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Phone problems, lack of information on COVID-19 worry inmates at Ventress prison

Matthew Vernon Whalan, special to APR 

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Gregory Anderson, Jr. was released from Ventress Correctional Facility on March 25, carrying legal papers and the only items the prison provides — $10 “on a card,” a pair of clothes and a bus ticket. Ventress gives these three items to everyone released, nothing more.

Gregory, too, got a bus ticket, even though the bus station was closed because of COVID-19. 

Luckily, his family was able to come get him. It was a good day, spent with cousins and other loved ones. Anderson’s father was so happy his son was home that he took work off the next day and spent most of the night awake with Anderson, just talking, catching up.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” Anderson recalls about the day he was released.  “And I was about to cry just seeing how things changed in three years. Like cars and changes to my city, and people who died.”

Gergory Anderson Jr.

In interviews over the phone, inmates have discussed their concerns about non-working phones throughout the prison, the existing and potentially increasing violence, lack of education and information about coronavirus to inmates, and other issues.

Anderson discussed these and additional topics with me in early April, a couple of weeks after his release. ADOC on Wednesday responded to questions about many of the inmate’s concerns in this article. 

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Speaking about leaving prison, Anderson said, “It’s like PTSD. I mean a lot of guys get out, man, and to me, it’s like the equivalent. I mean, without the guns, it’s like the equivalent of coming from overseas in a warzone.” 

“It’s not only officers you have to worry about. It’s other inmates too. I mean, [prison staff] don’t actually protect you,” he said. 

“If you got into a situation, I mean, you would just have to pray for the best. You go and bang on the cube, bang on the door, you have to try to get their attention, or they’re just not on their post. You know what I’m saying? So, people are getting stabbed to death … you know, there’s a lotta crazy stuff going on at Ventress,” Anderson said. 

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Former Ventress inmate Josha David willingham, 29, was stabbed in the eye by another inmate and died on Sept. 13, 2019. At least 29 inmates died in Alabama prisons as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide in 2019. 

Anderson was in Ventress for two and a half years. 

“Ventress is like the worst experience. I mean I have a lot of scarring from that, mentally, and physical damage as well,” he said. 

Anderson’s March 25 release was six days after the Alabama Department of Corrections first announced a series of precautionary measures throughout the state’s prisons in response to coronavirus, after one of the department’s employees tested positive for coronavirus. Interviews with inmate sources for this series on Ventress have been ongoing since weeks before March 19. 

Due to the increasingly urgent, dangerous context of the pandemic, some problems and fears inmates have recently described about prison life are new or worse than they’ve been in the past. Many other problems and fears have always existed in prisons in Alabama and across the country, but are now problematic in new ways as COVID-19 threatens the lives of inmates and prison staff alike. 

Throughout late March and early April, sources in Ventress interviewed reported problems with the prison’s phones. The identities of these inmates are being kept private so as to prevent retaliation against them for them speaking out. 

An inmate referred to as “Z” in this, previous, and forthcoming stories claims he and other inmates are not receiving free, weekly 15-minute phone calls that ADOC said would be provided to prisoners in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Z first brings this up in a late March interview for an earlier article.

All sources interviewed also said ADOC isn’t educating inmates about coronavirus. Z, like the other sources, says there’s no process in Ventress for informing inmates about how to prevent oneself from getting or spreading the deadly virus. 

Z also claims that medical staff, classification officers, and possibly other workers in Ventress had two weeks off work, during the same week the ADOC purported to implement the coronavirus response measures, including waving certain fees and payments for inmates’ medical care. (A correctional facility’s classification officer job involves “plac[ing] prison inmates in the appropriate level of custody based on intake interviews and evaluation,” to “maintain the safety of inmates and staff at correctional facilities and detention centers,” among other responsibilities.)

In an early April interview for Part One and Two of this series Z said that he still hadn’t received a free 15-minute call, and there was still no process of educating inmates about coronavirus.

Z then described the many problems with Ventress’s phones, and said at least three of four phones in one dorm are broken, and over a hundred inmates each day use the one phone that still worked. The demand on the use of the one phone is even greater due to ADOC’s suspension of prison visitations, and inmates’ needs to connect with loved ones. 

Another source, referred to as “Y” in this series, said in an early April interview that he also hasn’t received a free 15-minute call or information about how to access one. 

