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Poll: Most Republicans support assault weapons ban, universal background checks

Eddie Burkhalter

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A majority of Republicans asked said they support a ban on assault weapons, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll published Wednesday. 

The poll results contradicted President Donald Trump’s statement on Wednesday that he didn’t believe there was a political appetite to ban the weapons, often favored by mass shooters. 

On Aug. 3 a man murdered 22 people in an El Paso Walmart with a semi-automatic AK-47 variant, and a day later in Dayton, Ohio another man shot and killed nine people with a high-powered .223 caliber AM-15, a slightly smaller version of the popular AR-15 assault weapon. 

The Ohio killer had attached a 100-round double drum magazine to his assault weapon and shot 41 bullets in 30 seconds before police shot and killed him. 

“You have to have a political appetite within Congress, and so far I haven’t seen that,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday on the likelihood of taking up an assault weapons ban, before departing to visit El Paso and Dayton. 

The poll conducted Aug. 5-7, found that 70 percent of all voters approve of an assault weapons ban, and 55 percent of Republican voters approved of the ban. 

It’s Republican women, however, who showed stronger support for the ban, with 64 percent saying they approve, while 45 percent male Republicans said the same. 

Only 23 percent of all voters opposed an assault weapons ban, according to the poll. 

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Poll’s Methodology: This poll was conducted from August 05-07, 2019, among a national sample of 1960 Registered Voters. The interviews were conducted online and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of Registered Voters based on age, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and region. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

A 1994 assault weapons ban and a limit on high-capacity gun magazines were allowed to expire in 2004 by President George W. Busch. 

A 2015 study by the nonprofit gun control advocacy group EveryTown for Gun Safety found that in the 133 mass shootings in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015 those committed with assault weapons or high capacity magazines resulted in 155 percent more people shot, and 47 percent more deaths than in shootings in which other weapons were used. 

A January 2019 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that mass-shooting fatalities were 70 percent less likely to occur during the federal ban period of 1994-2004. 

The Washington Post noted, however, that the 2019 study drew criticism from some researchers who said the study may have counted some guns that aren’t assault weapons, and didn’t take into account other data sets that recorded more mass shootings during those years. 

Still, one of the researchers who critiqued the 2019 study,  Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said that while his research doesn’t show strong support for a lower rate of mass shootings during the assault weapons ban, there were fewer people killed in those shootings during those years. 

“There’s more support, however, for the idea that the per capita severity (the rates at which victims were killed or shot in mass public shootings) was lower during this period of time,” Duewe told The Washington Post. “But what’s even clearer from the data is that there has been an increase in both the incidence and severity of mass public shootings (on a per capita basis) since the latter part of the 2000s.”

U.S. Congressman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said on Aug. 6 that he supports a ban on assault weapons, magazine limits and “red flag” legislation that would allow courts to temporarily take guns from those deemed a danger to themselves or others. 

“The carnage these military-style weapons are able to produce when available to the wrong people is intolerable,” Turner said in his statement. 

Also at odds with many of their Republican representatives in Congress, 90 percent of Republicans polled said they supported universal background checks on all gun sales. 

More than 91 percent of those polled said they support requiring background checks for all gun sales, and only 5 percent of voters oppose background checks. A vast majority of Republicans, 90 percent, supported universal background checks, while 94 percent of Democrats want the change. 

The poll found that 90 percent of those who said they voted for Trump in 2016 approve of universal background checks. 

Republican Congressman Peter King of New York joined Senate minority leader, Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer on Tuesday and demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allow a vote on House passed legislation to require universal background checks on gun sales, according to Newsweek. 

“I believe it’s essential that Senator McConnell allow this to come for a vote. He doesn’t have to support it; he doesn’t have to get behind it. Just let it come to a vote. This is common-sense legislation,” King said. 

The public is less certain that Congress will act on their wishes, however. The poll found that 52 percent, including 60 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans, said it’s unlikely that Congress will pass stricter gun laws in next year. 

Democrats have called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to call the Senate back from recess for a special session to discuss gun legislation. On Thursday McConnell told a Kentucky radio host at WHAS in Louisville that he wouldn’t be bringing the Senate back into session from its August recess, according to the New York Times. 

McConnell has opposed background checks in the past but told the radio host Thursday that discussion of expanding background checks for all gun purchases will be front and center in a coming Senate debate. 

“There’s a lot of support for that,” McConnell said, according to The New York Times. 

McConnell said he also expects discussion of “red flag” laws, which allow courts to temporarily take guns away from those deemed a danger to themselves or others, and discussion of an assault weapons ban.

The poll quizzed 1,960 people on 57 questions, the results of which have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

 

Read the full poll results here. 

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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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