Alabama’s prison system and justice system are in the national spotlight and not for good reasons. The State’s prisons are one hundred percent overcapacity. Alabama is criticized for spending the least amount of money per inmate per day for rehabilitation, housing, and supervision in the nation. This $26 daily amount is blamed for the State’s 30% recidivism rate. Alabama is also the only state where a judge can overrule a jury in a death penalty case. Here, a judge can sentence a defendant to death, even if the jury says life in prison is more appropriate. Alabama likes to trumpet its Wrongful Incarnation Act, which is supposed to compensate people sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. However, in the fifteen years since the passage of the Act, only one person has been paid, and that was under a court order. Finally, the Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the Alabama Department of Corrections for being indifferent to the mental health needs of inmates. Alabama House and Senate bills have been introduced to revoke the Judicial death penalty override law.
The Alabama Public Radio news team spent six months investigating these issues. Within a month of the initial airing of our coverage, the U.S. Justice Department announced an official investigation into conditions at Alabama’s prisons. A federal lawsuit over mental health care for Alabama prisoners, reported by APR, was granted class action status. The inmate who served as star witness in the case committed suicide shortly after testifying.
“…I met some good people in there and some evil, evil people.”
Randall Padgett spent three years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he didn’t commit. If you think he’s the only one with a complaint about the state’s justice system, critics say get in line…
“I have talked to prisoners who are enduring horrible conditions…” Ebony Howard is with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Prisoners who are not getting the medication that they need. Prisoners who have died since I’ve known them, because they’re not getting appropriate medical treatment.”
The SPLC is suing Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jefferson Dunn over the treatment of inmates. He’s not happy with the system either. “It’s almost like a revolving door," he says "Inmates leave, they don’t have the skills they need to be successful on the outside, and they go back to what they know, which is usually what got them into prison in the first place.”
Stuck in the middle are the families of inmates…
“And, I just want what’s right…for my brother," says Jodi Kirkland. Her brother, Roy Doster, is awaiting execution on Alabama’s death row. “Because he didn’t kill that man. I don’t know about the one in Texas. But, Texas ain’t trying to kill him.”
As it stands, Alabama’s prisons are one hundred percent over capacity. Critics say the state spends only $26 dollars a day to house and rehabilitate prisoners. The national average is around $79 per day. And in Alabama, one in every four citizens has been convicted of some type of crime, justice reform is an issue that hits statewide. I’m Pat Duggins, for the next half hour, the Alabama Public Radio news team will examine the issues that prompted the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation of the state’s prison system. First of all, let’s look at how Alabama treats people who were convicted of crimes they didn’t do. If you had just been released after three years on death row, what would be first on your to do list…
“Well, hug my kids and my family…” Randall Padgett lives in Guntersville. “And, see some nature, touch a tree, touch some grass. I think a tree was the first thing…no, I had to walk across some to get to the tree…” Padgett was convicted for the murder of his estranged wife in 1990. He was exonerated seven years later.
As a free man, you might think Padgett has every reason to be happy. He’s not… “Lost my home, thirty two acres of land, my job. Probably between me and my family, l probably spent two hundred thousand dollars on attorneys.” All for something an Alabama jury says he didn’t do…
“Oh, it destroyed him…” That’s attorney Richard Jaffe. He won Padgett’s freedom. In his law office in Birmingham, Jaffe has plenty to say about Alabama’s policy on compensating people who were sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. He’s not a fan… “It might as well not exist.”
We’ll talk more about that in just a moment. First, here’s how Padgett wound up on death row to begin with. It started with a phone call… “I get on the phone, and called my brother," says Padgett." And he said there a knife involved. I must have vomited twice, I think.”
Padgett’s wife Cathy been stabbed forty six times. Her body was found at their home in the town of Arab. They were separated at the time. Where Padgett made his phone call didn’t help matters. He was having an affair, and he was with the other woman. Prosecutors claimed Padgett’s DNA was found on the body at the crime scene. Attorney Richard Jaffe says there was just one problem with the state’s case
“Oh, they botched it…for sure,” says Jaffe.