Y also said he hasn’t seen ADOC educating inmates about coronavirus, adding that he and most other inmates have only the prison’s TV to educate and update themselves on the pandemic, and the prison’s TV has “no Alabama local news,” he said, making it difficult to know what’s happening in their home counties. 

Another inmate referred to as “C” also said Ventress staff and administrators aren’t educating prisoners about coronavirus. He also described the same phone problems as Z. 

Each inmate interviewed during April described an increase in violence through the month, and fear worsening violence going forward. C also said that inmates with flu-like symptoms and COVID-like symptoms were being moved to the prison’s gymnasium.

In an April 13 interview, Anderson discussed the living conditions in Ventress prior to his release in March. He also echoed the other inmates’ concerns about broken phones. 

“And if you’re lucky, there’s maybe two phones in each dorm that works out of four or more,” Anderson said. “There’s only one or two working, and then that causes issues, you know, causes people to get stabbed. Fights. And it’s not even the inmates’ fault. I mean [safely providing phones] is something the prison should do to accommodate the inmates. But they don’t care. You can talk to the warden, anybody in the chain of command, and nothing is done about it.”

Anderson said that after more people complained about the phones ADOC claimed to have taken steps to address the issues. 

“Like, they started a new system supposedly where they’re supposed to give all the inmates tablets, and they were saying it was supposed to take place this month,” Anderson said in April. 

According to AL.com, ADOC’s plan to provide tablets to inmates first appeared in a pilot program at Tutwiler Prison for Women in 2015 and continued in 2019.

None of the inmates interviewed said they were given tablets, however. Asked whether ADOC has told inmates when they’ll get the tablets, the inmate referred to as “C” said “It’s in progress…They say about a month.”

C said the workers who put in Wi-Fi routers in the prison told inmates that the tablets would arrive in about a month. 

“It’s really just the quality of the phones. I mean, the material is cheap,” Anderson said. “If you move them around too much they start going out. They short out easily. You have to hold it a certain way and like bang on it, all sorts of stuff, anything you can do to actually get the phone to work.”

“So I mean, it’s frustrating. I’ve been through that — where the phone’s not working and your family can’t hear you, and it’s cutting out, you know, it’s crazy … If you could see people actually using the phones, you would see it’s not a regular procedure. It’s like some crazy stuff you’ve got to do. You got to hold the cord a certain way, like fold it, or like – I don’t know – like, kind of bend it behind the phone, something like that. They’re really, really raggedy phones.”

Asked if he recalls the last time he stayed in a Ventress dorm in which all four phones worked, Anderson laughed. 

“What?! I’m sorry. Wow. Never, never, ever, ever once in the whole two and a half years,” he said. “There were never more than two phones working. I mean at least there’s maybe two usually. But there were never more than two phones working in a dorm.”

Anderson also discussed whether he saw any efforts by staff or administrators to educate inmates about coronavirus in the weeks before his release – particularly any time following the ADOC’s March 10th announcement that the department was taking “‘proactive steps to protect the health and well-being of inmates and staff, including the distribution of educational information on prevention and intervention.” 

“No, man. No. They hadn’t,” Anderson said, speaking of distributing educational material on COVID-19 prevention and intervention between March 10 and his release weeks later. 

“Those people will say anything to the public to hush people or get people off their back, but they are not really going to comply with anything for real. Like I said, from the way they feed you, from the phones, to excessive force. A lot of things,” Anderson said. 

Anderson also described the absence of medical and some other Ventress staff in the last weeks of March.

“They were gone. There was nobody there. I mean, like, you were probably going to die if something happened to you. They shut the medical down…The officers were telling us you couldn’t even go down there. And you could look down there and see [that] there was nobody there,” Anderson said. 

Asked about the duration of the medical staff’s absence, Anderson said they were gone for about two weeks. 

“It was like when they first said that coronavirus was getting bad, and that’s when they [first seemed to be absent]. And so I guess either the medical staff refused to be there or they made them leave. But I know they didn’t have medical staff there. Like if it was an emergency enough, you probably would’ve just had to go to the hospital,” he said. 

Asked if medical staff were still absent by his release on March 25th, Anderson said perhaps some staff were there at that time, but he wasn’t certain. 

