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Former Tutwiler inmate’s legacy of compassion, advocacy for prisoners remembered

Mary Kay Beard, who died in 2016, at 71, was honored at an event at Tutwiler on Sept. 25 organized by Prison Fellowship.

Micah Danney



From left, Mary Kay Beard, Kim Thomas and Laure Clemons in 2012.

Mary Kay Beard’s path to becoming an impassioned advocate for prisoners started with an utter lack of regard for others.

“They called her and her husband the Bonnie and Clyde of the South. She would walk into a bank and put her sawed-off shotgun up on the shelf and say, ‘Just put the money in the bag, hun,’” said Laure Clemons, who befriended her for the last 10 years of her life.

Beard was a biopic-worthy bundle of exquisite ironies. Born into a strict Baptist family, she was a star student in high school but followed her first husband into a life of crime. She holds the distinction of being the first female safe cracker in the country. She was small in stature, barely over five feet tall, but was a towering figure in the bank heist scene of the 1960s and early ‘70s, and later in the prison reform scene.

Clemons is executive director of Extended Family, a non-profit that provides support to families of people in prison. The women met when Beard spoke at Clemons’s church in Cherokee County.

Mary Kay Beard’s 1973 mugshot. (VIA PRISON FELLOWSHIP)

“You hear this woman up there speaking and you’re like — you can’t really put those stories together with what you’re seeing on the stage,” Clemons said.

Beard claimed she could crack any safe made before 1980. Her husband abandoned her while she was laid up in the hospital with an illness, so she continued her criminal career solo. She ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and had a Mafia contract on her life at the same time.

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Clemons once asked her why the mob wanted her dead.

“She just kind of waived her hand in the air, and she said, ‘Oh, I crossed them in a diamond heist,’” Clemons said.

Beard was 27 when she was captured in 1972 and hit with 11 federal indictments and 35 charges. She was convicted of armed robbery and grand larceny and sentenced to 21 years. 


It was at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, in Wetumpka, that she found the faith that would shape the rest of her life. She attended a Sunday school class led by a visiting prison ministry each week and experienced a conversion while praying. Beard then had to incorporate the principles she was committing to into her daily life in the facility.

Clemons remembers Beard recalling that at Christmastime the women received small packages of hygiene items. They would arrange them on their beds and trade with each other, then create customized packages to give to their children at Christmas visits. Beard thought the children wouldn’t want to receive gifts of soap. When she witnessed their excitement, she realized it was simply because they were getting something from their mothers.

Beard was paroled after only six years, but the experiences she shared with other human beings condemned by society, followed by her successful redemption, inspired her to join the staff of the organization Prison Fellowship as director of its Alabama operations.

In 1982, she founded Angel Tree, a program that allowed prisoners to make gift requests for their children that are written on paper angels. The cutouts were placed on Christmas trees at malls for shoppers to charitably fulfill the requests.

Through partnerships with tens of thousands of churches in all 50 states, Angel Tree has delivered more than 11 million Christmas gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. Last year, 300,000 were delivered.

Beard, who died in 2016, at 71, was honored at an event at Tutwiler on Sept. 25 organized by Prison Fellowship.

Beard’s work went beyond charity, Clemons said. She believed in forming relationships with officials to be able to work within the system to reform it. In 2012, they attended the Alabama Families of Prisoners Conference in Birmingham. The keynote speaker was Kim Thomas, then commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Thomas spent 32 years in the department, starting as a guard and rising through the ranks to the top post until he was pushed out in 2015, due to a behind-the-scenes campaign orchestrated by state Rep. Allen Farley.

Clemons remembered Thomas arriving with an entourage of staff members and staying for the whole conference, speaking to relatives of prisoners throughout. Thomas remembered Beard as a kindred spirit.

“We connected on kind of like an invisible spiritual level, and I think that’s how she also came across to anyone she had contact with” Thomas said.

Beard was big on faith-based organizations being allowed access to prisoners. Although she was a devoted Christian, she valued organizations of any religion that worked in the space. She wasn’t dogmatic, Thomas said.

He noted that she and the people she worked with always showed up when they said they would. That’s an important quality in people who engage with prisoners, whose life paths have often been heavily influenced by traumatic relationships. The resulting damage to their sense of trust isolates them, contributing to anti-social thinking and behavior that is the foundation for criminal activity. Consistency is key to repairing the damage. Beard was familiar with these dynamics, having had an alcoholic father who was abusive to his nine children.

