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Alabamians for Fair Justice calls for major criminal justice reforms

Bill Britt

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Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh have said that lawmakers will address state prisons in the coming Legislative Session.

It is not certain whether the Legislature will consider criminal justice reforms as a part of an overall solution to prison overcrowding, but Alabamians for Fair Justice (AFJ) Coalition is calling for significant reforms to reduce Alabama’s prison population.

AFJ’s recommendations include abolishing Alabama’s habitual felony offender law, addressing the recent shutdown of paroles, redefining sentences for marijuana possession, and addressing drug addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal matter, according to a recent press release.

“We call on Governor Ivey and state leaders to have the courage to break our state’s addiction to incarceration,” said LaTonya Tate, Executive Director of Alabama Justice Initiative. “As a former parole officer for nearly a decade, I can say with certainty that Alabama cannot keep up these practices. Our system is inhumane and it doesn’t increase public safety.”

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice released in April 2019, found “reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”

DOJ’s investigation revealed that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.

Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

APR has documented at least 14 inmate deaths in 2019, which is more than twice as many as were killed during the entire ten-year period between 1999 and 2009.

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Holman prison inmate killed in December, at least 14th prison homicide in 2019.

AFJ is asking the Legislature to reform the Habitual Felony Offender Act.

“Alabama needs to modify the HFOA to reduce the numbers of life and life without parole sentences, significantly reducing long-term incarceration rates and incentivizing good behavior,” according to a press statement.

The organization reports that “the state has at least 500 people serving life without parole sentences for non-homicides, accounting for over 11,000 years of combined punishment for crimes that would not result in terminal sentence today.”

AFJ also recommends the state limit life without parole in capital murder and limit eligible convictions, preventing crimes committed decades ago from enhancing sentences for current crimes.

According to AFJ, “Since new leadership assumed control of Alabama’s parole process in September 2019, the number of eligible people considered for parole and the amount of paroles granted have fallen dramatically, worsening Alabama’s prison overcrowding at an alarming pace.”

Since September, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the release of 92 percent of people who were scheduled for parole hearings, according to a report by the Campaign for Smart Justice with the ACLU of Alabama and the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has also drastically reduced the number of inmates being granted those hearings.

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

Updating Alabama’s marijuana laws is another priority for AFJ.

Currently, an individual can face up to a year in jail and a maximum $6,000 fine for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana, according to AFJ. “Meanwhile, the state spends $22 million each year enforcing marijuana possession laws, draining resources of law enforcement, district attorneys, forensic labs, and Alabama’s courts,” the organization contends.

AFJ would have the Legislature raise the level of marijuana required for a trafficking conviction above 2.2 lbs. They would also have a citation-only law instituted with violations punishable by a fine of not more than $150 for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. They also advocate for removing the felony classification and establish a reset period of five years for possession cases and expand expungement eligibility.

Lastly, AFJ recommends a change of substance abuse laws as part of their overall package of justice reforms initiatives.

“Over the past five years, possession of a controlled substance is the most frequent felony conviction in Alabama, with as many as 4,600 cases each year. Funneling people with mental health and addiction issues into the prison system is not sustainable,” stated AFJ.

The coalition recommends reclassify unlawful possession of certain drugs as misdemeanors or set a possession threshold (e.g., five or fewer pills) to trigger a felony charge. Distinguishing substances by schedule and provide lesser penalties for substances considered less harmful per schedule designation. They also propose increased funding for mental health treatment, including expanding programs that use therapy instead of incarceration.

These recommendations from the coalition come nine months after DOJ determined Alabama’s men’s prisons to violate the U.S. Constitution and the state “deliberately indifferent” to the dangers people face within its correctional facilities.

Alabamians for Fair Justice is a coalition made up of formerly incarcerated individuals, family members of those currently or recently serving time in Alabama’s prisons, advocates, and civil justice organizations.

 

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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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Families, advocates ask Alabama to release at-risk inmates amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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Contributed photo

When Amber Faircloth learned Thursday of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an Alabama prison, she worried that her husband, who has cancer, could be in jeopardy. 

Her husband, who’s serving time at Limestone prison, is one of more than 1,000 inmates most at risk of serious complications or death if the virus spreads throughout Alabama’s prisons. 

Amber and a group of criminal justice reform advocates have asked the Alabama Department of Corrections to consider releasing inmates who are more at risk from the virus, but the department told APR on Friday that for now, there are no plans to do so. 

