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Sentencing reform needed, advocates say, but state official says it won’t come easy or cheap

Eddie Burkhalter

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Montgomery– Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, violent and the living conditions horrid, but the fixes aren’t going to come easy, according to the director of the state’s Sentencing Commission, speaking to the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy on Thursday.

Alabama’s prison system is under threat of federal takeover if the state doesn’t remedy the state’s overpopulated, violent prisons, but the solutions are complicated, said Bennett Wright, director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, to the study group’s members at the State House on Thursday. 

“There are no simple, no easy and no free fixes,” Wright said. 

The Governor’s study group was formed by Ivey’s executive order in July to help the state settle on fixes to its ailing prison system. According the order that established the group it is to disband on the first day of the 2020 legislative session, which is Feb. 4. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in April wrote a letter to the state informing leaders that there was reason to believe Alabama was violating prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protection from physical violence and sexual assault while incarcerated by housing them in understaffed, unsafe facilities. 

The letter from the DOJ came while the Alabama Department of Corrections was already facing a lawsuit in federal court over inmate medical and mental health care, and lawmakers continue to struggle with overcoming drastic shortages in correctional officers working in aging facilities. The state is under court order to add an additional 2,200 correctional officers. 

State lawmakers passed sentencing reforms in 2013 and 2015, which resulted in a decrease of inmate population from about 200 percent of capacity to around 160 percent. Between 2013 and 2018 Alabama’s prison population dropped from 26,293 to 20,618. 

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While the number of inmates dropped in those years, the population has recently increased.  

ADOC data that shows that in April 2019 the state’s in-custody prison population was greater than the previous year by almost 300 inmates, which was the first time that’s happened since February 2013. In June, the ADOC recorded 639 more inmates than the state held in custody the previous June.

There are about 1,500 inmates serving life without the possibility of parole, Wright said, and about half of them were convicted of capital murder. Of the remaining inmates, 240 are serving for murder convictions. Wright said 21 inmates are serving life without parole sentences for drug offenses. 

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Of the 3,100 serving life sentences with the possibility of parole 99 inmates were serving for trafficking drugs, according to figures provided by Wright. 

Wright described those previous reforms as “mammoth pieces of legislation” that he said covered “whole swaths of individuals.” What reforms left that could be addressed are smaller changes, he explained, that would affect a smaller percentage of inmates. 

In 2015, changes to the rules regarding technical parole violations meant that those on probation or parole who commit a technical violation — anything other than a new offense — could only be sanctioned for up to 45 days, but had to serve that time in prison instead of county jails. 

In 2018, there were about 9,400 inmates admitted to Alabama prisons, and of those 2,800 were admitted because of technical parole violations, Wright said, which was about 30 percent of all new admissions. 

Wright said those serving on technical parole violations serve very short sentences, however, so removing that portion of the prison population would have little impact on the overall, long-term prison population. Lessening the numbers of those inmates would reduce costs to Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) for processing those inmates, however, he said. 

Wright said that while the state does pay for inmates serving sentences for felony crimes, it does not pay counties for those serving in jails for misdemeanors. If legislators were to decide to reclassify some felony violations to misdemeanors to reduce the prison population, the cost of keeping those inmates would fall to counties.  

“The counties want to know is this going to be an unfunded mandate or is money going to follow that policy mandate from the legislature,” Wright said. “…That’s always the elephant in the room with felonies and misdemeanors.” 

What if the state were to make some of the previous sentencing reforms retroactive, to cover inmates currently serving for crimes that, if convicted today, would not result in prison time? Wright said doing so would set free about 420 inmates. 

“None of the answers are easy, and none of them have huge effects either,” Wright said. It would take multiple policy changes to make a dent, he said, and “none of which are easy.” 

State Rep. Chris England,  D-Tuscaloosa, a member of the study group, asked Wright whether the state followed those previous sentencing reforms with additional money to pay for the kinds of services that keep people from serving prison time. 

“Alabama increased funding for more probation officers,” Wright said, but he added that Alabama struggles when it comes to funding programs and services to reduce recidivism, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, and vocational training. 

“As a state, we have pockets that do exceptionally well and we have pockets that do absolutely nothing” Wright said. 

“We have absolutely failed,” England said, speaking of the Legislature’s funding of the state’s prison system and programs and policies to fix its problems. All of the state’s agencies that are supposed to be working together to reduce recidivism are fighting for the same dollars, he said. 

