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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. 

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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.” 

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.” 

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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.”

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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Crime

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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