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Alabama Denies Parole to 90% of Eligible Prisoners

According to an AP News report on January 18, 2023, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP) denied parole in fiscal year 2022 to 90% of eligible prisoners — the highest rate of denial in state history. Leola Harris, 71, received one of those denials. In 2001 she was convicted of killing a homeless man found dead at her kitchen table. Harris testified at her trial that the man was a friend who would often come by the house at night. She denied killing him.

Harris is in a wheelchair now, with end stage renal disease and diabetes. She undergoes dialysis three times a week and cannot go to the bathroom without help. The circumstances of the crime have always been questionable, and she had no prior convictions. Harris has served 19 of her 35 years without causing any problems. When her BOPP hearing finally arrived, her application was supported by a former state Supreme Court Justice, a nurse and the state Department of Corrections.

After six minutes of consideration, BOPP denied the request. Her next chance at parole is five years from now. Harris was sent back to her cell, probably to die. 

BOPP’s three members granted parole to 409 prisoners in the year ended September 30, 2022. They denied 3,593. The share of parole applications granted in Alabama has been declining for years. in 2019 it was 31%; in 2020 it was 20%; in 2021, it was 15%.

The turning point came after Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was released on parole in 2018. He then killed three people, including a seven-year-old and his grandmother. The horrific crime forced Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to sign legislation to reinvent the BOPP appointment process.

State Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) defended the miniscule parole rate in a statement: “By law, the paramount duty of the board is to ensure public safety — not to appease the anti-incarceration community.”

Alabama’s low parole rate is a concern for criminal justice reform advocates such as Redemption Earned and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. John Archibald, Pulitzer Prize-winning Alabama journalist, also criticized the state’s abysmal parole rate.

“In fact, it is harder and harder to get out of Alabama’s prisons, even with the state’s notorious prison overcrowding, as an unsafe, inhumane, unconstitutional torture trap that puts inmates in danger of assault, sexual abuse and death,” he said. “The parole board is not just unmoved. It is immovable.”

Evidence proves Archibald’s point. During the current fiscal year that ends in September 2023, parole requests for 106 people older than 60 have gone before BOPP. The requests arrive on paper, where they remain even as they are considered, since BOPP does not look anyone in the eyes. Only seven paroles were granted. The requests considered included 21 from people aged 70 or older. None was granted release.

Despite the dangerous and unconstitutional conditions of an Alabama prison which almost always inflict violence, sexual abuse, or death, it is nearly impossible to get out of one. 

Sources: Birmingham News, WIAT