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Alabama House Judiciary Chairman Jim Hill says a “multi-prong” approach needed on prisons

Bill Britt

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There is a general belief among lawmakers that Gov. Kay Ivey will call a Special Legislative Session sometime in the fall to address the state’s failed prisons.

The real need, as many see, is not just building new facilities but also enacting sweeping justice reforms that impact the front end of the prison system.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, believes the state needs a “multi-prong” approach to corrections, which includes new prisons, better staffing, sentencing reform and a change in culture.

“Our prisons are antiquated, there may be a better word — but they were built to serve one purpose — and they did,” Hill said. “But that was decades ago and the mental health issues, the drug addiction issues just simply were not as pressing or as prevalent 30 or 40 years ago as they are today. So we’ve got to have different facilities to address those issues, but that’s just part of the solution.”

As a retired circuit judge, Hill has spent years working within the justice system, and he thinks it’s time we look at the prison population differently.

“I think we need to look and decide what we believe the makeup of the Alabama prison population needs to look like,” Hill said. “I guess what I’m saying is — people who we can deal with out of prison, or maybe in shorts spurts of incarceration, we need to look at that. People that are dangerous and violent, we need to look at that.”

Around the nation, legislatures are facing many of the same problems as Alabama recommendations from the National Conference of State Legislatures include “adjusting mandatory minimum sentences, drug penalty thresholds and felony thresholds,” to reserve prison space for, “the most dangerous offenders.” NCSL also recommends redirecting non-violent offenders to diversion programs, community supervision or treatment.

“I think we need community corrections, drug courts and mental health courts all over the state,” Hill said. “Here, the state just doesn’t have those resources, and we need to have those resources. Not only because it keeps people out of prison, but because it helps the people that need that particular type of help.”

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Hill also believes that some offenders need to remain in prison because of the nature of their crimes, but as federal courts and a recent DOJ report conclude, prisoners must be kept in humane and constitutional conditions.

“People that are dangerous and violent are the ones we need to provide the space to hold – and that space has got to be secure, it’s got to be safe,” Hill said. “It’s got to be safe not only for the prisoner, but it’s got to be safe for the officer who’s are watching them and guarding them.”

NCSL found that many states faced with the rising cost of incarceration are enacted policies that are “aiming in part to reduce recidivism rates by providing offenders with educational and job-training services and skills they need to be successful after release.”

Alabama’s Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn believes the department’s new strategic plan is an essential part of solving the problem facing corrections.

The plan, as Dunn explained, focuses on four areas: staffing, infrastructure, programming and culture.

“For too many years in the state, corrections were just all about providing some level of security, and some people have said it was even more akin to warehousing than it was actual corrections,” Dunn said. “Our mission is to be professional corrections officers who provide safe, secure and humane incarceration — that’s our job. But it must be safe, secure and humane.”

Strategic plan interview with ADOC Commissioner Dunn

The ADOC plan incorporates programs and training in line with models that have reduced recidivism through treatment, education and job-skills training.

“The goal is to preserve expensive prison space for the most dangerous offenders while redirecting others to diversion programs, community supervision or treatment,” according to a report by NCSL.

Hill believes Dunn has faced unfair criticism in his role as commissioner of the beleaguered prison system.

“I think sometimes Jeff Dunn gets the finger pointed at him, and that’s not entirely fair. I think he inherited a bad situation, and he has not gotten the resources that he has needed to combat it,” Hill said.

While the Legislature during session did approve pay increases for corrections officers, it failed to advance justice reform as was pointed out by the Democratic Caucus in the closing days of session.

Ivey approves pay raises, bonuses for corrections officers

“House Democrats support a holistic, comprehensive criminal justice reform plan that includes serious sentencing reform, improved staff and leadership training and increased accountability and oversight to address the culture of violence in our institutions.”

Justice reform and building new prisons is a priority with Gov. Kay Ivey, who a few weeks ago said, “I believe everyone — the Legislature, the Department of Justice, the courts and, most especially, the people of Alabama — realizes there is no single solution, and there are no easy answers. It’s an Alabama problem that calls for an Alabama solution.”

