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Pardons and Paroles: Restarting parole hearings “under review” amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is reviewing the possibility of restarting parole hearings through virtual means during the COVID-19 crisis, a bureau spokesman said Thursday. 

Terry Abbott, spokesman for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, in a message to APR said that both a Wednesday report by the ACLU of Alabama on a decline in parole hearings and the possibility of resuming hearings via teleconferencing are under review. 

“We are in continuing discussions with the Governor’s Office in an effort to restart pardon and parole hearings as safely and efficiently as possible during this very difficult time for the people of Alabama,” said ABPP director Charlie Graddick in a statement Thursday. “The Bureau hopes to announce a plan and timetable soon.”

Graddick said that the resumption of hearings “is a complex issue given the national health emergency, stringent laws governing the Board’s hearing process, including a thirty-day notice requirement to crime victims and officials, and the legal requirements providing crime victims and other stakeholders the opportunity for meaningful in person participation.”

The ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice’s report shows that almost 4,000 people were eligible for parole hearings before April 1, 2020, but since November, the bureau has scheduled an average of 173 parole hearings per month, which is “less than half the average number of monthly hearings in FY 2019, and only a third of the average number of hearings held in FY 2018.” 

In September 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey appointed former Attorney General Charlie Graddick as executive director of ABPP, and former Jefferson County prosecutor and Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney as chair of the parole board. 

The report notes that Graddick suspended all hearings in September and October, and when hearings resumed in November, the number of persons receiving a hearing declined sharply. 

“Additionally, the current board has denied release in 85 percent of cases considered. Only 133 people were granted parole out of the 866 cases considered in the last five months, a grant rate of just 15 percent,” the report states. 

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During fiscal year 2019, the board’s parole grant rate was 31 percent, and in FY 2018, was 54 percent, according to the report. 

“Unless there is a dramatic increase in the number of parole hearings and parole grants, Alabama’s prison population will continue to skyrocket,” ACLU’s report states. 

Aabama’s prisons were at 170 percent capacity in January, according to an Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) report

As of Tuesday, the last day ADOC had updated testing figures, 30 inmates had been tested, but no inmate was positive for COVID-19. There were seven pending test results for inmates, however. 

Two ADOC employees have tested positive for the virus. An employee at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County and at the St. Clair Correctional Facility both tested positive for COVID-19. 

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, in numerous tweets this week has called on the bureau to restart parole hearings by using an order by Ivey that allows board meetings to safely take place during the COVID-19 crisis.  

Ivey’s March 18 order allows state government bodies to “establish a quorum, deliberate, and take action- by means of telephone conference, video conference or other similar communications equipment” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

England on Thursday cited an Al.com article that quotes Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, as saying Ivey recognized the importance of keeping Alabama’s criminal justice system functioning and included the option of holding virtual meetings in her order. 

@ALBPP seems that @GovernorKayIvey expected the Board to use the March 18th order to figure out a way to hold hearings and not cancel them. It has become clear that the Bureau’s mission is basically not to parole anyone, crisis or not.” England said in a Thursday mornring tweet. 

England in one tweet also noted that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is considering releasing some inmates serving for non-violent crimes to community corrections programs to serve the remainder of their sentences outside of prison, as reported by WTVM

England told APR by phone Thursday that it doesn’t make sense that when all aspects of the state government are scrambling to address the crisis, a major component isn’t acting to help. 

“It would seem that the default position of the bureau has become, in times of challenge or controversy, just to stop holding hearings,” England said. 

England also said the bureau should be reviewing and releasing inmates who have serious medical problems, who are much more likely to suffer serious complications or death from COVID-19.  

“If COVID-19 ever invaded our prison system we would basically be giving them a death sentence,” England said.

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Crime

Three more prison workers, another inmate test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Three more prison workers have tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the sixth prison worker to self-report positive test results in two days. 

Additionally, a man serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) announced in a Friday press release. 

