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State closing large part of Holman prison

Eddie Burkhalter

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Montgomery – A large portion of Holman Correctional Facility outside of Atmore is closing because of maintenance problems in a tunnel that carries utilities to those sections, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Wednesday.  

It’s a decision that concerns a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, who is working with state officials to prevent a possible court battle and federal takeover of Alabama’s overcrowded, deadly prison system.

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said workers are no longer safe doing what has become daily maintenance on the 51-year-old men’s prison’s tunnel, which carries water, sewer and electrical lines to the section that is to close. 

Dunn said the partial closure “will not affect executions” at the prison, and that a third party company is working to ensure the execution chamber’s utilities are functioning. The execution chamber is to be the only section of the soon-to-be-closed main facility at the prison that will remain open. 

Early Wednesday morning 21 men serving on death row at the William Donaldson prison near Bessemer were moved to Holman, joining the 145 death row inmates there, who will all be housed in what is now the prison’s restrictive housing unit. 

Dunn said approximately 422 general population inmates and 195 restrictive housing inmates at Holman will be relocated to other facilities throughout the state, although he said the details of those moves was still being developed as administrators continue to adjust those facilities to make room for more inmates. 

About 150 low-risk inmates at Holman who are serving life without parole sentences will be moved to a stand-alone dorm at Holman, where they’ll continue to work at the prison’s tag and clothing plants, Dunn said. 

‘We currently are working hard to identify and implement measures to account for the impact of increased populations across the correctional system, and to ensure continued access to health, educational, and rehabilitative services and programs for our inmate population,” Dunn said in a statement Wednesday. “We will be making appropriate modifications to existing facilities to address concerns associated with relocation including safety, security, staffing, crowding and programming. This is a complex process, and my department is committed to maintaining transparency without compromising inmate, staff, or public safety.” 

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Dunn said employees at Holman who won’t be staying at the prison will be relocated to other facilities, and that all workers will keep their jobs. 

U.S. Attorney Jay Town in a candid statement later on Wednesday expressed concern that the DOJ wasn’t made aware of the move. Town has previously publicly said the DOJ was working well with state officials on a path to prevent a federal takeover.

“The Department of Justice learned this morning that the Holman facility was to be closed and that the majority of the prisoners housed in that prison would be transferred to other facilities,” Town’s statement reads. “I am disappointed that we were not privy to the decision to close Holman at the time such a decision was being considered. We will continue to forge ahead in our good faith negotiations”

Dunn, in a response to APR on Wednesday afternoon, said in a statement that the decision not to inform the DOJ came down to safety.

“The ADOC adheres to strict security protocols regarding any inmate movement which are based on national standards and followed by every correctional department in the United States. These protocols are designed and in place to ensure inmate, correctional staff, and public safety above all else,” Dunn’s statement reads. “Given the sensitive nature and security risks associated with this operational decision, third parties and outside agencies were not provided advance notification. We will continue to make strategic short- and long-term decisions based solely on the wellbeing and best interests of our inmates and staff. We also will continue to work in good faith with all relevant parties.”

Asked for a comment Wednesday afternoon on the statement by U.S. Attorney Jay Town, state Attorney General Steve Marshall declined to do so through his communications director, Mike Lewis.

Asked whether the decision to close a large portion of the prison highlighted the need for Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to build three new mega-prisons, Dunn said the decision to do so was solely about infrastructure concerns, and that “the risk of going down there was increasing” but that it does reflect maintenance problems across the state’s prison system.

“It’s the long-term effect of under-resourcing a department,” Dunn said. 

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. 

After release of the 2019 report the DOJ continues to investigate excessive force and sexual abuse by prison staff, according to The New York Times. 

The decision to close parts of Holman only stands in increase prison overcrowding in the state’s other facilities. According to ADOC’s October 2019 report the state’s prison population was at 170 percent of capacity.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in a statement later on Wednesday expressed concern over the decision to close parts of Holman and how it might impact ongoing litigation the non-profit has against ADOC over treatment of inmates with mental health needs.

“As the partial closure of Holman progresses, we will be vigilant in ensuring that the Alabama Department of Corrections complies with all court orders issued in Braggs v. Dunn governing the transfer, care, and housing of people with mental health needs and disabilities in their custody, CJ Sandley, senior staff attorney at the SPLC, wrote in the statement.

“The movement of people at Holman to other facilities will only exacerbate the already deadly levels of overcrowding and the understaffing of correctional officers and mental health professionals at those facilities. Rather than pursuing band-aid solutions, Alabama’s Department of Corrections and Governor Ivey must focus their efforts on addressing overcrowding and understaffing,” Sandley’s statement continues.

Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of criminal justice reform advocacy groups and formerly incarcerated people, released a letter to Dunn, Gov. Kay Ivey and the state Legislature calling the surprise closure “shortsighted” and “counterproductive.”

“Alabamians for Fair Justice celebrates the shuttering of such a place, while condemning the reckless and irresponsible
manner in which the State of Alabama has made this decision,” The coalition’s letter reads. “To be clear, this choice will exacerbate already unacceptable levels of overcrowding and understaffing in ADOC – a system with 40 percent of required staff and 169 percent overcrowding.”

“It will almost certainly lead to more violence and death as people are sent to Donaldson – staffed at 35%, with 137% occupancy, St. Clair – staffed at 34%, with 92% occupancy, and Limestone – staffed at 60%, with 132% overcrowding,” The letter continues.

In 2019 at least 27 inmates in state prisons died as a result of murder, drug overdoses or suicides, and Holman is historically one of the deadliest, most violent prisons in the state.

Ivey’s plan calls for three new men’s prisons constructed through a build-lease partnership with private companies, at an early estimated cost of $900 million. The state is to lease the facilities and operate them, while the companies maintain the prisons. 

Ivey’s office in November announced four companies vying to build those prisons, including two of the largest private prison companies in the country. 

Dunn said the department’s website will update the public each Tuesday at 11a.m. with information on the closure’s progress, and that an inmate’s location in the state’s prison system will be updated on the website after each transfer.

 

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Crime

Seven inmates, seven workers test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday said in a statement that seven more prison workers and seven additional inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Four workers and one woman serving at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women all tested positive for coronavirus, according to an ADOC press release. There are 16 confirmed cases among staff at the facility. 

The woman serving at Tutwiler prison continues to be asymptomatic and was tested pre-operation for a scheduled surgery, according to the release, which states she has been moved to “medical isolation” and the dormitory where she was housed has been placed on on level-one quarantine, meaning inmates will be monitored for symptoms and have temperature checks twice daily. 

Other positive test results came back for a worker at Ventress Correctional Facility, another at the Alex City Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and one at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, according to ADOC. 

Four inmates at the St. Clair Correctional Facility who also tested positive for COVID-19 were living in the same small area within the prison’s infirmary as an inmate who previously tested positive for the virus, according to the release. That living area remains on level-two quarantine, meaning inmates remain there for all daily activities, and the entire infirmary at St. Clair remains on level-one quarantine.

One inmate at the Kilby Correctional Facility and another at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility/Community Work Center also tested positive for  COVID-19. 

The man serving at Kilby prison was housed in the facility’s infirmary, and was transferred to a local hospital after showing symptoms of the virus, where he tested positive, according to ADOC. Kilby’s infirmary has been placed on level-one quarantine.

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The inmate at Frank Lee developed symptoms of COVID-19 and was taken to the Staton Correctional Facility to an area under level-two quarantine, where he subsequently tested positive, according to the department. He was then taken to medical isolation at Kilby prison,  and the facility was placed on level-one quarantine. 

There have been 68 confirmed cases among prison workers in the state, while 17 have since been cleared to return to work. 

Ten of the 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates remain active, according to ADOC. As of Monday the state has tested 176 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates, according to the department.

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Crime

Alabama Democratic Party chair: “Where systemic racism endures there are no winners”

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party on Monday called for Alabamians to come together to address systemic racism and inequality in the wake of the death of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. 

“I am angry and I am hurt. Unfortunately, I am not shocked,” said state Representative and  Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party Chris England, in a statement. 

“Inequality pervades every facet of our society. Confronting this truth is difficult, especially for those who have never experienced their race as an issue. For Black people, watching George Floyd be killed on camera felt not only horrifying, but familiar. It felt familiar because we know what it is like to be harassed by an officer or made to feel unwelcome in a certain part of town. We know what it is like for our schools, neighborhoods, and economic concerns to be ignored outright,” England continued. 

“I stand with each person who is fighting for the just and fair treatment of every Alabamian. Until ideologies rooted in racism and hate are confronted head-on, communities of color will suffer. Until we expose the lies keeping us divided, communities who do not experience their race as an issue will continue misdirecting their frustrations, and scapegoat communities of color. Where systemic racism endures there are no winners, only losers. 

“Unity demands justice. I call on every Alabamian, especially people of faith, to be on the frontlines of love and compassion. We have not come this far to only come this far.”

Two days of peaceful protests in Birmingham turned violent early Sunday morning, and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin declared a state of emergency and enacted  a city-wide curfew to prevent a repeat of the rioting that saw numerous business burned and at least two reporters attacked.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced the authorization of Alabama National Guard members, but said it was no immediate need to activate them.

