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Trump says he favors background checks, but Congress uncertain

Eddie Burkhalter

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Following the murders of 31 people in two mass shootings last week, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he supports stricter background checks for gun sales, but it’s less clear whether Congress agrees. 

“I think background checks are important,” Trump told reporters at the White House Wednesday before a planned trip to Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. “I don’t want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people.” 

Trump said while he believes there’s support for background checks, there’s little chance of passing legislation to limit high-capacity gun magazines or ban assault weapons like those used in numerous mass shootings in the U.S. 

“You have to have a political appetite within Congress, and so far I haven’t seen that,” Trump told reporters. 

In El Paso, Texas a 22-year-old man opened fire in a Walmart on August 3, killing 22 and injuring more than two dozen. 

About 20 minutes before the shooting the killer is believed to have posted a racist, anti-immigrant, white supremacist manifesto on the online message board 8chan. At least eight of those killed were Mexican nationals, according to news accounts. 

Some of the language used echoed rhetoric used by Trump and other Republican lawmakers and included the phrase “Hispanic invasion” and encouraged immigrants to return to their countries. The author wrote that he held those believes before Trump took office. 

Speaking to reporters at the White House Trump dismissed claims from those who say Trump’s rhetoric on immigration is partly to blame for the racist violence seen in El Paso. 

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“I think my rhetoric brings people together,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post, adding that he is “concerned about the rise of any group of hate.”

At a rally in Florida three months before the two shootings Trump spoke about immigrants.

“How do you stop these people? You can’t, there’s…” Trump said before stopping as someone attending in the audience yelled back to him “Shoot them.” 

Trump smirked and shook his head before joking that “only in the panhandle you can get away with that statement” to cheers from the crowd. 

On August 4 a 24-year-old man murdered nine people and injured 27 more with a .223-caliber high-capacity rifle with 100-round drum magazines in a popular nightlife district in downtown Dayton, Ohio. The man killed his own sister, who came to the area with the shooter and a male companion, who was also injured. The gunman was shot and killed by police seconds after opening fire. 

A Twitter account that may have belonged to the Ohio shooter retweeted photographs of people beating up white supremacists and klansmen, and tweeted support for Antifa and Democratic candidates, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. A friend of the shooter told the Dayton Daily News that he often talked about mass shootings and that his political views leaned left. 

While the El Paso shooter’s motives were racially and politically driven, according to the man’s own writings, authorities have said the Ohio shooter’s motives are less clear. 

Authorities found writings in the man’s home that expressed an interest in killing people, but the writing didn’t indicate that he was motivated by race or politics, two law enforcement officials told CNN. 

Right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 murders in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League, making them responsible for more deaths that year than any other since 1995. 

Trump gave a speech Monday in which he urged the nation to condemn “racism, bigotry and white supremacy” before calling for a stop to the glorification of violence through video games. 

In the days following the two deadly shootings lawmakers again returned to discussions of gun legislation, although support for various proposals is mixed. 

Attempts to reach U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, on Monday were unsuccessful, but in a statement on August 4, Rogers didn’t mention gun legislation, but instead focused on online radicalization. 

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, responding by email through a spokeswoman, declined comment when asked by APR on Wednesday whether he supports either strengthened background checks or “red flag” laws. 

Shelby on August 4 tweeted “Horrified by the senseless and tragic shootings in El Paso and Dayton this weekend. This unnecessary loss of life is heartbreaking, and my prayers remain with those affected.” 

Attempts to reach U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, on Wednesday were unsuccessful, but in a string of tweets that same day condemned the government’s failure to keep the people of the country safe. 

“Most folks will, again, instinctively go to their corners and talk about guns, which is clearly a discussion that needs to continue, but this failure is more than about guns,” Jones wrote. “Our failure is more pronounced today given the early reports of racial motivations behind the shooting in El Paso. Unfortunately, that seems to be the tone that has been set in this country…”

A bipartisan proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. would encourage the state to adopt separate ‘red flag” laws that would allow courts to temporarily barr someone from possessing guns if imminent danger or a risk of misuse is shown, according to The Washington Post. 

At least 17 states have “extreme risk protection order” laws. The Washington Post reports that nearly all Senate Democrats support “red flag” laws. 

Statements made by a growing number of Republicans also seem to show support for those laws. Those senators include Marco Rubio of Florida, Rob Portman of Ohio, Indiana’s Mike Braun, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Fred Upton of Michigan

In February the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would require background checks on all gun purchases, but Republicans in the Senate have blocked the legislation before it’s come for a vote. Only two Republican senators — Patrick J. Toomey  of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine — have expressed support for universal background checks. 

Toomey, a key author of failed bipartisan gun control legislation following the Sandy Hook shootings, told reporters on Monday that he wouldn’t join those asking for the Senate to return from recess to take up emergency gun control session. 

