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Alabama DOC Proves Truly “Heartless”

In a weird-but-true story that’s oddly fitting for Alabama’s wretched prison system, the body of a state prisoner murdered on November 16, 2023, was returned to his survivors five days later without a heart.

That is the claim of a lawsuit filed in federal court for the Northern District of Alabama by Audrey Marie Dotson, whose dad, Brandon Clay Dotson, 43, was serving a 99-year term for robbery at Ventress Correctional Facility (CF) when he reported to guards that he was in danger from fellow prisoners to whom he owed drug debts. He was found dead in his cell later, so long after he was killed that his body had already begun to “stiffen,” according to the complaint.

When his body was returned to them on November 21, 2023, it “had not been properly stored and was severely decomposed,” the complaint continued. The family contracted for a private autopsy with forensic pathologist Dr. Boris Datnow, who discovered the corpse was missing a heart. The suit seeks its return and damages for the pain caused by its absence, while also holding officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) liable for failing to protect Dotson. Plaintiffs are represented by Birmingham attorney Lauren Faraino of Faraino, LLC. See: Dotson v. Ala. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:23-cv-01657.

Gruesome details are not uncommon in DOC prisoner deaths. Just three weeks before Dotson died, another state prisoner’s family learned he was not coming home on his upcoming release date, when he would have completed a one-year sentence for theft. Instead, Daniel Terry Williams, 22, lay brain-dead in a hospital. Other prisoners at Staton CF tied him up and “rented [him] out” for physical and sexual abuse that lasted several days.

Warden Joseph Headley phoned Williams’ father to say his son had been hospitalized for a drug overdose. But when Terry Williams and his wife arrived at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, medical staffers said the body showed obvious signs the young dad had been bound, and hand-print bruises were visible between his legs. An attorney hired by the family, Andrew Menefee, said a civil suit is planned.

Too Few Guards, Too Few Paroles

Until removing his son from life support on November 5, 2023, the elder Williams said there were five prison guards in the hospital room, playing on their smartphones. They could have certainly been better deployed, given that 727 of DOC’s 2,420 funded guard positions were vacant when Commissioner John Hamm reported to state lawmakers on September 22, 2023.

Warehousing 20,431 in prisons designed to hold just 12,115 on October 31, 2023, DOC is under federal court orders to remedy grossly inadequate mental health care as well as unconstitutional conditions of confinement that fuel a sickening rate of prisoner deaths and horrific violence like that which Dotson and Williams suffered. Yet even with a federal trial looming in November 2024, the state doggedly continues its vindicative practice of denying parole, which could be one of the easiest and quickest ways to relieve overcrowding in its hellhole of a prison system.

Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) released more than half of the prisoners who applied as late as 2017, but it approved just 10% of qualified applicants in 2022. When it denied Richard Kinder parole in July 2023, he was one of 245 people BOPP decided to keep incarcerated despite meeting all requirements for release. BOPP freed just 11 people that month, a paltry 4% of those eligible. The rate is expected to drop further by the end of 2023.

Kinder was sentenced to life without parole in 1983 when he was 17 years old, the accomplice of an older, manipulative boy who killed a teenage couple in a bungled robbery attempt for cash to buy marijuana. After the Supreme Court of the U.S. held juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional in 2012, a state judge reduced Kinder’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole in 2017. The next year, Kinder went before the BOPP with an unblemished 35-year prison record, but he was denied. At the next opportunity in 2023 Kinder was denied yet again by the Republican-controlled board.

So, seemingly hellbent on not reducing the unconstitutional overcrowding of its prisons, Alabama watches its prisoners die from violence at an unprecedented rate. In 2022 there were 270 prisoners killed, a record for DOC. By mid-2023, there were at least 180 more killings in state prisons. At that rate, DOC was on track to set a new annual record.

Though Dotson and Williams were killed by fellow prisoners, DOC guards regularly rain down violence upon the people they are entrusted to protect. A lawsuit filed in November 2023 by activist prisoner Robert Earl Council, a.k.a. Kinetic Justice, describes a culture of retaliation at Limestone CF, where Council claims that guard Lt. Jeremy Pelzer has made repeated threats against his life, allegedly promising in June 2023 to protect Crips gang members if they would assault Council: “Even if y’all killed him, I’ll make sure nothing happens to y’all.”

Incarcerated since 2019, Council led hunger strikes in 2022 and has been in long-term solitary confinement since October 15, 2023, charged with violating prison social media policies, a charge he calls fabricated. The video in question was made in another prison three years ago. Council fears his current segregation is retaliatory and related to his activism, placing him at increased risk of harm. The lawsuit seeks immediate relief from the alleged retaliation, including a transfer to another prison and release from solitary confinement. See: Council v. Hamm, USDC (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:23-cv-00658.

The night of his July 2023 murder, Elmore CF prisoner Rubyn James Murray, 38, got into a minor altercation with Sgt. Demarcus Sanders, 31, and another guard outside his dorm. After the incident was under control, Murray was taken to a holding area for transport to Staton Health Care Unit (SHCU) for assessment and treatment.

But first, according to DOC spokeswoman Kelly Betts, prisoners Fredrick Gooden, 60, and Stefranio Hampton, 35, accessed the holding area, too. A deposition later revealed that Sanders had escorted the two prisoners to the back gate and unlocked the holding cell. Gooden and Hampton then attacked and beat Murray to death.

Sanders was booked into the Elmore County Detention Facility and resigned after his arrest. The ex-sergeant was first held with no bond, but in a hearing on August 1, 2023, Elmore District Court Judge Glenn Goggans set bond at $75,000. District Attorney C.J. Robinson did not protest the bond, and Sanders bonded out that same day. The district attorney called the case unusual, saying it was a targeted case of violence against Murray. He went on to say Sanders made a poor decision that will more than likely cost him several years of prison, but he was not a flight risk nor a threat to the public.

Smuggling Guards

In addition to inflicting harm on prisoners, some guards also provide a regular pipeline of contraband goods, including drugs, helping fuel the culture of violence in DOC. On September 27, 2023, Laneitria Hasberry, 29, was charged with bringing 170 grams of marijuana into Staton CF and selling it, in exchange for a $1,000 bribe. She was charged with promoting prison contraband and using her position for personal gain. She was put in the Elmore County jail with a $15,000 bond.

A little less than a month later, former Kilby CF guard Laquetta Harris, 41, was arrested and charged with using her position for personal gain. Harris resigned and turned herself in to the Montgomery County Detention Facility, later bonding out for $5,000. She is accused of accepting a Cash App payment for $1,000 from a prisoner, presumably for smuggling.

What are state lawmakers doing about all of this? According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama, there were at least 141 bills proposed in the last legislative session which would increase the number of people sent to prison. Summarized ACLU of Alabama Legal Director Alison Mollman, state “legislators are focused on punishment as a solution to the social problems we have in the state.”  

Sources: Alabama Media Group, Alabama Political Reporter, Alabama Appleseed, Alabama Reflector, The Appeal, Bolts Magazine, CNN, The Crime Report, Montgomery Advertiser, WAFF, WSFA

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Related legal cases

Dotson v. Ala. Dep’t of Corr.

Council v. Hamm