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Alabama Prison Conditions Continue to Worsen as DOJ Trial Looms

U.S. District Judge David Proctor has told lawyers to be ready for trial in November 2024 in a suit filed by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) in federal court for the Northern District of Alabama against the state’s troubled Department of Corrections (DOC).

As PLN has reported, that suit filed in December 2020 accuses DOC of failing to protect prisoners from violence and sexual abuse, as well as alleging excessive force by guards and unsafe conditions of confinement. It followed a DOJ investigation which found in 2019 that “overcrowding and understaffing” at DOC “results in prisons that are inadequately supervised with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.’’ [See: PLN, Apr. 2021, p.34.]

State leaders admitted that DOJ’s letter was “deeply humiliating” and promised to find solutions to the problems uncovered. But four years later, state prison conditions continue to deteriorate. Failures in several key areas contribute to DOC’s continuing inability to remedy unconstitutional conditions of confinement for the nearly 21,000 men and women caged in its 28 prisons – whose combined capacity is just over 12,000. Lack of parole, an insufficient number of guards, violence against prisoners by the guards that are on-hand, contraband entering the prison and increasing prisoner deaths all have remedies if Alabama chooses to address them.

Plummeting Parole Rate

When former state prisoner Jimmy O’Neal Spencer killed three people in 2018 only eight months after being released on parole, he did not just end three lives. His recidivism also nearly shut down the state Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP), as the ensuing public outcry prompted Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to sign legislation in 2019 which changed the appointment process to BPP and gave complete discretion to its members with limited oversight.

Since then, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice says, BPP internal documents “paint a picture of internal strife and a parole board that blatantly ignores its own guidelines despite an unprecedented backlog of parole-eligible people coupled with the lowest number of parole hearings and grants on record.”

How bleak is that picture? By the board’s own guidelines, 82% of applications heard in March 2023 should have been granted. Those guidelines are not binding, however, and they are ignored 74% of the time. So that month BPP actually approved just 2% of applicants. Over time, this backlog of prisoners builds up, clogging already overcrowded state lockups. BPP granted parole to at least 50% of the cases it heard in 2017. But in 2023, the board is on track to grant no more than 8% of the requests it will have received before concluding its last meeting of the year on December 13, 2023. With no real oversight, though, BPP Executive Director Cam Ward insisted the law is clear: “[I]t’s up to the board,” he said. “They have total discretion.”

Not only does the low parole rate worsen overcrowding in state prisons but it also intensifies the violence that plagues them. Alabama Political Reporter has spoken to numerous state prisoners who say that seeing so many parole denials “only makes the prisons more unsafe,” since prisoners find no benefit to following prison rules and procedures.

Soaring Guard Vacancy Rate

During a state legislative hearing on February 22, 2023, DOC Commissioner John Hamm discussed staff vacancies plaguing the state’s prison system, a problem which also prompted a scathing ruling in another suit accusing DOC of providing prisoners constitutionally deficient mental health care; as PLN has reported, that suit was certified a class-action by the federal court for the Middle District of Alabama, which called mental health care in DOC “horrendously inadequate” and ordered the state to start hiring guards so that mentally ill prisoners weren’t deprived of treatment for want of a guard to escort them. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.28; and Mar. 2022, p.38.]

“Prisoners do not receive adequate treatment and out-of-cell time because of insufficient security staff,” stated Judge Myron H. Thompson in his ruling in the case on December 27, 2021. See: Braggs v. Dunn, 562 F. Supp. 3d 1178 (M.D. Ala. 2021).

Yet in his February 2023 appearance before state lawmakers, Hamm reported that around 500 guards had resigned, retired or been terminated over an 18-month period from April 2021 to September 2022 – leaving the prison system with an eye-popping 28% guard vacancy rate.

Options to address the vacancies included reassigning law enforcement personnel from other state agencies to perform certain security functions, such as perimeter patrols. Or maybe private security guards could be hired for positions that do not involve direct contact with prisoners. As for that court order, Hamm said, “I don’t know how we’re going to make them come to work.”

The situation could hardly get more dire for mentally ill state prisoners. DOC’s suicide rate was the highest in the nation in 2022 — almost four times the national average of 16 per 100,000 prisoners. Judge Thompson has set a July 2025 deadline for DOC to meet specified staffing levels, rejecting the state’s excuse that low unemployment rates make it difficult to hire new guards.

Guard Violence Against Prisoners

Guard assaults on prisoners in Alabama lockups is routine news in the Cotton State, frequently jumping onto national headlines, too.

On September 12, 2023, former Lt. Mohammed S. Jenkins, 50, admitted assaulting prisoner Victor Russo, 60, six days before Russo’s February 2022 death at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, after the guard pepper-sprayed him and then hit him in the head with the canister. Jenkins also admitted pepper-spraying another prisoner, “D.H.,” while he was handcuffed in November 2021. His sentencing is set for December 2023, when the former 20-year DOC veteran faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. See: United States v. Jenkins, USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:23-cr-00030.

Less than a month earlier, on August 17, 2023, a jury convicted former Sgt. Devlon Williams, 37, of using excessive force on another prisoner identified as “D.H.” at Staton Correctional Facility in March 2018 – beating him with a baton after he’d been subdued on the ground. Co-defendant and fellow guard Larry Monaghan pleaded guilty to the same assault on December 7, 2021. Sentencing for both now-former guards has been set for November 15, 2023. See: United States v. Williams, USDC (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:21-cr-00160.