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Alabama attorney general signals end to fight over Birmingham’s Confederate monument

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Monday said the city of Birmingham would get a one-time $25,000 fine if city officials remove the Confederate monument in the city’s Linn Park, which, if done, would bring an end to a years-long battle between state lawmakers and local officials in Alabama’s largest city.

The monument was at the epicenter of a riotous protest early Monday morning, following peaceful protests in the city late Sunday over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Rioters attempted unsuccessfully to tear down the monument, and later burned businesses and attacked at least two journalists.

“The Alabama Monuments Preservation Act provides a singular avenue for enforcement — the filing of a civil complaint in pursuit of a fine, which the Alabama Supreme Court has determined to be a one-time assessment of $25,000. The Act authorizes no additional relief,” Marshall said in a statement Monday. 

“Should the City of Birmingham proceed with the removal of the monument in question, based upon multiple conversations I have had today, city leaders understand I will perform the duties assigned to me by the Act to pursue a new civil complaint against the City,” Marshall continued. “In the aftermath of last night’s violent outbreak, I have offered the City of Birmingham the support and resources of my office to restore peace to the City.”

Marshall’s statement came after Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin earlier on Monday said that he planned to remove the Confederate monument and pay a fine rather than witness more chaos.

Woodfin on Monday also declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew. 

Following the white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017, some Birmingham City Council members wanted the Confederate monument in the park torn down. 

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Instead, former Birmingham Mayor William Bell had the monument covered by plywood, and a year later, after Randall Woodfin replaced Bell as mayor, the Alabama Legislature passed a law forbidding the city — and all municipalities in the state — from removing or altering a Confederate monument.

The law imposes a $25,000 fine for each violation. 

Comedian Jermaine “Funnymaine” Johnson on Sunday called for demonstrators to tear down the monument.

Johnson told Al.com on Monday that he hated to see the protest turn violent, and said he never encouraged violence but does still call for the monument’s removal. 

“If you think I incited violence, you don’t think monuments like this and the policies behind it haven’t incited violence for decades, you just need to think again,” Johnson told Al.com.

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Birmingham mayor declares emergency, city-wide curfew after violence

Eddie Burkhalter

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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on Monday declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew after violent protests early Monday morning that saw businesses burned and journalists attacked. 

Birmingham will be under a city-wide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. beginning Monday evening. Anyone not at home or at work during those hours could be arrested, Woodfin said. The curfew is to remain in effect indefinitely, as city officials monitor the situation, he said. 

“George Floyd is a name that we all know now, not just in the city of Minneapolis, not just in the city of Birmingham, not just in America but the world,” Woodfin said, referencing the killing of Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis that’s sparked protests across the country. 

There were many protestors who worked with the city to conduct peaceful protests in recent days, Woodfin said, but there were also local looters and anarchists bent on causing chaos and damage late Sunday into early Monday. 

“I want you to know that I 100 percent support civil disobedience. That is very different from civil unrest,” Woodfin said. “I support activism and your right to peacefully assemble. I don’t support mobs of people destroying things just because.” 

Woodfin said because of the violence he’s called for a citywide curfew, and plans to have the Thomas Jefferson statue at the Jefferson County Courthouse, which was vandalized Monday morning, removed despite a state law that makes doing so illegal.

He’d rather pay that fine than see continued civil unrest connected to it, he said. 

“That means no more parade or vigils. No more demonstrations,” Woodfin said of the citywide curfew. 

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Woodfin also asked that anyone with video evidence or knowledge about the attack of two journalists early Monday morning to turn that evidence in. 

“You saw innocent people in the media get physically assaulted and did not do anything,” Woodfin said, and asked those who video the violence and looting to call Crime Stoppers at 205-254-7777 and arrange to turn in those videos. 

“These two journalists deserve some form of being made whole, because what happened to them was not right. They didn’t deserve it,” Woodfin said 

Birmingham Police Chief Patric Smith during the press conference said 14 businesses reported burglaries and 13 had extensive damage, and that those numbers are likely to increase as more reports come in. The department is reviewing video from the protests to identify those who committed the crimes, he said. 

“This police department intends to follow up,” Smith said 

“The Birmingham Police Department will be out in force. While we do not want to make arrest. I think you’ve placed us in a position to whereas we will,” Smith said. 

There were also 22 fire calls, 5 of them at commercial buildings, three house fires and  multiple car and dumpster fires, Birmingham Fire Chief Cory Moon said. Twenty-four people were arrested in connection with the protests, Woodfin said. 

“What happened last not will not define the city of Birmingham,” Woodfin said. “How we respond and move forward. How we embrace each other as one community. If we’re going to be for justice, let’s be for justice and let’s cut everything else out.” 

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