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Two more Alabama inmates die after testing positive for COVID-19

The two additional deaths bring the total number of inmate deaths after positive test results to 12. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Two more inmates in Alabama prisons have died after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, bringing the total number of inmate deaths after positive test results to 12.

ADOC also announced Monday that 32 more inmates and eight prison workers have tested positive for coronavirus, making Monday’s update the largest single-day tally of new cases and deaths.

Lavaris Evans, 31, of Birmingham who was serving at Easterling Correctional Facility died Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19, according to ADOC. He had no other underlying medical conditions, according to the department.

Barry Stewart Foy, 57, who was serving at Staton Correctional Facility, where he was housed in the infirmary because of multiple health problems, also died after testing positive for COVID-19, according to ADOC.

Foy was tested for coronavirus on June 11 after being exposed to another inmate in the infirmary who tested positive. He was taken to a local hospital on June 20, where he later died.

Sharon Evans, Lavaris Evans’s wife, speaking to APR by phone on June 26, which was 16 days before his death, described what she was able to learn about her husband’s condition and of the last time she spoke to him.

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“One of his friends, another inmate, said that he was so unresponsive he couldn’t even walk. He fell out. They allowed him to just lay in bed for four or five days, and no aid rendered,” Evans said.

Correctional officers placed her husband in a single cell, Evans said, a practice the department has used in the past to isolate a person who is suspected of having coronavirus to quarantine them away from others.

When his friend went to check on him in that single cell, her husband was unable to stand and walk to get his food, Evans said the inmate told her. It was that other inmate that informed Evans of her husband’s conditions after days of her trying unsuccessfully to get some word from prison administrators, she said.

APR’s attempts to contact the inmate who knew Lavaris were unsuccessful.

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“They gave me the runaround. They hung up on me. They left me on hold for long periods of time. They gave me a name of a person to contact within the facility, and I found out later that person no longer works there,” Evans said.

Evans said the last time she spoke to her husband was on June 16, and it was clear something was wrong.

“He said that he woke up in a sweat. He was very weak, like his body was so heavy, and he was short of breath. He couldn’t even make a complete sentence,” Evans said. “He kept trying to say ‘I love you. Just know that I love you.’ And I’m like, ‘No. Stop saying that,’ as if it was going to be his last time speaking with me.”

Evans said he started coughing and sounded as if he was throwing up “and then he dropped the phone and that was the last I heard from him. I’m nervous now because I don’t know anything,” Evans told a reporter more than two weeks before his death.

An APR reporter reached out to an ADOC spokeswoman on June 26 and asked that a prison administrator call Evans to update her on her husband’s whereabouts and condition, and the spokeswoman said that she would make that effort.

Evans said that she never heard from anyone at ADOC, but that another family member of her husband was able to learn from prison staff that he was taken to a local hospital some time after she spoke to him on June 16, but the family member got no other information on his condition.

Evans told APR in a message July 9 that an inmate told her that her husband’s condition was worsening, that he had tested positive for COVID-19, was having heart problems and had pneumonia.

Lavaris Evans was tested for COVID-19 at Easterling prison on June 23, according to ADOC’S press release Monday. That would have been seven days after his last conversation with his wife. The department said he was tested after he began exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.

“Evans did not suffer from any known preexisting health conditions. He was transferred to a local hospital for additional care on June 25 after his condition began to decline and returned a second positive test result for COVID-19 while at the hospital. Evans remained under the care of the hospital until his passing,” ADOC said in the release.

Twenty-six of the 34 new confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates Monday are at St. Clair Correctional Facility, where on Monday a total of 29 inmates and 10 workers had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began.

Four more inmates at Easterling prison and four at Bullock Correctional Facility have also tested positive for COVID-19.

Five more workers at Kilby Correctional Facility have confirmed cases of the virus, bringing the total among staff there to 25. Two workers at Easterling prison also self-reported positive test results, as did a worker at Bibb Correctional Facility.

Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Woman previously died after testing positive for COVID-19. As of Monday, there have been 100 confirmed COVID-29 cases among inmates in Alabama, and 203 prison workers self-reported positive test results.

As the death toll and surging COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff continue, the department recently announced plans to ramp up testing, but for early proponents of expanded testing in state prisons, the move comes too late, and a lack of a detailed plan is troubling, they say.

ADOC on July 9 announced plans to start more broadly testing inmates and staff.

“The ADOC’s ultimate goal is to, over time, test every inmate across the correctional system for COVID-19,” according to a department press release.