The month before Williams’ verdict, on July 27, 2023, Sgt. Demarcus Sanders, 31, was fired and charged with murder in the fatal beating the previous day of prisoner Ruben James Murray, 38, at Elmore Correctional Facility. Two prisoners – Frederick Gooden, 60, and Stefranio Hampton, 35 – were also charged in the death, accused of attacking Murray after Sanders wounded him and left him for them to find while awaiting transport to Staton Health Care Unit for treatment. Sanders was released on $75,000 bond, according to 19th Judicial Circuit District Attorney C. J. Robinson.

During the September 2023 Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee meeting, Hamm testified that 727 guard positions were vacant, and he called recruiting, hiring and retaining guards the number one issue facing DOC.

But an issue just as big that went unaddressed by the Commissioner was recidivist assaultive behavior shown by some guards, who nevertheless remain employed by DOC. Take Akeem Edmonds, for example. As PLN reported, he beat charges for assaulting prisoners at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in 2016 and again in 2021, settling civil suits filed by both victims before DOC ever moved to fire him. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.1.]

Contraband-Smuggling Guards

A May 2021 amended complaint in DOJ’s suit against the state accused DOC of failing to stem the flow of contraband into its prisons, which DOJ called the “primary contributor” to the prison system’s “unconstitutional violence.” In its 2019 report, DOJ recalled that DOC itself admitted that “staff are bringing illegal contraband into Alabama prisons.”

The feds say that illegal cellphones and drugs regularly entering prisons result in widespread violence when “the inability to pay drug debts leads to beating, kidnapping, stabbing, sexual abuse, and homicides.”

That same amended complaint also pointed out that even though visitors were not allowed into Alabama’s prisons after March 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions, the prison population continued to enjoy easy access to drugs and other contraband. Moreover, despite numerous arrests of guards charged with trafficking, the flow of drugs – and weapons, cellphones and tobacco – continues. See: United States v. Alabama, USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:20-cv-01971.

Prisoners have said that emergency response teams raid a prison dorm before a visit from DOJ attorneys to clear out the illegal items. After the visit, the contraband returns. Yet DOC persistently maintains that prisoners are responsible for the contraband problem. In its response to the amended complaint, the agency wrote, “as [the department] explores and develops new strategies, inmates continue to find new ways to introduce contraband.”

In his February 2023 appearance before state lawmakers, Hamm blamed short-staffing for DOC’s failure to disrupt the flow of contraband into state prisons. After staff shortages, he called illegal cellphones the agency’s number two issue, and he asked for $13 million to install cellphone prevention systems at three prisons.

Kilby Correctional Facility guard Charlie Townsend’s arrest on June 13, 2023, was typical of the problem. Townsend, 28, was accused of trafficking in meth, promoting prison contraband and using his position for personal gain after he was found with 88 grams of methamphetamine, 104 grams of fentanyl, 30 grams of marijuana, 208 grams of a synthetic drug and multiple Xanax pills. The arrest warrant said Townsend stood to make $1,500 on drug sales to prisoners. He was released from the Montgomery County Detention Center on bonds totaling $775,000.

To put some numbers to the contraband problem, WBMA reported that five thousand weapons and four thousand cellphones and electronics were seized from state prisoners in a recent 12-month period. This number of contraband items fuels a culture of violence and overdose deaths, contributing to DOC’s failure to protect prisoners from either menace.

Rising Prisoner Deaths

In-custody deaths continue to be the tragic outcome of DOC’s inability to manage conditions in its prisons. With thousands fewer prisoners than California, Alabama has more in-custody deaths.

In 2019, when DOJ released its Investigation of Alabama’s State Prisons for Men, it warned that DOC violated the Eighth Amendment by failing to protect prisoners from a homicide rate eight times the national average. Despite those warnings, as well as court orders and the threat of a federal take-over of the prison system, Alabama prisons continue to be a killing field.

Since DOJ’s warning, state prison deaths have surged, reaching a record high of 270 in 2022, more than double the 130 deaths in 2019. At least 95 of the deaths were preventable homicides, suicides, or confirmed or suspected drug-related deaths. 2023 promises to be as grim or worse: of 36 confirmed deaths in January, February, and March, 32 were preventable.

By the end of June 2023, DOC’s Quarterly Report to the Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee had tallied 254 deaths for the year. Given the dismal rate of parole releases and the ever-growing number of in-custody deaths, how long will it be before more prisoners leave the Alabama prison system in body bags than from an earned release for good behavior?

Yet state lawmakers seem unwilling to fix their broken prison system and in fact are making it worse. In the 2023 legislative session, five bills were passed to increase prison sentences, adding to the chaos of a system so far over capacity that families who have the means purchase beds for their loved ones, lest they join the sad souls considered “homeless” – in prison – because there is no bed for them to sleep in.  

Sources: Advance Local Media, Alabama Appleseed, Alabama Political Reporter, Birmingham News, Equal Justice Initiative, WAFF, WKRG, WBMA, WVTM, Wetumpka Herald, Southern Poverty Law Center

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