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Governor's Prison Study Group Begins Looking at Issues

Bill Lundsford, speaking for the Department of Corrections at today’s first meeting of Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison study group, illustrated one problem with Alabama’s prison system which summed up several others.

The ADOC hasn’t built a new prison facility since the Internet became widely available to the general public, he said. That presents a problem for prison authorities when they try to add computers for inmate enrichment programs to facilities without air conditioning.

The statement crystallized Alabama’s dilemma - prisons too hot for computers, crowded beyond their capacities with inmates, most of whom will eventually return to society needing preparation to gain employment and rejoin productively.

The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, chaired by former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, met at the Alabama State House to begin discussions about issues with the state’s correctional system that go back decades. Lundsford, an attorney who represents the ADOC, gave a talk about the department’s ongoing legal issues and challenges in staffing and infrastructure.

Alabama’s prisons, currently at 164 percent their capacity, have about $750 million in deferred maintenance issues. The department is paying roughly $50 million more for inmate healthcare than it was a decade ago, and has about 1,000 fewer security staff than in 2009.

At the same time, the department is dealing with the settlement requirements of a long-running lawsuit over mental health care for prisoners, and the fallout from a Justice Department report earlier this year detailing an atmosphere of violence in prisons that investigators said violate the U.S. Constitution.

Lyons, speaking for the committee, said it plans to not only look at the ongoing issues, but along broader lines such as policy initiatives to improve prison conditions, reform sentencing, address future needs and reduce recidivism. The committee tentatively plans to tour a prison in August.

Lundsford, speaking to the committee, said a federal takeover of Alabama’s prisons, such as one that occurred in California, seems unlikely because of the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, which specifies how prison conditions may be addressed by court order. Lundsford said California’s case had been much longer in duration than Alabama’s before a takeover. That state had a longer history of failed remedies, and courts can only address conditions by the least intrusive means, he said.

A few committee members raised their eyebrows when it appeared that Lundsford was saying Alabama did not have an overcrowding issue.

“Are you sitting here telling us that we’re not overcrowded in the state of Alabama?” State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, asked. “I’m just dealing with DOC numbers here."

Lundsford, and later Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, said he wasn’t addressing the actual staffing numbers, but a murkier point - the legal definition of prison overcrowding. “It wasn’t from a physical or architectural standpoint,” Lundsford said later.

He also said talks with the Justice Department regarding a settlement following the DOJ investigation are ongoing, but said ADOC disputes the report’s contention that a climate of violence and abuse is rampant throughout the system’s men’s prisons.

Several committee members said the Legislature took a necessary first step in its last session by increasing funding for prisons, partly to raise pay for correctional officers. The Ivey administration has issued a request seeking companies qualified to build three men’s prisons that the state would lease. The new prisons would house about 10,000 inmates, about half of Alabama’s current prison population. Some of the existing prisons would close under the plan.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who previously sat on other prison reform committees, said he felt this time, there’s interest in real action.

“The big difference is the governor is wanting to take the initiative,” Ward said. “The level of commitment she has put forth, the interest in sentencing, the facilities, the conditions.”

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Governor Signs Pardon & Parole Bill

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation Thursday that will reform the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.  

House Bill 380 is designed to increase the efficiency of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. This bill creates a Director of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by the governor, and provides strict rules and guidelines to prevent violent offenders from receiving early paroles.

Formerly, members of the board were selected by the governor from a list compiled by the nominating commission. HB380 bill will eliminate the nominating commission and create a new nominating board that includes the Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

In addition to the strict guidelines for granting a pardon or parole, at least one member on the board must be a current or former law enforcement officer with a minimum of 10 years of experience in or with a law enforcement agency with experience in investigation of violent crimes.

The law will go into effect in September.

“The paramount duty of this board is to protect and instill confidence in public safety,” Ivey said. “Attorney General Steve Marshall and I have been relentless in pursuing efficiency and prudency for this board. I am proud to sign such a strong piece of legislation designed to protect Alabama citizens.”

Rep. Connie Rowe and Sen. Cam Ward sponsored the bill.

“This long overdue reform was needed to protect the lives of citizens and respect the families of victims of crime,” Ward said.

