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Bureau of Pardons and Paroles increases hearings

Eddie Burkhalter

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After months of a reduction in parole hearings for Alabama’s incarcerated, the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is ramping up the numbers of those hearings. 

In a response to ARP’s questions Monday about how those hearings are set, Bureau spokesman Terry Abbott said that the agency has a target goal of 540 hearings during the month of March. 

That goal is much higher than the 150 hearings that were scheduled for January 2020, and nearly 200 more than the 343 hearings scheduled for February. 

The increase in parole hearings comes after Bureau director Charlie Graddick received pressure recently from state legislators and outside groups concerned over the slowdown in those hearings, but Abbott in a message to APR on Tuesday said that pressure was not the cause of the increase. 

“The increase in hearings was not the result of legislative or ACLU criticism. Under the law, cases have to be docketed 45 days before the hearings, so information on the number of hearings and which inmates will have their cases heard is published on our website 45 days in advance,” Abbott’s message reads. “The number of hearings has been increasing steadily. All the hearings docketed for February were scheduled in January or before, long before the recent criticism from the Legislature and the ACLU.”

At a budget presentation on Jan. 23 Graddick was grilled by lawmakers on the bureau’s decline in paroles. Asked how many paroles had been granted since he became director, Graddick said that he was unsure, and that parole decisions are made by the board, not by him. 

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“The parole board follows the law and then the three of them make their judgment as to whether or not they’re going to be a risk to the community. And I guess we’ve just got too many violent people in jail,” Graddick said during the meeting, according to Al.com’s Mike Cason. 

Cason also reported that Graddick spoke with reporters after the meeting about why he thinks fewer people were being paroled. 

“I had a man who’s been in this business a long time tell me about a month ago that they’ve taken all of the low-hanging fruit out of the prisons,” Graddick said, according to AL.com. “That means that we don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. They just don’t.”

The ACLU of Alabama recently made two records requests to the bureau to find out why so many fewer incarcerated people were getting hearings, asking which policies and procedures were being used to schedule those hearings. 

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Beth Shelburne, and investigative reporter for ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice, in a statement expressed concern that the requests weren’t being responded to with proper responses.

“We’ve asked to see the specific policy or procedure that guides the scheduling of parole hearings. We’ve also asked to interview any supervisor within the agency who can walk us through the process, but I was told today that my interview request would not be granted,” Shelburne said in the statement. “We’ve submitted a new request, renewing our commitment to hold this state agency accountable. The Governor and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must follow through on transparency and answer our questions about this important policy.”

Graddick, through spokesman Terry Abbott, declined APR’s interview request Monday. 

Judge Graddick hasn’t been doing one-on-one interviews because he is focused on directing the ongoing improvements in the agency,” Abbott wrote to APR

Graddick was appointed director on Sept. 1, 2019, by Gov. Kay Ivey, and quickly suspended all parole hearings, saying that the victim notice process wasn’t being followed properly. 

When hearings resumed in November, the number of people getting them dropped dramatically. Just 17 people were granted parole during November and December 2019, according to ACLU of Alabama’s report. Ninety-two percent of eligible parolees were not granted release during those months. 

Abbott in a message to APR on Monday said that the Bureau’s Board Operations Division is tasked with setting incarcerated people for hearings. 

“Preparation specifically includes a face to face interview and risk assessment of the inmate by an Institutional Parole Officer. Completed files with all compiled records/reports that have been located are transferred onto dockets based on which cases have been completely worked at the time a docket is set,” Abbott wrote in his response. 

“The board’s current practice is to hear cases on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays of each week. Hearing notices for officials and victims are simultaneously prepared and sent as required by law when dockets are set,” Abbott said. “The overall process thus consists generally of a target number of eligible cases coming before the board in sequential order grouped by inmate eligibility date but with some variation due to delays most often caused by location complications encountered for victim cases.” 

Abbott described a process in which all the work to prepare a case is done first, then the cases are set on dockets to be heard by the board.

Lyn Head, former Tuscaloosa County district attorney who resigned as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles in September 2019, told APR by phone on Monday that it was her understanding that during her time on the board and before, the cases that were eligible for a hearing were docketed, and “that they were prepared and gotten ready based on their settings on the docket.”

“Because the time-consuming thing between the setting and the case and the hearing of the case is notices,” Head said, referring to notices to victims, family members and parties required by law to be notified of an upcoming parole hearing. “Those statutory notices have to be taken care of.”

Head said that those notices were going out as required by law when she was on the board.

