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Ivey’s prison study group recommends spending, anti-recidivism efforts, goes light on sentencing reform

Eddie Burkhalter

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On Thursday the long-awaited policy recommendations of Gov Kay Ivey’s bi-partisan Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy were released, which include suggestions on spending, sentencing reform and recidivism reduction. 

The group, formed in July and required to release its recommendations before the Legislative session begins Tuesday, didn’t always agree on every topic up for consideration, wrote the group’s chair and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Champ Lyons, but all agreed on the urgent need to act quickly. 

Alabama is facing the threat of a federal lawsuit over prison conditions after the U.S. Department of Justice in April 2019 released a report that found the violence in the overcrowded and understaffed prisons are likely violations of inmates’ Constitutional protections. 

“If we try to adhere to the status quo and decline to spend necessary funds to improve the situation now, we risk burdensome remedies imposed by a federal court—remedies that could be far costlier to the State than some of the proposals that have been discussed in our Study Group and that are available to us now at lower cost,” Lyons wrote in the report. 

The state’s prison crisis will likely be a central topic during this year’s legislative session. At a budget presentation earlier this month Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn requested a $42 million increase in his department’s budget during Fy 2020, for a total of $563 million. 

A central issue with ADOC operations inmate-on-inmate violence, according to the report. The group suggests that lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session should revisit a bill sponsored last year by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that would require ADOC to report certain information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Taskforce. 

“As the State’s lawmaking body, the Legislature should receive the information it reasonably needs to take a more active role in addressing DOC’s challenges,” Lyons wrote in the report. 

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The study group also suggests that lawmakers increase ADOC’s budget, and noted specifically the importance of dealing with contraband inside prisons. Drug overdoses have become a regular occurrences in state prisons. 

“Regarding contraband detection, in particular, we must further pursue effective means of ensuring that inmates who arrive with addictions get treatment—and that inmates who do not arrive with an addiction do not become addicted while incarcerated,” the report reads. 

The study group declined to take on larger sentencing reform measures, and instead suggested that lawmakers 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. 

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“We believe that the Legislature should reinstate Kirby motions so that other nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without parole may have a similar avenue to obtain relief—assuming, of course, that such relief is warranted by the inmate’s disciplinary record while incarcerated,” the study group’s recommendation reads. 

Approximately several hundred inmates serving for nonviolent crime convictions imposed before Oct. 1, 2013, would have much lighter sentences were they to be sentenced to the same crimes today, according to the report, which also recommends some previous sentencing reforms be made retroactive. 

“As a matter of basic fairness, it would seem appropriate to allow an inmate in this category a chance to go before a judge and ask to be resentenced—assuming, again, that the inmate’s disciplinary record while incarcerated would warrant that relief,” according to the report. 

Additionally, the group suggests that lawmakers consider allowing those serving life without the possibility of parole under the state’s Habitual Offender Act for Class a violent felony convictions, but for crimes in which no one was physically injured, to ask the court to reduce their sentence to life with the possibility of parole. 

“As is the case with Kirby reinstatement, no immediate and dramatic reduction in present prison population will be achieved through reforms such as these. But they could result in fairer sentences and some reduction in the prison population without a corresponding threat to public safety—both goals that are worthy of pursuit,” the report reads. 

In an effort to reduce the chances that people return to prison after being released, the study group suggests increased funding for in-custody educational programs and early release for those serving for non-violent crimes who complete educational training. 

Members also recommended that lawmakers consider offering pre-release supervision to inmates who were sentenced after 2015, the year a law was enacted that required such supervision, which Lyons wrote can help keep a person from returning to prison once freed. 

Another stumbling block for formerly incarcerated people is the difficulty of getting government-issued photo ID’s after release, so the group recommends that legislation making that easier. 

“By doing so, we can remove a barrier to the successful reintegration of inmates into society—and thereby increase the likelihood that they will become productive, law-abiding citizens,” Lyons wrote. 

Formerly incarcerated people on parole often work odd hours, and because parole officers typically work daytime office hours that makes it difficult to meet the demands of the state. 

