A man serving at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility died nine days into the new year, according to a statement from the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Antonio Bell, 29, was pronounced dead at the Escambia County prison on Jan 9, according to the statement.
“Bell’s cause of death is pending a full autopsy. ADOC’s Investigations and Intelligence Division actively is investigating the case and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into Bell’s death,” the statement reads.
Bell was serving a 20-year sentence for Escape I, according to the ADOC statement.
Bell’s death followed just nine days after the last death inside Alabama prisons in 2019.
Moses Robinson, 38, died on Dec. 31 from injuries he received after being attacked by another inmate at the prison on Dec. 30, according to a statement from ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Banks.
Robinson’s death was at least the fourteenth homicide in state prisons during 2019, and at least the twenty-eighth person to have died as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide last year.
Alabama’s prison homicide rate is almost nine times the national average for state prisons, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.
A report released in April by the U.S Department of Justice followed a lengthy federal investigation into the state’s prisons for men, which found that Alabama is potentially violating inmates’ Constitutional protections under the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The DOJ found that the Alabama Department of Corrections failed to protect inmates from protection from sexual assaults and violence. Severe overcrowding in the understaffed prisons are contributing to the violence, the DOJ found.
Ivey announces support for criminal justice legislation
Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced her support for six bills that address the state’s criminal justice system, legislation that’s a product of Ivey’s study group on criminal justice policy.
“I tasked the Criminal Justice Study Group with the mission of finding data-driven solutions to our longstanding challenges in our prison system,” Ivey said in a statement. “I’m not only proud of their efforts, but I’m pleased there were solid recommendations, which came as a result of their hard work. Through these legislative items, we can build upon steps my administration has already begun taking to improve our criminal justice system.”
Those bills are:
- SB 226, by Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), will establish a Deputy Commissioner of Rehabilitation within the Department of Corrections (DOC), as well as within the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. This bill will refocus these agencies toward reducing recidivism among those in the state’s custody while promoting public safety.
- SB 244, by Sen. Cam Ward (R- Alabaster), will ensure that all inmates coming to the end of their sentences undergo mandatory, pre-release supervision. A 2015 law accomplished this result for offenders sentenced after its enactment; this bill will make that statute retroactive. While reducing burdens on DOC, this bill will also improve public safety by helping inmates successfully re-enter society.
- HB 323, by Rep. Chris England (D- Tuscaloosa), will require the Department of Corrections to report more information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Committee. This bill will provide lawmakers with information to make knowledgeable decisions during the appropriation process. It will also update the Oath of Office that is taken by Correctional Officers to reflect the Department’s renewed focus on the rehabilitation of inmates.
- HB 329, by Rep. Jim Hill (R- Moody), will make retroactive the state’s existing “presumptive sentencing guidelines.” Prior to October 1, 2013, offenders were sentenced to lengthy sentences, even life imprisonment, for nonviolent crimes. This bill will allow nonviolent offenders who are currently incarcerated under the previous guidelines to be eligible for resentencing under current, presumptive sentencing guidelines if they have demonstrated acceptable conduct while in prison.
- HB 342, by Rep. Connie Rowe (R- Jasper), will provide former inmates the ability to receive a non-driver photo identification card. One of the greatest barriers of joining the workforce for those coming out of incarceration is a viable form of government identification. This bill will require the DOC and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to work together to assist an inmate in obtaining a Social Security Card, Birth Certificate and Non-Driving Photo ID prior to release from a state facility.
- SJR 25, by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D – Greensboro), will establish a study group to address uniformity and increasing access to pre-trial and diversionary programs while also looking at best practices. The study group will be made up of legislators, members of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, counties, district attorneys, judges and legal researchers.
Ivey did not express support for other policy recommendations made by her study group, however, which study group members and advocates for criminal justice reform say would free incarcerated people who, if convicted of the same crime today, would not have been sentenced so harshly.
Study group chair Champ Lyons wrote in the group’s proposals that lawmakers should consider reinstating a 2001 law that would allow some people serving life without the possibility of parole under the state’s Habitual offender Act to ask the courts for relief. Prior to the law’s repeal, so-called “Kirby motions” would let some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to appeal their sentences. That recommendation was not among Ivey’s.
Ivey is also working with the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to increase access to probation officers for parolees, according to her office’s statement Thursday, and has recommended several budget increases.
Ivey suggests an increase of $4.2 million to expand prison education programs, $1.8 million to expand the Stepping Up program, a nationwide initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail, and an increase to hire correctional officers to meet a court order to do so. She also recommends hiring 104 additional mental health professionals for state prisons.
