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NPR covers Alabama’s dangerous prisons, state announces prison commissioner receives award

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn received a “National Outstanding Service” award, the department announced Thursday, the same day a nationally-syndicated radio program broadcast live from Birmingham about the state’s broken prison system. 

Dunn has been selected for the 2019 Michael Francke Career Achievement Award by the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA). Kevin Kemph, executive director of CLA, told APR on Thursday that the award is given to a commissioner who has given outstanding service to their agency, and that the selection was made by a board of former prison commissioners. 

“Although I know there’s a lot going on in Alabama with corrections, it did not surprise me that Commissioner Dunn was chosen,” Kemph told APR. He said Dunn is one of the association’s “go-to people” on correctional matters. 

Kemph said that Dunn is honest about the problems facing Alabama’s prisons, and that from what he can see Dunn has a good strategic plan to address many of those issues. 

“One of the things that we’ve also really appreciated about Commissioner Dunn is his transparency to what’s going on down in Alabama,” Kemph said. 

“We have to do more on the transparency of reporting and these abuses that take place,” said Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, speaking to Joshua Johnson, host of the National Public Radio program 1A, taped in Birmingham on Thursday morning.  

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Ward also said he believes instances of inmate suicides, inmate-on-inmate violence and officer-on-inmate violence are all going underreported. 

Ward told the reporter that the Alabama prison system “does anything but correct. There’s nothing correct about the correction system. It’s a reactive agency. It’s not proactive” and described the state’s prisons as the most dangerous in the nation.

“The things that have gone on in Alabama certainly are concerning,” Kemph told APR.  “There’s a  lot to do in Alabama corrections right now, and, again, I think what makes Commissioner Dunn such a good choice to be the…commissioner down there is his ability to strategically plan, to look at things from a different perspective.”

“A lesser leader would have sprinted away from the challenges that he’s facing right now,” Kemph said. “Yet he continues to get up out of bed every morning and showing up to take on those challenges.”

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APR’s message to DOC for a comment on Dunn’s acceptance of the award went unanswered as of Thursday evening. 

NPR’s Johnson interviewed Ward and Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, about the state DOC’s systemic problems of violence and overcrowding, and discussing during the show the U.S. Department of Justice report released in April that describes potentially unconstitutional violations of male prisoners’ rights to protection from physical and sexual abuse. 

“Alabama’s prison system is by some accounts the deadliest in the nation,” Johnson said at the start of the show.  “15 inmates died by suicide there in 15 months, from December 2017 until this March. The homicide rate in the system is six times the national average.” 

NPR’s host said they reached out to DOC and asked if someone could take part in Thursday’s show, but were told that no one could, and were provided a statement instead. “We remain in a difficult position with limited resources, which impacts both the speed and intensity for addressing long standing issues,” the statement from DOC reads. 

Crowder during the show pointed out the DOJ report’s mention of the “culture of corruption” inside the prisons and the inability to root out bad correctional officers, or the wardens who oversee them. Lack of adequate funding for DOC  is critical to the problems as well, Crowder said.

“It’s a terrible culture…one of the biggest driving factors in that is a lack of public policy support,” Ward said. “If you’re going to address the problems in DOC there’s some laws to be changed, but at the end of the day you’re going to have to spend money.”  

Ward spoke about the need for job training programs and treatment for mental health and substance abuse to help inmates re-enter society. 

“Everybody agrees on that,” Crowder said. “So it’s really confusing to advocates that the governor’s office is just saying we have $900 million dollars for new prisons and she’s not saying anything about reentry.” 

Johnson also interviewed during the show Theresa Holmes, the mother of Matthew Holmes, the 28-year-old who killed himself in February while serving in the state’s prison in Limestone. Asked by the host how she found out about her son’s suicide, Holmes said that another inmates’s wife contacted her the next day with the news. 

“I never found out from the prison itself,” Holmes said. 

“The prison never contacted you?” Johnson asked. 

“No sir, they did not,” she said, adding that she later called the prison and spoke to the warden, who told her that they’d tried to contact her, but had a bad number for her. 

“Which is definitely not true. My phone number hasn’t changed in 20 years,” Holmes said. 

Matthew was serving a 22-year sentence for a 2010 robbery conviction. Holmes said she spoke to her son five days prior and that he was “quiet” and told her “six times that he loved me” and to “remember that.” He had been placed into solitary confinement at the time, she said, and had been suffering from mental health issues. 