“To tell you the truth, I really don’t think that they were there. If they were it was really, really short-staffed,” Anderson said. “I don’t think – I guess there could’ve been somebody down there at some point – but it wasn’t like it’s supposed to be or …like it usually is. And I think they were either scared or they had an order not to be there.” 

And like Z, Anderson said he noticed the absence of classification officers in his last week before being released. 

Anderson also discussed the lack of access to local information about coronavirus. 

“They get Georgia news [on Ventress’s Television],” Anderson said. “Pretty much all you’re going to see is Georgia news. You’re not going to be informed on Alabama news.” 

Anderson said that lack of information was causing panic among inmates, hungry for news about the virus. 

“When I was last there it was a high stress-level,” Anderson said. “Because on everybody’s mind, man, is ‘If the virus comes in here it’s gonna knock us over like some dominos.’ That’s what everybody says, like, ‘Damn, I don’t wanna catch that stuck in prison.‘ ‘Are they gonna let some of us go? What are they going to do about it?’ And you’re left in the dark, you know, so it’s really stressful. You don’t know if you’re gonna live or die. You don’t know if you’re going to make it out.”

Anderson also talked about other problems ADOC has had with outbreaks of illnesses and the dangers caused by the unsanitary prison. 

“We’ve had TB outbreaks, meningitis outbreaks, a lot of different things before coronavirus,” Anderson said, referring to Tuberculosis. “We’ve had scabies outbreaks. So, I mean it’s messed up. It’s really not sanitary. If you don’t take precautions to be clean yourself, you’re going to be really exposed to a lot of — I mean, there’s no telling what – diseases and viruses.” 

“The cafeteria is not sanitary. I’ve found rat droppings in my food,” he said. “I mean, you might find bugs in your food. In the morning there’ll be bugs in your oatmeal. Like especially when it’s warm out, I guess, like, bugs get into where they store everything. And they don’t care.”

Asked about the statements from other inmates that those with flu-like and coronavirus-like symptoms were being moved inside the prison, Anderson stopped the reporter before he could finish the question and said, “held in the gym?” 

“Yeah, they hold them in the gym…because I’ve been in Ventress and I’ve seen it,” Anderson said. “They put you in the gym and just leave you in there.”

Anderson said there was no medical equipment in the gym, and that he knows one inmate who spent about a week in the gym. 

“There’s nothing,” he said. “You’re just locked in there and you’re stuck. It’s really weird, man, I’m telling you. It’s like – wow – I’m pretty sure that’s scary. I’m glad I’ve never been in that situation.”

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose responded by email Tuesday to a request for comment on the inmates’ concerns in this article. 

Rose declined to address questions about inmates being taken to the gym at Ventress, citing security purposes, and said that “ADOC will not disclose areas within its facilities or on its grounds that will be used to quarantine inmates who may be symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19. Disclosing this information compromises our ability to safely move inmates within our facilities.” 

Rose said that as a result of the disruptions caused by COVID-19, ADOC began providing all inmates with one free 15-minute phone call per week and extended hours of availability. 

“This benefit has been and continues to be provided to every inmate in all ADOC facilities, including Ventress Correctional Facility (Ventress). No inmates are denied this benefit for any reason,” Rose said. 

Rose said that every Monday, 15 free minutes of call time are added to each inmate’s account, and that any unused free minutes expire at the end of the week.

“To-date, our statistics show that nearly 90,000 free phone calls have been placed by inmates across our correctional system, with more than 6,700 of them placed by inmates at Ventress,” Rose said. 

Rose said inmates who may be having problems with their free calls  “bear personal responsibility to report issues like these to their wardens or to facility staff” who will investigate the matter. 

Addressing questions about broken phones, Rose said that ADOC was made aware of this issue as a result of “recent inmate reports.”

“Repairs were made to the malfunctioning phones, and the issue was resolved. As with any utility service, from time to time maintenance issues inevitably arise,” Rose said. 

But as late as Wednesday afternoon, May 6, Z told APR that while some phones were recently fixed, there are still broken phones throughout the prison, including one phone in the same dorm referenced earlier in this article, where three out of four phones had been broken for months, the inmate said. 

Rose said that in addition to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) flyers being posted in every facility, the ADOC’s Office of Health Services gave out educational packets to all facilities for inmate newsletters that outline COVID-19 preventative measures and CDC- and ADPH-recommended hygiene protocols.