Beard recognized prisoners as valued members of families and sought to address the needs of children suffering the absence of their incarcerated parents. Her advocacy stood in contrast to the longstanding and infamously dismal conditions of Alabama’s prisons, the deadliest in the nation for prisoners, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

The U.S. Department of Justice released a report in July that found systemic problems of unreported or underreported incidents of excessive use of force, a failure to properly investigate them and attempts to cover them up by correctional officers and their supervisors. 

As commissioner, Thomas always felt it was important to speak to partners about the need to be open and honest with each other to have any chance at addressing problems in the facilities, he said. Beard was different.

“You didn’t have to have that conversation with her,” he said. “Some people just carry themselves and represent themselves in the conversations you have — you automatically believe that they’re sincere and honest.”

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



Retired U.S. Marines general endorses Doug Jones

Krulak, a Republican, served as the 31st commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Eddie Burkhalter



Retired United States Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak has endorsed Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

Retired United States Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak has endorsed Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, the incumbent senator’s campaign announced Tuesday. 

Krulak, a Republican, served as the 31st commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s also the former president of Birmingham-Southern College. 

“Although I am a life-long Republican, I’m urging you to vote for Doug Jones. His work on the Armed Services Committee supports our veterans and military families, and ensures that we have the best equipped military in the world,” Krulak said in a new ad from Jones’s campaign. “Senator Doug Jones’ strong record of getting things done for Alabama and our military has earned our vote.” 

Jones in 2018 filed an amendment to make U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports on VA-run nursing homes public, and in 2019, introduced legislation that eliminated the Military Widow’s Tax, which impacted an estimated 2,000 surviving military spouses in Alabama alone.

In September, Jones introduced a bipartisan bill to address veteran suicide.

Krulak commanded a platoon and two rifle companies during his two tours of duty in Vietnam, according to his U.S. Marine Corps University biography. He was assigned duty as the deputy director of the White House Military Office in September 1987.

Krulak was promoted to General on June 29, 1995, and became the 31st commandant of the Marine Corps on July 1, 1995. He retired from the Marine Corps in June 1999.

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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




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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Alabama’s Black Belt lacks quality internet access, report finds

Twenty-two of 24 Black Belt counties are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

Eddie Burkhalter




During an online video briefing Monday on a report about a lack of internet access in Alabama’s Black Belt, University of Alabama student Brad Glover warned reporters that he could get kicked off the briefing at any moment. 

That’s because he was talking during the video briefing by way of audio only, using his cell phone, as he does not have access to high-speed internet access at his Linden, Alabama, home in the Black Belt’s Marengo County. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that sent students home to study online left many in the Black Belt and other rural parts of Alabama in the lurch, without access to the high-speed internet enjoyed by so many other Americans, according to the latest report in the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center’s Black Belt 2020 series. 

The latest report, titled “Internet Access Disparities in Alabama & the Black Belt,” found that 22 of 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the Education Policy Center, are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

“It is still a terrible struggle for me to connect to get the things done that are required,” said Glover, who interned with the Education Policy Center. 

Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center, said that in the 1930s, nine of ten rural homes lacked the electric service that urban American homes, by that point, had for 40 years. 

“The Rural Electrification Act was passed to address this abject market failure,” Katsinas said. “Today, as the COVID pandemic has shown, access to high-speed internet is as essential to rural Alabama as the REA was in the 1930s. Alabama must directly address the market failures that exist today to bring high-speech internet to every rural Alabamian, so that our rural workforce can access the lifelong learning skills they need, and our rural businesses can compete globally.” 

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The COVID-19 pandemic has also spotlighted the need to expand the growing area of telemedicine. 

Dr. Eric Wallace, medical director of Telehealth at UAB, told reporters during the briefing Monday that patients are largely doing telehealth from their homes, and explained that disparities in access to high-speed internet present a problem for them. 

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, UAB has done approximately 230,000 telehealth visits, and 60 percent of those were done by video,” Wallace said. 


“Forty percent are audio only, and why is audio only? It’s because we do not have broadband,” Wallace said. “So it’s not just broadband. It’s broadband. It’s tech literacy. Socioeconomics, to have a device in your home. It’s all of that.”