Asked what she’d said to DOC about what needs to change, Holmes said her son, like many others, fought to be treated humanely.  

“Unfortunately my son lost that battle,” she said.

Gov. Kay Ivey in a press release on Dunn’s award Thursday lauded his work at DOC. 

 “Commissioner Dunn’s dedication to excellence in corrections and public safety is demonstrated by his service, organizational leadership and continued achievements at the Alabama Department of Corrections.  I am pleased that he has been selected by his peers and members of this outstanding group of correctional leaders to receive this prestigious award,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in the release. 

Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of 12 advocacy groups and individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, including Alabama Appleseed, released a statement Thursday evening on Dunn’s award announcement. 

“Under Commissioner Dunn’s leadership, Alabama’s prison system is in a constitutional crisis. There have been at least 20 verified deaths due to homicide, suicide or overdose in the Alabama prison system in 2019,” the statement reads. “In April, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing letter outlining the Eighth Amendment violations the system faces because of the level of violence, sexual abuse, and the basic failure to ensure people in prison system are safe.”

“According to public data, ADOC’s prisons have only 38% of the needed correctional staff and are overcrowded at 169% capacity. ADOC’s problems stem from the understaffing and overcrowding, but Commissioner Dunn’s and the State of Alabama’s only proposed solutions thus far have been to  build three new mega- prisons, and keep people locked up for decades. Alabama must do better. We grieve for the lives we lost in ADOC’s care this year and every year, including:”

January 2019 

Roderick Abrams, St. Clair

John David Teague, Staton 

Paul Ford, Kilby

February 

Matt Holmes, Limestone

Daniel Gentry, Donaldson

March 

Steven Mullins, St. Clair 

Quinton Ashaad Few, Bibb

Rashaud Dederic Morrissette, Fountain 

Ray Anthony Little, Bibb

June

Joseph Holloway, Fountain 

Jeremy Reshad Bailey, Fountain 

September 

Christopher Hurst, Fountain 

 Marco Tolbert, Donaldson 

William Spratling, Donaldson

October

Marcus Green, Bullock 

Steven Davis, Donaldson 

Elvin Burnseed, Donaldson 

William Warren, Ventress 

Ricky Gilland, Holman SEG 

Robert Green, Elmore

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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Suspected drug traffickers jailed in St. Clair County

Matt Mullinax, Christopher Baird, Sean Michael Brantley and Nathan Parke Bateman were all arrested following a lengthy undercover investigation.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Four individuals were arrested Tuesday on allegations that they were involved in a methamphetamine trafficking ring in St. Clair County.

Matt Mullinax, Christopher Baird, Sean Michael Brantley and Nathan Parke Bateman were all arrested following a lengthy undercover investigation. All four are being held in the Ashville Courthouse without bond.

The St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Division, St. Clair County District Attorney’s Office, along with the FBI, FBI Safe Streets Task Force, Pell City Police Department, Oxford Police Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and the Alabama Department of Corrections K9 Unit conducted an extensive undercover investigation that has resulted in the arrest of these individuals for their alleged involved in a methamphetamine trafficking criminal enterprise.

Matt Mullinax is a 37-year-old white male from Pell City. Mullinax has been charged with three counts of trafficking methamphetamine, three counts of unlawful Distribution of a controlled substance, one counts of unlawful possession of marijuana in the second degree and one count of unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.

Christopher Baird is a 35-year-old white male from Pell City. Baird has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine, and one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Sean Michael Brantley is a 40-year-old white male from Lincoln. Brantley has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine, and one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

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Nathan Parke Bateman is a 37-year-old male of other race. Bateman has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine.

The four individuals have been charged with crimes. At this point these are allegations. Baird, Brantley, Mullinax and Brantley, like all accused, will have an opportunity to mount a vigorous defense before a jury of their peers.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths decreased by 4.6 percent from 2017 (21.7 per 100,000) to 2018 (20.7 per 100,000).

Methamphetamines and other psychostimulants were responsible for 12,678 drug overdose deaths in 2018.

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According to the website drugabuse.gov, Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Methamphetamine is commonly also known as meth, blue, ice and crystal, among many other terms.

It takes the form of a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol.

In addition to being highly addictive, long term use of methamphetamine can lead to symptoms that can include significant anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances and violent behavior. Users also may display a number of psychotic features, including paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions (for example, the sensation of insects creeping under the skin).