“These parolees thus find themselves in a catch-22: They are trying to better themselves and society by working; but by working, they are more likely to violate the terms of their parole,” Lyons wrote. “To resolve this catch-22, we believe the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles should change the work schedules of its parole officers to provide greater access on nights and weekends. This change could meaningfully reduce the number of parolees returning to prison and at the same time support parolees as they seek to transition to lives of productive citizenship.” 

The study group also believes that ADOC should redesignate existing leadership positions to jobs that would oversee recidivism reduction efforts. 

An expansion of an existing program aimed at getting county jail inmates help with mental health problems could keep them from being re-arrested, the study group’s report found.  Called the Stepping Up Initiative, the program provides money for local governments to hire mental health case managers. 

The last recommendation in the report is for further study of alternative courts, such as drug courts and pretrial diversion programs, both of which can help divert people from entering the prison system. 

“There are several alternative courts and diversion programs across the State that work extremely well and help divert people from further illegal activity,” Lyons wrote. “But in many places, these programs are unavailable, underfunded, or simply inaccessible. There are also serious concerns about the “pay-to-play” aspect of some of these programs.” 

Study group members were unable, however, to come up with specific solutions to address the need for expansions of these programs, Lyons wrote, in part because the many programs operate under various entities, in both state and local governments. 

“We therefore recommend legislation to require better data collection by government agencies administering these programs. We also recommend the establishment of a legislative study commission to dig deeper into the specific issues surrounding community corrections so that this issue can be comprehensively addressed in the 2021 legislative session,” Lyons wrote.

 

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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Alabama Department of Corrections investigating death of 28-year-old inmate

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of a 28-year-old inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility as a possible suicide. 

Charles Labarron Braggs was found unresponsive by prison officials in his cell on Monday, and life-saving attempts were unsuccessful, the department said in a message to APR on Thursday.

Braggs was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, and the department said in the statement that there’s “no evidence of a use-of-force incident” and that the investigation into his death is ongoing. 

“Use-of-force” refers to instances when correctional officers use physical force with an inmate. 

Braggs’ death is at least the sixth suspected suicide among those serving in Alabama prisons so far this year, according to the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

The U.S. Justice Department in April 2019, released a report detailing what federal investigators found were systemic problems of violence, sexual assaults, drugs, high levels of homicides and suicides and corruption in Alabama prisons.

ADOC continues to defend the department in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over mental health care and treatment of inmates in state prisons, arguing in the complaint that the department was indifferent to the health of those inmates, who were dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.

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The U.S. Department of Justice last week released a scathing report detailing systemic excessive use-of-force by Alabama correctional officers against inmates in the state’s prisons for men. The federal government believes the acts of violence against inmates violates the Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

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Four Alabama correctional officers indicted on federal charges connected to 2018 inmate beating

The indictments come five days after the DOJ released a report detailing systemic violence against inmates at the hands of Alabama Department of Corrections officers.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A federal grand jury on Tuesday charged four Alabama correctional officers with federal civil rights and obstruction of justice charges connected to the beating of an inmate in 2018. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in a press release Tuesday said that a grand jury indicted Sergeant Keith Finch and corrections officers Jordan Thomas and Kevin Blaylock with deprivation of rights under color of law. Thomas and Sergeant Orlanda Walker are also charged with obstruction of justice. 

According to the press release, the indictment alleges that on Sept. 12, 2018, at the Bibb Correctional Facility, Thomas and Blaylock kicked and hit an inmate, who was on the ground and in a fetal position, with their batons after he ran out of his cell. 

“As a result of this unjustified use of force, the prisoner sustained bodily injury. Thomas and his supervisor, Walker, then obstructed justice by filing false reports that claimed ‘all force ceased’ once the prisoner was on the ground,” the DOJ said in the release. 

The indictments come five days after the DOJ released a report detailing systemic violence against inmates at the hands of Alabama Department of Corrections officers. The federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. 