DNA taken from the scene was tested to establish blood type. The result was a match for Padgett. Before the trial, the sample was tested again. The second result was a different blood type that didn’t match Padgett, He thought that alone would clear him… “I’d seen stories of people getting convicted of something they didn’t do. But, I guess I thought that’ll never happen to me.”
But, it did.
The jury found Padgett guilty of murder. What’s worse, the judge overruled the jury’s recommendation of life in prison. Padgett says his first night on death row let him what he was in for…
“About midnight, there was two guys talking above me in adjoining cells, I presumed. It sounded like a black guy and a white guy. And finally, the black guy tells the other one ‘let’s sack out, and let’s have a word of prayer.’ So, he said this beautiful prayer, and I thought this might be such a bad place. So, the black guy, I guess is trying to get him to end his prayer, and he says ‘let’s have a moment of silence.’ And, the white guy says ‘are you making fun of me, you black S.O.B.?’ and then he starts cussing like a sailor, after saying that beautiful prayer for so long. And, he says “I know where your mama lives and I’m going to have her killed, and I know where you cousin lives and I’m going to have her killed.’ And, I decided this is a bad place.”
Attorney Richard Jaffe… “I never figured out whether it was a blunder, an accident, was it on purpose, was it sneaky…I never…I’ve scratched my head on that, and to this day, I have no idea what the reason for it was.”
Jaffe’s referring to the botched DNA evidence from Padgett’s original trial. In 1995, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the prosecution hid those DNA test results from the defense. A new trial was ordered and that jury found Padgett not guilty. Now, let’s get back to his money problems…
“Randall was doing pretty decently on the chicken farm—and, he lost that.” Richard Jaffe… “He had legal fees to his original lawyers…the appeal, whatever. He had legal fees to us. He lost the chicken farm. And, he’s never really gotten on his feet, economically, financially…”
In 2001, the Alabama legislature passed the Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration Act. Exonerees are supposed to get fifty thousand dollars a year for each year they spent in prison. Padgett applied in 2003.
The state said no…
“Not guilty is not innocent, according to the State of Alabama,.' says Padgett. "Which, I don’t understand, what’s the definition of guilty? And if you’re not guilty, are you not innocent?”
A quick check of the Alabama code leads to Section twenty nine dash two dash one six one. That’s the law to pay people for wrongful incarceration. It says the charges have to be dismissed because the defendant was totally innocent. “It’s very hard to prove a negative,” says Attorney Richard Jaffe. He's talking about providing absolute proof of innocence. He says it’s tougher than it sounds… “I see one way that someone could take advantage of it. And that is, if there was absolute, one hundred percent, clear, DNA in somebody, who was in Alaska. And, you could put those two facts together, and one person could probably prevail under the law.”
And, for people like Padgett, the burden of proof falls on them. Also, it’s unlikely that Richard Jaffe or any other attorney could help argue his case. The Wrongful Incarceration Act prevents any money from a state settlement going to pay legal fees.
Anyone who wants payment for wrongful jail time have to go to the state capitol in Montgomery. Alabama has a committee to hear claims. And, Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh is on that panel. He says it comes with the title… “I could put a designee on there, " says Marsh. "I could walk away with this. But, I think we have to give serious consideration to, and if somebody has been wronged, then we as a state want to do to make it right.”
But, along with this justice for all attitude, Marsh says the question of innocence always comes up… “In some cases, we’re told by those still representing the state, that ‘yeah, technically they’re out of here, but we’re not going to tell you their innocent.” And even if there’s a legitimate claim, Marsh says there’s another question to be asked before the state pulls out its checkbook… “Was it something that happened on the local level, where the prosecutor maybe, for instance, didn’t provide evidence he should have provided. At what point is it more of a local responsibility, than the state’s responsibility?”