Psychotic symptoms can sometimes last for months or years after a person has quit using methamphetamine, and stress has been shown to precipitate spontaneous recurrence of methamphetamine psychosis in people who use methamphetamine and have previously experienced psychosis.

These and other problems reflect significant changes in the brain caused by misuse of methamphetamine. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated alterations in the activity of the dopamine system that are associated with reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning.

Studies in chronic methamphetamine users have also revealed severe structural and functional changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which may account for many of the emotional and cognitive problems observed in these individuals.

Methamphetamine use also leads to severe weight loss and dental problems. Methamphetamine use by pregnant women has been shown to cause cognitive and behavioral issues in their children that are long-lasting.

Billy J. Murray is the sheriff of St. Clair County.

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Crime

Governor appoints State Sen. Cam Ward as Bureau of Pardons and Paroles director

Ward is to replace current director Charlie Graddick, who announced on Nov. 2 that he planned to resign on Nov. 30.

Eddie Burkhalter

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State Sen. Cam Ward (VIA GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Gov. Kay Ivey announced Tuesday her appointment of State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, to serve as director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. 

Ward is to replace current director Charlie Graddick, who announced on Nov. 2 that he planned to resign on Nov. 30. Ward’s appointment is set to begin Dec. 7. 

Ward serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been central in the state Legislature’s criminal justice and prison reform work for many years.

“Cam Ward has spent his career as an attorney and public servant dedicated to Alabama’s criminal justice system,” Ivey said in a statement. “As he transitions to director of Pardons and Paroles, I’m confident that his background and experience will position him to closely follow the letter of the law while providing individuals every opportunity possible to rebuild their lives post incarceration.”

Ward is in his third term in the Alabama Senate and was first elected to the Statehouse in 2002. Ward began his career in state government when he was appointed deputy attorney general by former Attorney General Bill Pryor.

“I’m honored that Governor Ivey had the confidence to appoint me to this position,” Ward said in a statement. “I have committed my career in the Senate to improving our criminal justice system in Alabama, and I look forward to working with Governor Ivey going forward in this effort.”

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Graddick’s tenure as director of the state agency has been controversial, and his departure comes as the state’s prison system continues to face serious overcrowding and understaffing problems, both of which have drawn the focus of a lengthy U.S. Department of Justice investigation into prison violence and excessive use-of-force incidents. 

Graddick, a former circuit judge, state attorney general and architect of Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act, was appointed to the post in July 2019. He’s described the state’s inmates in op-eds and in interviews as too dangerous to be paroled.

After Graddick’s appointment as director, personnel shakeups at the bureau resulted in reductions in the number of incarcerated people given parole hearings, according to several people with knowledge of the matter who discussed their concerns with APR over the last few months. The number of people receiving paroles dramatically declined as a result.

Graddick also oversaw the bureau at a time when the bureau’s messaging to the public dramatically shifted, and began focusing on violent crimes, using the words “violence” and “violent” repeatedly in social media posts and press releases, prompting concern from criminal justice reform advocates that the bureau was attempting to sway public opinion against incarcerated people and their release on parole.

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Carla Crowder, executive director of the  Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Montgomery, applauded Ivey’s selection.

“I’m encouraged by this appointment. Ward gets it. He’s not afraid to call out bad laws and crusade for smarter, better criminal justice policy,” Crowder said in a message to APR. “It will be refreshing to have a leader at parole who’s not stuck in the failed policies of the past but instead has earned a reputation for bold, innovative reform.”

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Report: Black men in Alabama prisons three times more likely to die by homicide

Incarcerated Black people in the state are being murdered at just more than three times the rate of white people.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A report this week by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Montgomery found that incarcerated Black people in the state are being murdered at just more than three times the rate of white people.

Between 2014 and 2020, the Montgomery-based nonprofit found that 37 of the 48 men killed by homicide in Alabama prisons were black. Appleseed documented 89 preventable deaths from homicide, suicide or drug overdose during that time.

“So when we talk about preventable violence, when we talk about, unconstitutional conditions in our prisons. It’s hurting black Alabamians at much higher rates than anybody else,” said Carla Crowder, Appleseed’s executive director, speaking to APR on Thursday. “If we’re gonna be serious about racial justice, racial disparities in the criminal legal system, in the state, we have to look beyond police brutality.”