The poorest among us cannot afford to pay for the probation services to keep them out of jail, England said, while those who can afford it front the cost of the state’s court system. 

“When we see the populations exploding, of people who go in and out of jail without getting any needed resources or services or help, what ends up happening is not only do we fail that person,” England said, “but we fail the community that surrounds them.” 

Despite gains in reducing the inmate population through previous sentencing reforms, some groups and concerned citizens worry that further substantive changes are needed. 

Members of Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of advocacy groups, faith leaders and citizens, met at the State House an hour before the study group meeting and discussed the need for further sentencing reforms. 

Alabamians for Fair Justice is made up of 12 groups, including the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice, Alabama Appleseed, The Southern Poverty Center Law Fund, Alabama Arise, Greater Birmingham Ministries, Faith in Action Alabama and others. 

Carla Crowder, director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy group and a member of the Alabamians for Fair Justice, said at a press conference prior to the study group meeting that the prison problem is dire. 

“Our elected leaders have refused to adopt real, meaningful reform, and the crisis gets worse,” Crowder said. “We are counting on leadership from Governor Ivey’s criminal justice study group to finally make meaningful change, and we’re here to help.” 

Crowder said the group presented the state’s study group with policy proposals, which are also posted on the group’s website here. 

As the state’s prison population has increases in recent months, an important relief valve has been shut off. The state’s pardon and parole board hearings were suspended in September, and officials have said they won’t resume until at least November 1. 

The bureau’s director, Charlie Graddick, has said notification requirements weren’t previously being handled properly, but the suspension of hearings came after much turmoil at the board following the 2017 parole of an inmate serving time for non-violent crimes who was later charged with capital murder in the deaths of three people. 

Ivey signed into law changes that allowed her to appoint a director, among other changes, and after appointing Graddick he promptly put his predecessor and two other staffers on administrative leave “pending investigation into allegations of malfeasance.”

The Board chair, Lyn Head, resigned in September and had previously voiced concern to staff about what she said were attacks on the board by the state legislature. 

Head, an attorney and former prosecutor, told AL.com after her resignation that she did not believe the agency was broken. 

Speaking after the study group meeting, Crowder told APR that she was encouraged by discussion about the need to properly fund mental health and drug treatment programs outside of prisons, and about problems with the “pay-to-play” incarceration diversion programs, but that there is still work to be done on sentencing reform. 

“What was a little discouraging was some of the discussion about numbers, that it was just 400 here or 500 here. Like that won’t make a difference,” Crowder said. “Those are human beings who are living in the worst prisons in the country.”

 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Alabama Department of Corrections investigating death of 28-year-old inmate

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of a 28-year-old inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility as a possible suicide. 

Charles Labarron Braggs was found unresponsive by prison officials in his cell on Monday, and life-saving attempts were unsuccessful, the department said in a message to APR on Thursday.

Braggs was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, and the department said in the statement that there’s “no evidence of a use-of-force incident” and that the investigation into his death is ongoing. 

“Use-of-force” refers to instances when correctional officers use physical force with an inmate. 

Braggs’ death is at least the sixth suspected suicide among those serving in Alabama prisons so far this year, according to the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

The U.S. Justice Department in April 2019, released a report detailing what federal investigators found were systemic problems of violence, sexual assaults, drugs, high levels of homicides and suicides and corruption in Alabama prisons.

ADOC continues to defend the department in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over mental health care and treatment of inmates in state prisons, arguing in the complaint that the department was indifferent to the health of those inmates, who were dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.

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The U.S. Department of Justice last week released a scathing report detailing systemic excessive use-of-force by Alabama correctional officers against inmates in the state’s prisons for men. The federal government believes the acts of violence against inmates violates the Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

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Four Alabama correctional officers indicted on federal charges connected to 2018 inmate beating

The indictments come five days after the DOJ released a report detailing systemic violence against inmates at the hands of Alabama Department of Corrections officers.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A federal grand jury on Tuesday charged four Alabama correctional officers with federal civil rights and obstruction of justice charges connected to the beating of an inmate in 2018. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in a press release Tuesday said that a grand jury indicted Sergeant Keith Finch and corrections officers Jordan Thomas and Kevin Blaylock with deprivation of rights under color of law. Thomas and Sergeant Orlanda Walker are also charged with obstruction of justice. 