The U.S. Department of Justice in April 2019 released a report that found that conditions in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed men’s prisons is likely violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. State officials remain under pressure to fix Alabama’s ailing prison system or face a federal takeover.
At least the twenty-eight people serving in state prisons died in 2019 as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide. The 14 prison homicides in 2019 was more than twice as many as were killed during the entire ten-year period between 1999 and 2009.
Ivey’s announcement Thursday supporting criminal justice legislation comes as ADOC staff continue to push her plan to construct three new prisons at an estimated cost of $900 million, a plan Ivey and ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn say would increase safety for the incarcerated and prison staff and replace numerous dilapidated facilities.
ADOC investigating possible suicide at Easterling Correctional Facility
The death of a man serving in the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County on Sunday is being investigated as a possible suicide.
Marquell Underwood, 22, was found in his cell unresponsive at approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, according to a statement by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Underwood was being held in solitary confinement, known as “segregation” cells in Alabama prisons. Suicides in such isolated cells is central to an ongoing lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections.
“He was not on suicide watch. All attempts at life saving measures were unsuccessful,” The statement reads. “ADOC cannot release additional details of the incident at this time, pending an ongoing investigation and an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death.”
Underwood pleaded guilty of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Gregorie Somerville in Tuscaloosa and was sentenced to life in prison.
Underwood’s death is at least the second preventable death inside state prisons this year.
Antonio Bell’s death on Jan. 9 at Holman prison is being investigated as a possible drug overdose.
Last year at least 6 people serving in Alabama prisons died as a result of suicide, according to news accounts. During 2019 there were 13 homicides in state prisons, and as many as 7 overdose deaths, according to news accounts and ADOC statements.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2014 lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections over access to mental health care for incarcerated people is ongoing.
“The risk of suicide is so severe and imminent that the court must redress it immediately,” U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in a May 4, 2019, ruling.
Judge Thompson in a 2017 ordered required ADOC to check on incarcerated people being held in segregation cells every 30 minutes, to increase mental health staffing and numerous other remedies to reduce the number of preventable deaths.
“The skyrocketing number of suicides within ADOC, the majority of which occurred in segregation, reflects the combined effect of the lack of screening, monitoring, and treatment in segregation units and the dangerous conditions in segregation cells,” Thompson wrote in his order. “Because prisoners often remain in segregation for weeks, months, or even years at a time, their decompensation may not become evident until it is too late—after an actual or attempted suicide.”
The SPLC in a Jan. 2019 filing wrote to the court that “the situation has become worse, not better, since the Liability Opinion. There have been twelve completed suicides since December 30, 2017…Defendants fail to provide the most basic monitoring of people in segregation. Defendants fail to do anything to learn from past suicides to prevent additional suicides.”
Early morning contraband raid at Easterling Correctional Facility
The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday raided the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County to collect contraband.
More than 200 officials from ADOC, state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Department of Natural Resources, Game Warden Division, and Russel and Coffee County Sheriff’s departments conducted the early morning search, according to an ADOC press release.
“Operation Restore Order is a critical initiative designed to create safer living and working conditions across Alabama’s correctional system,” ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement. “The presence of Illegal contraband including drugs, which undoubtedly is perpetuated by the presence of illegal cell phones, is a very real threat we must continue to address.”
“Additionally, our aging and severely dilapidated facilities are constructed of increasingly breakable materials that ill-intentioned inmates can obtain and fashion into dangerous weapons. The presence of illegal contraband puts everyone at risk, and action – including Operation Restore Order raids – must regularly be taken to eliminate it,” Dunn’s statement reads. “We remain committed to doing everything in our power to root out the sources of contraband entry into our facilities, and will punish those who promote its presence to the full extent of the law.”
ADOC is developing plans to conduct more of these larger raids, in addition to smaller, unannounced searches, which prison officials hope will help the department “develop intelligence-based programs to identify contraband trends and provide necessary intelligence to identify corruption indicators.”
“The public should contact ADOC’s Law Enforcement Service Division at 1-866-293-7799 with information that may lead to the arrest of anyone attempting to introduce illegal contraband into state prisons. The public may also report suspicious activity by going to the ADOC Website at http://www.doc.alabama.gov/investigationrequest.”
‘He was a human being’ Family hopes son’s death at Holman prison not in vain
After a decade behind bars, all that came out of Holman prison was Antonio Bell’s body and a pair of new white Nikes, still wrapped in plastic.