Crowder said police brutality is a serious issue but the injustices after incarceration are “two sides of the same coin.” The report notes a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that details widespread problems of violence and sexual abuse, corruption and drug use in Alabama’s prisons for men.

The DOJ report notes that ADOC “has violated and is continuing to violate the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners housed in men’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions…”

“One year after the 2019 Department of Justice report detailed the need for immediate action to prevent more deaths, nothing has changed,” the Appleseed report reads. “In fact, 2020 is on pace to be one of the most deadly years on record in Alabama prisons, with deaths by homicide between January and July at 10 compared to seven for the same time period in 2019.”

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The Appleseed report also notes that homicides are likely higher than ADOC’s count. The DOJ report states that ADOC mischaracterized at least three deaths that had all the signs of homicide. “These unreported homicides provide reasonable cause to believe that ADOC’s homicide rate is higher than what ADOC has publicly reported,” the DOJ report reads.

Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn are moving forward with plans to lease three new mega prisons from private companies, once built, and have said the new prisons will help solve the high levels of violence in state prisons, arguing existing facilities are outdated and not designed to keep inmates and staff safe, as are modern prisons.

Crowder said over the years ADOC has made many promises aimed at curbing the violence but hasn’t delivered on those promises.

“There’s been a number of steps that ADOC promised to take,” Crowder said. “We’re going to hire more officers, we’re gonna pay them more. We’re going to do these massive shakedowns in prisons and we’re gonna get all the weapons.”

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Court records show that ADOC is well behind court-ordered correctional officer hiring targets, and while ADOC does conduct random prison raids to collect weapons and contraband, such illicit contraband often finds its way back into prisons in short order.

“These have all been empty promises. Nothing has changed, and to think that new buildings are somehow going to fix decades of corruption and dysfunction,” Crowder said. “The buildings aren’t killing anybody.”

“We cannot continue down the path of building new prisons and expect them to somehow not be filled with the same systemic violence and racial disparities we have seen over the past five years in Alabama prisons,” said Hannah Krawczyk, an Auburn University Public Administration student and Appleseed intern who conducted research for the report, in a statement. “The cycle of human rights violations and violence that are inflicted on incarcerated individuals in this state cannot continue. As my generation learns about this crisis, we are determined to fight for change and end Alabama’s historic disregard for Black lives in the justice system.”

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Illinois man sentenced on drug trafficking charges

Ortega was found guilty of operating a drug trafficking ring that stretched all the way from Mexico to Alabama.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

United States Attorney Prim F. Escalona and Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Brad L. Byerley on Monday announced that Nolberto Ortega, from Chicago, Illinois, was sentenced to 390 months in prison on Oct. 28 for distribution of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl.

U.S. District Judge Liles C. Burke imposed the sentence. Ortega, age 54, has been found guilty of operating a drug trafficking ring that stretched all the way from Mexico to Alabama.

In August 2019, a federal grand jury charged Ortega in a multi-count indictment with leading a drug trafficking organization that transported heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl from Mexico to Talladega, Alabama.

The charges stemmed from an investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Talladega County Drug Task Force in early 2019.

Law enforcement officers arrested Ortega in California after a drug shipment was seized in Talladega.

“This dealer went to extreme lengths to profit from this deadly poison with no regard to the devastation and destruction he left behind,” said Escalona. “The lengthy sentence sends the message that drug trafficking in our communities will not be tolerated and will be severely punished. The citizens of the Northern District of Alabama have one less drug dealer to worry about for years to come.”

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“We will continue to attack the scourge of illegal and dangerous drug distribution in Alabama and beyond,” Byerley said. “The lengthy sentencing of this individual should be taken as a message to those who want to sell drugs. We are going to catch you and put you in prison for a long time if you distribute this poison in our communities.”

The DEA investigated the case along with the Talladega County Drug Task Force. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Blake Milner and Austin Shutt prosecuted the case.

The Trump Administration has worked to increase security along the nation’s southern border with Mexico.

“America’s porous southern border causes the deaths of 30,000+ Americans every single year (from illegal alien homicides and overdoses on poisonous drugs shipped across our porous southern border),” said Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Alabama.

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According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths decreased by 4.6 percent from 2017 (21.7 per 100,000) to 2018 (20.7 per 100,000). Opioids were involved in 46,802 overdose deaths in 2018 (69.5% of all drug overdose deaths).

Ortega will serve his sentence in the federal prison system.

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