‘A humanitarian crisis’: Why Alabama could lose control of its dangerous prisons


A slow-moving threat from the feds

It was around 2012 when Joyce Vance, then the U.S. attorney based in Birmingham, had been reading news reports about the rise of killings inside Alabama prisons. What she saw alarmed her — so much so she brought her observations to higher ups inside the Department of Justice and they eventually signed off on a civil rights investigation that led to the system-wide lawsuit that now threatens to strip the state of the authority to run its own prisons.

“I started digging around and realized it wasn’t just one or two incidents, it was a systemic problem with violence in Alabama’s system,” Vance, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, said in an interview.

That violence was and still is driven, primarily, by one thing: There are far too many inmates and far too few corrections officers. In 2018, Alabama’s prisons employed just 1,072 corrections officers even though the state had authorized the hiring of more than 3,400. Three prisons had fewer than 20 percent of the authorized correctional officers.

The Alabama Department of Corrections has said in public statements that it’s taken steps to resolve some of the cultural and infrastructure challenges facing the system, a strategy outlined in a 2019 plan. Ivey that year also signed a law granting pay raises and bonuses to officers to try to attract and retain more employees.

The corrections department has also been acting under pressure from a separate federal court order directing the state to hire more corrections officers in a case over alleged inadequate mental health care in prisons. But as of the first quarter of 2021, the department had filled only 1,365 of the 3,135 authorized correctional officer positions, a vacancy rate of 56 percent, DOJ said in a court filing.

Vance has grown frustrated with the pace of the federal government’s case, noting that it's been a year since the lawsuit was filed. Meanwhile, those living in the state’s prisons are at constant risk of violence and death. So far in 2021, 10 people have been killed in the state’s facilities, according to Beth Shelburne, an investigative reporter for the ACLU who tracks deaths in prisons. There have been 13 drug-related deaths and six people have died by suicide, according to her research.

The Justice Department last month filed an updated complaint in its lawsuit, detailing more specific acts of violence inside the prisons. Today, the prisons remain “extremley overcrowded,” “critically and dangerously understaffed” and violence and sexual abuse is “still widespread.”

DOJ attorneys said that state officials have “failed or refused to eliminate the unconstitutional conditions” despite being aware of the investigation since 2016.

While the DOJ’s next move is unknown, it is obvious that the department doesn’t view construction alone as an acceptable solution.

“We want to see a resolution of all the violations we identified,” a DOJ official said in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the case. “We could certainly consider what impact new facilities would have on that, but we would just note that it's not exclusively a bricks and mortar problem.”

Ward knows all too well how conditions inside Alabama’s prisons have grown more dire. A few years into his life sentence — he and a co-defendant were convicted of murdering a woman during a robbery in 1991 — he earned a paralegal degree so he could represent himself in challenging the circumstantial evidence that led a jury to convict him. But when he ran out of appeals, he said, he felt extreme hopelessness and decided to escape in a 2005 jailbreak.

He was eventually captured after living on the run for about a month. His punishment was more than three years in solitary confinement.

On the day Ward was released from solitary, he remembers walking onto the “big yard” and witnessing a completely different scene from what he had experienced in prison up to that point: About 50 gang members meeting out in the open. There were too few correctional officers, he said, to do anything about it.

“The things I’ve seen are just unbelievable,” Ward said in an interview. “This is at times a very disrespectful environment. It takes a cool head to get through some of the situations you face on a daily basis here.”

A short lived shift in thinking

Alabama has tangled with the court system over its prison conditions for decades. In the 1970s, a judge put the state’s Department of Corrections under supervision after finding that the prisons were insect-infested, crumbling, violent and “wholly unfit for human habitation.”

The state’s solution then? Build more prisons.

Alabama was swept up in the American movement toward mass incarceration and constructed five new men’s prisons in the 1980s. They were quickly filled. Long sentencing laws passed during the nation’s “tough on crime” era ballooned prison populations in Alabama and across the country. The rate of incarceration increased 222 percent in America’s state prisons between 1980 and 2010.

Like most states, Alabama enacted a “three strikes law” aimed at repeat offenders. But its version was the strictest in the nation: The law mandated a life sentence without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of a Class A felony, such as robbery or burglary, if they had any three prior felonies on their record.

“When you look at people who commit violent crimes, it is absolutely necessary they be separated from society,” said state House Rep. Jim Hill, a Republican who has sponsored sentencing reform bills considered by the state Legislature. “We have a duty for public safety, and unfortunately that’s just part of it.”

While Alabama sent more and more people to prison, it didn’t spend the money to safely house them. A crisis was looming.