Staff and inmates have also been provided with face masks, along with instructions on how to use them, Rose said. State inmates in the first week of April began making cloth face masks, ADOC announced at the time. 

An inmate at the Holman Correctional Facility on May 6, the day after ADOC’s response to questions about this article, said that he had not yet received a newsletter with information from prison staff about coronavirus. 

Speaking to inmate’s concerns about a lack of access to Alabama news on prison TV, Rose said that “inmates are provided access to cable or satellite television through which they have ample opportunities to obtain current news and information about COVID-19.” 

“While the ADOC continues to meet its obligation to keep inmates informed, as is evidenced by the aforementioned COVID-19 educational efforts [in] our entire system, inmates are not entitled to watch local Alabama news programs on television while incarcerated for the crime(s) for which they were convicted,” Rose said. 

Addressing a lack of staff at Ventress for a period after the COVID-19 crisis began, Rose said that as a result of the virus “ADOC predictably has experienced an uptick in staff absenteeism.”

“This is due to a variety of challenges outside of self-reported positive cases of COVID-19 among our staff including but not limited to: other illnesses, childcare disruptions, caring for someone who may have COVID-19, and self-quarantining after direct, prolonged exposure to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19,” Rose said. 

“However, staff absenteeism as a result of COVID-19 has not resulted in an inability to staff key medical or security posts within our facilities, including Ventress,” Rose said. “All inmates continue to be provided with critical health, mental health, and rehabilitative services.” 

As of Wednesday afternoon seven state inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and one inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, 66-year-old Dave Thomas, died after testing positive for the virus. 

Five of Alabama’s 16 prison staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19 work at Ventress prison, according to ADOC. As of Wednesday, 94 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates had been tested for the virus.

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Crime

Governor establishes Prison Repurposing Commission

Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn have said that as many as 11 of the state’s 13 existing men’s prisons could close.

Eddie Burkhalter

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St. Clair Correctional Facility near Springville, Alabama (VIA GOOGLE)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday signed an executive order establishing the commission that will be tasked with deciding what to do with the state’s existing men’s prisons, once three new prisons are constructed, at a cost that’s been estimated to be more than $2 billion. 

According to the order, the 15-member Alabama Prison Repurposing Commission will have until Sept. 1, 2023, “or 90 days after the Commissioner certifies to the Commission that construction on the final prison is complete” to submit a report detailing their recommendations for the state’s prisons. 

Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn have said that as many as 11 of the state’s 13 existing men’s prisons could close. Ivey’s order Tuesday states that the commission is to determine which prisons could be renovated and used as prisons, which could be renovated for other purposes for ADOC and “which should be repurposed to serve a new function, whether by another public entity or the private sector.” 

“The Alabama Prison Repurposing Commission will provide recommendations based on in-depth facility analysis considering both the impact on the state and local community as well the financial ramifications to potentially repurpose or decommission some of our current prison infrastructures,” Ivey said in a statement. 

“As our Alabama Prison Program moves forward in building three new prisons to provide additional safety for correctional staff and inmates, we will simultaneously need to smartly and safely repurpose or decommission these outdated, aging prisons, many of which were never designed or constructed to be correctional facilities for their current use or capacity,” Ivey continued. “I’m confident this commission, which is comprised of a broad, experienced and diverse group of individuals who represent all regions of our state, will accomplish its mission effectively on behalf of the people of Alabama. This process will allow both public officials as well as members of the general public to have a meaningful voice in the future of our existing prison infrastructure.”

Ivey’s order states that the commission should hold at least one public meeting “in a local community near each existing male prison” but that “other meetings of the Commission shall be open to the extent practicable but shall, in all events, be closed to the extent necessary to protect information related to the Department’s ongoing or anticipated security operations and other confidential information.”

Ivey on Sept. 3 announced the two developer teams that are to build the state’s three new mega prisons, and said those prisons are to be located in Bibb, Elmore County and Escambia counties.

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The private prison company CoreCivic is to build and lease back to the state two of the three prisons, according to Ivey’s office; one in Elmore County, where several locations are under review, and the other to be located near Bell Fork Road in Escambia County.

The prison to be located near AL-139 and County Road CR-2 in Bibb County is to be built by a group called Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, made up of Star America, BL Harbert International, Butler-Cohen, Arrington Watkins Architects and Johnson Controls Inc.

