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Opinion | You froze a man to death

The killing of Tony Mitchell wasn’t an anomaly. It’s a product of our callous and cruel corrections system.

Tony Mitchell
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The State of Alabama froze a man to death. 

Read those words again. Let them wash over you. And understand that “State of Alabama” means you too. 

You, me, all of us. We all played a role in freezing a man to death. 

Actually, let me be more specific: We didn’t just freeze a man to death. We tortured and abused a mentally impaired human being for nearly two weeks, allegedly starving him and beating him and leaving him lying naked for days on end on a concrete floor. 

And then we allegedly restrained him in a chair in a walk-in freezer and left him to die. 

That’s what we did. 

For 33-year-old Tony Mitchell – a guy who friends say was once one of the best car salesmen in all of Walker County, a funny, gregarious guy who was full of life before the drugs took hold and mental health issues creeped in – that was the end of his life in a state that allegedly cares so deeply about the sanctity of life that we force rape victims to carry their pregnancies to term. 

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A government agency in this state, the Walker County Sheriff’s Department, ridiculed, tortured and killed him, according to a lawsuit filed by Mitchell’s mother. 

(Mitchell’s mother … my God, can you even begin to imagine a mother reading that description of her son’s death?)

But don’t you dare start thinking that these are just unfounded allegations in a lawsuit, because almost all of what I described above is on video. Other portions have been detailed by a former deputy. Other portions came directly from a doctor’s notes. 

You’ve likely seen one of the most damning videos – that of deputies carrying Mitchell’s lifeless body out of the Walker County detention center, placing him on the concrete parking pad and then loading him into a cruiser to take to the hospital. They later claimed that Mitchell was awake and alert before leaving for the hospital. 

But there’s more video, much of it supplied by a former deputy, Karen Kelly, who was fired after she made recordings of the video of Mitchell’s treatment and shared those recordings with Mitchell’s family. Without her actions, we’d likely never know any of this. 

Although, we probably should have suspected that the Walker County Sheriff’s Department isn’t exactly the most caring and compassionate organization after it shared pictures of Mitchell after his initial arrest. Those pics show Mitchell with his face spray-painted black – something we now know (and those deputies knew then) that Mitchell did because he was going through a mental breakdown. 

It was so bad that his family called Walker County deputies asking for help, worried that Mitchell might harm himself. And rightfully so. He had shown up at his parents house talking about portals to hell and trying to save his stillborn brother by getting him to the heaven portal. 

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The family didn’t know what to do, so they called the guys who protect and serve. 

Now, here’s where we could veer off into a discussion about mental health care and our state’s criminal disregard (until lately) for funding what was once one of the best state-operated mental health systems in the country. But I’m not going to do that. While that’s a worthy discussion, I’d like to first focus on the cruelty, callousness and indifference that have turned our jails and prisons into hell on earth. 

Because as I noted at the start of this column, that problem is on us. 

Yes, some of us bear less blame than others. Some of us have begged others to stop this madness, to care more, to elect people who care more, to do the bare minimum. But let’s be real, for most of us – the Beth Shelburnes of the world excluded – we all could have done more and should do more. 

Because this is disgusting. 

What happened in Walker County (allegedly) wasn’t an anomaly. Oh, sure, some of the details were unique, but the cruelty was not. The indifference to human suffering was a tune that’s been playing here for years now. 

Let’s get real – the majority of this blame lands at the feet of Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall, the representatives and senators in our legislature, former governors, former lawmakers, former AGs, officials that have led the Alabama Department of Corrections and the administrators at jails and prisons all over the state. 

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Because an environment that would lead officers of the law to freeze a man to death, to beat men to death, to turn a blind eye to sickening acts of violence, to participate in drug trafficking – that sort of environment — which is very much the environment in most Alabama jails and prisons — is fostered at the top. It is allowed to grow and fester by executive indifference. 

Let me ask you this: Have you heard Kay Ivey or Steve Marshall criticize the acts contained in the Department of Justice investigative report that detailed horrible abuses in Alabama’s prisons? Have they held press conferences to announce initiatives to stop the violence within our prisons? 

Hell, Steve Marshall is releasing two or three press releases every day – sent out one Wednesday that contained an op-ed from him criticizing the state’s early release program. Yet, with all of that abuse detailed by the DOJ report, do you recall a single instance of Marshall – or any other Alabama AG, for that matter – drawing attention to horrid conditions of our prisons or the unspeakable violence endured by Alabama prisoners? Even once? 

Of course not. Which is why this issue falls back on us. Because leadership reflects voters’ wishes. 

Apparently, what we wish for is a corrections system that’s cruel, violent and indifferent. That’s exactly what we’re getting.

But here’s the thing: don’t think that simply because you played no active role in Mitchell’s death or the everyday violence of an Alabama prison that you bear no responsibility, that your hands are blood-free. 

Indifference to the suffering and violence is condoning it. And that’s just as awful. 

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Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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