Justin Faircloth just had a second round of chemotherapy Wednesday and was told by a doctor before treatments began that his stage-4 colon cancer could take his life within six months. 

“We might as well kiss this world goodbye if it gets in here,” Justin Faircloth said in a phone interview with APR on Saturday, speaking of the virus.

He’d undergone a previous round of chemotherapy before being arrested in December on a probation revocation charge, and once in the state’s custody those treatments stopped, AL.com’s Connor Sheets reported in February   

Treatments have since restarted, but Amber worries that his liver is so damaged and his immune system so weak that he’d surely die if infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. She’s asking that he and others in his condition be released before an outbreak occurs. 

“Even a common cold can put him in the hospital,” she said. “And it’s not just him.” 

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ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which experts say puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19. The tight quarters and overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons — for which the state has repeatedly been reprimanded by federal courts and the DOJ — make them a particularly dangerous place for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Her husband was in the infirmary Thursday night, she said, but it was so crowded that he had to sleep with two other inmates, inches apart, in what inmates call a “boat,” which are plastic stackable bunks that rest on the floor. 

“He’s on a chemo pump, and he’s on the floor,” Amber said. “That’s inhumane and unsanitary.” 

On Friday, he was moved back to the general population, where the men sleep in cramped, open dormitories close to one another. Prisons are perfect environments for rapid viral outbreaks, health experts say. 

“We’re in such close quarters. We use the same toilets. We use the same sinks. We touch the same handles on the microwave and the same remote controls,” Justin said, adding that correctional officers are just as worried about a breakout inside the prison as the inmates.

Justin said inmates are given the same lye soap bars they’ve always gotten, but said he’s not seen any instructional material to let inmates know about the danger of the virus or how to protect from it.

Justin’s criminal history shows signs of years of struggles with drug addiction. The 34-year-old has been arrested for drug possession, theft, resisting arrest and burglary. 

“I ended up relapsing and did commit a crime,” Justin said. “But I should be able to wear an ankle bracelet or something. Be monitored from my house.”

An administrative employee at a state prison tested positive for COVID-19, and all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Thursday. ADOC hasn’t stated in which prison the infected person works. 

ADOC also hasn’t said how many, if any, inmates or other staff have been tested for the virus, but in a statement Thursday, the department said it “has the ability to test inmates within the facilities; however, testing will only occur after the ADPH approves a physician’s order.” 

Alabama’s prisons were at 169 percent capacity in December, before Holman prison closed to almost all inmates and moved the rest to other overpopulated facilities. 

Amber is asking the state to consider releasing her husband, perhaps place him on electronic monitoring, and said those in his condition should be removed from what could quickly become a death trap. 

It’s a call shared by Alabamians for Fair Justice, a group of criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people. The group wrote a letter to ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn on Wednesday that urged the department to act before an outbreak might occur. 

One of the specific recommendations from the group is to release the 1,000 or so inmates who are at high risk of serious complications or death from the virus. 

In this light, the Bureau of Pardons and Parole’s decision to cancel upcoming parole hearings is counterproductive. We call on BPP to work with ADOC to expand upon existing medical parole provisions in order to expedite the release of people from the populations at greatest risk,” the group’s letter reads. 

The group also recommended that ADOC develop reentry plans, identify transitional housing and, where possible, refer the released inmates to outside medical and mental health providers.

In a statement to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said, for now, the department doesn’t anticipate any non-routine releases. 

“The ADOC is continuing to work closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the potential spread of the virus,” the statement reads. “Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff and the public remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

“The ADOC’s Office of Health Services is working closely with our contracted health services vendor to monitor and protect high-risk inmates, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. At this time, the Department does not anticipate conducting any non-routine releases. We are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and will be making additional operational and preventative decisions as this situation continues to evolve.”

ADOC has taken other steps to mitigate the dangers of a COVID-19 outbreak. The department has suspended visitations, begun screening staff for fever, suspended inmate co-pays and transfers between prisons. 

On Friday, ADOC announced that state prisons would stop taking in new inmates for 30 days.

It’s a move that might help prevent the virus from getting into prisons, but it shifts that danger to county jails, and it’s not sustainable. Prison systems across the country are coming to terms with what could turn into a very deadly situation very quickly. 

In Los Angeles earlier this week, low-level inmates were being released from some jails, The Los Angeles Times reported, and New York City this week began releasing more vulnerable inmates with medical conditions and those serving for minor crimes. 