ADOC has said the department won’t release financial details of the more than $2 billion prison build-lease plan with the private companies until after the deals are signed. Once those leases have run their course, the state won’t own the three prisons, Dunn told state legislators in June. 

The Alabama Prison Repurposing Commission members include:

  • Neal Wade (Chair) is the former director of the Alabama Development Office, the precursor to the Alabama Department of Commerce, and currently serves as the Managing Partner of Advanced Economic Development Leadership for the National Economic Development Education Program.
  • Sen. Greg Albritton is Chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee and was elected to represent District 22 in the Alabama Senate, which includes Baldwin, Clarke, Escambia, Monroe, and Washington counties. Senator Albritton previously served in the House of Representatives and is a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy.  He is an attorney and a graduate of the Thomas B. Goode Jones School of Law.
  • Ben Baxley currently serves as Chief of the Opinions Division in the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. He previously served as the Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division in the office of the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. After graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law, Baxley began his legal career with the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney’s Office and worked as Chief Deputy District Attorney for Dekalb and Cherokee counties.
  • Ted Clem is the Director of Business Development for the Alabama Department of Commerce.Clem joined Commerce in February 2014 as a senior project manager and played a key role in two projects in Opelika that involved $340 million in capital investment and nearly 400 new jobs. Clem began his career in Evergreen, as the first Executive Director of the Conecuh County Economic Development Authority. He later served with the Covington County Economic Development Commission before moving on to a business development post at the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, followed by a stint the Bay County Economic Development Alliance in Panama City. Clem holds the Certified Economic Developer certification and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Troy University, and received a Master’s degree in Economic Development from the University of Southern Mississippi.
  • Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison was elected to represent District 20 of the Alabama Senate, which includes Jefferson County. She previously served one term in the Alabama House of Representatives and three terms on the Birmingham City Council. She recently retired from the City of Birmingham as the Americans with Disabilities Compliance Administrator. Sen. Coleman-Madison received her Bachelor of Science degree from Alabama A&M University, and her Master of Arts degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  She serves as the Ranking Minority Member of both the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund and Governmental Affairs Committees.
  • Harold Crouch is currently the mayor of Chatom where he has served for 24 years. He was previously on the City Council for two terms. He has also taught government, history, and economics.
  • Darius Foster is the CEO & Co-Founder of H2T Digital. He received a BS in Business Administration from Miles College and a GC in Business Strategies for Social Impact from The Wharton School. He is a current member of the Board of Directors for the Business Council of Alabama as well as a former Commissioner of the Alabama Commission of Higher Education.
  • Annette Funderburk is the President of Ingram State Technical College which serves a 100 percent incarcerated adult population that delivers career technical, GED and job skills training at six locations across Alabama. She previously served nearly 10 years within the Alabama Community College System where her most recent role was Director of External Affairs. Before working within the two-year college System, Funderburk served in several roles related to local government including a Municipal Consultant, responsible for securing grant funds for infrastructure and development projects, as well as a County Administrator for the Tallapoosa County Commission. Funderburk has a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Montevallo and a Master’s in Public Administration from Troy University.
  • Rep. Kelvin Lawrence was elected to represent District 69 of the Alabama House of Representatives which includes Autauga, Lowndes, Montgomery and Wilcox counties. He previously served as the Mayor of Hayneville and worked as a home builder as well as owning several Subway sandwich shop franchises.  He serves on the Ways and Means General Fund and State Government Committees in the House of Representatives.
  • Merceria Ludgood currently serves as a Mobile County Commissioner, District One, attorney and civic leader. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Alabama, followed by a Master of Arts degree. She earned her law degree from the Antioch School of Law An avid supporter of higher education, Ludgood also earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Alabama Interdenominational Seminary in 1990.Ludgood is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including being selected for Leadership Mobile, Leadership Alabama and the prestigious Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship. The commissioner has distinguished herself as a member of the inaugural class of “Herstory of Mobile,” a Museum of Mobile project recognizing the outstanding contributions of women to the social, economic and cultural heritage of the Gulf Coast region.
  • Walter Givhan, Maj. Gen., USAF (Retired) currently serves as Senior Vice Chancellor for Advancement and Economic Development at Troy University. He is also the Commander of the Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education and Vice Commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base. The center is responsible for the research, development, and production of Air Force doctrine and input for joint and multinational doctrine development activities. The center is also responsible for advocating the proper doctrinal representation of airpower in exercise scenarios, war games, models and simulations, and providing policy and guidance of Air Force doctrine through education and focused outreach. Air University is responsible for Air Force enlisted and officer professional military education, professional continuing education and graduate education, as well as officer commissioning through Officer Training School and the Reserve Officer Training Corps. General Givhan, a native of Safford, Ala., graduated from Morgan Academy in Selma, Ala., and the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., where he was a National Merit Scholar. 
  • Allen G. Peck, Lt. Gen., USAF (Retired) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Airpower and General George Kenney Chair at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College (ACSC). In addition to instructing the Airpower Studies courses, Peck has taught the Joint Warfighting and Leadership Development core curriculum courses at ACSC. He also serves as co-facilitator for the joint Air War College/ Air Command and Staff College Airpower Vistas Research Task Force joint elective. Peck served for 36 years on active duty in the USAF, flying the air-to-air and air-to-surface variants of the F-15. He was a key planner for NATO’s Kosovo operation, and later served as Deputy Combined Force Air Component Commander at Al Udeid Airbase, Qatar. Peck holds an MS in Operations Research from the Air Force Institute of Technology, an MA in International Relations from Salve Regina University, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
  • Rep. Connie Rowe is the Vice Chair of the Majority Caucus in the House of Representatives.  She also serves as Vice Chair of both the Rules Committee and Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. Representative Rowe was elected to represent District 13 of the Alabama House of Representatives, which includes Blount and Walker counties. She previously served as Police Chief for the City of Jasper as well as a criminal investigator for the Walker County District Attorney’s Office.
  • Kyes Stevens is the Founder and Director of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project at Auburn University.  Starting in 2001, she has worked to design and build an innovative and sustainable outreach program that works with the underserved adult prison population in Alabama. Stevens oversees all aspects of APAEP programming. She has served as a grants reviewer for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts, was an inaugural member of an emerging arts administrators organization in Alabama, and works in advisory capacities nationally for individuals and programs seeking to develop arts and education programming within prisons. She is the fourth generation of her family to work in Outreach at Auburn University and was awarded an Auburn University Young Alumni Award for her efforts building APAEP. She was also an inaugural recipient of the Lillian E. Smith Writer in Service Award and continues to publish poems.
  • Willie Williams, Lt. Gen., USMC (Retired) is a senior consultant and Owner/President of Williams Consulting, LLC based in Huntsville assisting the Department of Defense-supporting contractors and industries in strategic business development. Williams previously served as the Chief of the Marine Corps Staff, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, where he was responsible for day-to-day operations at headquarters, coordinating decision-making association activities across internal and external staffs of, in addition to the Marin Corps, principal assistant and adviser to the Commandant and the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps as they led and managed its 200,000 members, and their military readiness effectiveness. Willie was commissioned into the officer ranks after earning his Bachelor of Arts (Cum Laude) in Business Administration from Stillman College. He also holds a MBA from National University and a MS in Strategic Resources Management from Industrial College of the Armed Forces at National Defense University.
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Education

