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Deaths and Violence Mount at Overcrowded Alabama Prisons While Parole Rate Hits New Low

by Kevin Bliss and Jo Ellen Nott

On February 5, 2022, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a nine-year sentence had been handed down to the last of four Alabama prison guards convicted of beating state prisoners they suspected of smuggling contraband at Elmore Correctional Facility (ECF).

Three days later, on February 8, 2022, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) signed a $15 million contract to buy an old 700-bed prison that it plans to renovate and use to keep parole violators out of the general population in state prisons, on top of a controversial prison construction program previously announced. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.9.]

What’s the common thread connecting these events?

They are the latest fallout from a prison system perpetually marred by unsafe and violent conditions that have been the subject of two federal lawsuits.

One of those suits, filed by DOJ in December 2020, alleges that Alabama is “deliberately indifferent” to unconstitutional overcrowding persisting at its state prisons, facilities that “are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence,” like that inflicted by the four ECF guards on the smuggling suspects. [See: PLN, Apr. 2021, p.34.]

In the other suit, a federal judge also took DOC to task for the pernicious effect that its chronic short-staffing has on mentally ill prisoners, who filed a class-action lawsuit over being left locked in their cells most of the day to keep them from self-harm. Even then almost 30 found a way to kill themselves over the past two years. [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.38.]

But the guards who manage to show up for work can’t always be counted on not to make matters worse. Willie M. Burks III, 41, was the last of the four ECF guards to be sentenced in the 2019 beatings of two handcuffed prisoners, Cortney Rolley and Christopher Hampton. [See: PLN, Jan. 2021, p.62.] After Rolley was mauled by another guard, Sgt. Ulysses Oliver, Jr., Burks then “stood and watched as Oliver pulled the second inmate [Hampton] from an observation room, threw him on the floor and beat the inmate with his feet and collapsible baton,” according to the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case. Two more guards, Bryanna Mosley and Leon Williams, were also convicted of failing to intervene in the attacks (see below).

Critics say it’s all symptomatic of a prison system in which overcrowding and short-staffing have spiraled out of control. In the year after DOJ filed its suit over DOC’s severe overcrowding,the reported prison population in the state jumped more than 7.4% to 18,773 prisoners, all crowded into facilities designed for just 12,115—an occupancy rate of 155%.

But just before that news arrived in December 2021, there was another grim headline in June 2021, when DOC admitted that its vacancy rate for guard positions had climbed from 50% to 52% over the preceding year.

It was to that toxic combination of too many prisoners and too little staff that DOJ attributed “a high rate of prisoner-on-prisoner violence that is serious and systematic” in a letter sent on April 2, 2019, warning DOC that “overcrowding and understaffing” had resulted “in prisons that are inadequately supervised with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.’’ [See: PLN, Sep. 2019, p.44.]

In a second amended complaint DOJ filed against the state prison system on November 19, 2021, it reiterated those same concerns.

“In the two and a half years following the United States’ original notification to the State of Alabama of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama’s Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners,” read the complaint signed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The crisis has escaped containment under DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, who resigned in December 2021 after a rocky six-year tenure.

“Considering that he really didn’t have a background in corrections, managing a situation where you’ve got a personnel crisis, a crisis of corruption, a humanitarian crisis in the sense that humans living in absolute squalor and despair, with a federal government intervention looming large in the horizon. It’s going to be difficult for anyone,” said Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa), one of DOC’s most vocal critics in the state legislature.

So hopes are tempered for what can be accomplished by Dunn’s replacement, John Hamm, the deputy secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency tapped by Gov. Kay Ivey (R). Her office pointed to his “more than 35 years of law enforcement experience” that “includes work in corrections, both at the state and local levels.”

England agreed that “[s]ome history in running a department that really, at this point, needs some leadership and vision,” was important, adding that Hamm will also need to be a leader who “stresses transparency, cleans up some of the corruption and leads the Department of Corrections out of what is quite possibly the worst period in its history.”

Parole Rate Hits New Low

Like Dorothy in Oz, DOC has itwithin its power to significantly reduce overcrowding and understaffing, not by tapping its ruby slippers but simply by granting paroles for which many prisoners are qualified. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) received 4,232 requests for parole in the year ending September 30, 2021, and had it followed its own guidelines, 76% of that number—3,216—would have been released on parole.

