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ACLU of Alabama report: Parole reductions to worsen prison overcrowded in 2020

Eddie Burkhalter

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A report released Monday predicts that in 2020 Alabama’s deadly, overcrowded prisons, already under threat of a federal takeover, will become even more crowded, largely due to a dramatic reduction in the number of paroles being granted.  

The report, published by the Campaign for Smart Justice with the ACLU of Alabama, predicts that the state prison population this year will increase by 3,772 people, and that 84 percent of that increase will be due to a decline in paroles. 

Since September, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the release of 92 percent of people who were scheduled for parole hearings, the report notes, and the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has also drastically reduced the number of inmates being granted those hearings. 

“Approximately 150 hearings are scheduled in January 2020, compared to over 600 per month in 2018,” the report states. 

Of the 200 people considered for release in November and December, the board granted releases to just 17, according to the report, which used ADOC’s annual and monthly statistical reports. 

Also notable in the report are recent increases in custody admissions and in the total prison population. 

Between 2015, when Alabama lawmakers approved a series of sentencing reforms, and 2018, the prison population declined from 25,201 to 20,585. That number jumped to 21,680 in 2019 and is expected to hit 25, 452 this year, according to the report’s estimates, wiping away the gains from 2015’s sentencing reforms. 

The number if people being admitted to state prisons has risen each year of the past four years, according to the report, jumping from 7, 478 in 2015 to 9,822 last year. The report states that, barring any changes, the state could house 25,452 inmates in 2020. 

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“This alarming projection comes as the ADOC is already failing to prevent runaway violence in prisons that are 168 percent over capacity with staffing levels hovering at 37 percent,” The ACLU’s report reads. “In 2019, at least 28 people died in ADOC custody due to homicide, suicide or overdoses.” 

In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report that states there is reasonable cause to believe that Alabama’s prisons are in violation of the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual assault. 

Reductions in paroles comes after after the parole of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was serving a life sentence for mostly non-violent crimes. Spencer is charged with capital murder in the deaths of three people in Guntersville, which took place after his 2017 release. 

Following those deaths Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law changes to the bureau that included the governor’s power to appoint a director.  

Ivey in July appointed former state attorney general Charles Graddick as director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, who quickly placed three members of the agency, including his predecessor, on leave and made public statements that the bureau hadn’t followed proper procedures, including the notification of crime victims before hearings. 

Former Board Chair Lyn Head resigned in September following the staff shakeup. Head told AL.com that she did not believe that the agency was broken, as Attorney General Steve Marshall had said in support of the changes. 

“Alabama’s Parole Board and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles have tremendous power over our prison population,” said Randall Marshall, executive director of ACLU of Alabama, in a statement Monday. Their decisions to docket fewer eligible people for hearings and to grant fewer paroles are exacerbating Alabama’s prison crisis systemwide.” 

Marshall said in the statement that for individuals who are trying to survive inside Alabama’s overcrowded and violent prisons “the board’s actions can truly be a matter of life or death.” 

“State agencies should be working together to solve this disaster, but instead new leadership at the Bureau and Board have doubled down, justifying their actions with the same old tough-on-crime ideology and fear-driven rhetoric that has pushed Alabama’s addiction to incarceration for decades,” Marshall’s statement reads. 

It was unclear Monday why so many fewer people were being granted parole hearings. APR’s attempts to reach a spokesman for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles on Monday were unsuccessful. 

An ADOC spokeswoman told APR on Monday that the department would provide answers to a reporter’s questions on Tuesday. This article will be updated with those responses.

Asked whether Gov. Kay Ivey was concerned about the reports findings, Ivey’s spokeswoman Gina Maiola released a statement to APR on Monday. 

“As a public safety necessity, there was a dire need to change how things were being done at Pardons and Paroles. Governor Ivey tasked Judge Graddick to enact critical reform, and she has full confidence that he will continue guiding this change and ensure the previous failures do not occur again,” the statement from Ivey’s office reads. “She has made it clear that one of her main priorities is to address the many challenges facing the state’s prison system, which includes the issue of overcrowding. Granting paroles for the sole reason of meeting a quota is a shiftless method to solving the greater problems, not appropriate and not in the best interest of any Alabamian. The governor looks forward to working with her Study Group on Criminal Justice Reform to make substantive change this coming Session.”

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Deadline extended for Alabama prison bids due to coronavirus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced that because of the COVID-19, she’s giving a two-week deadline extension for submission of proposals to build then lease three new prisons to the state.

Those proposals had been due by April 30 but the two developer teams – Alabama Prison Transformation Partners and CoreCivic – will have until May 14 to file their proposals, according to a press release from Ivey’s office Tuesday.

The decision to extend the proposal submission deadline came after discussions with two groups about the impacts each are experiencing because of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, according to Ivey’s office.

“I am steadfastly committed to the strategic effort to build three new men’s correctional facilities – this ‘Alabama solution’ is a direct result of our dedication to implement actionable solutions that address long-standing challenges facing our prison system,” Ivey said in a statement. “Given the unforeseen circumstances associated with COVID-19, it is in the best interest of the state of Alabama to grant this extension so that the developer teams have adequate time to perform required due diligence and to prepare thorough and thoughtful proposals.”

Ivey’s plan to build three new prisons is part of her solution for fixing the state’s overcrowded, deadly prisons, which remain under threat of a federal lawsuit if state officials don’t address what the U.S. Department of Justice has said are violations of inmates’ Constitutional rights to protection from violence and sexual assault.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement that the spread of COVID-19 “has only further demonstrated the critical need for new correctional facilities in Alabama.”

