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Families, advocates ask Alabama to release at-risk inmates amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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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.” 

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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.”

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Confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers reaches 51

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of prison workers in Alabama who’ve tested positive for coronavirus ticked up to 51 on Tuesday.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said just a single inmate has an active case of the virus. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Tuesday said three more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total confirmed cases among staff in that facility to seven. 

There were also two additional confirmed cases among workers at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, ADOC said in the press release, bringing the total of infected staff there to eight. 

One worker at the Kilby Correctional Facility, one at the Bullock Correctional Facility and another at the Ventress Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19.

Kilby prison has had four confirmed cases among staff, Bullock prison two and at Ventress prison there have been 11 workers to self-report positive test results. 

While the number of confirmed cases among staff have continued to rise in recent weeks, cases among inmates have not.

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Of the nine inmates in seven state facilities who’ve tested positive, just one had an active case as of Tuesday, according to ADOC. 

Of the approximately 22,000 state inmates, 143 had been tested for coronavirus as of May 22, the last day ADOC has updated testing numbers. 

ADOC’s announcement Tuesday of more cases among staff comes after Alabama saw its largest single-day increase on COVID-19 cases on Monday when 646 new cases were confirmed. 

ADOC halted visitation and volunteer entries at state facilities on March 19 to help prevent outbreaks in the state’s dangerously overcrowded facilities, but the department is working on a plan to resume “some facility operations thoughtfully, including visitation and volunteer entry, but has not yet established a definitive timeline,” according to the release. 

“Once established, the Department’s intent is to keep the public apprised of our anticipated plans and timeline to resume these activities safely in a manner that minimizes the risk of exposure to the virus,” the statement reads. “A primary goal and concern of the ADOC is protecting the safety, security, and well-being of our inmates, staff, and the public during these unprecedented times. We continue to monitor COVID-19’s evolving impact closely on our correctional system, the state, and the country while we assess and analyze additional data in order to make informed and strategic operational decisions.”

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Alabama prisons releasing some inmates early amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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Updated at 12 p.m. to include responses from the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Department of Corrections has automated the process of releasing early some inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses and who are nearing the end of their sentences, according to a department document obtained by APR

ADOC’s decision to automate the process by which inmates are mandatorily released early comes after 40 prison workers have tested positive for the virus as of Thursday. 

Advocates have for months asked that the state begin releasing inmates as the COVID-19 outbreak continued to spread, threatening the lives of those living and working inside Alabama’s overcrowded prisons. 

In a response to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said that the announcement in the letter is in no way related to COVID-19, and is simply the automation of early release dates for inmates, which was before done by hand-calculation and made possible by a state law passed in 2015.

Confirmed cases among inmates in Alabama prisons have remained remarkably low — just nine of approximately 22,000 have tested positive for the virus — but so has testing among inmates. Just 135 inmates, or about 0.6 percent of the inmate population, have been tested, according to ADOC. 

Steve Watson, associate commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections Plans and Programs, in a letter to staff and inmates on Wednesday describes the “mandatory release Automation” program that the letter states went into effect Tuesday. 

According to the letter, inmates convicted of sex offenses against a child under 12, an inmate serving a life sentence or those serving a sentence pursuant to Alabama code 15-18-8, which is the Alabama Split Sentence Act and includes offenses considered by state law as violent crimes, aren’t eligible for early release.

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Only those convicted of offenses committed on or after Jan. 30, 2016, may be released, according to the letter. 

Those released early are to be placed on supervised probation by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and remain under probation until the end of their sentences, according to the document. 

“To ensure intent of the statute is carried out in the interest of public safety, no inmate will be released until ABPP has communicated to Central Records Division that the home plan/supervision is approved, and that victim notification has been made consistent with the Mandatory Release statute,” Watson said in the letter. 

Terry Abbott, spokesman for the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, in a message to APR on Friday said that the bureau will work with ADOC to “facilitate the transition of mandatorily released inmates to ensure maximum public safety.”

“The automation of the mandatory release process by ADOC is a positive development overall,” Abbott said.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told APR on Friday that by releasing inmates shortly before the end of their sentences and by providing supervision after release, studies show they’re less likely to re-offend. Ward also said that the state Legislature is going to have to provide the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles with the resources and parole officers needed to provide that supervision, however.

“They still have money left over that we appropriated in 2016, 2017 and 2018 that they haven’t used yet,” Ward said of the bureau. “They have money there. It’s just a slow process hiring these folks too.”

Ward said Alabama law allows early release of inmates in only a couple instances, one of which is the early release under the 2015 statute, and the other is by way of medical furloughs.

“I don’t think it’s been used very much, mainly because it’s such a stringent statute,” Ward said of medical furlough releases.

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR Friday said that the latest action is “not a new directive to release inmates, nor is it in any way related to COVID-19 or recommendations from the DOJ.”

“This memo simply informs ADOC staff that an existing time-computation process used to determine mandatory release dates (an output of SB67), which previously have been calculated by hand, has now been automated. The ADOC has been working to automate this formerly manual and time-consuming process for some time now,” Rose said.

Ward said it seems clear that ADOC is aware of the need to release some inmates amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“They know what the circumstances are like inside there, whether it warrants it or not,” Ward said. “And I think they have expressed concern about COVID-19 and the impact it could have with overcrowding.”

Ward said the decision to release some inmates could only help with the state’s discussion with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the federal agency’s concerns about overcrowding, high homicide rates and sexual assaults. 