“I agree with Gov. Ivey,” Hill said. “‘It’s an Alabama problem, and we need an Alabama solution.’ That’s certainly a thought I can hold onto.”

Hill also thinks ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has not deserved the harsh criticism over his management of the department.

Hill has joined Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, in seeking justice reform. Ward has for years been a singular champion in the fight to upend the old system and replace it with a model that fits the times.

Both men are working with DOJ to address the systemic abuse and system-wide horror that inmates and corrections officers face on a daily basis.

Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

Ivey has not committed to calling a special session, but it seems at least some in the Legislature are prepared to face the tough challenges that will lead to change within the criminal justice system.

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More confirmed COVID-19 cases among state inmates, prison staff

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two more inmates in Alabama prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, while confirmed cases among prison staff continue to outpace cases among inmates. Four additional workers have also tested positive, bringing the total to 55. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Wednesday evening announced that two inmates who had been housed at the infirmary at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for the virus. Those men, who were being treated for preexisting medical conditions, have been taken to a local hospital for treatment of COVID-19, according to the release. 

The infirmary at Kilby prison has been placed on level-one quarantine, meaning inmates there are to be monitored for symptoms of coronavirus and have their temperatures checked twice daily, according to ADOC. 

Two more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total of confirmed cases among staff at the facility to nine. 

One employee at the Bullock Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19, according to the press release, becoming the third worker at the prison with a confirmed case. An inmate at the prison had also previously tested positive for coronavirus. 

One worker at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility, which cares for older and sick inmates at most risk from serious complications and death from coronavirus, has also tested positive for COVID-19. 

ADOC on May 6 announced that an inmate at Hamilton Aged and Infirmed tested positive for the virus. A worker at the facility told APR earlier this month that staff there was concerned that the virus may have entered the facility after a correctional officer was ordered to sit with an inmate from another facility at a hospital, where the man later tested positive for COVID-19 and died the following day. 

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That man, 66-year-old Dave Thomas, tested positive for COVID-19 on May 6, according to the ADOC, and died within 24 hours of receiving the test results.

Despite the inmate’s confirmed COVID-19 test results, the correctional officer was ordered to return to work at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility without self-quarantining or being tested for the virus, the worker told APR

An ADOC spokeswoman told APR that all correctional officers who had contact with the deceased inmate all received tests for COVID-19 and reported negative results. The worker says that’s untrue, and that the officer hasn’t been tested. 

ADOC does not test staff for COVID-19 but requests that those who test positive self-report to the department. ADOC has said that inmates are only tested if they’re exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and only at the recommendation of a physician. 

As of Wednesday, 11 inmates in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and just two cases remain active, according to ADOC. 

As of Tuesday, 152 of approximately 22,000 state inmates had been tested for the virus, according to the department. 

It was unclear Wednesday whether ADOC plans to begin testing inmates who may not be exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. 

Attempts to reach an ADOC spokeswoman Wednesday evening weren’t immediately successful. 

Some state prison systems have begun testing all inmates, and the results of those tests have shown the virus had spread in many facilities among inmates who showed no symptoms. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections tested all 38,130 state prisoners over a 15-day span and found that 3,263 of them tested positive, according to MLive

“The vast majority of the prisoners we found who tested positive had no symptoms and were making it more challenging to control the spread of this illness.” Heidi Washington, Michigan Department of Corrections director, said in a written statement, according to MLive.

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Confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers reaches 51

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of prison workers in Alabama who’ve tested positive for coronavirus ticked up to 51 on Tuesday.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said just a single inmate has an active case of the virus. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Tuesday said three more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total confirmed cases among staff in that facility to seven. 

There were also two additional confirmed cases among workers at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, ADOC said in the press release, bringing the total of infected staff there to eight. 

One worker at the Kilby Correctional Facility, one at the Bullock Correctional Facility and another at the Ventress Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19.

Kilby prison has had four confirmed cases among staff, Bullock prison two and at Ventress prison there have been 11 workers to self-report positive test results. 

While the number of confirmed cases among staff have continued to rise in recent weeks, cases among inmates have not.

