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Department of Education asks for $150K to defend former board member

Bill Britt

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Alabama State Department of Education is requesting $150,000 from education funding to defend a former board member, as first reported by education writer Larry Lee.

Mary Scott Hunter is being sued personally for her role for allegedly throttling Dr. Craig Pouncey’s appointment as state school board superintendent in 2016.

APR first reported news of a scheme to derail Pouncey’s selection in August 2016.

Ethics Commission Inserts Itself in Superintendent Selection, As Do Others

The plot began when an anonymous package was left for board members that accused Pouncey of cheating on his doctoral dissertation and using state personnel and resources to earn his degree.

The anonymous letter, with emails from 2009 containing thin allegations against Pouncey, was sent to the Ethics Commission by Juliana T. Dean, general counsel for ASDE, at Hunter’s directive as an investigation would later reveal.

Anonymous Accusations Against Superintendent Candidate

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In an extraordinary move, then-general counsel for the State Ethics Commission Hugh Evans, III, wrote a letter to Dean saying, “We have received a complaint alleging certain possible violations of the Ethics Law on the part of Warren Craig Pouncey.”

Why the Ethics Commission acted so quickly and publicly remains a mystery because by law, the commission is not authorized to investigate anonymous complaints or to acknowledge publicly that they are conducting an inquiry.

Pouncey was cleared of all allegations but was denied the position of state superintendent.

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According to a report commissioned by ALSDE, the scheme to upend Pouncey’s election was hatched and executed by board members Hunter, then-Interim Superintendent Philip Cleveland, Dean and others.

The internal investigation also found unnamed individuals who may have participated in the plot.

“Most regrettably, these five participants have caused grave and serious harm,” the report states. “And cast a major shadow on the veracity and credibility of the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education (through no fault of the majority) that still lingers to the present day.”

BREAKING: Leaked report connects five individuals scheme to smear Pouncey, whitewash the investigation

Subsequently, Pouncey filed a lawsuit in which he said the actions taken against him were “willful, malicious and fraudulent.” He also claims efforts by Hunter and others were “so extreme in degree that it goes beyond the bounds of decency and was atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.”

Pouncey files lawsuit, alleges fraud in superintendent search

Now, the Department of Education is asking for $150,000 in taxpayer funds to defend Hunter.

Hunter has since left the board, most recently mounting an unsuccessful bid for state Senate.

A summary of events surrounding the lawsuit with an accompanying timeline can be found in this report by APR.

Rounding up the Pouncey Scheme

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Crime

ADOC investigating possible suicide at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The death of a man serving in the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County on Sunday is being investigated as a possible suicide. 

Marquell Underwood

Marquell Underwood, 22, was found in his cell unresponsive at approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, according to a statement by the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Underwood was being held in solitary confinement, known as “segregation” cells in Alabama prisons. Suicides in such isolated cells is central to an ongoing lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

“He was not on suicide watch. All attempts at life saving measures were unsuccessful,” The statement reads. “ADOC cannot release additional details of the incident at this time, pending an ongoing investigation and an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death.” 

Underwood pleaded guilty of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Gregorie Somerville in Tuscaloosa and was sentenced to life in prison. 

Underwood’s death is at least the second preventable death inside state prisons this year. 

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Antonio Bell’s death on Jan. 9 at Holman prison is being investigated as a possible drug overdose. 

Last year at least 6 people serving in Alabama prisons died as a result of suicide, according to news accounts. During 2019 there were 13 homicides in state prisons, and as many as 7 overdose deaths, according to news accounts and ADOC statements. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2014 lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections over access to mental health care for incarcerated people is ongoing. 

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“The risk of suicide is so severe and imminent that the court must redress it immediately,” U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in a May 4, 2019, ruling. 

Judge Thompson in a 2017 ordered required ADOC to check on incarcerated people being held in segregation cells every 30 minutes, to increase mental health staffing and numerous other remedies to reduce the number of preventable deaths. 

