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Too Many Alabama Prisoners Still Dying with Too-Few Guards, Many Corrupt

by Jo Ellen Nott

On November 30, 2022, nearly two years after a 44-year-old Alabama prisoner died, an amended complaint filed by his sister claims he “literally baked to death in his cell” where a broken heating system went unrepaired at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility (CF). But the gruesome details of Tommy Lee Rutledge’s demise in December 2020 carry little shock value in a state Department of Corrections (DOC) that recorded at least 45 more preventable prisoner deaths — from murder, suicide or overdose — in the first 11 months of 2022.

Added to that total were two more deaths in the first weekend of December 2022. Another man then died two weeks after that of injuries sustained in an October 2022 assault by fellow prisoners, his family said. DOC has not released a cause of death for Christopher Oneal Heit, 35, who was found unresponsive at Bullock CF on December 2, 2022. Nor for Anthony Dewayne Ford, 45, who died at a hospital two days later after complaining of chest pains at Staton CF.

The last man to die, David Shaun Cordell, 46, was beaten by a half-dozen fellow prisoners at Staton CF on October 18, 2022, according to a letter sent to PLN by his sister, Tabitha Tennant. Despite sustaining serious injuries, Cordell was denied parole on November 9, 2022, Tennant said. He died on December 17, 2022, the day after his birthday.

To protest the crowded living conditions blamed for the violence — as well as abysmally low parole rates that keep so many locked up for so long — prisoners staged a work stoppage on September 26, 2022. Lasting three weeks, it was reportedly the largest prison strike in U.S. history, involving at least five of the state’s 14 major lockups.

The strikers’ demands included elimination of life-without-parole sentences; repeal of the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, which lengthens sentences for anyone with a prior conviction and mandates a life sentence on a third “strike”; a new review board to oversee the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (BPP), and new parole rules that would result in automatic release without BPP interference; as well as a reduction in the minimum wait for parole eligibility for juveniles from 30 years to 15.

Unlike some other prison systems faced with unrest, DOC did not attempt to gaslight the existence of the strike, though Gov. Kay Ivey (R) called its demands “unreasonable.” In retaliation for their participation, many prisoners reported being held in segregation or subjected to “bird-feeding” with reduced food rations. Others on work-release said they were threatened with loss of that status for refusing to cross picket lines to man strikers’ abandoned positions.

It was concern for those in their ranks subjected to retaliation that led strike organizers to call a hiatus on October 14, 2022. But they promised this was “by no means a white flag,” vowing to “escalate our strike, peacefully.”

Much of the prison system’s dysfunction is blamed on chronic short-staffing, for which DOC is facing two lawsuits. In one, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) says a lack of guards forces prisoners “daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners.” [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.1.]

In the other suit, DOC is under orders from a federal judge to hire more guards so that mentally ill prisoners have enough supervision to access mental healthcare and recreation. [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.38.]

Employee Corruption Rampant

Staffing problems go beyond numbers. Numerous guards have been implicated in prisoner deaths. William E. Donaldson CF guards John Eddie Rogers and Latasha Patrice Terrell were arrested in May 2022 for allegedly failing to render aid to Jason Kirkland, after the mentally ill 27-year-old wedged his head into a broken food tray slot in his cell door and suffocated to death in July 2021. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.22.]

Both were suspended. But the state Personnel Board reinstated Rogers in November 2022, finding he couldn’t be faulted for any problem with the broken slot because he had reported it for repair. He was also on a smoke-break when Kirkland died, the Board noted, apparently furthering absolving him of any dereliction of duty.

Questions over qualifications surfaced in August 2022 for Holman CF Warden Terry Raybon, when it was revealed that DOC hired and promoted him despite his earlier termination from the state Highway Patrol — for getting into physical altercations with two women.

After the first incident in 1998, then-acting chief of the Department of Public Safety Capt. Cary B. Sutton told Raybon that he “was originally intending to recommend your immediate dismissal” before opting for a demotion and a 30-day suspension.

Less than a month after that ended in early 1999, Raybon got into an altercation with the second woman, and Sutton fired him. Raybon lost an appeal to that decision. His latest tangle with a woman was not physical; instead journalist Ivana Shatara was booted from the gallery at Holman CF for the July 2022 execution of Joe Nathan James Jr. because her skirt was too short. [See: PLN, Sep. 2022, p.64.]

Meanwhile, as preventable deaths mount so do lawsuits like the one filed by Rutledge’s estate. Convicted of a 1993 murder committed when he was 17, the prisoner was found with his face pressed to the window of his cell, searching for air cooler than the 109-degree temperature inside his cell, thanks to the broken heating system that allegedly went ignored. See: Rutledge v. Sansing, USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:21-cv-00226.

A day before that complaint was filed, four Limestone CF guards were arrested on corruption charges. Alex Andrews, Andrew Taylor Roy, John Paul Ketterman and Shamarion Dozier were charged on November 29, 2022, with smuggling contraband in exchange for bribes. James Chambers, a former guard at the prison, was arrested with his wife, Sophia, on similar charges on December 21, 2022.

A week before that, on December 14, 2022, William E. Donaldson CF guard Rickey Cunningham was arrested on four charges of embezzlement.

Earlier, on November 28, 2022, another DOC guard was nabbed on bribery charges. Childersburg Community Work Center Cpt. Deaundra Leshawn Johnson, 43, was charged with taking a payoff to move a prisoner from Holman CF to Donaldson CF. DOC agents searched the Birmingham home she shared with her wife, former Lt. Centauria Darnise Olds, 37, who was charged earlier with taking a bribe to let a prisoner keep a contraband cellphone.

Despite losing so many of its scarce guards, DOC pulled several more off duty on December 17, 2022, to participate in drug raids at public schools in Monroe County, a low-income system whose student population is majority-Black. No drugs were found. 

Additional sources: Alabama Political Reporter, Birmingham News, Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery Advertiser, Prism Reports, Vera Institute of Justice, WIAT, WVTM

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