Considering that at the time there were 5,654 too many prisoners in the system, the immediate relief of granting parole to so many of them cannot be overstated. Regrettably, BOPP is not required to follow those guidelines. So how many paroles did it end up granting?

Just 648.

“It is kind of disheartening if they’re not following their own guidelines,” said Cam Ward, a former state senator who now serves as Director of BOPP.

Noting that the board is not required to follow the guidelines, she suggested legislation to give them more teeth. Rep. England agreed, saying he will support legislation to make the parole guidelines presumptive. With mandated guidelines, BOPP would have to apply them or explain why it did not.

“Once you deviate from them, you have to give a reason why,” England proposed, adding that he believed that “would give some confidence in the system.”

“Because right now,” he said, “I think it’s anybody’s guess.”

BOPP’s guidelines, which it revised in July 2020, are used by institutional parole officers to prepare a report after interviewing a prisoner and reviewing his records. They are based in part on the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS), a set of six measurements that span the criminal justice system and examine factors about an offender both static and dynamic. The parole officer assigns a score, which cannot exceed the number 20, based on six weighted factors:

• seriousness of offense;

• sex offender status;

• institutional behavior;

• participation in re-entry and training programs;

• re-entry progress; and

• stake-holder support or opposition to the release.

A prisoner receiving a score of 0 to 7 is at low risk to be a repeat offender while a prisoner with a score above 8 is generally not a good candidate for parole. Of the 76% of prisoners found eligible for parole under the guidelines for parole in 2021, however, BOPP recommended releases for only 15% of the total, with Black prisoners granted parole less than half as often as white prisoners.

The rate of paroles granted in Alabama has declined steadily over the last three years, too, after increasing from 30% to 53% in the five years before 2018. That year, though, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was released and killed three people, including a child.

“I mean, there are some horrible, horrible crimes [that prisoners have committed] and unless you sit there each and every day, and listen to all of them, you don’t realize how violent these people are,” said Janette Grantham, who is the state director of Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL). “And when we let one of them out, they’re going to go live next door to somebody.”

Yet the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice pointed out in a report issued on August 27, 2021, that the largest drop in paroles had occurred in the state’s minimum-security prisons.

“It only took the one bad apple to have really changed this in the direction of lock them up, throw away the key,” lamented Aimee Smith, an attorney with twenty years’ experience representing prisoners before the parole board.

She claims clients who were convicted before 2013 revision of sentencing guidelines are not getting a fair review due to the seriousness of their original offense. Smith said she has noticed a pattern of automatically denying prisoners with Class A felonies (the most serious level) and scheduling their next hearing for the maximum time ahead, which is five years. That makes it doubly unjust for these prisoners, she points out, in as much as they are not only less likely to be granted parole but also left to serve out very long sentences that, under the new guidelines, would be much shorter.

“Dunks” and “Dips”

DOC’s new paroles prison is designed to divert nonviolent parole violators—DOC calls these “technical violators”—into a facility that BOPP will operate, offering vocational and other job-training programs, as well as drug treatment and mental health treatment, all services now offered at BOPP day-reporting centers around the state.

The programming will be provided by private contractors, BOPP says, creating a double boom for prison profiteers: The paroles prison is being purchased from Florida-based GEO Group, Inc., which acquired the Perry County Correctional Center when it purchased another private prison firm, LCS Corrections Services, in 2015. The 15-year-old facility, which was originally designed to hold detainees for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, will be renamed the Paroles Re-entry Center.

Currently, nonviolent parole violators—those who fail drug tests, for example—can be sentenced to DOC up to 45 days, a sanction known as a “dunk.” Besides contributing to the overcrowding of those state prisons where “dunks” are served, some parolees end up spending all or part of their 45 days in a county lockup, waiting for a state prison bed to open. That has led to an outcry from sheriffs, who complain about the cost of those incarcerations.

“[W]e’ve had county sheriffs say ‘I’m sorry they’re revoked but we’re not taking this person from you,’” explained BOPP Director Ward.

The parole violation policy is in addition to a separate sanction for minor violations, which is a 2- or 3-day incarceration in a county jail known as a “dip.” These may not total more than six days in a month or 18 days over the parole sentence. Parolees are also limited to a maximum of three “dunks” before they face revocation.

