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Alabama Guards Still Harming Prisoners, Overcrowding Set to Increase as Governor Slashes “Good Time”

by Jo Ellen Nott and Chuck Sharman

Long notorious for harsh prison conditions, Alabama’s Department of Corrections (DOC) shows no signs of remediating them despite not one but two suits by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of state prisoners.

In the most recent news out of Alabama lockups, a guard was convicted on April 19, 2023, of beating three compliant prisoners with a wooden riot baton at the now-closed Draper Correctional Facility (CF). Former DOC Sgt. Lorenzo Mills, 55, also lied about the incident afterwards. In October 2020, Mills left the three unnamed prisoners with injuries including a broken arm, pain, and bruising. He then falsified his official report, saying he had not used force against the men. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.22.]  He was convicted of three civil rights charges and another for writing the false report. According to the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, Mills will “face a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for each of the civil rights charges and 20 years in prison for the obstruction of justice offense.”

Less than a week before Mills was convicted, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill slashing “good time” for compliant prisoners. Though it will cause Alabama lockups to become even more crowded, Ivey burnished her tough-on-crime credentials with her signature on SB1 on April 12, 2023. The new law, which “sailed” through the state legislature, is named for Wilcox County Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Johnson, who was killed in a shootout with a prisoner released on good-time credits that should have been revoked but weren’t. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater to address that bookkeeping mistake, lawmakers have now removed incentive for prisoners to abide by rules. [See: PLN, Dec. 2022, p.52.]

Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said the new law extends the minimum time a prisoner will serve even if he or she is a model prisoner. Based on the previous law passed in 1975, a perfectly behaved prisoner could expect to earn 1,350 days of incentive time in 24 months – nearly four years. Under the new law, the same prisoner would earn just 225 days of incentive time. DOC officials estimate about 10% of state prisoners are eligible for correctional incentive time. Keeping them locked up so much longer will only exacerbate overcrowding in state prisons.

To address that, the legislature appropriated $900 million in 2022, together with $400 million raided from the state’s share of federal COVID-19 relief funds, all earmarked to build two new “mega” prisons. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.9.] But with design work only 40% complete, the first has ballooned in cost from $623 million to $975 million, leaving the fate of the second lockup in limbo. Worse, the new prison is slated to replace several older facilities, meaning the number of beds available for prisoners will actually go down. That’s a massive problem for a state whose Board of Pardons and Paroles refuses to grant all but 6% of release requests. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.1.]

 One of DOJ’s suits specifically challenges DOC’s overcrowded lockups. That suit is currently headed to trial in 2024. See: United States v. Ala., USDC (N.D.Ala.), Case No. 2:20-cv-01971. The other case that DOC is defending challenges its provision of mental health care to prisoners, which the federal judge overseeing the case called “horrendously inadequate.” [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.38.] In that suit, the state’s challenge is not overcrowding but short-staffing of guards – with so many positions vacant that mentally ill prisoners are forced to skip healthcare appointments for want of a guard to escort them. See: Braggs v. Hamm, USDC (M.D.Ala.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00601. DOC fired private healthcare contractor Wexford Health Sources in July 2022, replacing it with Wexford’s predecessor, Corizon Health, now known as YesCare – only to put the entire $1.06 billion contract on ice in February 2023 over concerns that the agency’s top outside litigator had been on the YesCare board. [See: PLN, Aug. 2023, p.35.]

With so much litigation, DOC attorneys must be busy, right? Not exactly. State Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) stripped them of all litigation authority in April 2023, apparently concerned about mounting costs and conflicts of interest for outside legal help. But one of those outside lawyers, Bill Lunsford – the one who once sat on the YesCare board – got a $15 million contract renewal that state lawmakers approved in July 2023, including $9.9 million to continue representing the state in the suits filed by DOJ. If that makes it seem like Alabama’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing, consider what state Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) had to say:

“We’re down to one [prison costing] $1 billion,” he began. “We’re on a [new] healthcare contract [with YesCare] that’s $1 billion. There’s a big ol’ hole in that budget that deals with the Department of Corrections, and it continues to grow probably daily … We are probably giving Lunsford $100 million … Part of this is there’s not much dispute in terms of liability here in terms of some of our issues of overcrowding and conditions, staffing and so forth, so a lot of this continues to drag on and it just continues to cost us a lot more money instead of just trying to find a way to work it out. I don’t have an issue with the $9.9 million. Lunsford is basically a government agency at this point.”

Could things get any worse for Alabama prisoners? Of course. At least two of the state’s unairconditioned lockups, Fountain CF and Staton CF, were without functioning ice machines amid sweltering 98-degree temperatures at the beginning of July 2023. Prisoners at Fountain CF were also reportedly exposed to raw sewage.

A bill to speed release for prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes, HB229, died in April 2023, crushed under a stampede of lawmakers rushing to look the “toughest” on crime. Meanwhile prisoners continue to endure violent conditions, with DOC reporting in June 2023 that it confiscated 4,921 homemade weapons in the previous year, along with 432 knives and nine guns – one of which was stolen from a guard tower.

Murders and suicides also continue to mount, though exact totals are no longer possible. DOC stopped reporting monthly death statistics at the end of the last fiscal year in October 2022.

Additional sources: 1819 News, Alabama Political Reporter, AP News, Birmingham News, WZDX