“The skyrocketing number of suicides within ADOC, the majority of which occurred in segregation, reflects the combined effect of the lack of screening, monitoring, and treatment in segregation units and the dangerous conditions in segregation cells,” Thompson wrote in his order. “Because prisoners often remain in segregation for weeks, months, or even years at a time, their decompensation may not become evident until it is too late—after an actual or attempted suicide.” 

The SPLC in a Jan. 2019 filing wrote to the court that “the situation has become worse, not better, since the Liability Opinion. There have been twelve completed suicides since December 30, 2017…Defendants fail to provide the most basic monitoring of people in segregation. Defendants fail to do anything to learn from past suicides to prevent additional suicides.”

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Crime

Early morning contraband raid at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday raided the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County to collect contraband. 

More than 200 officials from ADOC, state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Department of Natural Resources, Game Warden Division, and Russel and Coffee County Sheriff’s departments conducted the early morning search, according to an ADOC press release. 

“Operation Restore Order is a critical initiative designed to create safer living and working conditions across Alabama’s correctional system,” ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement. “The presence of Illegal contraband including drugs, which undoubtedly is perpetuated by the presence of illegal cell phones, is a very real threat we must continue to address.” 

“Additionally, our aging and severely dilapidated facilities are constructed of increasingly breakable materials that ill-intentioned inmates can obtain and fashion into dangerous weapons. The presence of illegal contraband puts everyone at risk, and action – including Operation Restore Order raids – must regularly be taken to eliminate it,” Dunn’s statement reads. “We remain committed to doing everything in our power to root out the sources of contraband entry into our facilities, and will punish those who promote its presence to the full extent of the law.”

ADOC is developing plans to conduct more of these larger raids, in addition to smaller, unannounced searches, which prison officials hope will help the department “develop intelligence-based programs to identify contraband trends and provide necessary intelligence to identify corruption indicators.” 

“The public should contact ADOC’s Law Enforcement Service Division at 1-866-293-7799 with information that may lead to the arrest of anyone attempting to introduce illegal contraband into state prisons. The public may also report suspicious activity by going to the ADOC Website at http://www.doc.alabama.gov/investigationrequest.”

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‘He was a human being’ Family hopes son’s death at Holman prison not in vain

Eddie Burkhalter

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Antonio Bell (design by Chip Brownlee/APR)

After a decade behind bars, all that came out of Holman prison was Antonio Bell’s body and a pair of new white Nikes, still wrapped in plastic. 

Before he died on Jan. 9 of a likely drug overdose, 29-year-old Antonio told his family that it’s the guards who most often smuggle drugs inside. The family awaits a toxicology report, but statements to the family by prison staff indicate it was likely an overdose that killed him. 

Bell’s family wants to know how a man being kept in a cell alone could have gotten the drugs that likely killed him, and have for years asked prison officials to look into two incidents in which they say correctional officers assaulted Bell. In one, nine other incarcerated men say they watched as an officer dragged a handcuffed Antonio down a flight of stairs. 

Antonio Bell

Jason Britt, Antonio’s father, said his son made mistakes, but that his 20-year prison sentence on an escape charge “shouldn’t have been his death sentence.” 

Now that he’s gone, his family continues to ask questions about how it happened, and hope that his death and the attention brought to it might help others still inside. 

For Bell, though, he’s still angry about a system that failed to keep his son alive long enough for him to serve his time, and a system so broken that even getting his son’s body was an ordeal. 

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When the family was notified of Antonio’s death Britt said he was told someone would call him the next day to walk him through the process of getting Antonio’s body and belongings, but that no one called. Britt said he called the prison later the next afternoon, a Thursday, and was told his body had been sent for an autopsy. 

“So I was waiting on them to call me back to say his body is ready to we can make arrangements to get him home, but no one called,”   Britt said. 

He called the prison again on Monday and was told that his son’s body had been ready since Friday evening. 

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“That’s very frustrating. Where are your processes?,” Britt said. “An inmate is still a human person.” 

Britt retired from the U.S. Army after 20 years of service. He’d been in Antonio’s life since 1992, when his son was just a year old. 