Ward said that of 40,000 people on the state’s parole caseload, there were 1,269 “dunks” in 2021, though only about 210 parolees were sitting in a county jail at any given time. In 2021 the board also issued 3,662 parole revocations—sending even more people back to the state’s overcrowded prisons.

Since BOPP Chair Leigh Gwathney, a former prosecutor, was appointed in November 2019, the number of paroles the board grants has continued a slide begun after Spencer’s release and violent recidivism. By mid-2021, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of parolees released to report to one of the state’s work centers had plunged 93% percent from 2017 levels, and the number placed on work-release had fallen by 88%.

Yet state Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) continues to defend BOPP and its low parole rates. In a statement to the legislature on March 1, 2022, he voiced opposition to a parole reform bill that Rep. England introduced in January 2022, which would add oversight to the board’s decisions. Marshall insisted that it was the legislature’s own sentencing changes that “have ensured that dangerous offenders are largely the only ones left behind bars.”

“As a result, we should absolutely expect and demand that parole rates decline,” he declared.

Out-of-Control Violence

The 1,837 guards that DOC employed as of June 30, 2021, were each responsible for watching over an average of nine prisoners, about the same ratio reported by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). But Alabama prisons reported that assaults on prisoners occurred at a rate of nearly 70 per 1,000 prisoners. The rate in BOP facilities was never over 11 per 5,000 prisoners in 2021, and most months it was much lower.

Guards are not immune from the violence, either. On October 7, 2021, Travis Hutchins, 34, was killed by a prisoner armed with a homemade knife at the Bibb Correctional Facility (BCF) in Brent. Hutchins had sued DOC in 2016 for failing to protect him in another stabbing by a prisoner that he suffered while working at Easterling Correctional Facility.

“It’s very dangerous, but it’s a lot more dangerous for the inmates,” agreed Kyle Mays, 36, who quit in 2021 after 11 years on the job as a guard at Limestone Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison where he said that five guards were often left in charge of about 1,600 prisoners.

He claimed mealtimes presented the most danger, since guards were then reassigned to the dining room, leaving “no security in the dormitories.” He took a pay cut for a safer job in manufacturing.

DOC Spokeswoman Kristi Simpson refused to comment on the staffing problems because of the ongoing litigation. But in a landmark series of interviews published by the Montgomery Advertiser in 2019, prisoners described what the paper called “an American horror story.”

• Wendell Roberts, who was reincarcerated on a parole violation, said, “I have found myself living in hell.” He described a fellow prisoner he called “homeless in prison,” with no bed or clothing. “He sleeps on the floor. Every time he gets something, they take it from him.”

• S., another parole violator, accused guards of huddling in their air-conditioned office “cubes” and leaving prisoners exposed to violence.

• Jacob, recently released at 29, said his youthful looks prompted a guard to laugh, “You’re going to be somebody’s boy in here.” His PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) reports and even a visit to the warden went nowhere, he said.

• J., who said instead of rehabilitation he experienced “dehabilitation,” claimed he watched “people pay the guards a pack of Newports to let them in a dorm they don’t live in to beat and torture another person.”

• A., who counted “almost 200 knives” in a dorm to which 88 prisoners were assigned, said that guards “don’t do the shakedowns like they used to do 10 or 12 years ago. The officers are their homeboys.”

• Brian Barnes said the exploding drug problem had guards “mak[ing] inmates pay their drug debts” and “[e]ven writ[ing] the inmate up for creating a security hazard.”

• T. watched “a guy tied up around a rack and they had beaten him, whipped him and videoed him, and ordered his family to pay his drug debt. They had him walking around on all floors with a rope around his neck, like a dog, making him eat and drink off the ground.”

  • Willie Watkins simply called the DOC “a killing field,” a term borrowed by this paper for one of many articles published over the years about violence in Alabama lockups. [See: PLN, Sept. 2021, p.44.]

Out-of-Control Guards

Over just a few months in 2021, while the case was wrapping up in federal court against Burks, the last ECF guard to stand trial in the dual prisoner beatings there—Oliver, Mosely and Williams all pleaded guilty in 2019—another eight DOC guards were arrested and charged in connection with investigations into corruption attributed to prison overcrowding. Civil lawsuits also proceeded against one of the guards as well as another who was not criminally charged.

Akeem Edmonds’ case is perhaps the most disturbing because his assaultive behavior toward prisoners was tolerated for years before his arrest on June 9, 2021, when he was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly beating a BCF prisoner with his belt.