And, even if Marsh and his committee members say the state should pay, the legislature isn’t legally required to foot the bill . So far, Alabama’s track record on this speaks for itself. In the fifteen years since the passage of the Wrongful Incarceration act, only one case has resulted in payment. That defendant died a year before the claim was settled. The money went to his family. While Randall Padgett is out of prison, life behind bars continues for many others…
If you’ve never been inside Alabama’s Atmore Prison, don’t worry. Back in March, Atmore came to you…
I’m Mackenzie Bates, Alabama Public Radio news. This cell phone video was shot during riots at the prison. Inmates set fires, and attacked guards and the warden. The violence was supposedly sparked by overcrowding. Rufus Ricks knows the problem first hand…
“At lights out, it would be quiet. People would asleep. Now it’s not like that no more. There’s always somebody awake and people are always moving around because it’s so crowded.” Ricks spent 20 years in an Alabama prison on robbery charges. He’s been housed in several of Alabama’s 14 prisons during his sentence. So he’s seen a lot. “They start putting more and more racks inside of the prisons. First they have two-man cells. And they start putting an extra rack in there so now you have three people in this small area. And I’ve got my property, he’s got his property, and he’s got his property. They lock you down at night. You might need to use the bathroom and we’re dealing with feces. The smells and all kinds of stuff, it’s terrible.”
That could easily be an understatement.
In 1979, Alabama’s prisons had about six thousand prisoners. Today, the Department of Corrections says the state has more than twenty eight thousand people behind bars. Prisons designed to hold about thirteen thousand inmates are more than one hundred percent over capacity. Take Limestone Correctional Facility for example. The facility near the town of Harvest opened in 1984. It’s supposed to hold just over two thousand inmates…
“We have 2,236 today and we have 2,532 beds.” That’s Christopher Gordy.
He’s a warden at Limestone. Limestone is one of the largest prisons in the state. But when it comes to overcrowding, it does make it difficult for his officers to do their job.
“The visibility in the dorm is not really that great for the officers. But when you’ve got double-bunked beds stacked up sometimes less than 10 inches from each other, so it makes it very difficult for officers to patrol the dorms and see everything that happens in the dormitory.”
It’s a hot day at Limestone. There’s no air conditioning and it smells like it. Fans are used to try and cool the facility, but today it’s not helping. There are so many prisoners gathered in one place, the temperature rises quickly.
“We will become the best Department of Corrections in the country rather than the worst. I like to be No. 1, even if it’s in the prison systems.”
That’s Governor Robert Bentley. He’s pushing a plan to consolidate Alabama’s 14 prisons into four “Mega Prisons” housing four thousand inmates each. Bentley says by downsizing, the state would save millions of dollars. “Transportation is decreased. You don’t have 14 kitchens, hospitals. It’s efficiencies. Plus the fact that we’re having to repair all of these old prisons right now. We’re spending millions of dollars. We actually have $90 million in deferred maintenance at the prisons we have right now.”
“Prison overcrowding is a lot of things, but policy is a main driver of it, not buildings,” according to Katherine Green Robertson. She's the Vice President of the Alabama Policy Institute in Birmingham. She’s a big critic of the state’s plan, where the math doesn’t seem to add up…. “I think if you’re going to sell the public on a billion and a half dollar bond issue which is what it is once you add the interest, you better be sure that it’s actually going to solve the problem which there is no evidence that it will.”
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative agrees with Robertson. He doesn’t think new prisons is the answer. “It’s like having a college football team that keeps losing every game and your solution is, ‘oh let’s build a brand new stadium. That’ll solve the problem.’ It won’t. You need better coaching and you need better players.”
Stevenson says the riots at Atmore Prison are just one indication of a system with big problems. Governor Bentley says the state and the Department of Corrections response was to get tough… “Now people are being punished for the crimes they commit and we’re not talking about that except for this: We feel like that people who are in prison they certainly need to be safe and we need to make sure they’re not harmed while they’re in there because that’s not part of their punishment.”
But, critics say that’s not the only issue. Alabama’s prison system reportedly spends less per prisoner per day than anywhere else in the nation. Twenty six dollars daily to house and rehabilitate an Alabama inmate, compared to close to seventy dollars in other states. Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative says, then there’s the mismanagement…
“We have people serving life and life without parole for writing bad checks, for being in possession of marijuana, for shoplifting, for very minor crimes. That’s the biggest problem. I actually think we can get five, ten thousand people out of prisons next week without any threat to public safety.”