“My prayer is that this will be resolved, because there are 25,000 people – and I use the word people very carefully. I’m talking about people who are incarcerated – who’ve got to feel desperate and hopeless at this point,” Head said. “They’ve been doing all the right things and their cases aren’t even coming up in a timely manner.”

The reduction in paroles came after the U.S. Department of Justice in April released a report that found there was reason to believe Alabama was violating prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protection from physical violence and sexual assault by housing them in overcrowded, understaffed and unsafe facilities. 

At least 14 incarcerated men died by homicide in Alabama in 2019, which was more than twice as many as were killed during the entire ten-year period between 1999 and 2009. Alabama’s prison homicide rate is almost nine times the national average for state prisons, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

At least 28 people died as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide in state prisons in 2019. 

State lawmakers passed sentencing reforms in 2013 and 2015, which resulted in a decrease of inmate population from about 200 percent of capacity to around 160 percent. 

Between 2013 and 2018 Alabama’s prison population dropped from 26,293 to 20,618 but the reductions changed course in 2019. 

ADOC data that shows that in April 2019 the state’s in-custody prison population was greater than the previous year by almost 300 inmates, which was the first time that’s happened since February 2013. In June, the ADOC recorded 639 more inmates than the state held in custody the previous June.

Graddick in an op-ed published by APR on Dec. 4, 2019, said the bureau isn’t responsible for alleviating prison overcrowding. 

“It is not the Board’s duty, role, or responsibility by law or otherwise, nor the Director’s, to alleviate prison overcrowding,” Graddick wrote. 

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said during the budget hearing on Jan. 23 that the state was under threat of a federal takeover of its prison system if fixes aren’t made. 

Ward also decried the bureau’s practice of publicly releasing information on a potential parolee’s past crimes, something that began after Graddick’s appointment. 

“The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles will hold 34 parole hearings this week, including hearings for 22 violent offenders, among them 6 murderers, 1 sex offender, 2 convicted of attempted murder, 1 for manslaughter and 5 for robbery #crime #safety #victims,” the Bureau tweeted on Monday. 

Over 11 tweets on Feb. 23 the agency commented on those turned down for parole that day, noting each person’s criminal history and using hashtags including #crimes, #prison, #drugs and #victims. 

Head said that there are “tens of thousands” of stories about formerly incarcerated people who are living productive lives outside of prison.

“At the beginning of 2019 there were 69,000 people who were being supervised by the agency,” Head said. “And those people were being successfully supervised…We don’t hear about those.”

“I think that pressure is the only thing that’s going to make this right,” Head said, referring to those lawmakers pointed questions to Graddick at last week’s budget presentation. “Because it doesn’t appear as though anybody is thinking about those people as people.”

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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Suspected drug traffickers jailed in St. Clair County

Matt Mullinax, Christopher Baird, Sean Michael Brantley and Nathan Parke Bateman were all arrested following a lengthy undercover investigation.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Four individuals were arrested Tuesday on allegations that they were involved in a methamphetamine trafficking ring in St. Clair County.

Matt Mullinax, Christopher Baird, Sean Michael Brantley and Nathan Parke Bateman were all arrested following a lengthy undercover investigation. All four are being held in the Ashville Courthouse without bond.

The St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Division, St. Clair County District Attorney’s Office, along with the FBI, FBI Safe Streets Task Force, Pell City Police Department, Oxford Police Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and the Alabama Department of Corrections K9 Unit conducted an extensive undercover investigation that has resulted in the arrest of these individuals for their alleged involved in a methamphetamine trafficking criminal enterprise.

Matt Mullinax is a 37-year-old white male from Pell City. Mullinax has been charged with three counts of trafficking methamphetamine, three counts of unlawful Distribution of a controlled substance, one counts of unlawful possession of marijuana in the second degree and one count of unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.

Christopher Baird is a 35-year-old white male from Pell City. Baird has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine, and one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Sean Michael Brantley is a 40-year-old white male from Lincoln. Brantley has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine, and one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

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Nathan Parke Bateman is a 37-year-old male of other race. Bateman has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine.

The four individuals have been charged with crimes. At this point these are allegations. Baird, Brantley, Mullinax and Brantley, like all accused, will have an opportunity to mount a vigorous defense before a jury of their peers.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths decreased by 4.6 percent from 2017 (21.7 per 100,000) to 2018 (20.7 per 100,000).

Methamphetamines and other psychostimulants were responsible for 12,678 drug overdose deaths in 2018.

