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Opinion | Open letter Governor Ivey, Commissioner Dunn and the Alabama Legislature

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The State of Alabama continues to pursue shortsighted, counterproductive solutions to the unprecedented crisis in Alabama prisons.

Today the Alabama Department of Corrections announced the partial closure of Holman Correctional Facility and the abrupt transfer of over 600 people who had been housed there. Neither their families nor their lawyers were notified ahead of ADOC’s press release. There is now no maximum security prison below Birmingham, meaning that family members living in south Alabama will have to travel hours to visit their loved ones.

Since its opening in 1969 as a maximum security prison and Alabama’s primary death row for men, Holman Prison has been a site of death and racialized violence in our state. 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.

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 169percent overcrowding. It will almost certainly lead to more violence and death as people are sent to Donaldson – staffed at 35 percent  with 137 percent occupancy, St. Clair – staffed at 34 percent  with 92 percent  occupancy, and Limestone – staffed at 60 percent, with 132 percent overcrowding.

It is hard to imagine that Holman correctional officers currently based in Escambia County will be able to fill posts at these north Alabama prisons. Overcrowding at the remaining prisons will contribute to further understaffing, and together they will lead to more violence and death. Recent tragedies in Alabama and Mississippi prisons show that this is all but certain.

Prisons should be closed. But the reason to close prisons is because their occupants have been set free – not because they are to be sent back into the crucible of the nation’s most violent correctional system while state officials conspire to build more large prisons. The closure of south Alabama’s only maximum security prison on the heels of Commissioner Dunn’s insistence on building new prisons strongly suggests that ADOC is planning a new prison in south Alabama. But the ADOC’s reliance on construction will do nothing to cure its real ailments – pervasive understaffing, , staff corruption, rampant drugs,suicides and a culture of violence rather than rehabilitationAnd above all, too many people in its dangerous prisons.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where any other government agency with such a bad track record would be given billions more to do more of what it’s done so poorly.

Today, as hundreds of families reckon with the knowledge that their loved ones are being sent across the state against their will, Alabamians for Fair Justice remembers the lives that have been lost at Holman – those who were killed by the state, and those who died as a result of its neglect and indifference. The names of those known to have died in the last year are listed below.

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At the same time, we remember that incarcerated organizers with the Free Alabama Movement started a nationwide movement from behind Holman’s walls in 2016. We renew our call to include currently and formerly incarcerated advocates, family members, and other advocates in any task force addressing the ongoing prison crisis. We call on the House and Senate leadership to adopt meaningful legislative reforms to reduce the number of people in prison. We continue to demand that Alabama do better.

At least eight lives were lost at Holman between January 2019 to January 2020:

James McClain – died of unknown causes, January 22, 2020
Antonio Bell – died of unknown causes, January 9, 2020
Moses Robinson – died following an assault, December 31, 2019
Willie Leon Scott – died following an assault, December 6, 2019
Ricky Gilland – died of unknown causes, October 18, 2019
Christopher Lee Price – executed on May 30, 2019
Michael Samra – executed on May 16, 2019
Domineque Ray – executed on February 7, 2019
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Opinion | For humanitarian and public health reasons, we need to get people out of our jails

Bishop Van Moody

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For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners (Psalm 69:33)

We are facing a crisis unlike any in our lifetime. A virus is infecting us at unprecedented rates. Over 100,000 have been infected in the United States and the death toll in our country is already in the thousands. 

But we’re not doing everything possible to keep us safe. The county jails in Alabama, which lock up thousands of people, are a major health risk. The incarcerated population can’t practice “social distancing” and instead are left to languish in these facilities with no soap or supplies to sanitize their own cells.

Imprisoned  people are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19. People incarcerated in jails are housed in close quarters, and are often in poor health. And, according to a report from the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the county jail population quadrupled between 2014 and 2018.

The way to mitigate that health risk is clear. We need to release people who are no risk to our communities and vulnerable to exposure immediately. And jail officials need to come up with a plan, and make it public, for how they will deal with a COVID-19 outbreak in their facility. 

Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledged the danger in her State of Emergency declaration, finding that “the condition of jails inherently heightens the possibility of COVID-19 transmission.”  Ivey’s declaration said that people charged with crimes could be served with a summons instead of being arrested. But that doesn’t do much for the people already locked up and awaiting trial. 

And a COVID-19 outbreak in these jails with the current incarcerated population would be disastrous for public health. The incarcerated people who get infected would have to be taken to our already overcrowded hospitals, and people who work in the jails are also in danger of both being infected, and spreading the infection to people on the outside. Lowering the total number of people locked up would make an outbreak less likely, and also make it easier to quarantine people who have been infected.

But there is also a moral and humanitarian reason to get people out of these jails. The crime rate in our state didn’t quadruple in the last few years, but our jail population did. Many of the people now locked up aren’t there because they committed horrible crimes, they’re locked up because they’re too poor to afford bail. Some are even elderly and therefore at “higher risk for severe illness”, according to the CDC.

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It is wrong to lock people up because they can’t afford to pay bail. If a judge has already decided that someone does not pose a threat to the community and they can get out of jail if they can pay a fee, then they shouldn’t be locked up at all during a crisis like this.Poverty is not a crime and under these circumstances, it should not put you at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Last month county jail inmates with bonds under $5,000 were ordered released in Autauga, Elmore and Chilton Counties, as long as the sheriffs and wardens sign off on it. Mobile Countyhas also announced it would release certain pre-trial inmates.. These actions were taken due to fears of the spread of COVID-19.

Other states have also started doing this. Montana, California, New Jersey, Washington and Wyoming are amongthe states that have actively worked to reduce it’s incarcerated population in the last few weeks.

Actions like these need to be the norm going forward. COVID-19 is scary, but we must meet it with Christian love and compassion. We must extend that to our brothers and sisters behind bars who pose no threat to our communities and are awaiting their day in court. We must consider those who are elderly and already ill. This virus is the worst thing many of us have seen in our lifetimes, let’s combat it with love and compassion, instead of hate and fear.

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Opinion | Remembering civil rights icon Rev. Joseph E. Lowery

Derryn Moten

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Co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery died on March 27, 2020.  He and his clerical brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisaged SCLC as the national platform needed to inveigh segregation, materialism, and militarism in the South and nation. King became the first SCLC president in 1957, a position he held until his assassination in 1968.  Lowery headed SCLC from 1977 until 1997.

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Lowery taught school in Birmingham before becoming a minister. He pastored his first church in the Magic City. He also led the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama and became the leader of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, the precursor of the Montgomery Improvement Association, MIA.

Perhaps less known is that Joseph Lowery was the last living co-defendant of the landmark Sullivan v. New York Times Company, a libel lawsuit filed by City of Montgomery and State of Alabama officials against the New York Times and Reverends Ralph D. Abernathy, Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Joseph E. Lowery, and Solomon S. Seay, Sr. Montgomery City Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan, Public Affairs Commissioner Frank Parks, and Mayor Earl James filed $500,000,00 libel lawsuits each.  Gov. John Patterson sued the same defendants adding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for $1 million dollars.

The City and State alleged that the March 29, 1960 New York Times advertisement paid for by The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, defamed and libeled the plaintiffs by knowingly publishing false statements.  A chief bone of contention was a paragraph, 39 words, describing actions of the City of Montgomery Police Department against Alabama State College students. On February 25, 1960, those same ASC students sat-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse Cafeteria.  This was Alabama’s first sit-in demonstration. The ad claimed “police armed with shotguns and tear gas ringed the campus and padlocked the dining hall.”

The New York Times ad sought to raise funds for a trial Dr. King faced in Alabama for tax fraud. The City and State targeted the ministers because they were signatories to the ad. LorraineHansbury, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Nat King Cole, and Ruby Dee, among others, also signed the ad. Defense counsel argued the Black ministers were included because of their friendships with Dr. King.  The lawsuits sought to harass, harangue, and financially ruin these civil rights leaders.  Temporarily, that is exactly what the suits accomplished.  A collective judgment of $3 million dollars, and an inability to secure a surety bond, allowed the State to garnish the personal property of Abernathy, Seay, Shuttlesworth, and Lowery. Each saw their automobiles seized and sold.  The Marengo County Sheriff also sold 300 acres of land owned by the Rev. Abernathy and his extended family since Reconstruction.