Wallace said that the coronavirus crisis has made clear that telemedicine is a “100 percent necessity” and that patient satisfaction studies make clear it’s not going anywhere. 

The reasons for disparities in access to high-speed internet are myriad, explained Noel Keeney, one of the authors of the report and a graduate research assistant at the Education Policy Center. 

Keeney noted a study by BroadbandNow that estimates there are 154 internet providers in Alabama, but there are 226,000 Alabamians living in counties without a single provider, and 632,000 in counties with just a single provider. 

Even for those with access to internet providers, Keeney said that just approximately 44.4 percent of Alabamians have internet access at a cost of $60 monthly or below. 

“If we really care about our rural areas, we need to make an investment, and it needs to cut off that cost at a very low rate,” Wallace said. 

Katsnias said there’s a growing consensus on the part of Alabama’s political leaders that access to high-speed internet is an important issue, noting that Gov. Kay Ivey in March 2018, signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which has given internet access to nearly 100,000 Alabama students. 

“In March, Gov. Ivey awarded $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants, with a significant amount going to Black Belt communities,” the report reads. “This was followed by $5.1 million in additional grants in May.” 

“The State of Alabama also allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act-related dollars for “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels to increase access for K-12 students undergoing distance learning,” the report continues. 

An additional $100 million in CARES Act funds were made available to facilitate virtual learning across Alabama’s K-12 schools, researchers wrote in the report, and another $72 million in federal aid went to the state’s colleges and universities. 

Katsinas said however those federal funds are spent, the state still needs a long term plan for how to address the disparities in access to high-speed internet. 

“We need a long term plan and we need to do what we can do immediately,” Katsinas said

Read more of the Education Policy Center’s reports in the “Black Belt 2020” series here.

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Governor announces auto supplier IAC plans Alabama expansion

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County.

Brandon Moseley




Gov. Kay Ivey announced Monday that International Automotive Components Group North America Inc. plans to invest over $55.9 million in expansion projects that will create 182 jobs at two Alabama facilities.

“International Automotive Components is a leading global auto supplier, and I am pleased that this world-class company is growing significantly in Alabama and creating good jobs in Cottondale and Anniston,” Ivey said. “IAC’s growth plans show that Alabama’s dynamic auto industry continues to expand despite today’s challenging environment.”

Nick Skwiat is the executive vice president and president of IAC North America.

“Alabama was the logical choice due to its skilled workforce and proximity to the customer,” Skwiat said. “We are excited to see the continued growth of the automotive industry in Alabama and we plan to grow right along with it. We thank the Governor and Secretary Canfield for their leadership in this sector.”

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County. This facility will produce door panels and overhead systems for original equipment manufacturers. That project will create 119 jobs at the production site in Cottondale.

IAC also plans to invest $21.6 million at its manufacturing facility located in the former Fort McClellan in Anniston. That East Alabama project will create another 63 jobs.

This project builds on a milestone 2014 expansion that doubled the size of the Calhoun County facility. There IAC manufactures automotive interior components and systems. Key components produced at the Anniston plant include door panels, trim systems and instrument panels for original equipment manufacturers.

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IAC Group is a leading global supplier of innovative and sustainable instrument panels, consoles, door panels, overhead systems, bumper fascias and exterior ornamentation for original equipment manufacturers.

IAC is headquartered in Luxembourg and has more than 18,000 employees at 67 locations in 17 countries. The company operates manufacturing facilities in eight U.S. states.

“With operations around the globe, IAC is the kind of high-performance company that we want in Alabama’s auto supply chain to help fuel sustainable growth,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. “We look forward to working with IAC and facilitating its future growth in this strategic industrial sector.”


Danielle Winningham is the executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority.

“International Automotive Components is a valued part of Tuscaloosa County’s automotive sector,” Winningham said. “We are grateful for IAC’s investment in our community and the career opportunities available to our area workforce as a result of their investment.”

“The City of Anniston is excited that IAC has made the decision to expand here. I have enjoyed working with the leadership at IAC, the Calhoun County EDC, and the state of Alabama to get this project finalized,” said Anniston Mayor Jack Draper. “This is even further evidence that Anniston is indeed open for business.”

Only Michigan has more automobile manufacturing jobs than the state of Alabama. Honda, Mercedes, Hyundai, Polaris, Toyota and soon Mazda all have major automobile assembly plants in the state of Alabama.

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