Even Governor Bentley concedes that point…
“Our system is a Department of Corrections, it not a Department of Housing. So we need to try to correct them, help them become productive citizens. That’s how we’re going to save money but we’re going to save lives, too.”
Bentley’s eight hundred million dollar prison plan received a lukewarm response from state lawmakers. The proposal failed in the General Session this year and Bentley hopes to revive it next year. After very little debate by lawmakers, the house sent a scaled back version costing $550 Million dollars. It failed in the last night of the session. The Alabama Policy Institute says the plan needed more thought. And, they’re not the only ones…
“In typical of Alabama Government, we don’t deal with situations until they’re a crisis,” says Chris England who saw Bentley’s plan. He sits on the House Judiciary Committee in Montgomery. “Unfortunately, when things reach crisis level, your remedy is often going to be somewhat ineffective and very expensive.”
Opponents of the Governor’s prison plan say research and preparation are one key concern. Some state legislatures considering new prisons write proposals running into the hundreds of pages. Critics say Alabama’s plan amounted to just ten.
“I just got the sense from the folks representing the governor and some of the lobbyists that were involved that they hoped to get it through without a lot of discussion and I don’t think that’s good for public transparency,” says England. And Brian Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative says these problems starts at the top. The state, on occasion has locked up minor offenders in maximum security prisons with the worst-of-the-worst inmates. “Our politicians here have been preaching fear and anger for a half century.
And when you create a culture where everybody is competing with one another over who can be the toughest on crime, you start doing some pretty irrational things when it comes to sentencing.” One example is Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. Defendants with prior convictions for things like writing bad checks or non-violent theft can be sentenced to life in prison without parole for future crimes.
The Equal Justice Initiative says two thousand inmates in Alabama prisons are serving life under this act. Bryan Stevenson… “And when you take a situation like overcrowded prisons, undermotivated staff, some of whom are engaged in corruption and abusive practices, it’s going to be a really, really bad system.”
Katherine Green Robertson at the Alabama Policy Institute wants more answers about how and where they will save money and says so do the constituents of Alabama. The concern is that once the $800 million dollar prison plan has been paid off, the final cost will balloon to one and a half billion. “I do think in a plan of this magnitude, given Alabama’s very fragile fiscal condition, we still haven’t seen enough data to show how that number was arrived at.”
And so, Warden Christopher Gordy, his guards, and the inmates on his watch remain waiting. There could be more at stake than rather or not Alabama can afford Bentley’s plan. Prison overcrowding is an issue nationwide. California, for example, could be an example of Alabama’s future if nothing is done. Prisons in the Golden State were at two hundred capacity, just like in Alabama. The situation was so bad, a federal judge declared California’s prisons violated the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That was followed by threats of a federal takeover. Some in Alabama are wondering how long it will be before this state attracts that type of attention from Washington…
“It hurts. He was my best friend…”
I’m Alex AuBuchon, APR news. Eryka Fykes is talking about her father Phillip Anderson. She’s his youngest daughter. Anderson was arrested in early February last year. Prosecutors say he missed a child support hearing. A week later, he was dead.
“We went down thinking he was fine, because the chief told us he was fine.” That’s Kimberly Coats, Anderson’s sister “And we went to the hospital, and that’s when the doctors’ told us he had passed away.” Coats says jail officials didn’t call her to say there was trouble. Anderson’s fellow inmates saw him unconscious, took his cell phone, and called the family. Attorney David Schoen is representing the Anderson family in a lawsuit. He alleges the staff at the Tuscaloosa County Jail sat and watched as the inmate screamed in pain from a bleeding ulcer. When he finally received medical attention, it was too late. Anderson is not alone in Alabama.
“Guys have died in lockup, beating on their door, seriously.” Abdullah Mumin now lives in Tuscaloosa. He spent 28 years in an Alabama prisons across the state. “You’re trying to get this guard's attention in this cubicle, trying to get him to see what's up, and they up in there laughing or playing on their phone, and you die in your cell because this guard didn't want to open their door.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program are among the groups suing the Alabama Department of Corrections over inmate health care.