“I think the threat level is at 10 now,” said Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, speaking to ABC News. “The [nation’s] corrections leaders are struggling to figure out what the national response will be.”

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Alabama prisons halt intakes from county jails during COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday announced a 30-day moratorium on taking in inmates from the county jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ADOC on Thursday said an administrative employee in a prison tested positive for the virus, and that all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine. It was the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state’s prisons. ADOC said no inmates have tested positive. 

The department said in a statement that suspension of new intakes includes “but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers…” 

Statement from ADOC: 

“The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) continues to take steps necessary to maintain the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff, and the public. The Department is working closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Our continued and collective efforts have allowed for the implementation of new preventative practices and procedures in response to this rapidly evolving situation.

 “Effective today, the Department is placing a 30-day moratorium on new intakes from county jails based on Governor Ivey’s declared State of Emergency related to COVID-19. This restriction includes, but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers who are revoked or sanctioned to a dunk. During this time, the Department will continue to receive inmates with severe medical or mental health conditions, subject to the usual review process by the Department’s Office of Health Services. However, additional health screenings will be implemented at the facility level to ensure any inmate is not symptomatic prior to entry. While the 30-day moratorium is in effect, the ADOC’s intake procedures will be reviewed closely and intake dorm space will be assessed thoroughly. At the end of this 30-day period, the Department will assess our interim intake process.

“In addition to implementing system-wide preventative measures to prevent the virus from entering our facilities, the ADOC also is modifying internal protocols to best serve our inmate population who have been impacted by these altered processes and various safety precautions. Effective immediately, the ADOC will extend both inmate yard time and snack line services at all our facilities. Other protocol adjustments remain under consideration for possible implementation.

 “We are continuing to diligently monitor the situation, working closely with the ADPH and adhering to CDC-recommended health and hygiene guidelines. As noted yesterday, March 19, the ADOC has been notified that an administrative employee tested positive for COVID-19. All individuals within the Department who have been in direct contact with the individual who tested positive remain in a 14-day self-quarantine period, and are being monitored by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) for signs and symptoms due to direct exposure. Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our overall system remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

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SPLC joins ACLU of Alabama in request for plans to protect jails, prisons from COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Civil rights groups are demanding that action is taken to protect people in jails and prisons, who are vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Tuesday called for the federal government and officials in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida to protect those facilities through evidence-based protocols and to “release those people most at risk of suffering serious complications or death.” 

In letters signed by a dozen civil rights groups to the three states those groups call for immediate action to save the lives of those serving in the facilities as well as workers inside. 

 “Imprisoned and detained people are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19,” reads the letter. “They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. Without the active engagement of those who administer the facility, they have little ability to learn about ongoing public health crises or to take necessary preventative measures if they do manage to learn of them.”

The letter also asks state and federal officials to release elderly people and others “who are at a high risk of dying before they contract the disease.” 

The SPLC’s call to action joins that of a request Monday by the ACLU of Alabama which asked Alabama officials to release a plan for the state’s prisons. 

“Incarcerated people cannot follow the CDC recommendation of social distancing, and because Alabama prisons are already operating at 170 percent of their designed capacity, these men and women are at an increased risk of exposure and contamination in the prison population,” said Randall Marshall, executive director at ACLU of Alabama, in a statement Monday. 

Marshall noted that more than 20 percent of the people in custody in state facilities are over the age of 50, putting them at higher risk of serious health complications or death if infected. 

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“It is imperative that the Governor and ADOC release their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the prisons, to quarantine and care for any prisoner who shows symptoms, and to ensure all supplies and food remain stocked during this crisis,” Marshall said. “They must also address how they plan to provide continued staffing in the event of staff shortages due to illness or caring for an ill family member. ADOC staffing is currently at 40 percent.”

An ADOC spokeswoman on March 9 told APR that the department hadn’t yet updated its existing influenza plan to prepare for COVID-19, but that the work was underway. 

“The ADOC will work with the ADPH and other state agencies to develop our Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), as the Department has in previous years in formulating our pandemic response,” ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose said in a statement. 

It was unclear Monday if ADOC has updated that plan. A spokeswoman for the department hadn’t returned a response to APR’s question on the matter as of Tuesday morning.  

ADOC on March 13 suspended visitation and disallowed volunteers to enter into the state’s prisons for 30 days in response to the novel coronavirus.

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