When Amber Faircloth learned Thursday of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an Alabama prison, she worried that her husband, who has cancer, could be in jeopardy.
Her husband, who’s serving time at Limestone prison, is one of more than 1,000 inmates most at risk of serious complications or death if the virus spreads throughout Alabama’s prisons.
Amber and a group of criminal justice reform advocates have asked the Alabama Department of Corrections to consider releasing inmates who are more at risk from the virus, but the department told APR on Friday that for now, there are no plans to do so.
Justin Faircloth just had a second round of chemotherapy Wednesday and was told by a doctor before treatments began that his stage-4 colon cancer could take his life within six months.
“We might as well kiss this world goodbye if it gets in here,” Justin Faircloth said in a phone interview with APR on Saturday, speaking of the virus.
He’d undergone a previous round of chemotherapy before being arrested in December on a probation revocation charge, and once in the state’s custody those treatments stopped, AL.com’s Connor Sheets reported in February
Treatments have since restarted, but Amber worries that his liver is so damaged and his immune system so weak that he’d surely die if infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. She’s asking that he and others in his condition be released before an outbreak occurs.
“Even a common cold can put him in the hospital,” she said. “And it’s not just him.”
ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which experts say puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19. The tight quarters and overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons — for which the state has repeatedly been reprimanded by federal courts and the DOJ — make them a particularly dangerous place for a COVID-19 outbreak.
Her husband was in the infirmary Thursday night, she said, but it was so crowded that he had to sleep with two other inmates, inches apart, in what inmates call a “boat,” which are plastic stackable bunks that rest on the floor.
“He’s on a chemo pump, and he’s on the floor,” Amber said. “That’s inhumane and unsanitary.”
On Friday, he was moved back to the general population, where the men sleep in cramped, open dormitories close to one another. Prisons are perfect environments for rapid viral outbreaks, health experts say.
“We’re in such close quarters. We use the same toilets. We use the same sinks. We touch the same handles on the microwave and the same remote controls,” Justin said, adding that correctional officers are just as worried about a breakout inside the prison as the inmates.
Justin said inmates are given the same lye soap bars they’ve always gotten, but said he’s not seen any instructional material to let inmates know about the danger of the virus or how to protect from it.
Justin’s criminal history shows signs of years of struggles with drug addiction. The 34-year-old has been arrested for drug possession, theft, resisting arrest and burglary.
“I ended up relapsing and did commit a crime,” Justin said. “But I should be able to wear an ankle bracelet or something. Be monitored from my house.”
An administrative employee at a state prison tested positive for COVID-19, and all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Thursday. ADOC hasn’t stated in which prison the infected person works.
ADOC also hasn’t said how many, if any, inmates or other staff have been tested for the virus, but in a statement Thursday, the department said it “has the ability to test inmates within the facilities; however, testing will only occur after the ADPH approves a physician’s order.”
Alabama’s prisons were at 169 percent capacity in December, before Holman prison closed to almost all inmates and moved the rest to other overpopulated facilities.
Amber is asking the state to consider releasing her husband, perhaps place him on electronic monitoring, and said those in his condition should be removed from what could quickly become a death trap.
It’s a call shared by Alabamians for Fair Justice, a group of criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people. The group wrote a letter to ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn on Wednesday that urged the department to act before an outbreak might occur.
One of the specific recommendations from the group is to release the 1,000 or so inmates who are at high risk of serious complications or death from the virus.
“In this light, the Bureau of Pardons and Parole’s decision to cancel upcoming parole hearings is counterproductive. We call on BPP to work with ADOC to expand upon existing medical parole provisions in order to expedite the release of people from the populations at greatest risk,” the group’s letter reads.
The group also recommended that ADOC develop reentry plans, identify transitional housing and, where possible, refer the released inmates to outside medical and mental health providers.
In a statement to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said, for now, the department doesn’t anticipate any non-routine releases.
“The ADOC is continuing to work closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the potential spread of the virus,” the statement reads. “Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff and the public remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”
“The ADOC’s Office of Health Services is working closely with our contracted health services vendor to monitor and protect high-risk inmates, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. At this time, the Department does not anticipate conducting any non-routine releases. We are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and will be making additional operational and preventative decisions as this situation continues to evolve.”
ADOC has taken other steps to mitigate the dangers of a COVID-19 outbreak. The department has suspended visitations, begun screening staff for fever, suspended inmate co-pays and transfers between prisons.
On Friday, ADOC announced that state prisons would stop taking in new inmates for 30 days.
It’s a move that might help prevent the virus from getting into prisons, but it shifts that danger to county jails, and it’s not sustainable. Prison systems across the country are coming to terms with what could turn into a very deadly situation very quickly.
In Los Angeles earlier this week, low-level inmates were being released from some jails, The Los Angeles Times reported, and New York City this week began releasing more vulnerable inmates with medical conditions and those serving for minor crimes.
“I think the threat level is at 10 now,” said Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, speaking to ABC News. “The [nation’s] corrections leaders are struggling to figure out what the national response will be.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.