By the early 2010s, state officials knew they had to do something, according to interviews. The Department of Corrections was drawing more money from the state’s General Fund, which is also used to pay for economic development and health care, to try to combat the violence and repair decrepit facilities, even as conditions were getting worse.

In 2014, then-Gov. Robert Bentley invited the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan group that advises local governments, to evaluate the system and give recommendations for improvement. With the backing of state Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican who had taken on criminal justice reform as his signature issue, the state Legislature passed a package of bills to decrease the prison population by creating lighter sentences for low-level drug and property crimes.

Criminal justice reform advocates were becoming hopeful that more change would follow. It felt like a turning point.

Those reform bills, along with other measures from two years prior, marked “a gigantic seismic shift towards more fair treatment of offenders across the state,” said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. The prison population began to decline, dropping by about 6,000 people over a period of six years.

There was also a shift happening at the parole board as its members started implementing risk-based assessments and began to consider factors such as their age and support systems when considering whether to grant releases.

The board underwent training offered by the Department of Justice. Former board chair Lyn Head, a former prosecutor for nearly two decades, called it pivotal in “changing her philosophy” on the criminal justice system and said she learned for the first time how parole boards could use data to analyze an individual’s risk of re-offending.

The results were immediate. Alabama’s parole grant rate between 2013 and 2018 increased from 30 percent to 53 percent.

But all that changed in mid-2018, when a man out on parole, Jimmy Spencer, was accused of brutally killing three people in a robbery, including a 7-year-old boy. He was just out of prison after being incarcerated for an earlier robbery. Republicans were outraged that he was released despite being in prison for a violent crime.

Ivey had just become governor after Bentley resigned in a sex scandal. She brought in Head, then the chair of the parole board, for what Head called the “smack-down” meeting.

Head said in an interview that she repeatedly tried to explain the risk-based assessment to Ivey, who appeared to be growing impatient. “After the third time, [Ivey] banged her fist on the desk and said, ‘Don’t you think they need to pay a price?’” Head said.

“I said, ‘No ma’am, I personally believe that price was paid.’ She literally rolled her eyes at me and grunted.’’

The legislature soon after gave the governor the ability to appoint parole board members. Ivey put in place Charles Graddick as executive director, a former state attorney general and circuit county judge. He was a proponent of the electric chair and promised in a 1978 campaign to “fry 'em 'til their eyes pop out and blue and yellow smoke pours their ears.”

Graddick paused parole considerations for several months, and when they resumed, the board’s release rate started the rapid decline that continues today.

In fiscal year 2017, 54 percent of parole requests were granted, according to information provided by the board. That was a remarkably high rate for the state. By the fiscal year that ended in June, the approval rate dropped to just 15 percent. So far in fiscal year 2022, the rate is at 10 percent.

There is a huge racial disparity in who gets parole. Last fiscal year, 23 percent of white inmates considered for parole were released but only 9 percent of Black inmates.

Today, the parole board is led by Leigh Gwathney, a former prosecutor who used to work for the state attorney general. Other members include a former probation officer and a state trooper. Democrats in the legislature have called for Gwathney’s resignation.

“It’s so frustrating because, I get that we want to protect the public, I get that prison is punitive, but also it should be reformative and rehabilitative or we wouldn’t call it the Department of Corrections,” said Aimee Cobb Smith, an attorney who represents incarcerated clients before the board. “That’s kind of the whole point.”

Inside the parole board room

The Alabama parole board is located in an nondescript office building right off a highway in Montgomery. Three days a week, the board hears around 40 parole and pardon applications, methodically chipping away at the huge backlog of petitions.

The process is orderly. Families of victims gather in a waiting room while a volunteer with a victim’s rights group passes around brochures, answers questions, leads a prayer and repeatedly reminds them that they can ask the board to grant the maximum five year offset before the offender is allowed to be considered for parole again.

Down the hallway, families of offenders also wait anxiously as they watch a screen for their case to be called. When it’s time, both groups silently file into the parole board room, kept separate by security, and are told to sit on opposite sides. Parole board staff hand out tissues. Many people cry. While the facts of each case differ, the testimony is similar: Families of offenders urge the board to release them, citing things such as good behavior, strong support systems, remorse for their alleged crimes. Families of victims share their own pain, urging the board to keep offenders incarcerated, a decision they say honors the lives of loved ones murdered or assaulted.

Victims of Crime and Leniency, an influential victims group known as VOCAL, sends volunteers to testify against nearly every person up for parole. A representative from the state Attorney General’s Office does the same.

Only four of the 31 applicants got parole that day in late September, the same week state lawmakers were meeting to approve construction of more prisons. Just 29 people — representing 8 percent of applicants — got parole that month, according to documents.

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