Three workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka all self-reported positive test results and are self-quarantined, according to the release. That makes 12 workers with confirmed coronavirus cases at that facility, and 61 cases among staff across the state’s prisons, although 16 have been cleared to return to work. 

The man serving at St. Clair had been treated at a local hospital earlier this month for a preexisting medical condition and tested negative for COVID-19 at the time, according to ADOC. He returned to a local hospital a short time later and tested positive for COVID-19, and remains at the hospital for treatment, according to the release.

There were four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the St. Clair prison as of Thursday, according to ADOC, and one inmate there, the terminally-ill 66-year-old Dave Thomas, died at a local hospital less than 24 hours after testing positive for the virus. One worker at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 but has since been cleared to return to work. 

A small living area in St. Clair prison’s infirmary, where the man was living, has been placed on level two quarantine, meaning incarcerated people there will be restricted to their living areas for meals and all other activities, according to ADOC. 

The entire infirmary has been placed on level one quarantine, so inmates inside will be monitored for symptoms and have temperatures checked twice daily. 

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There have been 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, and three remained active as of Friday, according to ADOC. All of the inmates who’ve tested positive for the virus had preexisting medical conditions and were tested for COVID-19 at hospitals. 

Testing of inmates in general remains very low, however. Less than one percent of the state’s inmate population has been tested, or 156 of approximately 22,000. 

Prison reform advocates have expressed concern that without broader testing, the extent of the virus’s spread inside the overcrowded prisons won’t be known, and more people will become infected due to the spread from asymptomatic people. 

The state’s prisons were at 170 percent capacity in January, the last month in which ADOC has made monthly statistical reports publicly available.

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Alabama Parole and Probation Officers supervising nearly 9,000 violent criminals

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles released a report Thursday that was shared with state legislators and the media this week that shows Alabama’s 300 parole and probation officers are tasked with supervising 8,993 people convicted of violent crimes.

The officers are tasked with supervising more than 27,000 Alabama offenders as well as more than 3,600 offenders from other states who chose to move to Alabama following their incarceration in other states. Those are just the active cases.

There are an additional 22,947 inactive offenders for a total caseload of 50,055.

“The supervision of all these offenders that our officers provide daily is crucial to the safety of Alabamians and we are thankful for the selfless and dedicated work of these law enforcement officers,” said Bureau Director Charlie Graddick in a statement.

Graddick said that the Bureau put nine new officers into the field last week to begin supervising parolees and probationers and hopes to hire up to 138 more officers over the next three years — if the budget allows.

In the session that recently ended, the Legislature cut the bureau’s budget nearly in half.

“We are in need of more officers as we work to reduce caseloads,” Graddick said.

The report shows that 79 percent of the Alabama clients the bureau supervises were granted probation by judges throughout the state.

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Sixteen percent of the Alabama offenders are parolees who were granted release from prison by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Of the 6,078 Alabama parolees being supervised, 58 percent are violent offenders, some requiring much more intensive supervision.

Alabama has historically underfunded and understaffed the aging prison facilities managed by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is tasked with attempting to safely reintegrate parolees into society as well as to rehabilitate offenders sentenced to probation so that they do not re-offend and have to join the state’s prison population again.

A recent Department of Justice report claimed that Alabama’s prisons are among the most dangerous in the country.

The state has a critical need to increase prison capacity to reduce prison overcrowding and protect the public from crime and violence.

 

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Crime

Three more prison workers test positive for COVID-19, testing of inmates remains low

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two workers at the Bullock Correctional Facility and one employee at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday evening.

The latest confirmed cases among staff bring the total of COVID-19 cases among prison workers to 58. Twelve of those workers have since recovered, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release Thursday. 

ADOC is investigating to determine whether inmates or staff had “direct, prolonged exposure to these staff members,” according to the release. Anyone exposed to the infected staff members will be advised to contact their health care providers and self-quarantine for two weeks, according to the release. 

The latest case at Bullock prison makes 5 workers there who’ve tested positive for coronavirus, and the worker at Kilby prison also became the fifth employee at that facility with a confirmed case of the virus.