“He was outgoing even as a little bit baby. Full of energy and spirit,” Britt said. 

When he was little Antonio had a speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce words with “TR” well, Britt said. 

“He was afraid of big trucks. When he’d see one he’d say ‘big ruck! big ruck!,’” Britt said with a laugh. Speech therapy helped. 

“Once they cleared that up he was a talker. From five or six years old he could hold a conversation with the oldest, most intelligent adult,” Britt said. 

Antonio loved football. He was a middle linebacker, and big. At 6 foot and 190 pounds as a freshman, his high school coach asked him to play with the varsity squad. 

Antonio traveled with the family from Britt’s first assignment at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, to Fort Gordon near Augusta, Georgia, then to Fort Carson in Colorado and on to the Atlanta area. 

Antonio was an avid reader. Before the family moved to a new city he’d read up on the place and tell the family what they’d need to see, where they could go, his father said. 

In 2003 Antonio went to live with his grandmother, Elizabeth Wynn, in Tallahassee while her son was deployed to Iraq on one of several overseas tours.  

Wynn said her grandson would travel with her for her job with the Florida Department of Children and Families. That summer, the two traveled to Jacksonville, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale together. 

“He was just thrilled. He would help at the reception desk at the meetings,” Wynn said. “He will be there with the person handing out the name tags and talking to people, getting to know people. He just enjoyed that.” 

She’s since moved to Atlanta, and said former coworkers and church members still ask about Antonio, and remember the bright, confident, curious young man whom they met in 2003. 

As he got older, Antonio began getting into trouble. Minors things, his father said, but in 2009 it got worse. 

On July 4, 2009, Antonio was speeding while driving through Abbeville in Henry County, headed to visit family in Florida. The car was stolen, Bell said, although police later determined that Antonio wasn’t the person who stole it. He was arrested, taken to the Henry County jail and later charged with speeding, eluding, possessing a firearm and receiving stolen property, according to court records. 

“So my wife and I thought, and this is the hard part to talk about, we decided that it would be best not to bail him out. Maybe it’ll teach him a lesson,” Britt said. 

Seventeen days after being arrested Antonio hit a sheriff’s deputy in the county jail and tried to escape, according to court records. He tried to escape again in November using a makeshift key to try and remove handcuffs while at a court hearing, according to those records. In August 2010 Antonio pleaded guilty to the escape charge and was sentenced to 20 years, according to court records. 

Antonio spent about a year in the Limestone Correctional Facility, spent time at the William E. Donaldson prison and at St. Clair prison in Springville, before being transferred to the notoriously violent Holman prison. 

“We would talk to him and he’d say ‘Daddy. I can’t even begin to explain to you how it is here. The stuff that we see on TV. That’s not real, Dad. You’ve got to be ready at all times. Everybody has weapons,’” Britt said. Antonio also worried that there weren’t enough correctional officers to keep peace, and told his father that understaffing was increasing the dangers for everyone. 

Antonio’s concerns were mirrored in an April 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice detailing the agency’s lengthy investigation of state’s prisons for men, which showed the state was failing to protect men from rampant sexual assaults, violence and homicides. Federal investigators noted understaffing and an inability to keep contraband out of prisons. 

Alabama’s prisons are full of dangerous drugs, the U.S. Justice Department found, which noted in the report that “ADOC prisoners are dying of drug overdoses and being subjected to severe violence related to the drug trade in Alabama’s prisons.”

Synthetic cannabinoids, known as synthetic marijuana or “flakka”, was prevalent in prisons, investigators found. Between December 2016 and August 2018 the federal agency found that 22 incarcerated men died of synthetic cannabinoid overdoses, and in the first half of 2018, when the ADOC stopped producing documents for the Justice Department, at least 10 men died from the drug. 

An ADOC Intelligence and Investigation Division investigators told federal authorities that “without a doubt” the largest way drugs were entering prisons was by staff smuggling them in. Correctional officers weren’t being searched upon entry into prisons, the report found, and ADOC policies weren’t able to control the problem. 