Changes to the appointments board have been debated following the parole of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was serving a life sentence on multiple burglary charges. Spencer was incorrectly classified as a non-victim offender and paroled in November 2017. Six months after his release, Spencer was charged with the murder of three people, including a seven year old.

The state of Alabama paid $1 million in damages last month to the families of the victims after the families alleged that the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles wrongfully paroled Spencer and failed to supervise him after his release.

“By sponsoring this bill, I hope to eliminate the wrongful, improper release and improper supervision of violent offenders from Alabama’s prison system.” Rowe said. “I am grateful for the governor and her administration’s support on this piece of legislation. The board’s number one priority should be public safety. This Act gives strict rules and guidelines that will instill public trust and confidence in our pardons and paroles board.”

Jessa Reid Bolling is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter and graduate of The University of Alabama with a B.A. in journalism and political science. You can email her at [email protected] or reach her via Twitter.

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Legislature Approves Pardon & Parole Overhaul

The Alabama Senate passed House Bill 380 Thursday, which reforms the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. The House has already passed the legislation so it now goes to the governor.

HB380 was sponsored by State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper.

The bill was carried in by Senate Judiciary Chairman Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has been a vocal proponent of reforming the parole board following some very high-profile mistakes, some of which resulted in parolees murdering Alabama citizens following an erroneous early release.

“Too many lives were lost because of wrongful, early paroles in our state,” Ivey said. “Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall and I have been relentless in our efforts to ensure the Board of Pardons and Paroles is managed prudently and effectively.”

During the debate, Ward referenced a disabled convenience store clerk who was gunned down by a parolee.

“Heads need to roll at the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” Ward said.

Ward also denounced the head of the Board of Pardons and Parole for emailing his probation officers and urging them to drive their state cars to the capital to lobby against the bill.

“This bill ensures strong accountability and oversight of a large state agency with more than 600 employees,” Ivey continued. “The justice system should not fail the people of our state again, like it did in the Jimmy O’Neal Spencer case last year.”

“The first civil right of every citizen is to be free from the fear of violence,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “The people of Alabama deserve the assurance that their criminal-justice system is operating in the best interest of public safety. Today, the Alabama Legislature passed legislation that will reform our state’s badly broken system of pardons and paroles. But this was about far more than fixing a failing agency; this was about securing public safety. We will now be able to better protect the people of our great state.”

Throughout the course of the debate, Marshall identified numerous other instances in which the Board has failed in its duties in recent years, underscoring the need for legislative change.

“For months, the Board has claimed that it was under attack … by the Attorney General’ and that I was simply overreacting to one, isolated instance of ‘human error’ by advocating for this legislation, which the members of the Board and the agency’s executive director have stridently opposed,” Marshall added. “The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles needs fresh, new leadership. The status quo is no longer acceptable.”

“I commend Rep. Rowe, Sen. Ward and the Alabama Legislature on the successful passage of this bill,” Ivey said. “Ultimately, this is a major win for victims’ rights, the families of victims and every citizen across the state. We will continue to be steadfast in our efforts to improve the pardons and paroles system, while restoring confidence in public safety.”

“I look forward to receiving and signing this important piece of legislation,” Ivey concluded.

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Lawmakers Boost Pay for Correctional Officers; Expect a Special Session

As the Alabama Legislature’s 2019 regular session wound down Friday, state lawmakers had boosted the budget for the state’s prisons and approved a pay raise for correctional officers, and they expect to meet again in the fall to address other issues in a system that is still overcrowded, under-resourced and under the watchful eye of a federal judge and the U.S. Justice Department.

“There are lot of different issues, from mental health to overcrowding, the pay, to facilities,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that will give correctional officers “a one-time two-step salary increase,” and expand bonus opportunities for Department of Corrections employees. The measure takes effect Oct. 1, the first day of fiscal 2020.

Over the past few years, the Department of Corrections has seen its budgets increase by small amounts. Its funding from the General Fund in fiscal 2020 is $601 million.

The Legislature has approved and sent to the governor a General Fund budget that includes money to cover the pay increase signed into law by Ivey, give money to hire and train 500 new corrections officers during fiscal 2020 and improve the prison system’s mental health services.

Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn issued a statement thanking the Legislature for the budget and adding that he looked forward “to working with our state leadership in the months ahead as we move forward to address immediate challenges that include developing a sustainable workforce, and revitalizing the infrastructure of our prison system.”

“We still have a lot of work ahead,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

Special Session on Prisons Expected

According to “Recruiting and Retaining Correctional Officers,” a report prepared for Corrections by Warren Averett, an accounting and consulting firm, a federal judge recently ruled that the key problems putting inmates in harm’s way were a “shortage of mental health staff, understaffing of correctional officers and overcrowding.”

Building new, state-of-the-art prisons is another down-the-road priority for lawmakers. The questions are how many, and how they will become reality. Ivey has talked of a private company building the prisons, then leasing them to the state, which then would staff them and operate them. Some lawmakers, on the other hand, would prefer that the Legislature develop a plan of its own, a plan that has failed in previous sessions.

“My guess is, you’ll probably see some sort of hybrid approach, where she says she wants to do it but she’ll have some sort of legislative oversight,” Ward said.“That’s where I have a feeling we’re going, and that’s probably a better way of doing it.”

In any event, lawmakers expect Ivey to call a special session for October on prison issues, and “all options are on the table,” said Gina Maiola, a deputy press secretary to the governor.

In April, the U.S. Justice Department issued a toughly worded report in which it stated that Alabama prisons “do not provide adequate humane conditions of confinement.

“They have a number of significant physical plant-related security issues that contribute to the unreasonable risk of serious harm from prisoner violence,” the report added. “These problems include defective locks; insufficient or ineffective cameras; a lack of mirrors; deteriorating electrical and plumbing systems; as well as structural design issues and weaknesses with the buildings and their perimeters. These problems allow prisoners to leave secure areas, obtain contraband, and improperly associate with or assault other prisoners.”

Justice Department: List of Prison Problems

However, the report states that the problems afflicting the system require a lot more than new, properly equipped buildings.

“New facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse,” the report states. “And new facilities would quickly fall into a state of disrepair if prisoners are unsupervised and largely left to their own devices, as is currently the case.”

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. (Source: Tom Gordon)

As of last week, Alabama’s prisons, work release centers and other state-run facilities held 20,369 inmates. Ward, who has worked on prison issues for years in his position in the Legislature, said about 70 percent of the inmates were serving time for the state criminal code’s most serious offenses such as murder and rape and robbery in the first degree.

In recent years, as the Legislature has approved sentencing reforms designed to keep certain categories of offenders out of prison and nudged up officer pay, the state prison system’s inmate population has been dropping. But the current population still amounts to 164% of what the state’s aging facilities were built to hold. The number of correctional officers was listed last week at 1,414, meaning that for every 14 inmates, there is one officer. About 1,900 authorized correctional officer slots are unfilled.

In some institutions, the occupancy rate is dramatically higher. At Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent, for example, the occupancy rate is nearly 200%. That means officers there work vast amounts of overtime and officers from other institutions help with the staffing. In December 2017, Bibb’s inmate-to-officer ratio was 31 to 1.

Earlier this year, according to the Justice Department, Dunn said the department needed to hire 2,200 correctional officers “over the next four years to adequately staff its men’s prisons.”

Friends and relatives watch as a new group of correctional officers stand at attention during graduation ceremonies April 25, 2019, in Selma. (Source: Tom Gordon)

On April 25, 58 students became correctional officers after completing 12 weeks of training at the Alabama Corrections Academy in Selma and were assigned to different institutions throughout the system. Seventy-five more students are now in Selma, “the biggest class since 2015,” according to Lt. Jonathon Levins, the academy’s training supervisor, and more than 100 applicants are expected for the training class that starts in September. Corrections spokesman Bob Horton said the department hopes to graduate 500 correctional officers in 2020, 700 in 2021 and 800 in 2022.

“We’re beginning to make real headway in addressing our core issue, and that is lack of staffing,” Dunn said.

Corrections recently announced what Horton called “an important step forward” to address that core issue – the creation of another position, called a basic correctional officer. Those officers will undergo six weeks of training and perform many of the same tasks that regular correctional officers do, except for such tasks as transferring inmates, driving patrol trucks on a prison’s perimeter or manning patrol towers. A lot more will be required of them than from some employees now scattered throughout the system who are known as correctional cubical operators. A veteran officer at one of the state’s prisons said the cubical operators receive two weeks’ training, “don’t deal directly with inmates” and basically lock and open cell block doors.