The New York Times won its appeal to redress the State cases in the federal courts. Montgomery County Senior Circuit Judge Walter B. Jones heard the original five cases. A racial cyborg, Jones pronounced from the bench that the Fourteenth Amendment was irrelevant in Alabama and that the Sullivantrial would be conducted “in the belief and knowledge that the white man’s justice . . . brought over to this country by the Anglo-Saxon Race . . . will give the parties at the Bar of this Court, regardless of race or color, equal justice under law.” Four years after it all began, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgments against the defendants.

As we pray for the repose of Rev. Joseph Echols Lowery, we should remember part of his prayer at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration; “We ask you [Lord] to help us work for that day when Black will not be asked to get back . . . and when white will embrace what is right.”

 

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Opinion | A little effort can make a big difference in the fight against COVID-19

Will Ainsworth

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Will Ainsworth is Alabama’s lieutenant governor.

Every American was a bit disappointed when the White House announced this week that social distancing guidelines will remain in place at least until April 30, and some governors across the nation have mandated that statewide shelter-in-place orders may be enforced until the end of June.

Working from home, avoiding contact with others, and venturing into public only when absolutely necessary can make life seem much like the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.” Each day, the temptation to break a social distancing guideline becomes a little harder to resist and the desire to ignore protocols and immediately return to your normal routine becomes that much greater.

But facts, statistics, and simple, everyday hard truths demand that we not only hold the course in the fight against COVID-19, but also practice stricter self-discipline in how we act and what we do.

As this column is being written, Alabama is teetering on the edge of its 1,000th documented case of Coronavirus, and 19 of our fellow Alabama citizens have already succumbed to the deadly sickness.

Every indicator points to the situation getting significantly worse in our state before it begins to improve, and President Trump has ordered additional ventilators sent to Alabama from the national stockpile in order to prepare for what awaits us.

If current trends continue, Alabama’s healthcare resources will likely be pushed beyond capacity by the end of the month, and the number of hospital and ICU beds that are needed will exceed the total number we have in the state.

The good news is that Alabamians can prove all of these projections and possible doomsday scenarios wrong if we just use common sense, take self-responsibility, and follow the rules that health professionals suggest.

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Too many among us are still refusing to take the COVID-19 crisis seriously, and by doing that, they threaten their own lives along with the lives of everyone they love and everyone they meet.

Since Gov. Kay Ivey declared the state’s Gulf Coast beaches closed in order to enforce social distancing, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has reported a dramatic surge in weekend traffic on Alabama’s lakes and rivers.

My family and I live by Lake Guntersville, and we have noticed the massive groups of people congregating together, jumping from party boat to party boat, and ignoring every rule about social distancing and self-isolation that the Center for Disease Control has asked us to follow.

It may come as a surprise to these weekend revelers, but sun, water, and cold beer are not effective vaccines against COVID-19.

For proof of this fact, just look toward the group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students who spent their Spring Break in Gulf Shores in mid-March. Upon their return north, several of the students have displayed symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19, and all of them are currently under quarantine.

Each time an individual or family decides to strictly follow CDC guidelines and do their part in the fight against Coronavirus, the numbers bend in our direction, and all of us get that much closer to safely resuming normalcy.

Assuming Alabama has a daily infection rate of 20 percent, trends show that we can expect to have more than 245,000 total cases of COVID-19 by May 1, but if through discipline and resolve we can reduce that daily growth to 10 percent, a little more than 9,000 cases will occur. At five percent growth, we have only 1,600.

via Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth

In other words, just a little effort and diligence from all of us can make a tremendous difference. Social distancing is recommended because the virus that causes COVID-19 can travel at least three feet when coughed or sneezed, and it can live on surfaces for days.

