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Prison staff delayed aid to dying inmate, witness says

Eddie Burkhalter

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When Colony Wilson collapsed in a stairwell in the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center there were several staff members and other inmates with her, but staff didn’t help the woman get upstairs to the medical clinic for seven minutes as she lay there unable to breathe, and wouldn’t allow inmates to do so, a witness to the incident said. 

Wilson, 41, died May 11 at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Monday morning. In a response to APR’s questions about the incident, the Alabama Department of Corrections on Monday said the matter was under investigation and declined comment. 

The other woman serving at the center who said she saw Wilson fall said in a letter to APR that she wanted to help get her up the stairs to the facility’s health care unit, but was told by correctional officers not to touch her, wrote the woman. 

APR has confirmed the inmate’s identity but is not naming her to protect her from any possibility of retaliation for speaking about the incident. 

Wilson had served nearly 15 years of her 20-year sentence on a conviction of aggravated child abuse, a crime her uncles says she admitted to after being persuaded to do so by her child’s father, but it was a crime he said she did not do. 

Colony Wilson

In separate interviews last week with two family members of two different women serving at the Birmingham Women’s Work Center, both said that Wilson had gone for help Sunday evening and complained that she wasn’t feeling well and was having trouble breathing.

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The family members said Wilson was told she’d have to put in a “sick call slip” Monday morning. 

The woman who said she witnessed the incident wrote to APR that at around 9 a.m. she heard yelling and Wilson was “sick on the courtyard.” 

“Inmate Wilson was being brought in by Lt. Wanda Williams and nurse Rozelle up the front stairwell. As inmate Wilson got up the first part of the stairwell she collapsed and was looking around with the look on her face for someone to help her,” the woman said in the letter. “She couldn’t breathe.”

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The woman said Lt. Williams was screaming “get up so we can walk you to the health care” while nurse Rozelle stood over Wilson. 

“I saw inmate Wilson’s eyes go in the back of her head. Officer King and the BCO’s were saying ‘We can’t touch her,’” the woman wrote, referring to basic correctional officers with the initials “BCO.” 

“Several of us other inmates were telling Lt. Williams that we would help her get to the health care as it was obvious that was the only place that they were going to take any kind of measure to see what was happening to Colony,” the woman said, adding that  Lt. Williams then screamed, “Lock this place down.” 

“No one was trying to help her get to health care, but they wouldn’t allow us to help her either,” the woman wrote. “It was seven minutes or more that inmate Wilson was on the stairwell steps with a look begging someone to help her,” the letter continues. “As it was apparent that she could not breathe and her eyes were going in the back of her head.” 

She wrote that the nurse “just stood over her as she was gasping for breath and her eyes wild with fear.” 

Sylvester Wilson, of New Beginning Christian Ministry, told APR on Sunday that he and his mother raised Colony. She was just six weeks old when Colony’s mother, who was serving in the U.S. military, brought the newborn to Wilson and his mother’s home. 

“She was a great child, but got hooked up with the wrong person,” Wilson said. “She had never been in any trouble.” 

Colony’s boyfriend and father of their child was a convicted felon and much older than his niece, Wilson said, and manipulated her into admitting to police that she is the one who hurt their child. Before her conviction she tried to retract her statement, Wilson said, but it was too late. He believes the boyfriend convinced her that because she had a clean record she’d only get probation, at worst. 

Wilson was arrested in July 2004 on a charge of aggravated child abuse. She was convicted on Aug. 10, 2005, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

Her criminal history shows just two other convictions, for bounced checks at a Birmingham grocery store. In July 2002, she was court-ordered to repay a $44.74 overdrawn check to the grocery store, plus interest and a $25 fine. 

She pleaded guilty in October 2002, to bouncing another check for $38.16 to the same grocery store, was sentenced to 6 months probation and paid a $125 fine. 

Pastor Wilson couldn’t recall the old boyfriend’s name and attempts to contact Colony’s attorney on the child abuse conviction were unsuccessful. He is no longer practicing law, according to the Alabama State Bar. 

Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose, in an email to APR on Monday, said that the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division is investigating the allegations provided to ADOC by the reporter. 

“The ADOC does not condone or tolerate its staff deviating from or breaking established protocols or procedures. Should it be determined that proper protocol(s) were not adhered to by our staff, appropriate corrective and/or disciplinary action will be taken,” Rose said in the message. “Should it be determined that any member of our staff engaged in behavior or activities considered to be criminal in nature, that individual or those individuals will be referred for prosecution.” 

Rose declined to comment on Wilson’s death further, citing the ongoing investigation. 

Despite the inmate’s statements that she was complaining of shortness of breath, Wilson wasn’t tested for COVID-19 before she died, and it’s unclear whether she was tested after she died. 

ADOC spokesperson Samantha Rose, in a response to APR last week said that Wilson was not tested for COVID-19 because she was not showing symptoms of coronavirus. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list shortness of breath among the symptoms of COVID-19. 