For years, Corrections has seen steady losses from the ranks of its regular correctional officers. Those officers not only receive 12 weeks training, but they are certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. According to the Warren Averett report, nearly 50% of 2013’s 236 Corrections Academy graduates and 72% of 2016’s 124 grads were gone after a few years on the job. Such losses have consequences inside the prisons.

Inmates “Not Being Watched”

“Dormitories of prisoners, housing up to 180 men, are often unsupervised for hours or shifts at a time,” states the Justice Department report.

At the sprawling Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, a prison that houses some of the system’s worst offenders, less than 40 percent of the authorized correctional officer slots were filled last June, according to the Justice Department. Last week, a Donaldson veteran officer said that means that in many parts of the prison, inmates are “not being watched.”

Alabama Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn watches as 58 new correctional officers are sworn in during April 25, 2019, graduation ceremonies at the Alabama Corrections Academy in Selma
(Source: Tom Gordon)

“They pretty much do what they want to do if they can get away with it,” said the veteran, who asked that his name not be used because he is not a designated spokesman. As an example, he said in one part of the prison there are five open bay dormitories, each containing about 130 inmates.

“We used to have cubicle officers in between the units so we could have at least one officer with eyes on the inmates all the time,” the veteran said. “We had to close those (cubicles) because we don’t have the personnel to keep people up there now … We might have one or two officers on the South side for all 500 to 600 inmates and they are tentative about going inside the dorms to patrol. And part of it, too, is they yank us out so much to where you end up doing a whole bunch of different things that you can’t walk through the units like you used to.”

In its scathing April report on Alabama prison conditions, the U.S. Justice Department stated, “The combination of ADOC’s overcrowding and under-staffing results in prisons that are inadequately supervised, with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.”

Report: Highest Homicide Rate

Citing the latest data available from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the report states Alabama prisons “have the highest homicide rate in the country.” And no other state department comes close to paying what Corrections pays in overtime – nearly $32 million cited for one year in the Justice report.

According to the latest Corrections numbers for the current fiscal year, inmate deaths by homicide already total eight for fiscal 2019, one higher than the seven listed for all of fiscal 2018. Other stats suggest that inmate on inmate assaults, with or without serious injury, and inmate assaults on prison staffers that don’t lead to serious injury will all be fewer at year’s end. But inmate assaults on staff that result in serious injuries look to be higher, maybe even twice as high, than the 12 reported in fiscal ‘18.

What to Do?

“The biggest thing we need, obviously, is people and the only way we’re going to get more people is to offer more pay,” the veteran officer said.

Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn, right, with new correctional officer Talisha Gadsden during April 25, 2019, graduation ceremonies for 58 new officers at the Alabama Corrections Academy in Selma. (Source: Tom Gordon)

According to the Warren Averett report, correctional officers “receive standard state government benefits, which are in most cases comparable or better than benefits for private sector jobs,” but their salaries “are not high enough to compete with other law enforcement jobs.

“The mean salary for correctional officers and jailers in Alabama is $35,370,” according to the report, “while the mean salary for police and sheriff’s patrol officers is $44,490.”

In issuing its report on Alabama prisons, Justice threatened to sue the state 49 days later to force it to address conditions in the prisons. That deadline passed last week. and Ward and Marsh said Justice officials understand that Alabama lawmakers are working on a multi-faceted prison reform approach.

“We talk almost on a daily basis,” Ward said, “and they’ve really been good to work with … What they want to see is that you’re serious about making progress. They want to see that at least, you’re trying.”

“We want to be very clear to the Department of Justice, we are not putting this off. We want to make sure we are well prepared and address all these issues at the same time,” Marsh said.

“This is a state problem that is our responsibility to address and I’ve not been in a meeting where anybody was butting heads over this thing,” Marsh added. “In June, we will start work on what I would call a more comprehensive package to address the … prison situation.”

One thing that has been happening is that a group of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, have been periodically meeting out of the spotlight to discuss prison issues. Topics have included more sentencing reform and more special courts to divert offenders from prison.