“As we have stated before, overcrowded conditions within the Department’s dilapidated facilities create increasingly challenging circumstances to ensure inmate and staff health and safety,” Dunn said. “The developer teams expressed the need for an extension – due to work and travel restrictions implemented in the wake of this national health crisis – and we fully supported the extension.  Improved prison infrastructure, increased staffing, and stronger rehabilitation programs will allow for transformational results.”

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Public defender working to free some inmates in Birmingham jail amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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At least five people in the Jefferson County Jail had their paroles revoked after serving time in state prisons for non-violent crimes, and as the threat of COVID-19 inside jails and prisons increases, some are working to get them out before it’s too late.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles told APR on Tuesday, however, that the bureau doesn’t have the authority to release those inmates.

Adam Danneman, lead attorney at the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office, is concerned with the bureau’s assertion.

“They’re only in because of the violations filed by the Parole Board,” Danneman said of those state inmates in the Birmingham jail. “And they’ve already revoked these people.”

ADOC on March 20 announced a 30-day moratorium on taking prison transfers from county jails in an attempt to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak in state facilities.

Danneman told APR on Tuesday that his office is working to get released those who have already served time for non-violent offenses, were out on parole and who were picked back up on mostly technical violations.

“We’re lucky in Jefferson County that our judges and our DA and our sheriff’s department have all collaborated and used some common sense, proactive measures in this crisis to keep as many of our at-risk, non-violent citizens out of harm’s way as much as possible,” Danneman said.

Now he’s hoping the state’s Pardons and Paroles Board does the same, by releasing those who can safely be released before the deadly virus spreads behind the fences.

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It’s a matter of when, not if, Danneman said of the likelihood of COVID-19 cases in the Jefferson County Jail.

“I hope I’m wrong. I hope it never comes into the jail, but if it does it’s going to be bad,” Danneman said.

There’s been no positive COVID-19 case among state inmates as of Monday, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), but an administrative employee at one prison has tested positive for the virus.

As of Monday, 30 state inmates had been tested for the virus, but there were still seven test results pending, according to ADOC.

Criminal justice reform advocates and legal experts have been sounding the alarm for weeks over the threat of an outbreak of the virus in jails and prisons.

Older inmates and those with medical conditions are at much greater risk from serious complications and death from the novel coronavirus, health experts warn.

“The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles does not have the authority to release these offenders,” wrote Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles spokesman Terry Abbott, in a response to APR on Tuesday.

Abbott said that the Parole Board has revoked parole on six of seven inmates APR inquired about, who are awaiting transport back to the Alabama Department of Corrections to serve their sentences. The seventh inmate’s case is to come before the parole board this week, Abbott said.

It was unclear Tuesday how many state inmates were serving in county jails after having their paroles revoked for technical violations. Abbott said that number would change daily and would also involve people who have already had parole revoked and are awaiting transfer to a state prison.

Nancy Aichele, 53, is among those state prisoners serving in the Birmingham jail, where she’s been since January 24. Aichele had already served more than 18 years of a life sentence for an escape charge when she was picked up on a parole violation.

Aichele was charged with escape for walking out of an ADOC facility, without injuring anyone, after being convicted and sentenced to 3 years in 1990 for forging an $80 check, according to court records. The escape charge resulted in a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

After she was released on parole, Aichele was charged with obstruction, which triggered her parole violation and returned her to serve the remainder of her life sentence.

The obstruction charge was later dropped, according to court records, but the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board revoked her parole regardless.

Willie Toyer, 55, is also in the Jefferson County Jail and was sentenced to life on a 1996 marijuana trafficking charge.

Toyer was paroled after serving 22 years and six months, but his parole was revoked for two subsequent drug charges in March; a possession charge and a misdemeanor charge of possessing prescription pills.

Toyer’s case is to go before the Pardons and Paroles Board this week, according to the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Leo Cain, 64,  was sentenced to life in 1994 on a first-degree robbery charge from 1992. He served almost 22 years before being paroled, which was revoked after he was charged with misdemeanor obstruction for giving false information to law enforcement.

Danneman said a parole officer had told Cain that his parole wouldn’t be revoked if he pleaded to the misdemeanor obstruction charge, but after he agreed to do so he was arrested and returned to serve the rest of his time regardless.

Danneman said he’s concerned about Cain because of his age, which puts him at greater risk of death from COVID-19.

“He’s not somebody who needs to be incarcerated right now, if at all,” Danneman said.

Shannon Blackman, 54, received a life sentence for a 1996 burglary and had served 23 years before being paroled. She’s had no new criminal charges, but her parole was revoked on a technical violation for not reporting to a parole officer.

Had she been charged with burglary today under the state’s new sentencing guidelines she would likely serve no more than 18 months, Danneman said.

“She’s done 23 years on it, hasn’t committed a new offense and is still getting revoked,” Danneman said.

On Sunday a man serving in jail in New York died from COVID-19, becoming the first jail inmate in that state to die from the virus.

Michael Tyson, 53, was serving for a technical parole violation when he died from COVID-19. He had failed to report to his parole officer, according to The City.

There were more than 500 COVID-19 cases in New York city jails as of Sunday, according to the news agency. 

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Alabama inmate killed by another inmate at Ventress Correctional

Eddie Burkhalter

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via the Alabama Department of Corrections

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. 

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Attorney general partners with Facebook to stop price-gouging

Eddie Burkhalter

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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.

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