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.
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.
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.”
Alabama inmate killed by another inmate at Ventress Correctional
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.
Attorney general partners with Facebook to stop price-gouging
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.
Families, advocates ask Alabama to release at-risk inmates amid COVID-19 outbreak
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.”
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.”
Alabama prisons halt intakes from county jails during COVID-19 outbreak
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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