Inmates are currently tested for coronavirus upon intake, when exhibiting symptoms of the virus and before medical appointments and procedures at local hospitals. Prison workers are asked to self-report positive COVID-19 test results.

ADOC said in the release last week that the next phase of expanded COVID-19 testing, “which will begin in the near future,” includes testing those inmates who are “most medically vulnerable,” and the department plans to test all inmates prior to release.

The department is also “working to develop a comprehensive plan and timeline” to provide staff with free testing “on a yet-to-be determined schedule.”

“The ADOC’s Office of Health Services (OHS) is working with community partners to develop both fixed and mobile testing sites and provide necessary logistical support,” the department’s press release states.

Asked Friday why plans for expanded testing of inmates and staff aren’t already finalized and ready to implement, ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message said that the department’s Pandemic Continuity of Operations Plan is a “living” plan and is “regularly updated with new protocols, learnings, and actionable information based on the latest available data.”

Rose also said that COVID-19 testing capabilities “were extremely limited from March – May. This issue was not specific to Alabama, nor specific to correctional systems.”

Testing resources have expanded since the start of the pandemic, and so to have ADOC’s testing capabilities, Rose said.

“Given the fluid nature of COVID-19 and the now greater availability of testing resources, the expansion of our testing protocols — as indicated in our release — requires strategic implementation in order to achieve success as it relates to further containing the spread of the disease, which is the primary purpose. We fully intend to steward the taxpayer dollars funding this initiative thoughtfully to ensure we deliver appropriate available medical resources to our inmates and staff members,” Rose continued.

APR asked how long it might take for ADOC to begin the next phase of expanded testing, and Rose responded that the department will provide more information on the expanded testing strategy “and associated timelines related to its incremental implementation, in the near future.”

As of Monday, 535 of the state’s approximately 21,000 inmates had been tested for COVID-19, according to ADOC.

Dillon Nettles, a policy analyst at ACLU of Alabama, said in a message to APR on Monday that ADOC’s announcement of expanded testing is only as good as the plan and protocols in place to implement it.

“None have been disclosed or provided in detail. While several other states have forged ahead with mass testing of people in custody and staffers, ADOC seemingly has no plan for how they will execute testing at scale and adequately distance individuals who have been tested from those who have not,” Nettles said.

“The first COVID-19 patient in ADOC custody passed away nearly three months ago and in recent weeks two prison staffers have also died,” Nettles continued. “Mitigating this crisis as it has spread to our prisons is a responsibility that falls squarely upon Commissioner Dunn and ADOC leadership. They have yet to address it with the urgent and life-preserving response it demands.”

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

Suspected drug traffickers jailed in St. Clair County

Matt Mullinax, Christopher Baird, Sean Michael Brantley and Nathan Parke Bateman were all arrested following a lengthy undercover investigation.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Four individuals were arrested Tuesday on allegations that they were involved in a methamphetamine trafficking ring in St. Clair County.

Matt Mullinax, Christopher Baird, Sean Michael Brantley and Nathan Parke Bateman were all arrested following a lengthy undercover investigation. All four are being held in the Ashville Courthouse without bond.

The St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Division, St. Clair County District Attorney’s Office, along with the FBI, FBI Safe Streets Task Force, Pell City Police Department, Oxford Police Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and the Alabama Department of Corrections K9 Unit conducted an extensive undercover investigation that has resulted in the arrest of these individuals for their alleged involved in a methamphetamine trafficking criminal enterprise.

Matt Mullinax is a 37-year-old white male from Pell City. Mullinax has been charged with three counts of trafficking methamphetamine, three counts of unlawful Distribution of a controlled substance, one counts of unlawful possession of marijuana in the second degree and one count of unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.

Christopher Baird is a 35-year-old white male from Pell City. Baird has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine, and one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Sean Michael Brantley is a 40-year-old white male from Lincoln. Brantley has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine, and one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

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Nathan Parke Bateman is a 37-year-old male of other race. Bateman has been charged with two counts of trafficking methamphetamine.

The four individuals have been charged with crimes. At this point these are allegations. Baird, Brantley, Mullinax and Brantley, like all accused, will have an opportunity to mount a vigorous defense before a jury of their peers.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths decreased by 4.6 percent from 2017 (21.7 per 100,000) to 2018 (20.7 per 100,000).

Methamphetamines and other psychostimulants were responsible for 12,678 drug overdose deaths in 2018.

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According to the website drugabuse.gov, Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Methamphetamine is commonly also known as meth, blue, ice and crystal, among many other terms.