Before he died on Jan. 9 of a likely drug overdose, 29-year-old Antonio told his family that it’s the guards who most often smuggle drugs inside. The family awaits a toxicology report, but statements to the family by prison staff indicate it was likely an overdose that killed him.
Bell’s family wants to know how a man being kept in a cell alone could have gotten the drugs that likely killed him, and have for years asked prison officials to look into two incidents in which they say correctional officers assaulted Bell. In one, nine other incarcerated men say they watched as an officer dragged a handcuffed Antonio down a flight of stairs.
Jason Britt, Antonio’s father, said his son made mistakes, but that his 20-year prison sentence on an escape charge “shouldn’t have been his death sentence.”
Now that he’s gone, his family continues to ask questions about how it happened, and hope that his death and the attention brought to it might help others still inside.
For Bell, though, he’s still angry about a system that failed to keep his son alive long enough for him to serve his time, and a system so broken that even getting his son’s body was an ordeal.
When the family was notified of Antonio’s death, Britt said he was told someone would call him the next day to walk him through the process of getting Antonio’s body and belongings, but that no one called. Britt said he called the prison later the next afternoon, a Thursday, and was told his body had been sent for an autopsy.
“So I was waiting on them to call me back to say his body is ready to we can make arrangements to get him home, but no one called,” Britt said.
He called the prison again on Monday and was told that his son’s body had been ready since Friday evening.
“That’s very frustrating. Where are your processes?” Britt said. “An inmate is still a human person.”
Britt retired from the U.S. Army after 20 years of service. He’d been in Antonio’s life since 1992, when his son was just a year old.
“He was outgoing even as a little bit baby. Full of energy and spirit,” Britt said.
When he was little, Antonio had a speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce words with “TR” well, Britt said.
“He was afraid of big trucks. When he’d see one he’d say ‘big ruck! big ruck!’” Britt said with a laugh. Speech therapy helped.
“Once they cleared that up he was a talker. From five or six years old he could hold a conversation with the oldest, most intelligent adult,” Britt said.
Antonio loved football. He was a middle linebacker, and big. At 6 foot and 190 pounds as a freshman, his high school coach asked him to play with the varsity squad.
Antonio traveled with the family from Britt’s first assignment at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, to Fort Gordon near Augusta, Georgia, then to Fort Carson in Colorado and on to the Atlanta area.
Antonio was an avid reader. Before the family moved to a new city, he’d read up on the place and tell the family what they’d need to see, where they could go, his father said.
In 2003, Antonio went to live with his grandmother, Elizabeth Wynn, in Tallahassee while her son was deployed to Iraq on one of several overseas tours.
Wynn said her grandson would travel with her for her job with the Florida Department of Children and Families. That summer, the two traveled to Jacksonville, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale together.
“He was just thrilled. He would help at the reception desk at the meetings,” Wynn said. “He will be there with the person handing out the name tags and talking to people, getting to know people. He just enjoyed that.”
She’s since moved to Atlanta, and said former coworkers and church members still ask about Antonio, and remember the bright, confident, curious young man whom they met in 2003.
As he got older, Antonio began getting into trouble. Minor things, his father said, but in 2009, it got worse.
On July 4, 2009, Antonio was speeding while driving through Abbeville in Henry County, headed to visit family in Florida. The car was stolen, Bell said, although police later determined that Antonio wasn’t the person who stole it. He was arrested, taken to the Henry County jail and later charged with speeding, eluding, possessing a firearm and receiving stolen property, according to court records.
“So my wife and I thought, and this is the hard part to talk about, we decided that it would be best not to bail him out. Maybe it’ll teach him a lesson,” Britt said.
Seventeen days after being arrested, Antonio hit a sheriff’s deputy in the county jail and tried to escape, according to court records. He tried to escape again in November using a makeshift key to try and remove handcuffs while at a court hearing, according to those records. In August 2010, Antonio pleaded guilty to the escape charge and was sentenced to 20 years, according to court records.
Antonio spent about a year in the Limestone Correctional Facility, spent time at the William E. Donaldson prison and at St. Clair prison in Springville, before being transferred to the notoriously violent Holman prison.
“We would talk to him and he’d say ‘Daddy. I can’t even begin to explain to you how it is here. The stuff that we see on TV. That’s not real, Dad. You’ve got to be ready at all times. Everybody has weapons,’” Britt said. Antonio also worried that there weren’t enough correctional officers to keep peace, and told his father that understaffing was increasing the dangers for everyone.
Antonio’s concerns were mirrored in an April 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice detailing the agency’s lengthy investigation of state’s prisons for men, which showed the state was failing to protect men from rampant sexual assaults, violence and homicides. Federal investigators noted understaffing and an inability to keep contraband out of prisons.