“Prisoners are dying, prisoners with serious mental health problems are killing themselves…”
Richard Cohen of the SPLC says he wants specific things from the lawsuit…
“First: Ensure that people who are behind bars get a basic level of care, as the Supreme Court says that they must. Second, we hope that our lawsuit encourages the state to continue to reduce its unconscionably high levels of incarceration.”
“We have a requirement, and it’s one that we take very, very seriously, to address and meet the medical needs of our inmates.” Jefferson Dunn is the Commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Corrections. He agrees that overcrowding is a major issue when it comes to providing medical care. But Dunn says he thinks the care they provide is adequate. “We handle the entire gamut that you can imagine, from very routine all the way up to some of the most serious medical trauma, emergency… And this particular population, as a group, tends not to be as healthy as an average population that’s not within the system… So yes, I do think they are receiving adequate medical care.”
Alongside the lawsuit, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report in June 2014 titled Cruel Confinement. It details their investigation into the medical and mental health offerings in Alabama’s state prisons. Maria Morris is the lead prosecutor on the case for the SPLC. She says one of the most striking things from the report was the way the Alabama Department of Corrections has handled infectious disease outbreaks.
“There is no one responsible for infection control in most facilities, and one of the things we see as a result is an extraordinarily high level of tuberculosis...”
Morris says one tuberculosis outbreak lasted for five years.
“They had an outbreak of tuberculosis in 2010. And you can track strains of tuberculosis, and the outbreak that occurred in 2010 at Donaldson was still going on at different prisons in 2015, which means that they were unable to eradicate that particular outbreak of tuberculosis. And that's an extraordinarily long time for any outbreak to last in a prison system.”
Caring for mentally ill inmates is another key element of the lawsuit and another sore spot in Alabama’s prisons. ADOC Commissioner Dunn says it’s a major priority. “We have a very strong focus on mental health care. We have an entire staff of mental health professionals, from counselors all the way up to psychiatrists. We do residential treatment in a couple of our facilities.”
Because there are so few mental health professionals on staff with the Department of Corrections, the caseloads get overwhelming. Morris says it’s the patients who suffer.
“Some of them have caseloads of over 200 people. And they all, as a result, the counseling that they provide is really much more of a check-in. It's 5 or 10 minutes a month for people who have schizophrenia, saying 'How are you doing? Are you doing OK on your meds? Everything good? OK.”
But former prisoner Abdullah Mumin says you may not even get that. “They're in lockup. So that means that, for them to see a psychiatrist, they got to have an appointment scheduled, so they gonna handcuff and shackle you and take you up here to the front office to have a sit-down and talk. But sometimes they don't even do that. They’re lyin.”
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson granted class action status to the mental health portion of the lawsuit. Thompson says mental health professionals told the Department of Corrections they needed more staff, but the DOC refused to pay for it. Judge Thompson says that constitutes “deliberate indifference.”
When asked to comment directly on the case, DOC Commissioner Dunn declined. “The judicial process needs to work itself out, and we just want to be as respectful of that process as we can as we work out these issues.”
It’s unclear how Thompson will rule in terms of health and mental health care in Alabama’s prisons. One thing’s for sure, though. If you find yourself in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections, it might be a good idea not to get sick.
I’m Stan Ingold, Alabama Public Radio news. The slam of a jail door is the first thing prisoners hear when they enter the Alabama prison system. It’s also the last thing when they come out.
“They give you a bus ticket and a check for ten dollars and they say “Have a nice life.”
That’s Brenda Lee Kennedy. She was incarcerated in the Montgomery Work Release Center for nearly five and half years before being released in November of last year.
“They put you out of the gate, they take you to the bus station and you’re free, you are thrust back into society with absolutely nothing.”
That’s a common complaint among ex-convicts. After what could be decades behind bars, inmates are dumped back into society, essentially on their own. Critics call it the second sentence…
“You typically lose your driver’s license when you go to prison, when you come out, you have to report to your probation officer.”
Joyce White Vance is the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama
. “You may need mental health or medical care; you’re certainly going to be looking for an new job. It’s very difficult to accomplish those three goals without being able to drive. At some point you’re going to get behind the wheel without a driver’s license, you’re probably going to get pulled over, you’re probably going to get rearrested. That is a reentry fail.”
