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Violent crimes focus of Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles public information

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles since November sent messages in tweets and press releases about those convicted of violent crimes, and nearly nothing on non-violent offenders seeking paroles. 

Since parole hearings resumed that month the tone of the Bureau’s social media posts changed from informational to something much closer to fear-mongering, full of language about violence and details of past crimes. 

APR last week began asking questions about the agency’s focus on violent crimes, and on Monday the tone of the Bureau’s press release on upcoming hearings changed again. Gone was the focus on violent crimes, and in its place was information on all incarcerated people scheduled for hearings, serving time for both violent and non-violent crimes. 

The Bureau’s focus on spreading messages about violence criminals has some worried that the the agency is purposefully pushing a narrative that the entirety of the state’s prison population is too dangerous to reenter society, and at a time when Gov. Kay Ivey continues to push for construction of three new mega-prisons to ease overcrowding. 

In October state prisons were at 170 percent of capacity, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics. 

Previous attempts by lawmakers to gain support for a bond issuance to pay for new prisons failed. Ivey announced in February 2019 her plan to build the prisons through a build-lease partnership with private companies, which would not require the state to borrow the lump sum to build. 

The state faces the possibility of a federal takeover of its prisons, which are plagued with violence and overcrowding, problems detailed in a report in April by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Alabama may be in violation of prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protections due to rampant sexual abuse, assaults, homicides and suicides. 

“What is coming out of Pardons and Paroles, from the newsletter that they send out to the tweets and that website, it’s all propaganda. It’s straight up propaganda at its finest,” said Dillon Nettles, a policy analyst at ACLU of Alabama, speaking to APR by phone last week. “They are essentially trying to relitigate these cases, and not just in front of the board, but in the court of public opinion.” 

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Of 106 tweets by the Bureau’s official account in January, 90 included information about violent crimes and used the word “violence” in hashtags and in the body of the texts. Many give the details of past crimes. Press releases issued by the agency since November centered around parole denials for those convicted of violent crimes. 

“If you look at Georgia, Tennessee and you look at Mississippi, you will not see any language rhetoric like this coming out of their parole boards on their website on their social media,” Nettles said. “It’s just not a common thing.” 

In a review of more than two dozen state pardons and parole board social media accounts across the country, no other state agency focuses as Alabama’s agency does on violent offenders. Many other state agencies had no social media accounts, and some appeared inactive for long periods of time.

Most of those state agencies responsible for parole decisions use social media to inform the public of office closures, employee appreciation matters, state government happenings and law enforcement news. 

Several states, including New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia, used social media to publish information on programs that help incarcerated people reenter society and successfully keep from returning. 

The Bureau’s new director, Charlie Graddick, a former circuit judge, state attorney general and architect of Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act appointed to his post in July, 2019, describe the state’s inmates in op-eds and in interviews as too dangerous to be paroled. Graddick told reporters in January that “we don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. They just don’t.”

Terry Abbott, a communications liaison for Gov. Kay Ivey’s office to the Bureau, explained to APR last week that it’s all about giving the public what they want. 

“We cover the violent offenders because of public and community and media interest in the issue of violent crime,” Abbott wrote in a message to APR in response to questions about the messaging. “The news releases are only about the violent offenders. There are many inmates considered for parole who do not have violent offenses on their records. In the news releases you’re only reading about the violent offenders.” 

Abbott in a follow-up message to APR said that each Monday a new release lists all the violent offenders who are to be considered for parole that week, and on hearing days additional news releases announce the three-member board’s decision on those cases 

“We report which violent offenders were granted parole and which were denied. So none of the violent offenders are left out,” Abbott said. 

Asked whether he could provide APR with any requests from the public seeking regular information on incarcerated people serving for convictions of violent crimes, Abbott explained that it wasn’t a matter of  public requests, but one of “broad, general public, media, public official interest in the issue of violent crime that affects communities far and wide.”  