Asked whether Wilson was tested for COVID-19 after her death, Rose declined to answer the question last week and said that “this does not fall under our purview nor do we have any influence over this type of decision” and directed the question to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, which conducts autopsies of inmates.

Attempts to reach the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for comment have been unsuccessful.

Wilson came up for a parole hearing in December 2019, after having served 14 years of her 20-year sentence, but the parole board denied her parole. 

Her uncle said when he learned that one of the three Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board members had prosecuted his niece on the child abuse charge, he was certain the outcome wouldn’t favor Colony. 

Pardons and Paroles Board member Leigh Gwathney, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Kay Ivey in Sept. 2019, was the prosecutor in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office who handled Wilson’s child abuse case. 

Gwatheny recused herself from voting during Wilson’s parole hearing, Pastor Wilson said, but he fears the connection was enough to sway the other two members to keep her locked up. 

Her hearing also came after a shakeup at the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles that saw Gov. Kay Ivey appoint former Jefferson County prosecutor and assistant attorney general Charlie Graddick to oversee the bureau. 

The day after taking office in September 2019, Graddick suspended all parole hearings, and once they resumed the numbers of inmate cases being seen in hearings, and the number of inmates being released on parole, dropped dramatically. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Wilson said of his niece’s death. “I realize that I can’t change what happened. I can’t bring Colony back, but I want to shed some light on this so it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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SPLC report: Despite COVID-19 deaths, Alabama isn’t releasing older, at-risk inmates

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center published Tuesday found that almost 200 older state inmates, at greater risk from COVID-19, were eligible for parole, but either had no hearing or were denied parole over the summer. 

Alabama’s three-member Board of Pardons and Paroles denied parole for 44 people who were 65 and older over the summer, SPLC’s report states, and a dozen of the more than 1,100 older inmates identified in a previous SPLC report have since died, either from COVID-19 or other illnesses. 

“Despite confirming the deaths, it remains unclear whether the cause could have been COVID-19 as ADOC would not provide information about those individuals in response to a public records request, citing ongoing internal investigations,” the report reads. 

The SPLC and several other criminal justice reform groups urged the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to take steps to release at-risk inmates as the coronavirus pandemic began, through medical parole, medical furloughs and judicial sentence reviews, but to date, no such larger push to release inmates has taken place. 

According to ADOC, 22 inmates have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

SPLC’s report notes that many of the inmates who died had underlying health conditions, which were well known to prison officials. 

The Parole Board denied parole to more than three dozen inmates 65 or older since restarting parole hearings in May, according to the report. 

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“The BPP stopped paroles starting in March, against the demands of activists and legislators who pointed out that hearings could be done virtually. Hundreds of scheduled parole hearings were cancelled. After its hiatus, the BPP scheduled relatively few hearings throughout the summer compared to years past,” authors of the report wrote.

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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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Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Human Resources on Wednesday warned the public that thieves are targeting people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, commonly known as food stamps, through text messages. 

The text messages typically request personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and SNAP electronic benefits transfer card or PIN numbers, the department said in a press release.

Some text messages also falsely claim people have been selected to receive food stamps.

“Identity thieves are using new tricks in hopes of catching SNAP recipients off guard during this time of heightened uncertainty,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. “It is so important to take the precautions necessary to protect your identity, along with the integrity of this vital program. Following these simple but effective tips can greatly reduce your risk of harm.”

DHR recommends these tips to protect against the scam:

  • Never provide personal information to an unfamiliar person or organization.
  • If a text message seems like a scam, delete it. Do not reply. 
  • Do not click on any links in an unexpected text message.
  • Beware that scammers often pressure victims to “act now!”
  • If an offer or claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Do not trust caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” technology to disguise their phone numbers.

SNAP recipients who are unsure if a request for information is legitimate should contact their local DHR office at a verified phone number. Contact information is available here.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama. More information about the program can be found here.

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John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9. (VIA ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS)

John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9 after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming the 21st Alabama inmate to have died after being confirmed to have the disease.

Dejnozka, who was dubbed the “Southwest Molester,” was convicted in 1980 in connection with the assault of at least 18 women in their homes, attacking, torturing and raping some of them, according to news accounts. He was sentenced to 830 years on convictions of two counts of rape, two counts of assault with intent to maim, one count of burglary and assault with intent to ravish, 11 counts of first-degree burglary and one count of second-degree burglary.

Dejnozka, who was serving at the Holman Correctional Facility, was tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to a press release from the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained until his death.

ADOC also announced that six other inmates at Holman prison and one at Ventress Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 393 Alabama inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, of which 45 remain active, according to ADOC. As of Sept. 6 the state had tested 1,886 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates for COVID-19.

There have been 372 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers, while 340 have since recovered, according to the department. Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after testing positive for the disease.

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