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According to the website drugabuse.gov, Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Methamphetamine is commonly also known as meth, blue, ice and crystal, among many other terms.

It takes the form of a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol.

In addition to being highly addictive, long term use of methamphetamine can lead to symptoms that can include significant anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances and violent behavior. Users also may display a number of psychotic features, including paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions (for example, the sensation of insects creeping under the skin).

Psychotic symptoms can sometimes last for months or years after a person has quit using methamphetamine, and stress has been shown to precipitate spontaneous recurrence of methamphetamine psychosis in people who use methamphetamine and have previously experienced psychosis.

These and other problems reflect significant changes in the brain caused by misuse of methamphetamine. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated alterations in the activity of the dopamine system that are associated with reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning.

Studies in chronic methamphetamine users have also revealed severe structural and functional changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which may account for many of the emotional and cognitive problems observed in these individuals.

Methamphetamine use also leads to severe weight loss and dental problems. Methamphetamine use by pregnant women has been shown to cause cognitive and behavioral issues in their children that are long-lasting.

Billy J. Murray is the sheriff of St. Clair County.

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Crime

Governor appoints State Sen. Cam Ward as Bureau of Pardons and Paroles director

Ward is to replace current director Charlie Graddick, who announced on Nov. 2 that he planned to resign on Nov. 30.

Eddie Burkhalter

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State Sen. Cam Ward (VIA GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Gov. Kay Ivey announced Tuesday her appointment of State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, to serve as director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. 

Ward is to replace current director Charlie Graddick, who announced on Nov. 2 that he planned to resign on Nov. 30. Ward’s appointment is set to begin Dec. 7. 

Ward serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been central in the state Legislature’s criminal justice and prison reform work for many years.

“Cam Ward has spent his career as an attorney and public servant dedicated to Alabama’s criminal justice system,” Ivey said in a statement. “As he transitions to director of Pardons and Paroles, I’m confident that his background and experience will position him to closely follow the letter of the law while providing individuals every opportunity possible to rebuild their lives post incarceration.”

Ward is in his third term in the Alabama Senate and was first elected to the Statehouse in 2002. Ward began his career in state government when he was appointed deputy attorney general by former Attorney General Bill Pryor.

“I’m honored that Governor Ivey had the confidence to appoint me to this position,” Ward said in a statement. “I have committed my career in the Senate to improving our criminal justice system in Alabama, and I look forward to working with Governor Ivey going forward in this effort.”

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Graddick’s tenure as director of the state agency has been controversial, and his departure comes as the state’s prison system continues to face serious overcrowding and understaffing problems, both of which have drawn the focus of a lengthy U.S. Department of Justice investigation into prison violence and excessive use-of-force incidents. 

Graddick, a former circuit judge, state attorney general and architect of Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act, was appointed to the post in July 2019. He’s described the state’s inmates in op-eds and in interviews as too dangerous to be paroled.

After Graddick’s appointment as director, personnel shakeups at the bureau resulted in reductions in the number of incarcerated people given parole hearings, according to several people with knowledge of the matter who discussed their concerns with APR over the last few months. The number of people receiving paroles dramatically declined as a result.

Graddick also oversaw the bureau at a time when the bureau’s messaging to the public dramatically shifted, and began focusing on violent crimes, using the words “violence” and “violent” repeatedly in social media posts and press releases, prompting concern from criminal justice reform advocates that the bureau was attempting to sway public opinion against incarcerated people and their release on parole.

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Carla Crowder, executive director of the  Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Montgomery, applauded Ivey’s selection.

“I’m encouraged by this appointment. Ward gets it. He’s not afraid to call out bad laws and crusade for smarter, better criminal justice policy,” Crowder said in a message to APR. “It will be refreshing to have a leader at parole who’s not stuck in the failed policies of the past but instead has earned a reputation for bold, innovative reform.”

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Crime

Report: Black men in Alabama prisons three times more likely to die by homicide

Incarcerated Black people in the state are being murdered at just more than three times the rate of white people.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A report this week by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Montgomery found that incarcerated Black people in the state are being murdered at just more than three times the rate of white people.

Between 2014 and 2020, the Montgomery-based nonprofit found that 37 of the 48 men killed by homicide in Alabama prisons were black. Appleseed documented 89 preventable deaths from homicide, suicide or drug overdose during that time.

“So when we talk about preventable violence, when we talk about, unconstitutional conditions in our prisons. It’s hurting black Alabamians at much higher rates than anybody else,” said Carla Crowder, Appleseed’s executive director, speaking to APR on Thursday. “If we’re gonna be serious about racial justice, racial disparities in the criminal legal system, in the state, we have to look beyond police brutality.”