“Look at any newspaper and you’ll see coverage of such crimes. Newspapers all over Alabama publish stories about violent crime, including parole board decisions about violent offenders,” Abbott said in the message. “The issue is discussed frequently in social media. Public officials frequently talk with concern about violent crime. The broad public interest in the issue is clear and obvious.”

“I think they’re selecting what they want the public to be interested in,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R- Alabaster, speaking to APR by phone last week. “I think releasing all the information is good. That way the general public can decide for themselves what’s important and what’s not.” 

Ward said he’s not comfortable telling the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles how to operate their agency, but that “more transparency is better.” 

“Regardless of who you’re paroling, make a full and complete list. I think that only helps them in their job, and I think it helps the general public have a better education about what they do and  what’s going on there,” Ward said. 

It’s unclear who was responsible for the Bureau’s decision to focus on violent criminals in publicly released information. Asked whether Graddick had requested that change, Abbott said “No he did not” and declined to discuss the matter further. 

Unlike other Bureau employees, Abbott’s salary is paid through Ivey’s office, according to state records. He was appointed by Ivey as her office’s communications liaison to the Bureau on Aug. 28, 2019, and was to start the job on September 1, according to Abbott’s letter of appointment from Ivey, which sets his pay at $86,424 annually. 

It was unclear whether the position of a communications liaison for Ivey’s office to the Bureau was a newly-created position for Abbott. Ivey’s office, through a spokeswoman, declined to answer questions on the record about Abbott’s employment, and referred questions to the Alabama Personnel Department. 

Tara Hetzel, an attorney with the state State Personnel Department, in a message to APR on Monday said that Ivey can hire and assign employees to the Bureau as needed. 

“While this is not done often, it’s definitely not unusual,” Hetzel said, adding that one other Bureau staffer, Olan Tucker, was also hired to work at the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. 

Abbott is the only Bureau employee being paid by Ivey’s office, however, according to state records. Olan Tucker, who goes by the name Skip, is paid by the Bureau itself, according to those records, and began receiving paychecks in October 2019. 

Skip Tucker, former news editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle and former communications staff for Graddick in years past, wrote an op-ed last year on Graddick’s appointment praising his former boss as a man tough on criminals. 

“Graddick’s back. Those two words are fraught with meaning for those who run badly afoul of the law, especially on a routine basis. For the habitually violent criminal, the words are heavy with nothing but trouble. He wrote Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act,” Tucker wrote in an op-ed published by Alabama Daily News on Aug. 1, 2019. 

Days after he began at the Bureau, Graddick suspended paroles hearings citing problems with the agency’s victim notification process. 

Former Pardons and Parole Board chair Lyn Head told APR earlier this month that the board was issuing notices as required by state law ,and denied Graddick’s allegation to the contrary. Head resigned from the board in September. 

Hearings resumed in November, but the number of people being seen by the board dropped dramatically. During November and December of 2019 just 17 people were granted parole, according to the ACLU of Alabama.  

Abbott told APR last month that the agency was ramping up those hearings and had a target of about 540 hearings set for March, substantially more than the 150 hearings that were scheduled for January. 

Nettles at the ACLU of Alabama told APR that he would not be surprised if the rhetoric about violent offenders coming out of the Bureau and drop in the number of people being paroled isn’t meant to build public and legislative support for the three new prisons. 

“That has been the only solution that we’ve heard from the governor’s office so far to address this prison crisis since the DOJ report came out,” Nettles said, adding that the DOJ report made clear that new prison construction wouldn’t solve all of Alabama’s prison problems.  

“And it is clear that it is created with a motivation and intentionality behind it to steer public opinion towards people being fearful, or towards people being in favor of more punitive policies and less reform,” Nettles said.

It was unclear Monday if the Bureau’s new press release, which contained information on all incarcerated people instead of just those convicted of violent crimes, was evidence of a decision to remove the focus on violent crimes in publicly released information.

“The new format is for efficiency, as we increase the number of hearings each week,” Abbott said in a message to APR on Monday afternoon. “It provides all the the basic information to the media and lets them know where to find additional information.”

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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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