The report details explicit, serious assaults of inmates, cover-ups by officers and their superiors, and ineffective, substandard investigations by ADOC’s investigative arm, the Investigations and Intelligence Division.

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Alabama Department of Corrections “disappointed” by “surprise” DOJ report on excessive force

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday responded to a scathing report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice detailing correctional officers’ violence against incarcerated men in state prisons, saying the department was “disappointed in the surprise manner” in which the DOJ released the report. 

The DOJ’s report details numerous instances of unprovoked and illegal violence against inmates by correctional officers, cover-ups of those crimes by officers and supervisors, and shoddy investigations that often resulted in no disciplinary action. 

The federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. The report was expected, although it was unclear when DOJ would release it, and follows the DOJ’s previous report, released in April 2019, that found that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm. 

“We are disappointed in the surprise manner in which the DOJ orchestrated the release of this letter, which hinders the progress made by our Department to address the long-standing challenges facing our correctional system,” ADOC said in a statement Friday. “This substantive progress includes targeted efforts to reduce instances of violence within our facilities.” 

ADOC in the statement said the department stands behind previous statements by Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

Ivey responded to the DOJ report by saying it was an “expected follow-up” to the April 2019 report, completing the DOJ’s investigation into the state’s men’s prisons that began in 2016.  

“We will be carefully reviewing these serious allegations in the coming weeks. My Administration remains hopeful that with the completion of this investigation, the state and federal governments can finally reach a resolution to all of the Department’s allegations,” Ivey’s statement reads. 

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We all desire an effective, Alabama solution to this Alabama problem, and my Administration will put in the hard work and long hours necessary to achieve that result,” Ivey continued. 

Marshall, however, took a much harder stance, claiming Alabama was “ambushed” by the DOJ report, and said the state “will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit.” 

Among the many serious instances of excessive use of force against inmates in the report, the DOJ detailed the death of Michael Smith, 55, at Ventress prison in December 2019, in which “ADOC personnel informed hospital medical personnel that the injuries occurred after the prisoner fell from a bunk bed.” 

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“The autopsy revealed that the prisoner died from blunt force trauma to the head. He sustained multiple areas of intracranial bleeding, fractures of his nose and left eye socket, and had at least six teeth knocked out,” federal investigators wrote in the report.

Federal investigators found that ADOC’s investigative arm, the Intelligence & Investigations Division, did substandard investigations into use of force incidents, failed to collect necessary information on allegations and came to improper findings in numerous incidents. 

ADOC in the statement Friday said the department has been proactive in dealing with the DOJ’s concerns, and that Commissioner Jeff Dunn formed a Violence Reduction Task Force in December 2019. 

The recommendations of the Task Force include refresher protocol and procedure training; health and wellness interventions for correctional officers and staff; an emphasis on inmate rehabilitation programs and resources; and the reexamination of enhanced surveillance measures such as facility cameras and the use of body cameras for on-duty correctional officers,” ADOC’s statement reads. 

DOJ’s report also notes that chronic understaffing in the overcrowded prisons is contributing to the use of violence among correctional officers, which has resulted in the serious injury and deaths of inmates. 

“The DOJ’s claim that the ‘ADOC …  has not taken meaning[ful] steps or other emergency measures to address the understaffing’ is simply false,” ADOC said in the statement, adding that in 2018 a federal judge accepted the department’s plan to hire additional staff. 

It has been more than two years since U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the ADOC to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.

We are disappointed in the surprise manner in which the DOJ orchestrated the release of this letter, which hinders the progress made by our Department to address the long-standing challenges facing our correctional system."

“Since then, they have increased correctional staff by only 147 officers,” said attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit in a filing on June 24. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, the plaintiffs, filed the 2014 suit arguing the state was indifferent to the health of inmates dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers. 

Both Ivey and ADOC in their statements mentioned infrastructure investment as important steps to addressing the DOJ’s concerns. Ivey’s plan to build three new mega-prisons through a build-lease proposal continues to move forward. 