Crowder said police brutality is a serious issue but the injustices after incarceration are “two sides of the same coin.” The report notes a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that details widespread problems of violence and sexual abuse, corruption and drug use in Alabama’s prisons for men.

The DOJ report notes that ADOC “has violated and is continuing to violate the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners housed in men’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions…”

“One year after the 2019 Department of Justice report detailed the need for immediate action to prevent more deaths, nothing has changed,” the Appleseed report reads. “In fact, 2020 is on pace to be one of the most deadly years on record in Alabama prisons, with deaths by homicide between January and July at 10 compared to seven for the same time period in 2019.”

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The Appleseed report also notes that homicides are likely higher than ADOC’s count. The DOJ report states that ADOC mischaracterized at least three deaths that had all the signs of homicide. “These unreported homicides provide reasonable cause to believe that ADOC’s homicide rate is higher than what ADOC has publicly reported,” the DOJ report reads.

Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn are moving forward with plans to lease three new mega prisons from private companies, once built, and have said the new prisons will help solve the high levels of violence in state prisons, arguing existing facilities are outdated and not designed to keep inmates and staff safe, as are modern prisons.

Crowder said over the years ADOC has made many promises aimed at curbing the violence but hasn’t delivered on those promises.

“There’s been a number of steps that ADOC promised to take,” Crowder said. “We’re going to hire more officers, we’re gonna pay them more. We’re going to do these massive shakedowns in prisons and we’re gonna get all the weapons.”

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Court records show that ADOC is well behind court-ordered correctional officer hiring targets, and while ADOC does conduct random prison raids to collect weapons and contraband, such illicit contraband often finds its way back into prisons in short order.

“These have all been empty promises. Nothing has changed, and to think that new buildings are somehow going to fix decades of corruption and dysfunction,” Crowder said. “The buildings aren’t killing anybody.”

“We cannot continue down the path of building new prisons and expect them to somehow not be filled with the same systemic violence and racial disparities we have seen over the past five years in Alabama prisons,” said Hannah Krawczyk, an Auburn University Public Administration student and Appleseed intern who conducted research for the report, in a statement. “The cycle of human rights violations and violence that are inflicted on incarcerated individuals in this state cannot continue. As my generation learns about this crisis, we are determined to fight for change and end Alabama’s historic disregard for Black lives in the justice system.”

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Illinois man sentenced on drug trafficking charges

Ortega was found guilty of operating a drug trafficking ring that stretched all the way from Mexico to Alabama.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

United States Attorney Prim F. Escalona and Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Brad L. Byerley on Monday announced that Nolberto Ortega, from Chicago, Illinois, was sentenced to 390 months in prison on Oct. 28 for distribution of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl.

U.S. District Judge Liles C. Burke imposed the sentence. Ortega, age 54, has been found guilty of operating a drug trafficking ring that stretched all the way from Mexico to Alabama.

In August 2019, a federal grand jury charged Ortega in a multi-count indictment with leading a drug trafficking organization that transported heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl from Mexico to Talladega, Alabama.

The charges stemmed from an investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Talladega County Drug Task Force in early 2019.

Law enforcement officers arrested Ortega in California after a drug shipment was seized in Talladega.

“This dealer went to extreme lengths to profit from this deadly poison with no regard to the devastation and destruction he left behind,” said Escalona. “The lengthy sentence sends the message that drug trafficking in our communities will not be tolerated and will be severely punished. The citizens of the Northern District of Alabama have one less drug dealer to worry about for years to come.”

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“We will continue to attack the scourge of illegal and dangerous drug distribution in Alabama and beyond,” Byerley said. “The lengthy sentencing of this individual should be taken as a message to those who want to sell drugs. We are going to catch you and put you in prison for a long time if you distribute this poison in our communities.”

The DEA investigated the case along with the Talladega County Drug Task Force. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Blake Milner and Austin Shutt prosecuted the case.

The Trump Administration has worked to increase security along the nation’s southern border with Mexico.

“America’s porous southern border causes the deaths of 30,000+ Americans every single year (from illegal alien homicides and overdoses on poisonous drugs shipped across our porous southern border),” said Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Alabama.

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According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths decreased by 4.6 percent from 2017 (21.7 per 100,000) to 2018 (20.7 per 100,000). Opioids were involved in 46,802 overdose deaths in 2018 (69.5% of all drug overdose deaths).

Ortega will serve his sentence in the federal prison system.

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