Drug use at Holman prison was out of control, federal investigators found. 

“Two shift commanders of death row and segregation at Holman estimated that 50- 60% of their prisoners were using drugs. One shift commander over general population at Holman estimated that 95% of that facility’s prisoners were using drugs,” the report reads. 

During a joint state House and Senate budget hearing on Jan. 23 Dunn was asked by a legislator how contraband was getting into the prison, Dunn said that it was coming in in a variety of ways. 

“Some of it is thrown over the fence; We have challenges in the visitation area; and there is an aspect where we have staff that are engaged in criminal activity by bringing in contraband,” Dunn said. 

Dunn said during the hearing that over 70 correctional officers have either been arrested or dismissed for bringing in contraband in the previous three years.

“We do routine searches in our parking lot and our staff as they come in and out of the facility,” Dunn said during the hearing. “We have increased that.”

Asked how many correctional officers had been arrested for crimes related to contraband between 2017 and 2019, ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Banks wrote in a response to APR on Feb. 20 that 15 correctional officers had been arrested during those years on charges related to contraband. 

“We aggressively will investigate all allegations of corruption, including contraband trafficking, as soon as we are made aware. We hold each member of our staff to the highest standards of law enforcement. Any ADOC employee who commits a violation will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Banks wrote. 

Asked for clarification on Dunn’s statement to legislators that 70 correctional officers had been arrested or dismissed during those years for contraband, Banks on Monday told APR that Dunn’s figure included correctional officers and prison staff arrested for any crime, not just for contraband. 

Banks said Monday she was uncertain how many of the 70 may have been fired but not charged with crimes related to contraband, and that ADOC staff would have to research the matter more.

Antonio had hoped that he could get out of the violent prisons on parole, and in a letter he wrote to Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board members in June 2016, just 17 days before his case was to go before the three-member board, Antonio pleaded for them to look beyond what his paper record might show. 

“In these twenty-five and a half years of my life, I’ve learned that just because a person has eyes doesn’t necessarily mean they can see,” Antonio wrote in the letter. “…I think you all should be provided a closer look into the minds of Alabama State Prisoners and the environment they are subjected to; because it isn’t just for the sake of the people like me or our families, it’s for the sake of the betterment of society as a whole.” 

“Young men are coming to prison and are leaving in worse shape than they came. That really saddens me. The Alabama Department of Corrections needs changing and I’m dedicated to helping it,” he wrote. 

Antonio’s words likely never made it to Parole Board members. Days before his hearing he got into a fight with another inmate and his parole hearing was canceled, Britt said. He did get a parole hearing in 2017, but was denied. 

Britt said he was scheduled for another possible parole hearing in September of this year, and that “we thought he had a good chance.” He was being kept in segregation, he said, so there was less chance of him being caught up in a fight, but it wasn’t to be. 

The Britts received a call at home from another incarcerated man in May 2014 who said that they needed to come check on Antonio. 

Soon after, the Britts were allowed to visit him in prison, but were told only of them could do so, so Britt said his wife, Terrell LaRita Britt, entered to see that Antonio’s head was bruised and bandaged. He had cuts to his face and told his Mother that correctional officers had beaten him, Britt said. 

The family asked prison officials and investigators with the ADOC’s Investigations and Intelligence Division to look into the matter, Britt said, but never received a response. 

Three years later, on March 8, 2017, Britt said Antonio was again assaulted by correctional officers at the Donaldson Correctional Facility. 

A disciplinary report signed by correctional officer Zackery McLemore on March 9, 2017, states that the day before Antonio was ordered to “lock down inside your assigned cell” and failed to do so. He was charged with failing to obey a direct order, according to the document. 

Statements signed by nine other inmates and given to APR by the family describe the incident in detail. Those inmates say they witnessed Antonio trying to “lock down” in his cell but that he was called outside the cell by a correctional officer, who pepper sprayed Antonio, handcuffed him and hit him along with other officers before one officer dragged him down a flight of stairs while in handcuffs. 