Alabama’s prisons are full of dangerous drugs, the U.S. Justice Department found, which noted in the report that “ADOC prisoners are dying of drug overdoses and being subjected to severe violence related to the drug trade in Alabama’s prisons.”
Synthetic cannabinoids, known as synthetic marijuana or “flakka”, was prevalent in prisons, investigators found. Between December 2016, and August 2018, the federal agency found that 22 incarcerated men died of synthetic cannabinoid overdoses, and in the first half of 2018, when the ADOC stopped producing documents for the Justice Department, at least 10 men died from the drug.
An ADOC Intelligence and Investigation Division investigators told federal authorities that “without a doubt” the largest way drugs were entering prisons was by staff smuggling them in. Correctional officers weren’t being searched upon entry into prisons, the report found, and ADOC policies weren’t able to control the problem.
Drug use at Holman prison was out of control, federal investigators found.
“Two shift commanders of death row and segregation at Holman estimated that 50- 60 percent of their prisoners were using drugs. One shift commander over general population at Holman estimated that 95 percent of that facility’s prisoners were using drugs,” the report reads.
During a joint state House and Senate budget hearing on Jan. 23, Dunn was asked by a legislator how contraband was getting into the prison, Dunn said that it was coming in in a variety of ways.
“Some of it is thrown over the fence; We have challenges in the visitation area; and there is an aspect where we have staff that are engaged in criminal activity by bringing in contraband,” Dunn said.
Dunn said during the hearing that over 70 correctional officers have either been arrested or dismissed for bringing in contraband in the previous three years.
“We do routine searches in our parking lot and our staff as they come in and out of the facility,” Dunn said during the hearing. “We have increased that.”
Asked how many correctional officers had been arrested for crimes related to contraband between 2017 and 2019, ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Banks wrote in a response to APR on Feb. 20 that 15 correctional officers had been arrested during those years on charges related to contraband.
“We aggressively will investigate all allegations of corruption, including contraband trafficking, as soon as we are made aware. We hold each member of our staff to the highest standards of law enforcement. Any ADOC employee who commits a violation will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Banks wrote.
Asked for clarification on Dunn’s statement to legislators that 70 correctional officers had been arrested or dismissed during those years for contraband, Banks on Monday told APR that Dunn’s figure included correctional officers and prison staff arrested for any crime, not just for contraband.
Banks said Monday she was uncertain how many of the 70 may have been fired but not charged with crimes related to contraband, and that ADOC staff would have to research the matter more.
Antonio had hoped that he could get out of the violent prisons on parole, and in a letter he wrote to Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board members in June 2016, just 17 days before his case was to go before the three-member board, Antonio pleaded for them to look beyond what his paper record might show.
“In these twenty-five and a half years of my life, I’ve learned that just because a person has eyes doesn’t necessarily mean they can see,” Antonio wrote in the letter. “…I think you all should be provided a closer look into the minds of Alabama State Prisoners and the environment they are subjected to; because it isn’t just for the sake of the people like me or our families, it’s for the sake of the betterment of society as a whole.”
“Young men are coming to prison and are leaving in worse shape than they came. That really saddens me. The Alabama Department of Corrections needs changing and I’m dedicated to helping it,” he wrote.
Antonio’s words likely never made it to Parole Board members. Days before his hearing, he got into a fight with another inmate and his parole hearing was canceled, Britt said. He did get a parole hearing in 2017, but was denied.
Britt said he was scheduled for another possible parole hearing in September of this year, and that “we thought he had a good chance.” He was being kept in segregation, he said, so there was less chance of him being caught up in a fight, but it wasn’t to be.
The Britts received a call at home from another incarcerated man in May 2014, who said that they needed to come check on Antonio.
Soon after, the Britts were allowed to visit him in prison, but were told only one of them could do so, so Britt said his wife, Terrell LaRita Britt, entered to see that Antonio’s head was bruised and bandaged. He had cuts to his face and told his Mother that correctional officers had beaten him, Britt said.
The family asked prison officials and investigators with the ADOC’s Investigations and Intelligence Division to look into the matter, Britt said, but never received a response.
Three years later, on March 8, 2017, Britt said Antonio was again assaulted by correctional officers at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.
A disciplinary report signed by correctional officer Zackery McLemore on March 9, 2017, states that the day before Antonio was ordered to “lock down inside your assigned cell” and failed to do so. He was charged with failing to obey a direct order, according to the document.