“But I think the staff over there would look at this through the lens of public safety,” Ward said of ADOC’s decision-making process.

Abbott in a followup message to APR on Friday said that this isn’t the first time inmates have been released on mandatory releases, however, and that the bureau is currently supervising 294 former inmates who were released on mandatory release. To date, the bureau has supervised 430 inmates released mandatorily through the legislation approved in 2015. Of the 294 the bureau is currently supervising, 114 are considered violent offenders. (Updated at 1:38 p.m. to include additional comments from Abbott) 

ADOC on Thursday announced that two staff members at the Ventress Correctional Facility, one at the Easterling Correctional Facility and another at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility and Community Work Center all self-reported as positive for coronavirus. 

While the number of prison staff testing positive for the virus has continued to rise in recent weeks, confirmed cases among inmates hasn’t yet broken into double digits. 

As of Thursday, all nine inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 have all since recovered, according to ADOC. 

Colony Wilson, 41, who was serving at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, died on May 11 after inmates at the facility told APR through letters and interviews with family members that Wilson had complained of shortness of breath, a symptom of COVID-19.

Prison staff also failed to promptly give Wilson aid after she collapsed in a stairwell, those inmates said. 

ADOC is investigating the death, and had previously told APR that Wilson hadn’t been tested for coronavirus before her death because she wasn’t exhibiting symptoms. 

ADOC announced on Wednesday that a worker at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center had tested positive for coronavirus.

Dave Thomas, 66, a terminally ill man serving a life-sentence at St. Clair Correctional Facility died April 16 after having been taken to a local hospital on April 4. He died less than 24 hours after testing positive for COVID-19, ADOC said in a statement at the time.

ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19 outbreak.

Despite the overcrowding in state prisons and threat to life from COVID-19, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles at the start of the outbreak suspended all parole hearings.

The three-member Pardons and Paroles Board on Tuesday held its first hearing since the coronavirus crisis began, and released just two of 22 inmates eligible for parole that day.

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COVID-19 cases among prison workers reach 36

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two more prison workers have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total of confirmed cases among staff to 36 across 16 state facilities, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Wednesday. 

A worker at the Camden Community Based Facility and Community Work Center in Camden and an employee at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center have self-reported positive test results, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) said in a press release Wednesday. 

Four employees self-reported positive tests Tuesday.

ADOC is investigating whether other workers or inmates were exposed to the two employees, according to the release. Of the 36 infected workers, seven have been cleared by doctors to return to work. 

There have been no new COVID-19 cases among inmates since May 9, when ADOC announced the ninth confirmed case among inmates. As of Monday, the latest day ADOC has updated testing numbers to the department’s website, just 135 of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates had been tested for the virus. 

One woman serving at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center died after other women serving at the center told APR she had complained to staff of breathing problems, which is a symptom of COVID-19. 

Colony Wilson, 41, was declared dead on the morning of May 11 at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Inmates told APR through letters and family members that she had complained the night before she died of having trouble breathing, but that staff failed to intervene before she collapsed in a stairwell, and didn’t provide timely aid to her after the collapse. 

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An ADOC spokeswoman told APR last week said Wilson wasn’t tested for the virus before she died, and it’s unclear if she was tested after death. ADOC said the death is under investigation and declined further comment. 

Last week, ADOC began installing infrared cameras in all of the state’s facilities that can detect if a person entering or exiting has a temperature over 100 degrees, according to the press release. The technology will add a layer of screening and reduce contact between people caused by staff having to take temperature readings one-on-one, according to ADOC.

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ACLU of Alabama calls for more paroles during COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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The ACLU of Alabama on Tuesday called on the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to begin releasing inmates amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) on Tuesday held the bureau’s first parole hearings since the COVID-19 crisis began, and denied parole for 20 out of the 22 eligible people. 

Among those who were denied was a man who has served 19 years and 8 months of a 20-year sentence.

Antonio Davis pleaded guilty to murder in September 2000, and was sentenced to 20 years, according to court records. He’s set to be released in August, and is currently serving at the Alex City Community Work Center, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, which in January was at 157 percent capacity. 

“Denying his parole means he’ll stay in a horrifically overcrowded work release center for three more months in a global pandemic until he reaches his end of sentence in August, when he will be released with no supervision,” the ACLU of Alabama said in a press release. 

“The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles doesn’t seem to understand the severity of Alabama’s prison crisis. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, in which this deadly virus is already infecting people who live and work in state facilities,” said Randall Marshall, executive director of ACLU of Alabama in a statement. “It is grossly irresponsible for ABPP to continue to deny parole in over 90 percent of cases heard, particularly considering how few they are scheduling. If they will not do their job appropriately, then Governor Ivey must step in.”

The organization noted that before Governor Ivey appointed the current director, Charlie Graddick, in September 2019, the bureau  was averaging 355 hearings each month. After Graddick’s appointment, parole hearings declined to 144 a month. 

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

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Under Graddick’s leadership, the number of parole-eligible people has more than doubled. In August 2019, there were 1,521 parole-eligible people in state prisons, according to a report by ACLU of Alabama. In April, that number had risen to 4,404. 

In January, the state’s prisons were at 170 percent capacity, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. The department on Monday announced the 31st prison worker had tested positive for coronavirus. Nine inmates have tested positive, and one inmate died shortly after testing positive for the virus. 

Just 135 of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates have been tested for the virus as of Monday, according to ADOC. Six of those test results were still pending Tuesday.

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