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Alabama Pardons and Paroles Board chair resigns amid turmoil

Eddie Burkhalter

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Lyn Head, chair of the Alabama Pardons and Paroles Board, announced her resignation on Tuesday. 

Her departure comes amid years of turmoil at the bureau that has resulted in the removal of three staffers and the suspension of parole hearings until at least November 1. 

In a statement to APR on Wednesday Gov. Kay Ivey’s office said Ivey will begin the process to name Head’s replacement. 

“The governor thanks Lyn for her service to the state and wishes her well in her future endeavors,” the statement from Ivey’s office reads. “She remains committed to making needed reforms at the Board of Pardons and Paroles to help deliver justice and ensure public safety.” 

The Bureau of Pardons and Paroles on Sept. 9 announced that it could take weeks for those parole hearings to resume. The bureau’s director, Charlie Graddick, said at the time that the hearings were suspended so that staff could ensure legal requirements were met. The bureau’s news director, Skip Tucker told APR the suspensions were because notification requirements weren’t previously handled properly. On Sept. 12 the bureau announced that hearings won’t resume until at least Nov. 1. 

Problems surfaced after the parole of inmate Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was serving a life sentence for mostly non-violent crimes. Spencer is charged with capital murder in the deaths of three people in Guntersville, which took place after his 2017 release. 

Following Spencer’s latest charges Ivey signed into law changes to the bureau that included the governor’s power to appoint a director and a requirement that one board member must be a current or former law enforcement officer with at least 10 years of experience. 

Ivey and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall have both supported the changes and said they’re needed to ensure the safety of citizens. 

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”These changes are designed to increase accountability, set clear parameters, and make certain that no prisoner who is a threat to public safety can slip through the cracks,” Marshall said in April. 

In an email obtained by the WAAY-31 news station Head wrote in May to all bureau staff that “Our agency continues to be under attack, this week, in the legislature, by the Attorney General, who stated that we “are not following our own rules, and that our “system is broken.”

Attempts to reach Head on Wednesday were unsuccessful but Head told Al.com’s Mike Cason, who broke the story Tuesday, that while she didn’t now have comments on the suspensions of the three staff members or on Graddick’s statements about the notice requirements not being met, she did not believe the agency was broken. 

“It certainly was not my perception of what was going on,” Head told Al.com. 

Heard’s resignation becomes effective Oct. 1. The Montgomery attorney and former prosecutor has served on the board since Sept. 2016 and was appointed chair of the board by Gov. Kay Ivey in Oct. 2018.

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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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ACLU of Alabama calls for more paroles during COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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The ACLU of Alabama on Tuesday called on the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to begin releasing inmates amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) on Tuesday held the bureau’s first parole hearings since the COVID-19 crisis began, and denied parole for 20 out of the 22 eligible people. 

Among those who were denied was a man who has served 19 years and 8 months of a 20-year sentence.

Antonio Davis pleaded guilty to murder in September 2000, and was sentenced to 20 years, according to court records. He’s set to be released in August, and is currently serving at the Alex City Community Work Center, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, which in January was at 157 percent capacity. 

“Denying his parole means he’ll stay in a horrifically overcrowded work release center for three more months in a global pandemic until he reaches his end of sentence in August, when he will be released with no supervision,” the ACLU of Alabama said in a press release. 

“The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles doesn’t seem to understand the severity of Alabama’s prison crisis. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, in which this deadly virus is already infecting people who live and work in state facilities,” said Randall Marshall, executive director of ACLU of Alabama in a statement. “It is grossly irresponsible for ABPP to continue to deny parole in over 90 percent of cases heard, particularly considering how few they are scheduling. If they will not do their job appropriately, then Governor Ivey must step in.”

The organization noted that before Governor Ivey appointed the current director, Charlie Graddick, in September 2019, the bureau  was averaging 355 hearings each month. After Graddick’s appointment, parole hearings declined to 144 a month. 

Days after he began at the Bureau, Graddick suspended parole hearings, citing problems with the agency’s victim notification process. 

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Under Graddick’s leadership, the number of parole-eligible people has more than doubled. In August 2019, there were 1,521 parole-eligible people in state prisons, according to a report by ACLU of Alabama. In April, that number had risen to 4,404. 

In January, the state’s prisons were at 170 percent capacity, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. The department on Monday announced the 31st prison worker had tested positive for coronavirus. Nine inmates have tested positive, and one inmate died shortly after testing positive for the virus. 

Just 135 of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates have been tested for the virus as of Monday, according to ADOC. Six of those test results were still pending Tuesday.

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Prison staff delayed aid to dying inmate, witness says

Eddie Burkhalter

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When Colony Wilson collapsed in a stairwell in the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center there were several staff members and other inmates with her, but staff didn’t help the woman get upstairs to the medical clinic for seven minutes as she lay there unable to breathe, and wouldn’t allow inmates to do so, a witness to the incident said. 

Wilson, 41, died May 11 at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Monday morning. In a response to APR’s questions about the incident, the Alabama Department of Corrections on Monday said the matter was under investigation and declined comment. 

The other woman serving at the center who said she saw Wilson fall said in a letter to APR that she wanted to help get her up the stairs to the facility’s health care unit, but was told by correctional officers not to touch her, wrote the woman. 

APR has confirmed the inmate’s identity but is not naming her to protect her from any possibility of retaliation for speaking about the incident. 