Statements signed by nine other inmates and given to APR by the family describe the incident in detail. Those inmates say they witnessed Antonio trying to “lock down” in his cell but that he was called outside the cell by a correctional officer, who pepper sprayed Antonio, handcuffed him and hit him along with other officers before one officer dragged him down a flight of stairs while in handcuffs.
“He was helpless, and didn’t do anything to be beaten in that manner,” wrote one of the incarcerated men. “To restrain a person is an orderly procedure, but to beat a person is brutality, and from what I witnessed (on March 8, 2017) was police on inmate brutality.”
Another incarcerated man wrote that a female correctional officer working in a cubical came out once Antonio was handcuffed “ran up the stairs and kicked inmate Bell in the face three times” while two other male officers punched him repeatedly. He wrote that another correctional officer “grabbed inmate Bell around his neck (while handcuffed behind his back) and drug him down the flight of stairs. After being drug out of my sight I then heard inmate Bell screaming in agony.”
APR is not naming the other incarcerated men who signed statements to prevent any possibility of retribution against them. Antonio considered, but never filed, a lawsuit in the matter.
Britt said he again contacted ADOC’s Investigations and Intelligence Division and asked that they look into the incident, but that he never got an answer.
His parents bought him the pair of white Nikes on Nov. 27, 2018, through the prison purchasing system, but soon after, they stopped hearing from him.
In early 2019, after being kept in segregation for many months, Antonio stopped responding to letters and wouldn’t take calls.
Wynn said she kept writing to her grandson regardless, but he wouldn’t respond.
“I would say, ‘even if it’s not a letter, just something on a piece of paper in your hand writing,’ I just need to know, you know?” Wynn said. “I always would tell him, ‘you know I got money on your books. You can call me. Call collect.’ I don’t know what happened.”
She kept all of his old letters, and in one, written while he was at the Limestone prison, Antonio wrote about all the classes he was able to take there and that he was told he was going to be sent back to Holman prison where he’d previously been, and was worried about it, Wynn said. She encouraged him to try and stay at Limestone for as long as he could.
“After he got back down there he did write me this letter. He said, Grandma. You were right. I should have stayed at Limestone as long as they would let me, because Holman…was not like it was then, so that gave me a clue that it is terrible.”
In a letter to his grandmother on Nov. 30, 2015, Antonio wrote to thank her for a birthday card he’d gotten with a special note from her, which he said had “been read several times.”
“Lately, I’ve been keeping a journal mainly for the purpose of understanding my thoughts & feelings,” Antonio wrote. “I’ve been incarcerated since 7-4-09 and I’ve yet to accept that. I constantly frustrate myself because my mind is everywhere but here.”
“I can’t continue to put myself through this Grandma, so I’ve decided to let go. Dying before I get the chance to do everything I want to do in life has always been one of my fears,” Antonio wrote.”But I’ve learned the painful lesson that I’m probably not going to do a third of what I want to do.”
On Oct. 3, 2019, the Britts wrote a letter to Holman prison warden Cynthia Stewert, Gov. Kay Ivey, ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn and to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division expressing concern that despite their attempts since August to reach their son, or someone at the prison who could put their minds at ease, they’d received no return calls to verify that he was alive and well.
“Please respond to us via letter and/or telephone call regarding Mr. Bell’s welfare and let us know for certain that he is not in any way incapacitated such that he cannot respond to our letters nor place collect telephone calls,” the Britts wrote. “We just need to know that he is alive and well! Again, we are gravely concerned that something has happened to Mr. Bell and we, his family, has not been notified.”
Not long after sending the letter Antonio’s mother received a call from prison staff who said that Antonio was on the line as well.
“Ma, I love you to death. You hear me ma? I love you to death,” Antonio told his mother, adding that he wasn’t a “dope fiend.”
Britt said that after his death prison staff told the family that Antonio had given all his belongings away, except for the shoes.
He’d had many books the family sent him over the years, Wynn said, and they knew he kept a journal. Surely he’d have given away the shoes as well, she wonders.
The family can’t be certain, however, that Antonio, who was being kept in segregation, received the shoes from prison staff before he died.
“He was a human being. He was not just one of those numbers, and I think that’s how people see it,” Wynn said. “Put all of the prisoners in the same boat, you know. They deserve it.”
Wynn said her grandson was a young man when he entered Alabama’s prisons, and that the years went by “in an environment that was not rehabilitative. Just warehousing people.”
“We are hurt. Devastated,” she said.
The family asks that those who wish to do so donate in Antonio’s name to the Montgomery nonprofit legal advocacy organization Equal Justice Initiative by visiting here.
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