“This is the first time, ever, since I’ve been here that I’ve seen a group of black Democratic House members and senators (and) Republican guys in the House and Senate, all in the same room talking about the same thing, and actually being not far apart from each other,” Ward said.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who sponsored the pay and bonus bill that Ivey signed into law Wednesday, has been pushing for a bill to require Corrections to submit monthly reports to the Legislature on cases of sexual abuse and suicides, Ward said.

“That was a Democratic idea and all the Republicans in the room said, ‘That’s a good idea.,’” Ward said. “And the reason that worked? We’re getting in a room by ourselves, no media, no lobbyists, just us, and coming up with some of these ideas.”

BirminghamWatch, in collaboration with B-Metro Magazine, documented the conditions under which correctional officers work for a story last year:


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Bill to Ease Work Place Restrictions on Those Who Have Served in Prison Passes

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WKRG) -- The Alabama State Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that removes many of the work restrictions that currently face people who have served the entirety of their prison sentence and paid full restitution.

Senate Bill 163, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), received bipartisan support, passing unanimously in the House and the Senate.  

Currently, there are 783 places in Alabama’s laws and regulations where citizens who have committed a crime are indefinitely barred from receiving various occupational and professional licenses.

The legislation allows a person who has served their full sentence and paid all restitution to petition a judge to obtain an order of limited relief. Once the order of limited relief is obtained, an occupational licensing board or commission is prohibited from automatically denying a certification to someone with such an order. The board is required to conduct a fair hearing and consider the merits of the petitioner’s case.

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STEM Academy Receives Grant

The LeCroy Technical Center in Clanton received a $9800 Cawaco RC&D grant,in partnership with the Alabama 
Legislature, to provide assistance with 13 teachers that teach engineering, computer science, and robotics classes in six sites. Teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade provided hands on classroom

Senator Ward stated that he believed with the increased demand for skilled employees in our state, programs
like this are needed to continue growing our economy.


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Alabama Legislators Focus Efforts on Prison Crisis

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WBRC) - A bipartisan group of state lawmakers announced a handful of new bills aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system and reducing the prison population.

It’s a tall order in a traditionally tough-on-crime state, but the stakes for Alabama could not be higher. A damning report by the Department of Justice (DOJ) found the state’s prisons for men to be “cruel and unusual,” citing widespread sexual abuse, deadly violence and extortion. In 2017, a federal judge called mental healthcare in prisons “horrendously inadequate,” citing record suicides. The remedy to that class-action lawsuit will cost the state millions of dollars.

Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said a group of about 14 legislators, from both chambers and both parties, has been meeting to talk about options in reforming Alabama’s embattled correctional system. He said they’ve had “blunt, brutal” discussions, with no lobbyists present and they are hoping for a special session to address these issues. The bipartisan effort may finally make the difference needed to pass meaningful improvements in Alabama, according to Ward.

“We’ve all been open with each other,” Ward said. “I’ve been here 17 years and I’ve never seen it.”

Sen. Ward sponsored an omnibus bill, SB 382, an ambitious opening that would repeal the state’s habitual offender law, raise thresholds for property and drug crimes and allow any inmate sentenced prior to October 1, 2013, when presumptive sentencing standards took effect, to petition the court for a new sentence.

The bill is a starting point, a place to begin discussions, negotiations and the inevitable emotional wrangling that surrounds undoing policies decades in the making.

Another bill, HB 614 sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, would require every judicial circuit to establish drug court, mental health court and community corrections programs. The biggest need is for mental health court. Currently, 11 adult mental health courts and one juvenile mental health court are operating across the state, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“There are some things that are being discussed that are positive and things we can work towards,” Matson said. “My concerns are about the release of violent offenders.”

When questioned about funding or how the state plans to implement such sweeping changes, little details were offered because lawmakers say they’re in the beginning stages.

“This notion that we need to pass a bill tomorrow, I think is foolhardy,” said Ward. “We’ve got take our time and get this right so we’re not doing this every year again.”

Yet time is not on Alabama’s side. The DOJ gave the state 49 days to address concerns outlined in the federal findings letter released April 2. Sen. Ward said state leaders are in conversation with DOJ officials and he does not anticipate a federal lawsuit under CRIPA, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

Next Wednesday would be the first opportunity the DOJ could file a lawsuit.