“He was helpless, and didn’t do anything to be beaten in that manner,” wrote one of the incarcerated men. “To restrain a person is an orderly procedure, but to beat a person is brutality, and from what I witnessed (on March 8, 2017) was police on inmate brutality.” 

Another incarcerated man wrote that a female correctional officer working in a cubical came out once Antonio was handcuffed “ran up the stairs and kicked inmate Bell in the face three times” while two other male officers punched him repeatedly. He wrote that another correctional officer “grabbed inmate Bell around his neck (while handcuffed behind his back) and drug him down the flight of stairs. After being drug out of my sight I then heard inmate Bell screaming in agony.” 

APR is not naming the other incarcerated men who signed statements to prevent any possibility of retribution against them. Antonio considered, but never filed, a lawsuit in the matter.

Britt said he again contacted ADOC’s Investigations and Intelligence Division and asked that they look into the incident, but that he never got an answer.

His parents bought him the pair of white Nikes on Nov. 27, 2018, through the prison purchasing system, but soon after they stopped hearing from him. 

In early 2019, after being kept in segregation for many months,  Antonio stopped responding to letters and wouldn’t take calls. 

Wynn said she kept writing to her grandson regardless, but he wouldn’t respond. 

“I would say, even if it’s not a letter, just something on a piece of paper in your hand writing, I just need to know, you know?” Wynn said. “I always would tell him, you know I got money on your books. You can call me. Call collect. I don’t know what happened.” 

She kept all of his old letters, and in one, written while he was at the Limestone prison, Antonio wrote about all the classes he was able to take there and that he was told he was going to be sent back to Holman prison where he’d previously been, and was worried about it, Wynn said. She encouraged him to try and stay at Limestone for as long as he could. 

“After he got back down there he did write me this letter.He said, Grandma. You were right. I should have stayed at Limestone as long as they would let me, because Holman…was not like it was then, so that gave me a clue that it is terrible.” 

In a letter to his grandmother on Nov. 30, 2015, Antonio wrote to thank her for a birthday card he’d gotten with a special note from her, which he said had “been read several times.” 

“Lately, I’ve been keeping a journal mainly for the purpose of understanding my thoughts & feelings,” Antonio wrote. “I’ve been incarcerated since 7-4-09 and I’ve yet to accept that. I constantly frustrate myself because my mind is everywhere but here.” 

“I can’t continue to put myself through this Grandma, so I’ve decided to let go. Dying before I get the chance to do everything I want to do in life has always been one of my fears,” Antonio  wrote.”But I’ve learned the painful lesson that I’m probably not going to do a third of what I want to do.”  

On Oct. 3, 2019, the Britts wrote a letter to Holman prison warden Cynthia Stewert, Gov. Kay Ivey, ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn and to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division expressing concern that despite their attempts since August to reach their son, or someone at the prison who could put their minds at ease, they’d received no return calls to verify that he was alive and well. 

“Please respond to us via letter and/or telephone call regarding Mr. Bell’s welfare and let us know for certain that he is not in any way incapacitated such that he cannot respond to our letters nor place collect telephone calls,” the Britts wrote. “We just need to know that he is alive and well! Again, we are gravely concerned that something has happened to Mr. Bell and we, his family, has not been notified.” 

Not long after sending the letter Antonio’s mother received a call from prison staff who said that Antonio was on the line as well. 

“Ma, I love you to death. You hear me ma? I love you to death,” Antonio told his mother, adding that he wasn’t a “dope fiend.” 

Britt said that after his death prison staff told the family that Antonio had given all his belongings away, except for the shoes. 

He’d had many books the family sent him over the years, Wynn said, and they knew he kept a journal. Surely he’d have given away the shoes as well, she wonders. 

The family can’t be certain, however, that Antonio, who was being kept in segregation, received the shoes from prison staff before he died. 

“He was a human being. He was not just one of those numbers, and I think that’s how people see it,” Wynn said. “Put all of the prisoners in the same boat, you know. They deserve it.” 

