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Prison reform group asks for observers on prison commissioner’s task force on violence

Eddie Burkhalter

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A group advocating for prison reform in Alabama on Friday asked that external observers be placed on a newly formed task force meant to address inmate-on-inmate violence and alleged excessive use of force by correctional officers. 

The request comes after a particularly deadly month, and year, in Alabama prisons. 

Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of former prisoners, family members and civil justice groups, sent a letter Friday to members of Gov. Kay Ivey’s criminal justice study group, asking that Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn include outside eyes into his internal task force. 

“If ADOC wants to invite real oversight of its violent prisons, it must include independent, external observers in its new task force,” reads the letter. “The people of Alabama do not trust prison officials to provide meaningful oversight of the violence in their prisons and amidst their correctional officers’ ranks.” 

Dunn announced formation of that task force on Dec. 9,  following the deaths of two inmates in the previous four days. 

Inmate Michael Smith, 55, of Fairfield was pronounced dead at a medical facility on Dec. 5, five days after a “use of force” incident involving correctional officers at the Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton. Two officers were placed on leave connected to that incident, ADOC has said. 

Another inmate, Willie Leon Scott, 48, of Birmingham was pronounced dead on Dec. 6 at the Baptist Medical Center South in Montgomery following an “incident” on Dec. 4 at the Holman prison in Atmore. 

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The day after Dunn’s announcement of the new task force two other inmates died in state prisons. 

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Brandon Ladd, 31, was pronounced dead by a prison physician at the Bibb Correctional Facility on Dec. 10, and Byron Tubbs, 44, was pronounced dead at the Donaldson prison infirmary on Dec. 10. Both deaths are under investigation, ADOC said in a statement Thursday. 

In another incident involving correctional officers, Steven Davis, 35, of Graysville, died on Oct. 5 after correctional officers “applied physical measures” on the inmate the day before. ADOC said at the time that Davis had attempted to strike an officer with weapons. 

At least 27 inmates have died in Alabama prisons in 2019 due to murder, drug overdoses or suicide. 

“Commissioner Dunn has directed the task force to assess measures including “Tactics and Techniques” reinforcement training programs, health and wellness interventions for correctional officers and staff, additional inmate rehabilitation programs and resources, and the reexamination of enhanced surveillance measures such as the possible use of body cameras by on-duty correctional officers,” the statement from ADOC on the task force reads. “Dunn has directed the new internal task force to integrate these actions into the ADOC’s three-year strategic plan.”

The prison reform advocacy group believes the steps Dunn is taking don’t go far enough. 

“Commissioner Dunn’s answer to this escalating crisis is to form an “internal task force.” According to ADOC officials, concerns about deadly use of force will be addressed through a “refreshment course” for correctional officers. We demand more,” the group’s letter reads. 

The group asks that Gov. Ivey and Dunn include on the task force: 

 – Legislators with experience on the prison oversight committee 

– Advocates who have served time in ADOC prisons 

– Lawyers who represent people in prison 

– Family members of people who have been victims of violence in ADOC prisons – Currently incarcerated advocates 

An ADOC spokeswoman received APR’s questions as to whether ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn would consider honoring the group’s request on Friday, but APR hadn’t received an answer as of Monday afternoon. 

Asked for Gov. Kay Ivey’s comments on the violence in prisons and whether she supports the group’s request for outside observers on the task force, in a statement to APR on Saturday Ivey’s office did not address the group’s request but commented on Ivey’s formation of a prison study group, formed in July, which is expected to make policy recommendations before the Alabama Legislature’s next session begins Feb. 4.

“The governor remains focused and committed to tackling the multifaceted challenges facing the state prison system, and in establishing the Study Group, she is aiming to see data and proven practices further guide needed reform in Alabama,” the statement from Ivey’s office reads. “Over the past five months, the members, who are various policy makers from both sides of the aisle, have worked diligently to study facts and hear directly from the public and others with a variety of experiences involving the system. This also included opportunities for individual meetings with members and staff. Both these individuals and the Study Group have a shared interest in seeing improvements in the state prison system. The group will present its findings to the governor next month to address the tough, complex issues within our criminal justice system.”

 

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