“If we force a vote tomorrow, then I think the vote probably fails, and we may actually set back this whole effort,” Toomey told reporters in a conference call, according to several news accounts. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to call the Senate back into session. 

“Gavel the Senate to an emergency session so we can take immediate action on the bipartisan, already passed gun legislation,” Schumer told reporters on Tuesday.

 

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Alabama inmate killed by another inmate at Ventress Correctional

Eddie Burkhalter

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via the Alabama Department of Corrections

A Birmingham man serving at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton was killed by another inmate, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Dennis Benson, 40, who was serving a 36-month sentence for possession of a controlled substance and receiving stolen property, died March 30 after being attacked by another inmate, ADOC said in a statement. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Benson by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” the department said in a statement.

Benson’s cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death, according to the department. 

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Attorney general partners with Facebook to stop price-gouging

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Friday announced a partnership with Facebook to address price-gouging on the social media site by people looking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There is no question that unscrupulous operators are trying to take advantage of Alabamians looking to buy basic necessities to protect and sustain themselves and their families during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic,” Marshall said in a statement. “What’s more, much of that illegal activity is centered online because many consumers find it easier to purchase supplies on the internet due to lack of local availability or self-quarantining. As my office seeks ways to protect our consumers, I am pleased to announce that Facebook is one of several major e-commerce platforms to respond to my call to participate in a coordinated effort to identify and shutdown online price gouging.”

Facebook has agreed to review and remove price-gouging listings and advertisements from the website, according to a press release form Marshall’s office.

The press release from Marshall’s office notes that Facebook has already banned advertising or sale of medical masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 testing kits, and the site also as prohibited products “cures” or products that claim to prevent someone from contracting the virus. 

Recent research by Digital Citizens Alliance showed, however, that many of those banned products and advertisements continue to appear on Facebook, despite the company’s March 6 announcement prohibiting them.

Alabama’s price-gouging law went into effect on March 13 upon Gov. Kay Ivey’s declaration of a state of emergency.

“Although what constitutes an unconscionable price is not specifically set forth in state law, a price that is 25% or more above the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days — unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity — is a prima facie case of unconscionable pricing,” according to the release.

To file an illegal price gouging report visit the Alabama Attorney General’s Consumer Interest Division at  https://www.alabamaag.gov/consumercomplaint, or call 1-800-392-5658 to receive a form by mail to complete and return.

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Families, advocates ask Alabama to release at-risk inmates amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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Contributed photo

When Amber Faircloth learned Thursday of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an Alabama prison, she worried that her husband, who has cancer, could be in jeopardy. 

Her husband, who’s serving time at Limestone prison, is one of more than 1,000 inmates most at risk of serious complications or death if the virus spreads throughout Alabama’s prisons. 

Amber and a group of criminal justice reform advocates have asked the Alabama Department of Corrections to consider releasing inmates who are more at risk from the virus, but the department told APR on Friday that for now, there are no plans to do so. 

Justin Faircloth just had a second round of chemotherapy Wednesday and was told by a doctor before treatments began that his stage-4 colon cancer could take his life within six months. 

“We might as well kiss this world goodbye if it gets in here,” Justin Faircloth said in a phone interview with APR on Saturday, speaking of the virus.

He’d undergone a previous round of chemotherapy before being arrested in December on a probation revocation charge, and once in the state’s custody those treatments stopped, AL.com’s Connor Sheets reported in February   

Treatments have since restarted, but Amber worries that his liver is so damaged and his immune system so weak that he’d surely die if infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. She’s asking that he and others in his condition be released before an outbreak occurs. 

“Even a common cold can put him in the hospital,” she said. “And it’s not just him.” 

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ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which experts say puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19. The tight quarters and overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons — for which the state has repeatedly been reprimanded by federal courts and the DOJ — make them a particularly dangerous place for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Her husband was in the infirmary Thursday night, she said, but it was so crowded that he had to sleep with two other inmates, inches apart, in what inmates call a “boat,” which are plastic stackable bunks that rest on the floor. 

“He’s on a chemo pump, and he’s on the floor,” Amber said. “That’s inhumane and unsanitary.” 

On Friday, he was moved back to the general population, where the men sleep in cramped, open dormitories close to one another. Prisons are perfect environments for rapid viral outbreaks, health experts say. 

“We’re in such close quarters. We use the same toilets. We use the same sinks. We touch the same handles on the microwave and the same remote controls,” Justin said, adding that correctional officers are just as worried about a breakout inside the prison as the inmates.

Justin said inmates are given the same lye soap bars they’ve always gotten, but said he’s not seen any instructional material to let inmates know about the danger of the virus or how to protect from it.