According to the press release, the indictment alleges that on Sept. 12, 2018, at the Bibb Correctional Facility, Thomas and Blaylock kicked and hit an inmate, who was on the ground and in a fetal position, with their batons after he ran out of his cell. 

“As a result of this unjustified use of force, the prisoner sustained bodily injury. Thomas and his supervisor, Walker, then obstructed justice by filing false reports that claimed ‘all force ceased’ once the prisoner was on the ground,” the DOJ said in the release. 

The indictments come five days after the DOJ released a report detailing systemic violence against inmates at the hands of Alabama Department of Corrections officers. The federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. 

The report details explicit, serious assaults of inmates, cover-ups by officers and their superiors, and ineffective, substandard investigations by ADOC’s investigative arm, the Investigations and Intelligence Division.

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Alabama Department of Corrections “disappointed” by “surprise” DOJ report on excessive force

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday responded to a scathing report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice detailing correctional officers’ violence against incarcerated men in state prisons, saying the department was “disappointed in the surprise manner” in which the DOJ released the report. 

The DOJ’s report details numerous instances of unprovoked and illegal violence against inmates by correctional officers, cover-ups of those crimes by officers and supervisors, and shoddy investigations that often resulted in no disciplinary action. 

The federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. The report was expected, although it was unclear when DOJ would release it, and follows the DOJ’s previous report, released in April 2019, that found that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm. 

“We are disappointed in the surprise manner in which the DOJ orchestrated the release of this letter, which hinders the progress made by our Department to address the long-standing challenges facing our correctional system,” ADOC said in a statement Friday. “This substantive progress includes targeted efforts to reduce instances of violence within our facilities.” 

ADOC in the statement said the department stands behind previous statements by Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

Ivey responded to the DOJ report by saying it was an “expected follow-up” to the April 2019 report, completing the DOJ’s investigation into the state’s men’s prisons that began in 2016.  

“We will be carefully reviewing these serious allegations in the coming weeks. My Administration remains hopeful that with the completion of this investigation, the state and federal governments can finally reach a resolution to all of the Department’s allegations,” Ivey’s statement reads. 

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We all desire an effective, Alabama solution to this Alabama problem, and my Administration will put in the hard work and long hours necessary to achieve that result,” Ivey continued. 

Marshall, however, took a much harder stance, claiming Alabama was “ambushed” by the DOJ report, and said the state “will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit.” 

Among the many serious instances of excessive use of force against inmates in the report, the DOJ detailed the death of Michael Smith, 55, at Ventress prison in December 2019, in which “ADOC personnel informed hospital medical personnel that the injuries occurred after the prisoner fell from a bunk bed.” 

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“The autopsy revealed that the prisoner died from blunt force trauma to the head. He sustained multiple areas of intracranial bleeding, fractures of his nose and left eye socket, and had at least six teeth knocked out,” federal investigators wrote in the report.

Federal investigators found that ADOC’s investigative arm, the Intelligence & Investigations Division, did substandard investigations into use of force incidents, failed to collect necessary information on allegations and came to improper findings in numerous incidents. 

ADOC in the statement Friday said the department has been proactive in dealing with the DOJ’s concerns, and that Commissioner Jeff Dunn formed a Violence Reduction Task Force in December 2019. 

The recommendations of the Task Force include refresher protocol and procedure training; health and wellness interventions for correctional officers and staff; an emphasis on inmate rehabilitation programs and resources; and the reexamination of enhanced surveillance measures such as facility cameras and the use of body cameras for on-duty correctional officers,” ADOC’s statement reads. 

DOJ’s report also notes that chronic understaffing in the overcrowded prisons is contributing to the use of violence among correctional officers, which has resulted in the serious injury and deaths of inmates. 

“The DOJ’s claim that the ‘ADOC …  has not taken meaning[ful] steps or other emergency measures to address the understaffing’ is simply false,” ADOC said in the statement, adding that in 2018 a federal judge accepted the department’s plan to hire additional staff. 

It has been more than two years since U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the ADOC to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.

We are disappointed in the surprise manner in which the DOJ orchestrated the release of this letter, which hinders the progress made by our Department to address the long-standing challenges facing our correctional system."