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, is a member of Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, which was formed in 2019 to study the state’s failing prison system and suggest legislative fixes. The group in January made a series of recommendations but COVID-19 brought an end to this year’s Legislative session without the bills that those suggestions produced coming up for votes.

England in a Tweet Friday expressed concern about spending billions on new prisons, and reiterated his previous calls for Ivey to call a special session to address the state’s prison crisis.

“After two DOJ reports detailing how bad our prisons are, are we really going to give the same @ALCorrections that is failing miserably to manage our current prisons over 2 billion dollars to build new ones? Seriously? We need a special session @GovernorKayIvey.”

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Alabama attorney general says state was “ambushed” with DOJ report on mens’ prisons

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Reaction to the U.S. Department of Justice’s latest scathing report on Alabama’s broken prisons for men came swiftly on Thursday, and the state’s top law enforcement officer claims Alabama was “ambushed.”

The Justice Department report published Thursday details numerous instances of unprovoked and illegal violence against inmates by correctional officers, cover-ups of those crimes by officers and supervisors and shoddy investigations that often resulted in no disciplinary action.

The federal government in the report alleges that Alabama violates inmates’ Constitutional protections. 

DOJ’s previous report, released in April 2019, found that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm. The latest report was expected, but it was unclear when the department would release it. 

DOJ attorneys in a letter Thursday to Gov. Kay Ivey wrote that the U.S. attorney general can file a lawsuit against the state if Alabama fails to “satisfactorily address conditions in the prisons within 49 days,” although the department hopes to resolve the problems “through a more cooperative approach.” 

“Though the State has been diligently working toward a settlement agreement with the DOJ based on its previous findings, we were ambushed with today’s report, issued in the form of a public press release only moments after we received it,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement Thursday. 

Marshall said the state has never denied the challenges facing the Alabama Department of Corrections, and as evidence of such, the state plans to build three new men’s prisons “that we believe—and the DOJ has conceded—will have a significant positive impact on many of the areas of concern that the DOJ has identified.” 

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It should be noted, however, that the April 2019 Justice Department report noted that new prisons alone won’t solve ADOC’s systemic problems, a sentiment shared by numerous criminal justice reform groups and advocates working in Alabama. 

“At the same time, I have made it absolutely clear from the beginning that the State will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit,” Marshall continued. “On November 7, 2018, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the use of civil consent decrees in a DOJ memorandum, acknowledging the sovereignty of state governments and urging special caution before using this bludgeon to settle litigation against the states. I share General Sessions’ concerns with consent decrees and will not submit our state to judicial oversight of our prisons, with the DOJ as the hall monitor, that will last well beyond my tenure as Attorney General—and indeed, if history is any indication, could last well beyond my lifetime.

“Along with the release of its newest findings today, DOJ officials also communicated to my Office that the State has forty-nine days to agree upon the terms of a consent decree. Presumably, if we do not, the federal government will file suit. My response to that is simple: the State of Alabama has worked, and will continue to work, both to improve our prison facilities to meet the standards of the U.S. Constitution and to negotiate with the federal government in good faith. But Alabama will not be bullied into a perpetual consent decree to govern our prison system, nor will we be pressured to reach such an agreement with federal bureaucrats, conspicuously, fifty-three days before a presidential election.

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“In short, a consent decree is unacceptable and nonnegotiable. The State of Alabama shall retain her sovereignty.”

Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement on Thursday said Alabama’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and understaffed by correctional officers who undergo little training. 

“It comes as no surprise to us that the Department of Justice has found frequent use of excessive force by correctional officers against incarcerated men in Alabama’s prison system,” Howard said. “The violent conditions and circumstances outlined in the DOJ’s latest report are at the hands of prison personnel and demonstrate failures of the Alabama Department of Corrections’ leadership to ensure people in their custody are safe. This unconstitutional behavior will not be solved by building newer, larger prisons.”

“People in Alabama prisons are human beings with constitutional rights. They deserve to be treated humanely, with respect, and dignity,” Howard continued.

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