It takes the form of a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol.

In addition to being highly addictive, long term use of methamphetamine can lead to symptoms that can include significant anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances and violent behavior. Users also may display a number of psychotic features, including paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions (for example, the sensation of insects creeping under the skin).

Psychotic symptoms can sometimes last for months or years after a person has quit using methamphetamine, and stress has been shown to precipitate spontaneous recurrence of methamphetamine psychosis in people who use methamphetamine and have previously experienced psychosis.

These and other problems reflect significant changes in the brain caused by misuse of methamphetamine. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated alterations in the activity of the dopamine system that are associated with reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning.

Studies in chronic methamphetamine users have also revealed severe structural and functional changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which may account for many of the emotional and cognitive problems observed in these individuals.

Methamphetamine use also leads to severe weight loss and dental problems. Methamphetamine use by pregnant women has been shown to cause cognitive and behavioral issues in their children that are long-lasting.

Billy J. Murray is the sheriff of St. Clair County.

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Crime

Governor appoints State Sen. Cam Ward as Bureau of Pardons and Paroles director

Ward is to replace current director Charlie Graddick, who announced on Nov. 2 that he planned to resign on Nov. 30.

Eddie Burkhalter

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State Sen. Cam Ward (VIA GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Gov. Kay Ivey announced Tuesday her appointment of State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, to serve as director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. 

Ward is to replace current director Charlie Graddick, who announced on Nov. 2 that he planned to resign on Nov. 30. Ward’s appointment is set to begin Dec. 7. 

Ward serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been central in the state Legislature’s criminal justice and prison reform work for many years.

“Cam Ward has spent his career as an attorney and public servant dedicated to Alabama’s criminal justice system,” Ivey said in a statement. “As he transitions to director of Pardons and Paroles, I’m confident that his background and experience will position him to closely follow the letter of the law while providing individuals every opportunity possible to rebuild their lives post incarceration.”

Ward is in his third term in the Alabama Senate and was first elected to the Statehouse in 2002. Ward began his career in state government when he was appointed deputy attorney general by former Attorney General Bill Pryor.

“I’m honored that Governor Ivey had the confidence to appoint me to this position,” Ward said in a statement. “I have committed my career in the Senate to improving our criminal justice system in Alabama, and I look forward to working with Governor Ivey going forward in this effort.”

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Graddick’s tenure as director of the state agency has been controversial, and his departure comes as the state’s prison system continues to face serious overcrowding and understaffing problems, both of which have drawn the focus of a lengthy U.S. Department of Justice investigation into prison violence and excessive use-of-force incidents. 

Graddick, a former circuit judge, state attorney general and architect of Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act, was appointed to the post in July 2019. He’s described the state’s inmates in op-eds and in interviews as too dangerous to be paroled.

After Graddick’s appointment as director, personnel shakeups at the bureau resulted in reductions in the number of incarcerated people given parole hearings, according to several people with knowledge of the matter who discussed their concerns with APR over the last few months. The number of people receiving paroles dramatically declined as a result.

Graddick also oversaw the bureau at a time when the bureau’s messaging to the public dramatically shifted, and began focusing on violent crimes, using the words “violence” and “violent” repeatedly in social media posts and press releases, prompting concern from criminal justice reform advocates that the bureau was attempting to sway public opinion against incarcerated people and their release on parole.

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Carla Crowder, executive director of the  Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Montgomery, applauded Ivey’s selection.

“I’m encouraged by this appointment. Ward gets it. He’s not afraid to call out bad laws and crusade for smarter, better criminal justice policy,” Crowder said in a message to APR. “It will be refreshing to have a leader at parole who’s not stuck in the failed policies of the past but instead has earned a reputation for bold, innovative reform.”

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Crime

Report: Black men in Alabama prisons three times more likely to die by homicide

Incarcerated Black people in the state are being murdered at just more than three times the rate of white people.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A report this week by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Montgomery found that incarcerated Black people in the state are being murdered at just more than three times the rate of white people.

Between 2014 and 2020, the Montgomery-based nonprofit found that 37 of the 48 men killed by homicide in Alabama prisons were black. Appleseed documented 89 preventable deaths from homicide, suicide or drug overdose during that time.

“So when we talk about preventable violence, when we talk about, unconstitutional conditions in our prisons. It’s hurting black Alabamians at much higher rates than anybody else,” said Carla Crowder, Appleseed’s executive director, speaking to APR on Thursday. “If we’re gonna be serious about racial justice, racial disparities in the criminal legal system, in the state, we have to look beyond police brutality.”