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K a bright spot in state’s Black Belt, report finds

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama’s Black Belt communities continue to be hard-hit when it comes to unemployment and a declining population, but according to a report released Tuesday, the region’s Pre-K program is a bright spot. 

The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center released its latest report in the center’s “Black Belt 2020” series, each looking at different aspects of the majority Black counties that make up the state’s Black Belt.

Tuesday’s report — entitled “Access to Early Childhood Interventions and First Class Pre-K in Alabama; the Black Belt Region“ — shows that the state’s First Class Pre-K program is improving educational outcomes for students in the Black Belt and across the state.

Hunter Whann, a graduate student and research associate at the Education Policy Center, told reporters during a briefing Monday that Black Belt counties have a much higher percentage of single-parent households and, in general, higher percentages of participation among 4-year-olds in Pre-K programs.

Exceptions are Escambia, Lamar, Lowndes and Pike counties, which have less than 37 percent participation. 

“Some counties outside the Black Belt still have low access, so a lot of progress has been made, but of course, as always, there’s more progress to be made,” Whann said.

Noel Keeney, another graduate student and lead author of the center’s latest report, said he believes that because there’s a greater percentage of single-parent households in the Black Belt, and higher rates of participation in Pre-K, it’s evidence there’s a need for the resources that Pre-K provides to families. 