Why should Alabama care? Vance says if ex-cons aren’t working a job, they’re likely to be doing something else. “Everyone understands there is a cycle of recidivist crime, people come out of prison, they commit new crimes and go back to prison. The goal is for people to come out of prison and not commit more crimes, for people to go back and become hard working, tax paying members of the community who are engaged with their family. The question is why doesn’t that happen.” Again, why should Alabama care? Vance says because a lot of Alabamians have done jail time…
“The numbers that come out of the Alabama Department of Corrections say that one in four adults in Alabama has had either a felony or misdemeanor conviction.”
That’s a lot of job application forms with the little check box that asks if you’ve been convicted. Many businesses shy away from hiring people who check that box with a yes… Joyce Vance’s office is unusual because it’s the first in the nation to hire an attorney specifically to get inmates back into the work force when they get out of prison. The private sector is trying to help too.
This is where the Dannon Project comes in.
“What my husband’s family and I wanted to do was to start an agency that provided a prescription if you will, to provide support to people when they come home.” Kerri Pruitt founded the Birmingham based group to help former prisoners find jobs. A personal tragedy got her going. Pruitt’s brother in law was killed by a newly released ex-con. She and her husband started the Dannon Project to systemically prepare inmates to re-enter society.
“Your case managers stay in contact with you weekly or bi-weekly. We have retention specialists who stay engaged, we have mentors who stay engaged. Now we’re trying to add in a component of our seniors, using our senior community to also make sure they follow up to tell someone “happy birthday” or “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” whatever.”
That work also includes things getting a proper ID and a social security card. “I wasn’t a resident of Jefferson County or Birmingham, I came here at a halfway house and I had nothing, no car no nothing, no family here no nothing.” got him back on his feet and into a job. “I’m still on that same job and now I’m a supervisor. Now I’m at Lawson State, through here, through the Dannon Project. I’m in school, taking college courses, see I made it to the 7th grade, got my GED, now I’m in college.”
Kerri Pruitt says Dannon doesn’t just wait for people to come to them. The group goes into the prisons as well to work alongside the reentry efforts of the state.
These are the reentry courses going on at Limestone Correctional Facility. The inmates here are within six months of their E-O-S or end of sentence. Mary Weston is the Pre-Release Program Supervisor at Limestone. She says there are a number of courses the inmates are required to take as part of their re-entry process…
“So its family reintegration, anger management, substance abuse, along those lines; everything that is a criminogenic behaviors and needs is what we focus on in the core curriculum.” There are also elective courses to help prepare them as well… “It’s G-E-D, RTW which is a ready to work certificate, they can take art therapy, we also have a book club and probably twenty different alternative classes they can take in the afternoon.” The Limestone facility has room for three hundred inmates who are “E-O-S-ing” and the re-entry program here often takes on prisoners from other sites across the state.
She says some of the ones that have the hardest time transitioning are the people who have been locked up for a long time… “If you have an inmate who has been in a long time, you know the world has moved on, things have changed, so it tries to help from a cognitive behavior standpoint where they can help process information better, make better decision, make better choices.
The goal here is to reduce recidivism rates, to help them stay out and be productive members of society and to reintegrate back with their families.” Weston says it is ultimately up to the person whether or not they succeed upon release. Daryl Atkinson is taking up that challenge. He was sentenced to ten years for a nonviolent first offense drug crime. He served just over three years before he was released. He says he had an advantage that many others do not…
“Fortunate enough for me I had a loving family to provide me food, clothing, shelter, help fund my college education, and I went back to school and got my associates degree, my bachelors degree, my law degree, I’m licensed to practice law in Minnesota and North Carolina.”
That could be taken as bragging, but Atkinson says it’s not…
“I highlight those particular ticks on the resume not to illustrate any exceptional attributes that I have, I’m pretty average. I left a hundred brilliant men behind the wall. The only thing that separates me from them is that support system.”
Despite all the effort, Alabama still has a recidivism rate of almost thirty percent. So, for just about every Daryl Atkinson, there’s another ex-con who breaks the law, costing the state more tax dollars as they’re arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to prison.