Crowder said police brutality is a serious issue but the injustices after incarceration are “two sides of the same coin.” The report notes a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that details widespread problems of violence and sexual abuse, corruption and drug use in Alabama’s prisons for men.

The DOJ report notes that ADOC “has violated and is continuing to violate the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners housed in men’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions…”

“One year after the 2019 Department of Justice report detailed the need for immediate action to prevent more deaths, nothing has changed,” the Appleseed report reads. “In fact, 2020 is on pace to be one of the most deadly years on record in Alabama prisons, with deaths by homicide between January and July at 10 compared to seven for the same time period in 2019.”

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The Appleseed report also notes that homicides are likely higher than ADOC’s count. The DOJ report states that ADOC mischaracterized at least three deaths that had all the signs of homicide. “These unreported homicides provide reasonable cause to believe that ADOC’s homicide rate is higher than what ADOC has publicly reported,” the DOJ report reads.

Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn are moving forward with plans to lease three new mega prisons from private companies, once built, and have said the new prisons will help solve the high levels of violence in state prisons, arguing existing facilities are outdated and not designed to keep inmates and staff safe, as are modern prisons.

Crowder said over the years ADOC has made many promises aimed at curbing the violence but hasn’t delivered on those promises.

“There’s been a number of steps that ADOC promised to take,” Crowder said. “We’re going to hire more officers, we’re gonna pay them more. We’re going to do these massive shakedowns in prisons and we’re gonna get all the weapons.”

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Court records show that ADOC is well behind court-ordered correctional officer hiring targets, and while ADOC does conduct random prison raids to collect weapons and contraband, such illicit contraband often finds its way back into prisons in short order.

“These have all been empty promises. Nothing has changed, and to think that new buildings are somehow going to fix decades of corruption and dysfunction,” Crowder said. “The buildings aren’t killing anybody.”

“We cannot continue down the path of building new prisons and expect them to somehow not be filled with the same systemic violence and racial disparities we have seen over the past five years in Alabama prisons,” said Hannah Krawczyk, an Auburn University Public Administration student and Appleseed intern who conducted research for the report, in a statement. “The cycle of human rights violations and violence that are inflicted on incarcerated individuals in this state cannot continue. As my generation learns about this crisis, we are determined to fight for change and end Alabama’s historic disregard for Black lives in the justice system.”

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Illinois man sentenced on drug trafficking charges

Ortega was found guilty of operating a drug trafficking ring that stretched all the way from Mexico to Alabama.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

United States Attorney Prim F. Escalona and Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Brad L. Byerley on Monday announced that Nolberto Ortega, from Chicago, Illinois, was sentenced to 390 months in prison on Oct. 28 for distribution of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl.

U.S. District Judge Liles C. Burke imposed the sentence. Ortega, age 54, has been found guilty of operating a drug trafficking ring that stretched all the way from Mexico to Alabama.

In August 2019, a federal grand jury charged Ortega in a multi-count indictment with leading a drug trafficking organization that transported heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl from Mexico to Talladega, Alabama.

The charges stemmed from an investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Talladega County Drug Task Force in early 2019.

Law enforcement officers arrested Ortega in California after a drug shipment was seized in Talladega.

“This dealer went to extreme lengths to profit from this deadly poison with no regard to the devastation and destruction he left behind,” said Escalona. “The lengthy sentence sends the message that drug trafficking in our communities will not be tolerated and will be severely punished. The citizens of the Northern District of Alabama have one less drug dealer to worry about for years to come.”

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“We will continue to attack the scourge of illegal and dangerous drug distribution in Alabama and beyond,” Byerley said. “The lengthy sentencing of this individual should be taken as a message to those who want to sell drugs. We are going to catch you and put you in prison for a long time if you distribute this poison in our communities.”

The DEA investigated the case along with the Talladega County Drug Task Force. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Blake Milner and Austin Shutt prosecuted the case.

The Trump Administration has worked to increase security along the nation’s southern border with Mexico.

“America’s porous southern border causes the deaths of 30,000+ Americans every single year (from illegal alien homicides and overdoses on poisonous drugs shipped across our porous southern border),” said Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Alabama.

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According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths decreased by 4.6 percent from 2017 (21.7 per 100,000) to 2018 (20.7 per 100,000). Opioids were involved in 46,802 overdose deaths in 2018 (69.5% of all drug overdose deaths).

Ortega will serve his sentence in the federal prison system.

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