The rules for social distancing are easy to understand and follow, and they require you to remain at least six feet away from others, wash your hands frequently with soap, sanitize and wipe down surfaces, stay at home to stop the spread, and self-quarantine and contact your physician if you experience symptoms.

President Trump was wise to extend the social distancing requirements for at least another month, but all of us look forward to the day when future extensions will not be necessary. To accomplish that goal, we must each remember three simple things – stay smart, stay healthy, and, most importantly, stay home.

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Opinion | Finding the new normal

Kellie Hope

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I spent my professional career getting dressed, usually in business attire, leaving my house and driving to another location – office tower, free standing building, hospital – to begin my work day. All of that changed late last year, when I joined the Business Council of Alabama as Regional Director, a newly created role in the organization. One of the best perks (among many) of joining BCA is my ability to work from home. The past four months have been filled with transition and some trial and error. Making the shift from an “office” office to a home office environment can be seamless, but it takes effort, discipline and a healthy dose of humor.

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, remote work in the United States was already on the rise. According to the Federal Reserve, the share of the labor force that works from home has tripled in the past 15 years. Prior to the outbreak, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics noted 29 percent of the American workforce could and did work from home. This has only increased as “social distancing” has become the new normal. In our current coronavirus reality, hundreds of thousands of workers across multiple disciplines and industries are now joining me in my slippers in front of my computer first thing in the morning. Before I made my transition, I asked friends and colleagues for advice. The overwhelming response was “it’s great; you’ll love it”, quickly followed by “make sure you’re organized; it’s very different.”  That advice is 100 percent true – It’s great, AND it’s quite an adjustment. Their advice has never been more pertinent, and I thought it timely to share it with you. Here are my best suggestions for making the transition:

  • Have a defined workspace: An actual home office, the dining room table, a set up on the back porch – it’s critical to have a dedicated space where you work that isn’t your bedroom. (Although, an occasional conference call from your bed isn’t the end of the world).
  • Maintain a routine: Wake up at a consistent time, have breakfast, get dressed, spend some time preparing for your day just as you would if you were leaving the house. The same way you use your drive to make calls or ease into your day, do it at home. Same with the end of the day – download the day’s events and prepare for the next day, just as you would before you leave the office. In these very uncertain times, routine not only helps maintain productivity, but it provides a sense of normalcy.
  • Have defined work time: This was one of my biggest challenges. It’s so easy to jump into work as soon as you open your eyes and find you are still at it when the 9:00 news is on. Conversely, it’s tempting to do a few loads of laundry or run a quick errand, and the next thing you know, your day is off the rails.  It’s important to take breaks (just as you would if you were in an office) but work time is for work.  
  • Get out of the house: *Disclaimer: this was much easier before COVID-19 became a part of our daily vocabulary* Looking ahead to the day we return to some semblance of normalcy, set appointments outside your home – at a coffee shop, a colleague’s office, etc. For now, take a walk, go to Starbucks drive through – something to break the monotony of being inside all day, every day.
  • Be patient with yourself: Working from home requires a different type of discipline than going into the office, especially with kids and others likely in the house also. Be kind to yourself and others. Allow yourself time to adjust to the new routine.
  • Stay connected: Communicate with colleagues and peers through the multitude of available outlets – video conference, webinars, conference calls, group chats. This helps maintain the rapport and productive teamwork that exists in the office environment. Connection also benefits our mental and emotional well-being, which we should all pay attention to, especially now.
  • Enjoy the perks!: Jeans instead of a business suit – that’s great! If you aren’t going out, wear your cozy slippers or flip flops all day. If the weather is nice, make calls or handle emails from your backyard or patio and get your daily dose of vitamin D (Multitasking!). There is wonderful flexibility and creativity when working from home. Enjoy it!

Countless tips and strategies to make the work-from-home transition a success are readily accessible. A quick Google search will yield all sorts of articles and helpful hints. My transition to working from home was the right decision for me and my family.  Coronavirus made that decision for so many others in the last few weeks. It’s important that you find a strategy that works best for you and your family, and just do it! Good luck and best wishes.


Kellie Hope is the Business Council of Alabama’s regional director based out of Mobile.

 

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