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.
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.”
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:”
Roderick Abrams, St. Clair
John David Teague, Staton
Paul Ford, Kilby
Matt Holmes, Limestone
Daniel Gentry, Donaldson
Steven Mullins, St. Clair
Quinton Ashaad Few, Bibb
Rashaud Dederic Morrissette, Fountain
Ray Anthony Little, Bibb
Joseph Holloway, Fountain
Jeremy Reshad Bailey, Fountain
Christopher Hurst, Fountain
Marco Tolbert, Donaldson
William Spratling, Donaldson
Marcus Green, Bullock
Steven Davis, Donaldson
Elvin Burnseed, Donaldson
William Warren, Ventress
Ricky Gilland, Holman SEG
Robert Green, Elmore
Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages
The Alabama Department of Human Resources on Wednesday warned the public that thieves are targeting people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, commonly known as food stamps, through text messages.
The text messages typically request personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and SNAP electronic benefits transfer card or PIN numbers, the department said in a press release.
Some text messages also falsely claim people have been selected to receive food stamps.
“Identity thieves are using new tricks in hopes of catching SNAP recipients off guard during this time of heightened uncertainty,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. “It is so important to take the precautions necessary to protect your identity, along with the integrity of this vital program. Following these simple but effective tips can greatly reduce your risk of harm.”
DHR recommends these tips to protect against the scam:
- Never provide personal information to an unfamiliar person or organization.
- If a text message seems like a scam, delete it. Do not reply.
- Do not click on any links in an unexpected text message.
- Beware that scammers often pressure victims to “act now!”
- If an offer or claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Do not trust caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” technology to disguise their phone numbers.
SNAP recipients who are unsure if a request for information is legitimate should contact their local DHR office at a verified phone number. Contact information is available here.
The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama. More information about the program can be found here.
John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19
John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9 after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming the 21st Alabama inmate to have died after being confirmed to have the disease.
Dejnozka, who was dubbed the “Southwest Molester,” was convicted in 1980 in connection with the assault of at least 18 women in their homes, attacking, torturing and raping some of them, according to news accounts. He was sentenced to 830 years on convictions of two counts of rape, two counts of assault with intent to maim, one count of burglary and assault with intent to ravish, 11 counts of first-degree burglary and one count of second-degree burglary.
Dejnozka, who was serving at the Holman Correctional Facility, was tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to a press release from the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained until his death.
ADOC also announced that six other inmates at Holman prison and one at Ventress Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 393 Alabama inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, of which 45 remain active, according to ADOC. As of Sept. 6 the state had tested 1,886 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates for COVID-19.
There have been 372 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers, while 340 have since recovered, according to the department. Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after testing positive for the disease.
Governor announces grant to aid domestic violence victims amid COVID-19
Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced approval of a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help domestic violence victims access help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence is using the funds to provide direct services and support during COVID-19 for victims of family, domestic and dating violence, Ivey’s office said in a press release.
“The global pandemic has made many aspects of our lives more challenging, including the ability to seek help due to domestic violence,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend the work of the staff at the coalition who are working every day to help those in need during the additional challenges posed by COVID-19.”
The coalition supports shelters throughout Alabama and operates regional 24-hour crisis telephone lines for victims needing information or seeking to escape violent situations. It also provides training and technical assistance for police and others who encounter domestic violence situations and helps develop public policy to reduce domestic violence and ensure victims receive proper services.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant from funds made available as part of the CARES Act.
“ADECA stands with Gov. Ivey in support of the coalition and other likeminded organizations as they work throughout the state to provide vital help to domestic violence victims,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said in a statement. “The partnership between ADECA and the coalition helps ensure that this level of assistance will continue to be available throughout the state even during a pandemic.”
Appeals court upholds Lowndes County capital murder conviction
Attorney General Steve Marshall said this week that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction of Deandra Marquis Lee on capital murder during a robbery.
Lee, 24, is from Montgomery and was convicted in Lowndes County Circuit Court in October 2018 for the 2012 murders of 9-year-old twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Girdner.
On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals released a decision upholding Lee’s conviction.
On June 3, 2012, Terrye Moorer dropped off her twins, Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett, with Girdner, their caregiver who was also Moorer’s friend from church.
That evening, when Moorer drove to Girdner’s residence to pick up her children, no one was home so Moorer filed a police report. On June 5, 2012, the bodies of Girdner and the two children were found on a dirt road off of Alabama Highway 21 in Lowndes County.
The police determined that Lee was a chief suspect based upon reports that he was seen driving Girdner’s white Mercedes on the day of the murders and the last call made to Girdner’s phone was from a number belonging to Lee’s mother.
Lee’s cousin, Joe Hamilton, testified that on June 3, Lee took Hamilton home in a white Mercedes that had a skateboard and a bag in the back.
Moorer testified that her children had similar items with them when she left them with Girdner. Lee’s fingerprints were also found inside Girdner’s vehicle.
Lee told several people that he murdered Girdner but not the children.
Curtis Robinson, who was incarcerated with Lee in Autauga County, testified that Lee “went there to commit burglary and it turned to something else.”
Robinson testified that Lee told him he killed Girdner and the two children.
Lowndes County District Attorney Charlotte Tesmer’s office prosecuted this case and obtained a guilty verdict. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Lee subsequently sought to have his conviction reversed on appeal.
The Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division handled the case during the appeals process, arguing for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm Lee’s convictions.
Alabama Attorney General Marshall commended Assistant Attorney General John Davis for his successful work on this case and thanked the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney and her staff for their valuable assistance in defending the capital murder conviction.