External observers should be included on an “internal task force” formed in December to address deadly violence inside Alabama prisons, according to a criminal justice professor, who reinforced an earlier request from a group of prison reform advocates.
David Rembert is a research fellow at the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, an Assistant Professor at Prairie A&M University and a member of the American Correctional Association. He formerly worked as a correctional officer with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“That’s a no-no in criminal justice. You never say you’re going to do an internal task force,” Rembert told APR on Monday. “You already know what the results are going to look like.”
Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn announced formation of the internal task force on Dec. 9 following numerous inmate deaths in recent months, at least two the result of use-of-force incidents by correctional officers.
Inmate Michael Smith, 55, died 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 following that death.
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. ADOC has not stated what is believed to have occured in that death, which the department has said remains under investigation.
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 Alabama prisoners died in 2019 as a result of homicide, drug overdoses or suicides, according to information gathered from ADOC, news accounts and tips reporters receive from other inmates and family members of the deceased inmates.
“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.”
Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of former prisoners, family members and civil justice groups, in a letter Gov. Kay Ivey’s criminal justice study group, asked that Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn to include several on the task force from outside ADOC.
Rembert, who studies violence in prisons, worries that the persons placed on that internal task force might be the very ones who express adversarial attitudes toward inmates, and said Alabamians for Fair Justice’s request to have external oversight is “how it should be.”
Rembert said that prison leadership establishes and maintains a facility’s culture, and that while inmate deaths as a result of use-of-force incidents by correctional officers happens in prisons across the country, “I think it’s happening a little too often in Alabama.”
Rembert and Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research and professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University, published a study in 2014 in The Prison Journal that looked at what drives correctional officers to use non-deadly force on inmates.
The study looked at 31 civil lawsuits between 2001 and 2022 in which inmates won in court against correctional officers over use-of-force incidents.
According to the study, six of the eleven categories of excessive use of force involved correctional officers retaliating against prisoners.
“This notion of retaliatory violence is consistent with other research in the area of retaliatory homicide, which suggests that it is collectively tolerated, endorsed, and rewarded by groups as a means to resolve disputes,” the study reads.
“It’s indoctrination. It’s ‘us against them’,’” Rembert said of the cycle of violence in some prison systems, adding that violence flourishes when officers are taught to dehumanize prisoners, and to protect one-another from scrutiny despite possible wrongdoing.
“The whole culture is driven by how the officers treat the offenders,” Rembert said. “Inmates just aren’t going to go and start punching. That’s not normal…retaliation is probably a big issue.”
Rembert wrote an editorial published by APR on Dec. 30 in which he calls for the immediate firing of correctional officers who receive multiple grievances from prisoners, and the firing of “all correctional officers who are repeatedly involved in unnecessary and excessive use of force cases, substantiated, and unsubstantiated.”
“The officer know who they can fire right now,” Rembert told APR on Monday. “But you’re dealing with people you probably had Thanksgiving with, who you spend a lot of time on the block with, and probably went to the training academy with.”
A U.S. Department of Justice report in April by federal investigators found in the state’s prison for men rampant overcrowding, understaffing and a failure to protect inmates from sexual and physical violence, which the DOJ stated amount to a potential violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Offenders get all the rights we get, minus the Second Amendment,” Rembert said. “The only difference is they’re incarcerated…When you take away a person’s liberty you’ve got to take the responsibility of caring for them.”
APR asked an ADOC spokeswoman on Dec. 20 and Jan. 2 whether commissioner Dunn is considering the request to include external observers to the task force, but as of Thursday evening had received no answer.
Alabamians for Fair Justice in a statement to APR on Thursday wrote that the group has received no response to its request.
“Alabamians for Fair Justice did receive a response when we transmitted the open letter – which included the request for outside observers on the prison violence task force – to the Study Group (via the Governor’s office) that it was received and would be relayed to the members,” the statement reads. “That was on December 23, and we have not heard anything since then.”
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.