Wynn said her grandson was a young man when he entered Alabama’s prisons, and that the years went by “in an environment that was not rehabilitative. Just warehousing people.” 

“We are hurt. Devastated,” she said.

The family asks that those who wish to do so donate in Antonio’s name to the Montgomery nonprofit legal advocacy organization Equal Justice Initiative by visiting here.

 

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Sheriffs want a database with all concealed carry permits

Brandon Moseley

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Monday the Alabama Sheriff’s Association announced their support for a bill that would create a statewide repository of information about concealed carry permits and would allow officers to check the validity of a concealed carry permit.

House Bill 308 is sponsored by State Representative Shane Stringer (R-Mobile).

“In the past 13 months, Alabamians have encountered a terrible onslaught of violent conduct towards law enforcement officers,” the Sheriffs announced in a press release. “We have suffered a record seven deaths of law enforcement officers in Alabama alone as a result of handgun violence. Recognizing this disturbing trend, the Alabama Sheriffs Association is announcing the creation of a new information system designed for the protection and assistance of all law enforcement officers in the State of Alabama. The Alabama Responding Officer Warning System (AROWS) is designed to verify the validity of an Alabama issued Concealed Carry Permit and will be automatically accessed by law enforcement through the L.E.T.S./ACJIC criminal justice information system any time an officer performs a traffic stop or engages in other law enforcement investigations. Among other data, it will contain critical information such as recent arrests for violent offenses to give officers a clear picture of the persons they are dealing with.’

House Bill 308, introduced in the Alabama Legislature last Thursday, codifies the AROWS system. It is sponsored by Representatives Stringer, Reynolds, Farley, Isbell, Marques, Pettus, Simpson, Sorrells, Shaver, McCampbell, Hanes, Ledbetter and Rich.

In addition to the statewide concealed carry permit repository, HB308 also standardizes the appearance, size and information content of all concealed carry pistol permits across the state to better assist officers in recognizing fraudulent concealed carry permits.

Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham is the current president of the Alabama Sheriffs Association.

“We owe an absolute duty to every Alabama officer who puts his life on the line for us every day to see that he or she makes it home to their family safely,” Sheriff Cunningham said. “The AROWS system is a huge step towards arming him with as much information as possible to ensure that happens and we don’t suffer yet another officer shot or killed.”

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The Sheriffs have consistently opposed “Constitutional carry” laws that would end the state requirement that Alabama citizens must purchase a concealed carry permit from their local sheriff’s department. They also oppose legislation giving the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency the authority over managing a state database.

“In recent legislative sessions there have been efforts to remove the local sheriff’s ability to oversee the issuance, monitoring and revocation of pistol permits and transfer this duty to an overworked and understaffed state agency in Montgomery,” the Sheriffs wrote in a statement. “Sheriffs are in our communities, at our schools, in our churches and on our streets every day protecting and serving our citizens. They come in contact with both good law-abiding citizens as well as the bad ones. They know their constituents better than anyone and it is critical that he or she remain in this role.”

“We applaud the Alabama Legislature for their assistance in this effort,” the Sheriffs continued. “Members of both the House of Representatives and the Alabama Senate have been extremely supportive and helpful in making sure our law enforcement officers are kept safe. This collaborative effort between the Alabama Legislature and the Alabama Sheriffs is a great example of governmental entities collaborating to keep all Alabama citizens safe and well protected.”

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Alabama is already an “open-carry” state, where all citizens, who have not lost their gun rights, are entitled to wear their guns openly on their person. Covering the weapon with a jacket or blazer or putting it in a purse however requires having a concealed carry permit. Transporting a gun in a motor vehicle, including a motorcycle, unless it is unloaded and locked in a box out of reach also requires the purchase of a concealed carry permit. Alabama citizens who do not want to purchase a permit, but who still want to have a weapon with them in their vehicles can legally have a long gun (rifle or shotgun) with them.

Senate Bill 1 “Constitutional carry” is being sponsored by State Senator Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa). It has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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