There have been confirmed COVID-19 cases in 18 of the state’s 27 facilities, with the Ventress Correctional Facility in Barbour County with the most infected workers, with 12 confirmed cases among staff.

As of noon Thursday, there were no additional confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, according to ADOC. Of the 11 confirmed cases among inmates, two remain active, according to the department. 

The extent of the spread of the virus among inmates is less clear, however, due to a lack of testing. Just 155 inmates of approximately 22,000 had been tested as of Tuesday, according to the department. Test results for six inmates were still pending. 

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An ADOC spokeswoman was working to respond to APR’s questions sent Wednesday asking whether the department had plans to broaden testing among inmates to include asymptomatic people, but APR had not received responses as of Thursday evening. 

ADOC this week completed installation of infrared camera systems at major facilities that can detect if a person attempting to enter or exit the facility is running a temperature greater than 100 degrees, according to the release Thursday. 

“This added layer of screening increases accuracy of readings while reducing the frequency with which individuals must be in close proximity at points of entry/exit,” the release states.

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Crime

More confirmed COVID-19 cases among state inmates, prison staff

Eddie Burkhalter

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Two more inmates in Alabama prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, while confirmed cases among prison staff continue to outpace cases among inmates. Four additional workers have also tested positive, bringing the total to 55. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections in a press release Wednesday evening announced that two inmates who had been housed at the infirmary at the Kilby Correctional Facility have tested positive for the virus. Those men, who were being treated for preexisting medical conditions, have been taken to a local hospital for treatment of COVID-19, according to the release. 

The infirmary at Kilby prison has been placed on level-one quarantine, meaning inmates there are to be monitored for symptoms of coronavirus and have their temperatures checked twice daily, according to ADOC. 

Two more workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women self-reported positive test results for COVID-19, bringing the total of confirmed cases among staff at the facility to nine. 

One employee at the Bullock Correctional Facility also tested positive for COVID-19, according to the press release, becoming the third worker at the prison with a confirmed case. An inmate at the prison had also previously tested positive for coronavirus. 

One worker at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility, which cares for older and sick inmates at most risk from serious complications and death from coronavirus, has also tested positive for COVID-19. 

ADOC on May 6 announced that an inmate at Hamilton Aged and Infirmed tested positive for the virus. A worker at the facility told APR earlier this month that staff there was concerned that the virus may have entered the facility after a correctional officer was ordered to sit with an inmate from another facility at a hospital, where the man later tested positive for COVID-19 and died the following day. 

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That man, 66-year-old Dave Thomas, tested positive for COVID-19 on May 6, according to the ADOC, and died within 24 hours of receiving the test results.

Despite the inmate’s confirmed COVID-19 test results, the correctional officer was ordered to return to work at the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed facility without self-quarantining or being tested for the virus, the worker told APR

An ADOC spokeswoman told APR that all correctional officers who had contact with the deceased inmate all received tests for COVID-19 and reported negative results. The worker says that’s untrue, and that the officer hasn’t been tested. 

ADOC does not test staff for COVID-19 but requests that those who test positive self-report to the department. ADOC has said that inmates are only tested if they’re exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and only at the recommendation of a physician. 

As of Wednesday, 11 inmates in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, and just two cases remain active, according to ADOC. 

As of Tuesday, 152 of approximately 22,000 state inmates had been tested for the virus, according to the department. 

It was unclear Wednesday whether ADOC plans to begin testing inmates who may not be exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. 

Attempts to reach an ADOC spokeswoman Wednesday evening weren’t immediately successful. 

Some state prison systems have begun testing all inmates, and the results of those tests have shown the virus had spread in many facilities among inmates who showed no symptoms. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections tested all 38,130 state prisoners over a 15-day span and found that 3,263 of them tested positive, according to MLive

“The vast majority of the prisoners we found who tested positive had no symptoms and were making it more challenging to control the spread of this illness.” Heidi Washington, Michigan Department of Corrections director, said in a written statement, according to MLive.

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