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Of the nine inmates in seven state facilities who’ve tested positive, just one had an active case as of Tuesday, according to ADOC. 

Of the approximately 22,000 state inmates, 143 had been tested for coronavirus as of May 22, the last day ADOC has updated testing numbers. 

ADOC’s announcement Tuesday of more cases among staff comes after Alabama saw its largest single-day increase on COVID-19 cases on Monday when 646 new cases were confirmed. 

ADOC halted visitation and volunteer entries at state facilities on March 19 to help prevent outbreaks in the state’s dangerously overcrowded facilities, but the department is working on a plan to resume “some facility operations thoughtfully, including visitation and volunteer entry, but has not yet established a definitive timeline,” according to the release. 

“Once established, the Department’s intent is to keep the public apprised of our anticipated plans and timeline to resume these activities safely in a manner that minimizes the risk of exposure to the virus,” the statement reads. “A primary goal and concern of the ADOC is protecting the safety, security, and well-being of our inmates, staff, and the public during these unprecedented times. We continue to monitor COVID-19’s evolving impact closely on our correctional system, the state, and the country while we assess and analyze additional data in order to make informed and strategic operational decisions.”

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Alabama prisons releasing some inmates early amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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Updated at 12 p.m. to include responses from the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Department of Corrections has automated the process of releasing early some inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses and who are nearing the end of their sentences, according to a department document obtained by APR

ADOC’s decision to automate the process by which inmates are mandatorily released early comes after 40 prison workers have tested positive for the virus as of Thursday. 

Advocates have for months asked that the state begin releasing inmates as the COVID-19 outbreak continued to spread, threatening the lives of those living and working inside Alabama’s overcrowded prisons. 

In a response to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said that the announcement in the letter is in no way related to COVID-19, and is simply the automation of early release dates for inmates, which was before done by hand-calculation and made possible by a state law passed in 2015.

Confirmed cases among inmates in Alabama prisons have remained remarkably low — just nine of approximately 22,000 have tested positive for the virus — but so has testing among inmates. Just 135 inmates, or about 0.6 percent of the inmate population, have been tested, according to ADOC. 

Steve Watson, associate commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections Plans and Programs, in a letter to staff and inmates on Wednesday describes the “mandatory release Automation” program that the letter states went into effect Tuesday. 

According to the letter, inmates convicted of sex offenses against a child under 12, an inmate serving a life sentence or those serving a sentence pursuant to Alabama code 15-18-8, which is the Alabama Split Sentence Act and includes offenses considered by state law as violent crimes, aren’t eligible for early release.

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Only those convicted of offenses committed on or after Jan. 30, 2016, may be released, according to the letter. 

Those released early are to be placed on supervised probation by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and remain under probation until the end of their sentences, according to the document. 

“To ensure intent of the statute is carried out in the interest of public safety, no inmate will be released until ABPP has communicated to Central Records Division that the home plan/supervision is approved, and that victim notification has been made consistent with the Mandatory Release statute,” Watson said in the letter. 

Terry Abbott, spokesman for the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, in a message to APR on Friday said that the bureau will work with ADOC to “facilitate the transition of mandatorily released inmates to ensure maximum public safety.”

“The automation of the mandatory release process by ADOC is a positive development overall,” Abbott said.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told APR on Friday that by releasing inmates shortly before the end of their sentences and by providing supervision after release, studies show they’re less likely to re-offend. Ward also said that the state Legislature is going to have to provide the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles with the resources and parole officers needed to provide that supervision, however.

“They still have money left over that we appropriated in 2016, 2017 and 2018 that they haven’t used yet,” Ward said of the bureau. “They have money there. It’s just a slow process hiring these folks too.”

Ward said Alabama law allows early release of inmates in only a couple instances, one of which is the early release under the 2015 statute, and the other is by way of medical furloughs.

“I don’t think it’s been used very much, mainly because it’s such a stringent statute,” Ward said of medical furlough releases.

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR Friday said that the latest action is “not a new directive to release inmates, nor is it in any way related to COVID-19 or recommendations from the DOJ.”