Wilson had served nearly 15 years of her 20-year sentence on a conviction of aggravated child abuse, a crime her uncles says she admitted to after being persuaded to do so by her child’s father, but it was a crime he said she did not do. 

Colony Wilson

In separate interviews last week with two family members of two different women serving at the Birmingham Women’s Work Center, both said that Wilson had gone for help Sunday evening and complained that she wasn’t feeling well and was having trouble breathing.

The family members said Wilson was told she’d have to put in a “sick call slip” Monday morning. 

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The woman who said she witnessed the incident wrote to APR that at around 9 a.m. she heard yelling and Wilson was “sick on the courtyard.” 

“Inmate Wilson was being brought in by Lt. Wanda Williams and nurse Rozelle up the front stairwell. As inmate Wilson got up the first part of the stairwell she collapsed and was looking around with the look on her face for someone to help her,” the woman said in the letter. “She couldn’t breathe.”

The woman said Lt. Williams was screaming “get up so we can walk you to the health care” while nurse Rozelle stood over Wilson. 

“I saw inmate Wilson’s eyes go in the back of her head. Officer King and the BCO’s were saying ‘We can’t touch her,’” the woman wrote, referring to basic correctional officers with the initials “BCO.” 

“Several of us other inmates were telling Lt. Williams that we would help her get to the health care as it was obvious that was the only place that they were going to take any kind of measure to see what was happening to Colony,” the woman said, adding that  Lt. Williams then screamed, “Lock this place down.” 

“No one was trying to help her get to health care, but they wouldn’t allow us to help her either,” the woman wrote. “It was seven minutes or more that inmate Wilson was on the stairwell steps with a look begging someone to help her,” the letter continues. “As it was apparent that she could not breathe and her eyes were going in the back of her head.” 

She wrote that the nurse “just stood over her as she was gasping for breath and her eyes wild with fear.” 

Sylvester Wilson, of New Beginning Christian Ministry, told APR on Sunday that he and his mother raised Colony. She was just six weeks old when Colony’s mother, who was serving in the U.S. military, brought the newborn to Wilson and his mother’s home. 

“She was a great child, but got hooked up with the wrong person,” Wilson said. “She had never been in any trouble.” 

Colony’s boyfriend and father of their child was a convicted felon and much older than his niece, Wilson said, and manipulated her into admitting to police that she is the one who hurt their child. Before her conviction she tried to retract her statement, Wilson said, but it was too late. He believes the boyfriend convinced her that because she had a clean record she’d only get probation, at worst. 

Wilson was arrested in July 2004 on a charge of aggravated child abuse. She was convicted on Aug. 10, 2005, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

Her criminal history shows just two other convictions, for bounced checks at a Birmingham grocery store. In July 2002, she was court-ordered to repay a $44.74 overdrawn check to the grocery store, plus interest and a $25 fine. 

She pleaded guilty in October 2002, to bouncing another check for $38.16 to the same grocery store, was sentenced to 6 months probation and paid a $125 fine. 

Pastor Wilson couldn’t recall the old boyfriend’s name and attempts to contact Colony’s attorney on the child abuse conviction were unsuccessful. He is no longer practicing law, according to the Alabama State Bar. 

Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose, in an email to APR on Monday, said that the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division is investigating the allegations provided to ADOC by the reporter. 

“The ADOC does not condone or tolerate its staff deviating from or breaking established protocols or procedures. Should it be determined that proper protocol(s) were not adhered to by our staff, appropriate corrective and/or disciplinary action will be taken,” Rose said in the message. “Should it be determined that any member of our staff engaged in behavior or activities considered to be criminal in nature, that individual or those individuals will be referred for prosecution.” 

Rose declined to comment on Wilson’s death further, citing the ongoing investigation. 

Despite the inmate’s statements that she was complaining of shortness of breath, Wilson wasn’t tested for COVID-19 before she died, and it’s unclear whether she was tested after she died. 

ADOC spokesperson Samantha Rose, in a response to APR last week said that Wilson was not tested for COVID-19 because she was not showing symptoms of coronavirus. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list shortness of breath among the symptoms of COVID-19. 

Asked whether Wilson was tested for COVID-19 after her death, Rose declined to answer the question last week and said that “this does not fall under our purview nor do we have any influence over this type of decision” and directed the question to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, which conducts autopsies of inmates.

Attempts to reach the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for comment have been unsuccessful.

Wilson came up for a parole hearing in December 2019, after having served 14 years of her 20-year sentence, but the parole board denied her parole. 

Her uncle said when he learned that one of the three Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board members had prosecuted his niece on the child abuse charge, he was certain the outcome wouldn’t favor Colony. 

Pardons and Paroles Board member Leigh Gwathney, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Kay Ivey in Sept. 2019, was the prosecutor in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office who handled Wilson’s child abuse case. 

Gwatheny recused herself from voting during Wilson’s parole hearing, Pastor Wilson said, but he fears the connection was enough to sway the other two members to keep her locked up. 

Her hearing also came after a shakeup at the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles that saw Gov. Kay Ivey appoint former Jefferson County prosecutor and assistant attorney general Charlie Graddick to oversee the bureau. 

The day after taking office in September 2019, Graddick suspended all parole hearings, and once they resumed the numbers of inmate cases being seen in hearings, and the number of inmates being released on parole, dropped dramatically. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Wilson said of his niece’s death. “I realize that I can’t change what happened. I can’t bring Colony back, but I want to shed some light on this so it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

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