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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. 

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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.

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. 

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“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.

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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Crime

Alabama parole officers seize firearms, ammunition and drugs in Enterprise

The seized evidence will be presented to a grand jury for further action and to authorities for potential federal charges.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Officers of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles on Wednesday seized two semiautomatic weapons, ammunition and drugs from a convicted armed robber in an operation in Enterprise. One of the seized weapons was stolen.

Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles director Charlie Graddick praised officers Jared McPhaul and Troy Staley for their work.

“The first job every day of our officers is to protect public safety,” Graddick said. “These officers stopped a parolee with a violent history from potentially using illegal weapons to harm someone. We are all grateful for their hard work and dedication.”

The officers arrested parolee Jay Gatewood on a parole violation. Gatewood is out on parole after serving prison time for first-degree robbery and child abuse. Evidence of a possible parole violation was found after a search of Gatewood’s car.

The seized evidence will be presented to a grand jury for further action and to authorities for potential federal charges.

Parolees are required to report to parole officers periodically. Gatewood had failed to report for the month of October so McPhaul directed him to come to the Enterprise office to report. The officers had received a tip that Gatewood might be engaging in illegal activities.

When Gatewood arrived, the officers, acting on the tip, asked if there was anything improper in his vehicle. On questioning, Gatewood admitted to the officers that there was a gun in his car.

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McPhaul and Staley then searched the vehicle and found two 9 mm semiautomatic handguns. They also found three ammunition magazines, two of which were fully loaded, and a jar of marijuana with a digital scale.

The parole officers turned the evidence over to the Enterprise Police Department. McPhaul said that one of the guns had been reported stolen.

On March 17, 2008, Gatewood was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the armed robbery of a Dothan law office. He received three additional years for a child abuse conviction.

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After serving just eight years of his sentence with the Alabama Department of Corrections, Gatewood was paroled in 2016. This was before Graddick was appointed the director of Pardons and Paroles. Gatewood has been supervised by parole officers since his release from prison.

For a convicted criminal to be in possession of firearms is a federal offense. That as well as the possession of illegal drugs and stolen property are all parole violations.

Gatewood, who has been jailed for the alleged parole violations, could potentially have his parole revoked for any one or more of these offenses. That will be determined in a future hearing.

Gatewood could potentially face new charges in the federal system for the gun charge. The stolen property and the marijuana could also be prosecuted in the state court system.

The possession of the digital scale is an indication that the marijuana was for other than personal use.

Depending on the amount of marijuana in the jar and any other evidence presented to the grand jury, Gatewood could potentially face a felony drug charge.

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Crime

Alabama inmate dies after inmate-on-inmate assault

Edwin Wells, 29, died on Oct. 10 from injuries during an apparent inmate-on-inmate assault at the Easterling Correctional Facility, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed on Tuesday. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Prattville man became at least the 19th Alabama inmate to have died this year in a state prison of circumstances that were avoidable. 

Edwin Wells, 29, died on Oct. 10 from injuries during an apparent inmate-on-inmate assault at the Easterling Correctional Facility, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed on Tuesday. 

Wells death makes at least the 19th inmate to have died from either suicide, drug overdoses or homicide, according to records kept by the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice. His death is at least the seventh suspected homicide in state prisons this year. 

ADOC doesn’t typically publish information on an inmate death unless a reporter discovers the death through other means and requests the information, with the expectation of deaths of inmates who tested positive for COVID-19, which the department does regularly release. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Wells by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” said ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR. “Wells’s exact cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death.”

A U.S. Department of Justice report in April 2019 found that Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons for men were likely in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and that ADOC regularly failed to protect inmates from sexual and physical violence perpetrated by other inmates.

An expected followup report by the Department of Justice in July detailed why the federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. 

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As of Tuesday, at least 29 state inmates and two prison workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19. There have been 453 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 429 among prison staff as of Oct. 14, according to ADOC.

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Crime

28th Alabama inmate dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Since the start of the pandemic, 441 Alabama inmates and 415 staff have tested positive for coronavirus.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Johnny Dwight Terry on Oct. 8 became the 28th Alabama inmate to die after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Terry, 74, had multiple health conditions and was taken from Limestone Correctional Facility to a local hospital on Oct. 6 after exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. He tested positive at the hospital where he remained until his death, the Alabama Department of Corrections said in a press release on Friday. 

Two additional inmates and four workers at Limestone prison also tested positive for COVID-19, according to ADOC, bringing the total number of inmates who have tested positive at the prison to 23 and infected staff to 26. 

Since the start of the pandemic, 441 Alabama inmates and 415 staff have tested positive for coronavirus. Two prison workers at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Woman died after testing positive for the disease. Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 2,834 had been tested for coronavirus as of Oct. 7, according to ADOC.

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Corruption

Attorney general opposes motion to reconsider Hubbard’s prison sentence

“Hubbard is not being punished for his reversed convictions. He is being punished for the crimes of which he remains convicted,” Marshall wrote to the court. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard reported for his prison sentence at the Lee County Detention Facility on Sept. 11.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a court filing Tuesday opposed a request by former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s attorney for the court to reconsider his 4-year sentence on six felony ethics violations.

Marshall in the filing said that after four years of appeals, Hubbard remains convicted of those felonies.

“This Court’s carefully calibrated sentence of a four-year split, among other penalties, properly accounted for the severity of Hubbard’s crimes, the position of trust he abused, and the need for serious penalties to deter other wrongdoers,” Marshall wrote to the court. “In addition, Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency now that he is finally in jail.”

“In sum, nothing material has changed since Hubbard earned his four-year sentence four years ago. It’s simply time for him to serve it. Accordingly, his motion should be denied,’ Marshall continued.

Hubbard had originally been convicted by a Lee County jury on 12 ethics violations, and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld 11 of those convictions, but the Alabama Supreme Court later reversed five of those convictions and upheld six.

He began serving his four-year sentence for the six convictions of using his office for personal gain on Sept. 11.

Hubbard’s attorney argued in a separate court filing that the court should reconsider his sentence because five of the 12 convictions were reversed, but Marshall told the court Tuesday that the sentence Hubbard received was just.

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“Hubbard is not being punished for his reversed convictions. He is being punished for the crimes of which he remains convicted,” Marshall wrote to the court.

Hubbard’s attorney in his request to reconsider sentencing also argued that Hubbard has already suffered from a “divestment of his business interests.”

Hubbard’s convictions related to consulting contracts that enriched him while he served as speaker.

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The state’s attorney general at the time of his conviction determined that Hubbard had bilked Alabama out of more than $2 million.

“Suffice it to say, it is a bad advocacy strategy for Hubbard to mourn his loss of an income stream worth millions, which he financed on the backs of hard-working Alabamians who expected an honest elected official. That Hubbard has lost some of these ill-gotten gains in no way suggests that Hubbard has paid back his debt to society,” Marshall wrote to the court.

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