“Since then, they have increased correctional staff by only 147 officers,” said attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit in a filing on June 24. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, the plaintiffs, filed the 2014 suit arguing the state was indifferent to the health of inmates dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers. 

Both Ivey and ADOC in their statements mentioned infrastructure investment as important steps to addressing the DOJ’s concerns. Ivey’s plan to build three new mega-prisons through a build-lease proposal continues to move forward. 

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, is a member of Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, which was formed in 2019 to study the state’s failing prison system and suggest legislative fixes. The group in January made a series of recommendations but COVID-19 brought an end to this year’s Legislative session without the bills that those suggestions produced coming up for votes.

England in a Tweet Friday expressed concern about spending billions on new prisons, and reiterated his previous calls for Ivey to call a special session to address the state’s prison crisis.

“After two DOJ reports detailing how bad our prisons are, are we really going to give the same @ALCorrections that is failing miserably to manage our current prisons over 2 billion dollars to build new ones? Seriously? We need a special session @GovernorKayIvey.”

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Alabama attorney general says state was “ambushed” with DOJ report on mens’ prisons

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Reaction to the U.S. Department of Justice’s latest scathing report on Alabama’s broken prisons for men came swiftly on Thursday, and the state’s top law enforcement officer claims Alabama was “ambushed.”

The Justice Department report published Thursday details numerous instances of unprovoked and illegal violence against inmates by correctional officers, cover-ups of those crimes by officers and supervisors and shoddy investigations that often resulted in no disciplinary action.

The federal government in the report alleges that Alabama violates inmates’ Constitutional protections. 

DOJ’s previous report, released in April 2019, found that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm. The latest report was expected, but it was unclear when the department would release it. 

DOJ attorneys in a letter Thursday to Gov. Kay Ivey wrote that the U.S. attorney general can file a lawsuit against the state if Alabama fails to “satisfactorily address conditions in the prisons within 49 days,” although the department hopes to resolve the problems “through a more cooperative approach.” 

“Though the State has been diligently working toward a settlement agreement with the DOJ based on its previous findings, we were ambushed with today’s report, issued in the form of a public press release only moments after we received it,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement Thursday. 

Marshall said the state has never denied the challenges facing the Alabama Department of Corrections, and as evidence of such, the state plans to build three new men’s prisons “that we believe—and the DOJ has conceded—will have a significant positive impact on many of the areas of concern that the DOJ has identified.” 

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It should be noted, however, that the April 2019 Justice Department report noted that new prisons alone won’t solve ADOC’s systemic problems, a sentiment shared by numerous criminal justice reform groups and advocates working in Alabama. 

“At the same time, I have made it absolutely clear from the beginning that the State will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit,” Marshall continued. “On November 7, 2018, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the use of civil consent decrees in a DOJ memorandum, acknowledging the sovereignty of state governments and urging special caution before using this bludgeon to settle litigation against the states. I share General Sessions’ concerns with consent decrees and will not submit our state to judicial oversight of our prisons, with the DOJ as the hall monitor, that will last well beyond my tenure as Attorney General—and indeed, if history is any indication, could last well beyond my lifetime.

“Along with the release of its newest findings today, DOJ officials also communicated to my Office that the State has forty-nine days to agree upon the terms of a consent decree. Presumably, if we do not, the federal government will file suit. My response to that is simple: the State of Alabama has worked, and will continue to work, both to improve our prison facilities to meet the standards of the U.S. Constitution and to negotiate with the federal government in good faith. But Alabama will not be bullied into a perpetual consent decree to govern our prison system, nor will we be pressured to reach such an agreement with federal bureaucrats, conspicuously, fifty-three days before a presidential election.

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“In short, a consent decree is unacceptable and nonnegotiable. The State of Alabama shall retain her sovereignty.”

Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement on Thursday said Alabama’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and understaffed by correctional officers who undergo little training. 

“It comes as no surprise to us that the Department of Justice has found frequent use of excessive force by correctional officers against incarcerated men in Alabama’s prison system,” Howard said. “The violent conditions and circumstances outlined in the DOJ’s latest report are at the hands of prison personnel and demonstrate failures of the Alabama Department of Corrections’ leadership to ensure people in their custody are safe. This unconstitutional behavior will not be solved by building newer, larger prisons.”

“People in Alabama prisons are human beings with constitutional rights. They deserve to be treated humanely, with respect, and dignity,” Howard continued.

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