The guard was previously charged with third-degree assault in 2016 after a prisoner at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility (WEDCF) in Birmingham complained that Edmonds threw him against a wall and threatened to “beat his ass.” That charge was dismissed by prosecutors.

But there was no dodging a civil lawsuit filed over a 2016 incident at WEDCF, in which a prisoner, Antonio Spencer, claimed Edmonds retaliated for what he thought was derisive laughter by pepper-spraying the handcuffed prisoner and “punching him in the face and upper body, with his fists,” telling his victim, “‘Talk all that sh** now.’” That suit was settled in August 2020 for an undisclosed sum. See: Spencer v. Edmonds, USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:16-cv-01733.

Another lawsuit filed over a 2018 incident at BCF alleges that Edmonds and three other guards dragged a prisoner, Koty Williams, into the prison barber shop and beat him before Edmonds picked the man up “over his head and slammed Williams down on a bench in the room, breaking Williams’ hip.” That case is still pending. See: Williams v. Edmonds, USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 7:20-cv-00497.

Though a grand jury saw sufficient evidence to return his most recent indictment, the prosecutor in the case, 4th Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Robert Jones, eventually asked the judge to dismiss the charges on November 4, 2021, after he said that DOC concluded its review without even a demotion for the guard.

But DOC Spokeswoman Simpson said the agency had begun termination procedures for Edmonds on September 13, 2021. The perhaps soon-to-be-former guard joins 10 others arrested, sentenced or successfully sued since the beginning of 2021:

  • July 3, 2021 – Tarrence Dramond Tolbert: A 40-year-old guard trainee at Fountain Correctional Facility, he was arrested when caught trying to smuggle contraband into work with him, including drugs, electronics, liquor and knives. [See: PLN, Aug. 2021, p.62.]
  • July 21, 2021 – Willie Burks: He was the last of the four ECF guards convicted of assaulting Rolley and Hampton – while both prisoners were handcuffed – in 2019. “Despite having the duty, ability and opportunity to intervene to stop [fellow guard Ulysses] Oliver from beating the second inmate, Burks only stood by and said, ‘it’s fair,’” said the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case. Burks received a nine-year federal prison sentence on February 4, 2022, which will be followed by two years of supervised release. Oliver faces a term up to 20 years when he is sentenced. The two other guard bystanders who failed to intervene, Mosley and Williams, have also yet to be sentenced.
  • August 9, 2021 – Sgt. Cordaro Melton: One of the guards who allegedly joined Edmonds in Williams’ barbershop beat-down at BCF, Melton was the subject of a federal magistrate’s report and recommendation in a suit filed by another BCF prisoner, Timothy Mims, over a December 2017 incident, in which the guard saw Mims cut himself with a razor and then allegedly beat him so badly that he spent five months recovering in the prison infirmary. The magistrate recommended that the prisoner’s motion for summary judgment be granted on his failure-to-protect claim against Melton and fellow guard Cpt. John Hutton. See: Mims v. Melton, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167860 (N.D. Ala.).
  • August 11, 2021 – Tericus Dinkins: The 49-year-old guard was arrested and charged with Use of Office for Personal Gain and first-degree Promoting Prison Contraband, after he confessed to investigators that he brought cell phones and narcotics into work with him at the Kilby Correctional Facility in exchange for bribes.
  • September 4, 2021 – Sgt. William Patrick: The guard was arrested at WEDCF and charged with possession of marijuana, possession of a controlled substance, promoting prison contraband, and use of official office for personal gain.
  • September 18, 2021 – Jeffery Jackson: Another guard at WEDCF, he was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and promoting prison contraband.
  • September 24, 2021 – Sgt. Timothy Robinson: A guard at St. Claire Correctional Facility, Robinson was arrested for obstructing a government investigation, tampering with evidence, and hindering prosecution. He was accused of manipulating a fight between two prisoners in which a weapon was involved.
  • October 23, 2021 – Elizabeth Templeton: A “basic correctional officer” at BCF, she was arrested and charged with first-degree Promoting Prison Contraband, second-degree Promoting Prison Contraband, and Use of Office for Personal Gain.
  • November 17, 2021 – Gary Charles Dixon, Jr.: The 36-year-old former guard was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison for attempting to smuggle nearly a half-kilo of methamphetamine into work with him at WEDCF. [See: PLN, Jan. 2022, p.62.]
  • December 9, 2021 – Trevonterrious Randall: A 27-year-old DOC guard, he was arrested and charged with smuggling drugs into work with him at WEDCF. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.62.]