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Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center, noted that the National Institute of Early Childhood Education Research in April 2020, ranked Alabama’s First Class Pre-K as the highest quality state-funded pre- kindergarten program in the country for the 14th consecutive year. 

Katsinas said that from the very beginning of the state’s First Class Pre-K in 2000, and especially under Gov. Kay Ivey, the focus has been to develop Pre-K in the Black Belt. 

“And I would suggest these data show that that has been a successful approach,” Katsinas said. 

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Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s Secretary of Early Childhood Education, speaking to reporters during the briefing Monday said that from the beginning, officials knew there were some counties and some students that should be the focus of those resources. 

“We’ve been able to really see the type of gains in the Black Belt communities because the department has been so purposeful about making sure that we’re serving our most vulnerable populations,” Cooper said, adding that work continues to reach those counties with lower participation rates. 

Pamela Truelove-Walker, Region 3 Director for the Office of School Readiness, said Monday that the Black Belt is seeing Pre-K funding of almost $20 million during fiscal year 2020-2021, which employs approximately 466 teachers in those counties. 

“So we are excited about the intentionality and the purposefulness with which we are targeting those areas,” Truelove-Walker said. “Because we do know that what it is that we are providing for those children, those families, those homes, and even with workforce development. It is very important.” 

The data is clear, both Truelove-Walker and Cooper said Pre-K boosts school readiness skills, reading and math scores, social emotional development, but it is also closing achievement gaps for children living in poverty. 

“We are very excited that children who actually attend First Class Pre-K are making gains that are, in many instances, even double the gains that their peers are making who were not able to actually have a First Class Pre-K experience,” Truelove-Walker said. 

Additionally, First Class Pre-K allows families the ease of mind to know their children are receiving high-quality education while they themselves enter the workforce. 

“Those families are able then to seek jobs and have opportunities for workforce development that they would not have had if their children were not able to be enrolled in a high quality learning environment,” Truelove-Walker said. 

Parental involvement in a child’s education, a critical factor in future educational attainment outcomes also gets a boost through participation in Pre-K, Truelove-Walker said, and that involvement is then carried forward as the child progresses in school. 

Jinping Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama, said Monday that research shows that family participation in children’s early learning is twice as predictive of a student’s academic success as family socioeconomic status.

“The earlier parents become involved in their children’s literacy practices, the more profound the results and the longer lasting the effects will be,” Sun said. 

Data also shows that the benefits of Pre-K last well into a child’s later school years, Copper said. 

“We have children that have been in Pre-K from its inception, and they continue to outperform their peers in both reading and math,” Cooper said. “We also see long-term benefits of children not having as many behavior referrals, disciplinary referrals in elementary school. Having better attendance, because we tackle attendance from day one in Pre-K.”

To learn more about the Education Policy Center’s previous reports on the Black Belt, visit the center’s website here.

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Courts

Lilly Ledbetter speaks about her friendship with Ginsburg

Micah Danney

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Lilly Ledbetter spoke during a virtual campaign event with Sen. Doug Jones on Sept. 21.

When anti-pay-discrimination icon and activist Lilly Ledbetter started receiving mail from late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ledbetter’s attorney told her to save the envelopes. That’s how unusual it is to get personal mail from a member of the nation’s highest court.

Ledbetter, 82, of Jacksonville, Alabama, shared her memories of her contact with Ginsburg over the last decade during a Facebook live event hosted by Sen. Doug Jones on Monday.

Ginsburg famously read her dissent from the bench, a rare occurrence, in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decision in 2007. The court ruled 5-4 to affirm a lower court’s decision that Ledbetter was not owed damages for pay discrimination because her suit was not filed within 180 days of the setting of the policy that led to her paychecks being less than those of her male colleagues. 

Ledbetter said that Ginsburg “gave me the dignity” of publicly affirming the righteousness of Ledbetter’s case, demonstrating an attention to the details of the suit.

Ginsburg challenged Congress to take action to prevent similar plaintiffs from being denied compensation due to a statute of limitations that can run out before an employee discovers they are being discriminated against. 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It resets the statute of limitation’s clock with each paycheck that is reduced by a discriminatory policy.