“This memo simply informs ADOC staff that an existing time-computation process used to determine mandatory release dates (an output of SB67), which previously have been calculated by hand, has now been automated. The ADOC has been working to automate this formerly manual and time-consuming process for some time now,” Rose said.

Ward said it seems clear that ADOC is aware of the need to release some inmates amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“They know what the circumstances are like inside there, whether it warrants it or not,” Ward said. “And I think they have expressed concern about COVID-19 and the impact it could have with overcrowding.”

Ward said the decision to release some inmates could only help with the state’s discussion with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the federal agency’s concerns about overcrowding, high homicide rates and sexual assaults. 

“But I think the staff over there would look at this through the lens of public safety,” Ward said of ADOC’s decision-making process.

Abbott in a followup message to APR on Friday said that this isn’t the first time inmates have been released on mandatory releases, however, and that the bureau is currently supervising 294 former inmates who were released on mandatory release. To date, the bureau has supervised 430 inmates released mandatorily through the legislation approved in 2015. Of the 294 the bureau is currently supervising, 114 are considered violent offenders. (Updated at 1:38 p.m. to include additional comments from Abbott) 

ADOC on Thursday announced that two staff members at the Ventress Correctional Facility, one at the Easterling Correctional Facility and another at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility and Community Work Center all self-reported as positive for coronavirus. 

While the number of prison staff testing positive for the virus has continued to rise in recent weeks, confirmed cases among inmates hasn’t yet broken into double digits. 

As of Thursday, all nine inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 have all since recovered, according to ADOC. 

Colony Wilson, 41, who was serving at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, died on May 11 after inmates at the facility told APR through letters and interviews with family members that Wilson had complained of shortness of breath, a symptom of COVID-19.

Prison staff also failed to promptly give Wilson aid after she collapsed in a stairwell, those inmates said. 

ADOC is investigating the death, and had previously told APR that Wilson hadn’t been tested for coronavirus before her death because she wasn’t exhibiting symptoms. 

ADOC announced on Wednesday that a worker at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center had tested positive for coronavirus.

Dave Thomas, 66, a terminally ill man serving a life-sentence at St. Clair Correctional Facility died April 16 after having been taken to a local hospital on April 4. He died less than 24 hours after testing positive for COVID-19, ADOC said in a statement at the time.

ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19 outbreak.

Despite the overcrowding in state prisons and threat to life from COVID-19, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles at the start of the outbreak suspended all parole hearings.

The three-member Pardons and Paroles Board on Tuesday held its first hearing since the coronavirus crisis began, and released just two of 22 inmates eligible for parole that day.

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COVID-19 cases among prison workers reach 36

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two more prison workers have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total of confirmed cases among staff to 36 across 16 state facilities, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Wednesday. 

A worker at the Camden Community Based Facility and Community Work Center in Camden and an employee at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center have self-reported positive test results, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) said in a press release Wednesday. 

Four employees self-reported positive tests Tuesday.

ADOC is investigating whether other workers or inmates were exposed to the two employees, according to the release. Of the 36 infected workers, seven have been cleared by doctors to return to work. 

There have been no new COVID-19 cases among inmates since May 9, when ADOC announced the ninth confirmed case among inmates. As of Monday, the latest day ADOC has updated testing numbers to the department’s website, just 135 of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates had been tested for the virus. 

One woman serving at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center died after other women serving at the center told APR she had complained to staff of breathing problems, which is a symptom of COVID-19. 

Colony Wilson, 41, was declared dead on the morning of May 11 at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Inmates told APR through letters and family members that she had complained the night before she died of having trouble breathing, but that staff failed to intervene before she collapsed in a stairwell, and didn’t provide timely aid to her after the collapse. 

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An ADOC spokeswoman told APR last week said Wilson wasn’t tested for the virus before she died, and it’s unclear if she was tested after death. ADOC said the death is under investigation and declined further comment. 

Last week, ADOC began installing infrared cameras in all of the state’s facilities that can detect if a person entering or exiting has a temperature over 100 degrees, according to the press release. The technology will add a layer of screening and reduce contact between people caused by staff having to take temperature readings one-on-one, according to ADOC.

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