Mounting Death Toll

The ACLU reported in mid-December 2021 that there were 37 in-custody deaths announced by DOC since the beginning of the year which were not due to COVID-19. That number, which advocates say fails to capture at least three other killings, included 11 homicides, six suicides and 19 suspected drug overdoses. All told, it works out to an average of just over one death every nine days. Here are those from the year so far as we go to press.

  • January 11, 2022 – Harold Wallace: Fatally stabbed at Fountain Correctional Facility in Atmore, Wallace, 24, was serving a life sentence for the 2017 murder of 22-year-old Tamara White, who was hit by a stray bullet in a McDonald’s parking lot where Wallace got into an armed confrontation with someone else. Witnesses attempting to drive White to a hospital then crashed the car.
  • January 31, 2022 – Ricky Stewart: Fatally stabbed in “an apparent inmate-on-inmate assault” at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, according to DOC Spokeswoman Simpson, Stewart, 47, was serving a 30-year sentence for an Etowah County robbery.
  • February 5, 2022 – Riley Henderson: The 25-year-old was found dead at Ventress Correctional Facility, where he was serving a 20-year sentence handed down when he pleaded guilty to the murder of 20-year-old Sarah Ortiz in 2014. Simpson insisted that no foul play was suspected in Henderson’s death.
  • February 10, 2022 – Justin Maxwell: Found unresponsive by staff at Easterling Correctional Facility, the 31-year-old had no cause of death or reason for incarceration immediately made available by DOC.
  • February 18, 2022 - Johnathan Ray Revells: Found dead in his cell at WEDCF, Revells, 42, was serving a life sentence handed down in 2004 for fatally shooting his neighbor, Leroy Jones, on Jones’ front porch before then stealing and wrecking his car. An autopsy revealed no sign of trauma to Revells, according to DOC.
  • February 27, 2022 – Victor Joseph Russo: Found dead in his cell at WEDCF, the 60-year-old was serving life without parole for the 1985 murders of Robert Allen Sparks and Billy Curtis Raymond in Jefferson County, a sentence he plea-bargained after being convicted in a capital murder trial. Spokeswoman Simpson insisted no foul play was suspected and that the death was not being investigated as a homicide. But the Equal Justice Initiative received a report Russo was “struck repeatedly in the head and sprayed with chemical agents” by a guard.
  • February 22, 2022 – Barry Wardell Gardner: The 33-year-old was fatally stabbed in a housing dorm at WEDCF, where he was serving a 13-year sentence handed down in 2014 in Montgomery County for theft and burglary.
  • March 1, 2022 - William Eric Jennings: Found unresponsive in his solitary confinement cell at WEDCF, Jennings, 49, sustained fatal blunt force trauma in an attack by a fellow prisoner, according to Simpson and the coroner. He was sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of capital murder in the fatal 1993 shooting in Jefferson County of Brian Keith Weston, whose vehicle, ring and watch Jennings stole.

That’s eight prisoner deaths due to something other than natural causes in a span of just 50 days, a faster clip than DOC set in 2021, which was already a record. At this rate, Alabama will end up solving its prison overcrowding problem in the most gruesome way imaginable—by shipping its excess prisoners to their graves.

The Alabama prison system was under federal court order for almost 30 years as the state relentlessly fought modest efforts to drag the system from the 19th century toward minimal constitutional requirements. Those court orders ended in the late 1990s not because conditions had improved but because the Prison Litigation Reform Act allowed prisons and jails to terminate court injunctions and consent decrees within two years. Since then, the prison system has devolved to its current grotesque state of daily murder and mayhem. As is typical, the legislative and executive branches of government exhibit what, at best, can be described as “learned incompetence” and an inability to address fairly basic issues related to caging large numbers of people. Despite some 50 years of litigation, conditions within the Alabama prison system are actually worsening.  

Sources: ACLU of Alabama, Alabama Political Reporter, Birmingham News, BOP, Elmore Autauga News, Equal Justice Initiative, DOC, Montgomery Advertiser, WBMA, WEIS, WSFA, 6Park News

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Mims v. Melton

Spencer v. Edmonds

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