Ledbetter said that her heart was heavy when she learned of Ginsburg’s death on Friday. The women kept in touch after they met in 2010. That was shortly after the death of Ginsburg’s husband, tax attorney Marty Ginsburg. She spoke about her pain to Ledbetter, whose husband Charles had died two years before.

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“So we both shared that, and we shared a tear,” said Ledbetter.

Ginsburg invited her to her Supreme Court chambers to see a framed copy of the act, next to which hung a pen that Obama used to sign it.

Ginsburg later sent Ledbetter a signed copy of a cookbook honoring her husband that was published by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Included with it was a personal note, as was the case with other pieces of correspondence from the justice that Ledbetter received at her home in Alabama. They were often brochures and other written materials that Ginsburg received that featured photos of both women.

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Ledbetter expressed her support for Jones in his race against GOP challenger Tommy Tuberville. The filling of Ginsburg’s seat is a major factor in that, she said.

“I do have to talk from my heart, because I am scared to death for the few years that I have yet to live because this country is not headed in the right direction,” she said.

She noted that Ginsburg was 60 when she was appointed to the court. Ledbetter said that she opposes any nominee who is younger than 55 because they would not have the experience and breadth of legal knowledge required to properly serve on the Supreme Court.

She said that issues like hers have long-term consequences that are made even more evident by the financial strains resulting from the pandemic, as she would have more retirement savings had she been paid what her male colleagues were.

Jones called Ledbetter a friend and hero of his.

“I’ve been saying to folks lately, if those folks at Goodyear had only done the right thing by Lilly Ledbetter and the women that worked there, maybe they’d still be operating in Gadsden these days,” he said.

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National

Census report: Number of uninsured in U.S. increased in 2019

Eddie Burkhalter

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(VIA CENSUS BUREAU)

The number of uninsured in America rose in pre-COVID-19 pandemic 2019, for the third straight year, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last week.

The bureau’s “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2019” report notes that while the median household income in 2019, increased 6.8 percent from the prior year, and the poverty rate fell by 1.3 percentage points during that time, the uninsured rate in the U.S. increased by 0.3 percent from 2018 to 2019, and the number of children without insurance in the U.S. increased by about 320,000 during that time.

The only state to have increased the number of insured residents between 2018 and 2019, was Virginia, which effective Jan. 1 2019, had expanded Medicaid in the state under the Affordable Care Act.

The report notes that while the percent of uninsured in Alabama fell from 10 percent in 2018, to 9.7 percent in 2019, the rate of uninsured in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, which includes Alabama, was twice as high as rates in states that had expanded the federal program.

“The devil is in the details, and the details reveal Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid has caused more poverty, hardship and uninsurance,” said Jane Adams, campaign director of the Cover Alabama Coalition, in a statement. “It’s shameful that Alabama has such a high uninsurance rate. It does not have to be this way. Governor Ivey could expand Medicaid today and provide an estimated 340,000 Alabamians with access to health insurance.”

The Cover Alabama Coalition is a group of more than 60 advocacy organizations that formed in April to urge Gov. Kay Ivey to expand Medicaid. Alabama is one of 14 states that hasn’t expanded the program.

Children living in the South were more likely to be uninsured than children living in other regions, Cover Alabama Coalition noted in a press release on the bureau’s recent report. Nearly eight percent of children in the South are uninsured, while just three percent of children in the Northeast lack health insurance, according to the report.

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“Due to COVID-19, the United States has endured the deepest recession since the Great Depression, fundamentally changing the country’s economic landscape,” the coalition noted in the release. “The economic fallout from COVID-19 will result in more poverty, uninsurance and debt. Medicaid expansion would help by generating nearly $3 billion a year in new economic activity throughout the state and creating an additional 30,000 jobs.”

Approximately 64 percent of Alabamians polled said they support expanding Medicaid in Alabama, including 52 percent of Republicans asked, according to a recent Auburn University at Montgomery poll.

While the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data showed some gains from the previous year, the COVID-19 pandemic that came afterward had a clear impact on poverty and the number of uninsured.

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A study in July by Families USA, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan health care consumer advocacy nonprofit, found that 5.4 million workers lost health insurance in the U.S. between February and May of this year. The increase in uninsured was 39 percent higher than in any other annual increase on record.

A separate study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in July estimates that in the last three quarters of this year, 10.1 million in the U.S. will lose their employer-sponsored health care.

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