on local and state law enforcement to protect voters against intimidation and harassment at the polls.
The clergy are leaders in Faith in Action Alabama, a regional association of Christian congregations affiliated with the national group Faith in Action, the largest grassroots, faith-based organizing network in the country. It seeks to address a range of issues like gun violence, health care, immigration and voting rights.
This is their letter:
Across our country and here in Alabama, it is being seen that citizens are turning out in record numbers to vote early and by absentee ballots. It is very heartening to see so many of our fellow citizens energized and committed to exercising that most fundamental and critical duty of citizenship, the use of their franchise. As servant leaders of an ecumenical association of nearly 2,000 faith communities across our state we are certainly encouraging our congregants to fulfill this duty either through early, absentee or day of election voting. For us this is not only part of our civic duty, but as people of faith obligation as well.
Unfortunately, it it also largely known that there are forces in our country that are actively, publicly and fervently at work to suppress the votes of some of our fellow citizens. We write to implore you to use the full authority of your office and department to ensure that those who seek to vote, especially on November 3, 2020 are not assailed or intimidated by illegal harassment in their polling places. We believe these threats are pervasive enough and real enough that proactive measures should be in place as citizens come to vote throughout that day. The strong, visible presence of uniformed legitimate law officers will hopefully prevent any attempts at confrontation or intimidation and violence.
The history of our state is marked by the efforts of tens of thousands of Alabamians who marched, protested, brought legal actions, shed their blood and some even gave their lives that every citizen of this state might have full and free access to the ballot box. In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.
Please be assured of our prayers for you and the men and women of your department who have the awesome responsibility of providing public safety and equal protection under the law for every Alabamian. If we, the members of Faith in Action Alabama’s Clergy Leadership Team, can be of assistance please do not hesitate to call upon us.
Rev. Jeremiah Chester, St. Mark Baptist Church, Huntsville
Rev. David Frazier, Sr., Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, Mobile, and Moderator, Mobile Baptist Sunlight Association
Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Bishop Russell Kendrick, Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast
Bishop Seth O. Lartey, Alabama-Florida Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
President Melvin Owens, Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention
Bishop Harry L. Seawright, Ninth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
Dr. A.B. Sutton, Jr., Living Stones Temple, Fultondale
Father Manuel Williams, C.R., Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Montgomery
Report: Alabama’s Black Belt lags behind state in economic prospects
Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses.
It took Marquis Forge five years and 18 banks before he and his partner were able to open their company, Eleven86 Water, in Autauga County, just north of the Black Belt, and a report released Tuesday shows how Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses.
Forge, a former University of Alabama football player, told reporters during a briefing Monday that he considers Autauga County, which borders the Black Belt’s Lowndes County, part of the Black Belt, and said it shouldn’t have been so difficult to access the capital needed to start a business.
The report released Tuesday by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center titled “Black Belt manufacturing and Economic Prospects” is the last in the center’s Black Belt 2020 series, and found that only four of the state’s 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the center, are above the statewide average of 22.4 businesses per 1,000 residents, and just one, Montgomery County, was above the 2018 statewide average of personal income of $43,229.
Researchers also found that just three Black Belt counties are above the state’s average in gross domestic product being produced by counties of $45,348.
“To achieve Governor Ivey’s ambitious goal of 500,000 a million more Alabama workers with skills by 2025, all hands have to be ‘on deck.’ It will require higher labor force participation rates, particularly in the Black Belt, where the average is 20 points below the statewide average,” said Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center and one of the authors of the report.
“Due to smaller economies of scale, our approaches to education, workforce development, and community building will have to be different to reach Alabama’s Black Belt,” Katsinas continued. “In the longer term, we first must define the Black Belt, because you can’t measure what you can’t define. Then we must do what West Alabama Works is doing–go where the people are to bring hope by connecting them to a well-aligned lifelong learning system that makes work pay.”
Donny Jones, COO of Chamber of Commerce West Alabama and Executive Director of West AlabamaWorks, told reporters Monday that one of the keys to helping the Black Belt will be helping state and Congressional legislators understand the nuances of rural Alabama.
Jones said the state should look at how colleges are graded, and that many smaller colleges don’t get credit for putting students through programs that get them short-term certificates that lead to jobs.
“Those are some of the things on the statewide level that we can really start to work on,” Jones said, adding that they’ve already begun teaching modern manufacturing in Black Belt high schools that gives students college credits toward an associates degree while still in high school.
“I think that’s very important for individuals to understand the impact that we can have in our higher ed and our K-12 system, really works hand in glove to move the needle for workforce development,” Jones said.
Jim Purcell, State Higher Education executive officer of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, told reporters that it’s also important to look at one’s own community and identifying what is “unique and special,” and said he was recently in Autauga County, where he is from, and bought two cases of Eleven86 Water because he remembered how good the water there was.
“I think that’s what you’ve done, is you’ve taken the gift that Autauga’s environment has and enhanced it, so that the people can benefit from it,” Purcell said to Forge. “I think that’s the key.”
Asked what he’d tell state legislators to spur them to make changes so that other entrepreneurs wouldn’t have to struggle as hard as he did to open a business, Forge said he would ask for a clearer path for assistance.
“Instead of digging down through a tunnel with a spoon I would have someone outline the tracks on getting funds and assistance from local, state and the national level, because there are funds out there,” Forge said.
After going to 18 banks to get the financing he needed, he still had to liquify all his assets to make it happen, Forge said.
“How many people are going to do that?” he asked. “We shouldn’t have to do that.”
To read all of the Education Policy Center’s reports on Alabama’s Black Belt, visit here.