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State not hiring nearly enough prison correctional officers to meet court order, according to court filing

Eddie Burkhalter

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In a court filing Friday an attorneys for plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections highlighted how few correctional officers the state has hired since a federal judge ordered at least 2,000 more be sent to work inside the state’s deadly, overcrowded prisons. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), in a statement Monday pushed back on those assertions, saying the plaintiffs’ filing didn’t include recent officer graduates soon to be at work. 

Defendants efforts to address severe and deadly correctional understaffing in Alabama prisons have not yet proven to be effective in addressing both recruitment and retention,” Southern Poverty Law Center attorney CJ Sandley and Anil Mujumdar, counsel for Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, wrote to the court in Friday’s filing. “Since the Court issued its Liability Opinion in June 2017, ADOC’s total number of COs, BCOs, and supervisors has decreased by 196 officers.” 

The attorneys were referring to correctional officers by the acronym “CO’s” and a new classification of lesser-trained officers, called basic correctional officers, by “BCOs.” 

The court filing goes on to state that comparing staffing numbers from December 2017 until Sept. 30, the most recent data filed by the ADOC, the state shows an increase of just 25 officers over nearly two years, which is less than 1.5 percent of the judge’s order to add 2,000 officers by February 2022. 

The Plaintiffs’ attorneys also asked the court not to allow ADOC to count another type of correctional officer, called a cubical correctional officer (CCO), who cannot work directly with inmates at all, to be counted toward that required 2,000 new hires. 

The Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the civil suit Braggs v. Dunn in 2014, over the state’s treatment of state inmates’ mental health care, following a rash of suicides inside the state’s prisons. 

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In 2019 U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled that treatment of the inmates was unconstitutional and violates the Eighth Amendment, and wrote in his ruling that the Alabama Department of Corrections was “deliberately indifferent” to the treatment of the prisoners in isolation. 

In a response Monday to the court filing, Bill Lunsford, an attorney with the Birmingham-based law firm Maynard Cooper Gale who is representing ADOC, wrote that the agency believes the SPLC’s findings do not reflect progress already made. 

“We believe the SPLC intentionally took great liberties with complicated information that ultimately painted an inaccurate portrait of the meaningful progress we have made in addressing staffing challenges, including deliberately excluding data from the most effective recruitment period in ADOC history,” Lunsford wrote.  

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Lunsford said that between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019 ADOC has had a net gain of 193 “correctional security staff” and just recently graduated 125 more officers in December. 

It was unclear Monday if Lunsford was counting those new cubical correctional officers among those 193 “correctional security staff.” As of Monday evening APR hadn’t received answers to questions to an ADOC spokeswoman seeking clarification. 

The ADOC had previously requested that the court place under seal the most up-to-date staffing figures citing security concerns, according to court records. The court agreed to do so, allowing only staffing figures older than three months to be released publicly, according to those records. 

“The reality is that we are instituting sweeping changes to address both recruitment and retention concerns that will take both time and resources to fully implement, including building three new correctional facilities that will provide safer and more desirable working conditions,” Lunsford wrote in the statement. “This is not an easy undertaking, and the SPLC’s manufactured distractions only serve to detract from our collective mission to positively transform corrections in Alabama. We are solely focused on the task at-hand and remain fully committed to achieving this goal.”

The SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program issued a statement later on Monday addressing Lunsford’s comments. 

“We stand by our January 3, 2020 court filing. According to Alabama’s Department of Corrections’ own data and consultants, it must hire over 2,000 certified correctional officers in the next two years,” the statement reads. “No matter how you do the math, Alabama’s prisons remain horrifically understaffed.  Alabama has a very long way to go to comply with the Court’s Order requiring hiring 2,200 correctional officers by February 2022.” 

In a Feb. 20, 2018 opinion Judge Thompson noted the state’s problematic staffing shortages. 

“The Department’s lack of correctional staff leaves many ADOC facilities incredibly dangerous and out of control” and causes “prisoners and correctional officers alike” to be “justifiably afraid for their safety.” the judge’s opinion reads. “As multiple witnesses testified at the understaffing remedial hearing, this legitimate perception of danger to correctional staff–which is a direct result of understaffing–begets further understaffing: it is a major impediment to recruitment and retention.” 

Judge Thompson in his opinion also wrote that the evidence presented at a recent hearing “plainly indicated that the understaffing remedy will require ADOC to hire significant numbers of additional correctional officers. Yet ADOC, despite its purported efforts to hire more officers, has in fact continued to hemorrhage correctional staff since the time of the June 2017 liability opinion–that is, when this court had already found that “persistent and severe shortages of … correctional staff” was an “overarching issue[]” that contributed to the defendants’ Eighth Amendment violation.” 

Lunsford notably argued at  the inaugural meeting of Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy in July that the state’s prisons aren’t overcrowded, which drew criticism from several lawmakers on that study group who attended the meeting. 

Formation of the study group came after the U.S. Department of Justice released a damning report on Alabama’s prison system in April highlighting the overcrowded, understaffed and deadly prisons. The state faces a federal takeover of its prison system. 

The DOJ’s report states that 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.

 

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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Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

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.

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John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9. (VIA ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS)

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.

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Governor announces grant to aid domestic violence victims amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

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.”

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Appeals court upholds Lowndes County capital murder conviction

Brandon Moseley

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Twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Mac Girdner

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.

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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.”

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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.

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