Justin’s criminal history shows signs of years of struggles with drug addiction. The 34-year-old has been arrested for drug possession, theft, resisting arrest and burglary. 

“I ended up relapsing and did commit a crime,” Justin said. “But I should be able to wear an ankle bracelet or something. Be monitored from my house.”

An administrative employee at a state prison tested positive for COVID-19, and all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Thursday. ADOC hasn’t stated in which prison the infected person works. 

ADOC also hasn’t said how many, if any, inmates or other staff have been tested for the virus, but in a statement Thursday, the department said it “has the ability to test inmates within the facilities; however, testing will only occur after the ADPH approves a physician’s order.” 

Alabama’s prisons were at 169 percent capacity in December, before Holman prison closed to almost all inmates and moved the rest to other overpopulated facilities. 

Amber is asking the state to consider releasing her husband, perhaps place him on electronic monitoring, and said those in his condition should be removed from what could quickly become a death trap. 

It’s a call shared by Alabamians for Fair Justice, a group of criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people. The group wrote a letter to ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn on Wednesday that urged the department to act before an outbreak might occur. 

One of the specific recommendations from the group is to release the 1,000 or so inmates who are at high risk of serious complications or death from the virus. 

In this light, the Bureau of Pardons and Parole’s decision to cancel upcoming parole hearings is counterproductive. We call on BPP to work with ADOC to expand upon existing medical parole provisions in order to expedite the release of people from the populations at greatest risk,” the group’s letter reads. 

The group also recommended that ADOC develop reentry plans, identify transitional housing and, where possible, refer the released inmates to outside medical and mental health providers.

In a statement to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said, for now, the department doesn’t anticipate any non-routine releases. 

“The ADOC is continuing to work closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the potential spread of the virus,” the statement reads. “Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff and the public remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

“The ADOC’s Office of Health Services is working closely with our contracted health services vendor to monitor and protect high-risk inmates, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. At this time, the Department does not anticipate conducting any non-routine releases. We are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and will be making additional operational and preventative decisions as this situation continues to evolve.”

ADOC has taken other steps to mitigate the dangers of a COVID-19 outbreak. The department has suspended visitations, begun screening staff for fever, suspended inmate co-pays and transfers between prisons. 

On Friday, ADOC announced that state prisons would stop taking in new inmates for 30 days.

It’s a move that might help prevent the virus from getting into prisons, but it shifts that danger to county jails, and it’s not sustainable. Prison systems across the country are coming to terms with what could turn into a very deadly situation very quickly. 

In Los Angeles earlier this week, low-level inmates were being released from some jails, The Los Angeles Times reported, and New York City this week began releasing more vulnerable inmates with medical conditions and those serving for minor crimes. 

“I think the threat level is at 10 now,” said Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, speaking to ABC News. “The [nation’s] corrections leaders are struggling to figure out what the national response will be.”

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Alabama prisons halt intakes from county jails during COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday announced a 30-day moratorium on taking in inmates from the county jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ADOC on Thursday said an administrative employee in a prison tested positive for the virus, and that all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine. It was the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state’s prisons. ADOC said no inmates have tested positive. 

The department said in a statement that suspension of new intakes includes “but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers…” 

Statement from ADOC: 

“The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) continues to take steps necessary to maintain the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff, and the public. The Department is working closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Our continued and collective efforts have allowed for the implementation of new preventative practices and procedures in response to this rapidly evolving situation.

 “Effective today, the Department is placing a 30-day moratorium on new intakes from county jails based on Governor Ivey’s declared State of Emergency related to COVID-19. This restriction includes, but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers who are revoked or sanctioned to a dunk. During this time, the Department will continue to receive inmates with severe medical or mental health conditions, subject to the usual review process by the Department’s Office of Health Services. However, additional health screenings will be implemented at the facility level to ensure any inmate is not symptomatic prior to entry. While the 30-day moratorium is in effect, the ADOC’s intake procedures will be reviewed closely and intake dorm space will be assessed thoroughly. At the end of this 30-day period, the Department will assess our interim intake process.

“In addition to implementing system-wide preventative measures to prevent the virus from entering our facilities, the ADOC also is modifying internal protocols to best serve our inmate population who have been impacted by these altered processes and various safety precautions. Effective immediately, the ADOC will extend both inmate yard time and snack line services at all our facilities. Other protocol adjustments remain under consideration for possible implementation.

 “We are continuing to diligently monitor the situation, working closely with the ADPH and adhering to CDC-recommended health and hygiene guidelines. As noted yesterday, March 19, the ADOC has been notified that an administrative employee tested positive for COVID-19. All individuals within the Department who have been in direct contact with the individual who tested positive remain in a 14-day self-quarantine period, and are being monitored by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) for signs and symptoms due to direct exposure. Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our overall system remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

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