Jay Town, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama said in a statement Thursday that state leaders have “willingly engaged in a dialogue with us,” but it was too early to determine whether there will be CRIPA litigation.

“The Department of Justice remains hopeful that such steps will be unnecessary,” Town said.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said the DOJ report has created the political will to tackle these issues, which are not politically popular. He said for years, lawmakers gave the impression that being smart on crime meant to lock everybody up.

“We have to introduce the concept that everyone shouldn’t be incarcerated,” England said. “Everyone shouldn’t be locked away or ignored for 20 to 30 years.”

Governor Kay Ivey has not yet called a special session, but released a statement applauding the bipartisan effort, saying she believes there is no single solution and no easy answers but has faith her administration will work closely with the legislature to solve these issues.

“This problem has been kicked down the road for the last time,” Ivey said.

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Punishing Violence, Recognizing the Dignity of Work and the Possibility of Redemption

Police officers, sheriffs and district attorneys do heroic work every day to lock up criminals and keep our streets and neighborhoods safe. Yet many parts of our criminal justice system are broken, and layers of bureaucracy and a thicket of self-serving fees and outdated rules create barriers for people who have already paid their debt to society. Thankfully, in Alabama, a consensus of law-and-order conservatives and left-leaning liberals has begun to reform the system to make sure that justice is served swiftly, but fairly.

For instance, right now there are 783 places in Alabama’s laws and regulations where, if a person has committed a crime, they are forever barred from receiving various occupational licenses. Frankly, this is part of a larger problem where we have way too many layers of bureaucratic licensure requirements, many of which seemed designed to create barriers to entry for aspiring young workers, rather than actually protecting consumers.

For people who have served their full sentence, once justice has been done, they should be able to get a job to feed their family, contribute to society, and lessen the chance that they fall back into crime. Senate Bill 163, which the State Senate approved this last week by a 34-0 vote, says that once a person has served their full sentence and paid all restitution, they can petition a judge to obtain an order of limited relief — once obtained, an occupational licensing board or commission is prohibited from automatically denying a certification to someone who has such an order. The board or commission must give the case a fair hearing. This is conservative criminal justice reform that recognizes the dignity of work.i

On the civil litigation side, if you are wronged or injured, your day in court shouldn’t depend on whether you can pay a court’s processing fees, most of which are designed to cover internal court costs. That is a pay-to-play system where only the wealthy can afford to have their grievances heard. That’s why I am also sponsoring a bill that will allow a judge in civil cases to waive docket fees if a person before the court is in financial hardship. The State Legislature has a duty to adequately fund the courts, while the courts themselves, as much as possible, need to cut down on the number of fees that are assessed. A person of low means shouldn’t have to choose between paying a fee or having their case heard.

Along similar lines, nearly everyone (especially in rural areas) needs a car or truck to get to work and school. Currently, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) can suspend your driver’s license for failure to pay a traffic fine. That’s an especially harsh penalty for single mothers and the many people who are driving between towns to bus tables at lunch and unload freight at warehouses at night to make ends meet. I have filed SB16 to prevent ALEA from suspending drivers’ licenses if a judge has hard evidence that the person in question is indigent. We shouldn’t take away the ability to work from people over a traffic fine.

On the flip side, harsh and complete justice should be meted out to violent criminals. Yet over and over again, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles has made puzzling decisions to commute sentences or allow prison inmates to get out on parole, years before a full sentence has been served. That failure of duty by the Board has had tragic consequences. In July of 2018, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was charged with the brutal killings of Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Martin’s 7-year-old great-grandson. Spencer, a man with a violent rap sheet going back to the early 1980s, had been granted parole by the Board in November of 2017 and released from prison in January.

Working with Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall, I have written a bill that will rein in the Board — if SB42 is approved, all Class A felons (these are rapists, murderers, drug kingpins, and human traffickers) will be ineligible for parole until 85% of their sentence or 15 years has been served. The members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles haven’t abided by their own guidelines. This bill, should it become law, will force them to toe the line.

Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb and Chilton counties. He
serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard

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DOJ Finds Alabama Prisons Violate 8th Amendment

Montgomery, Alabama- The U.S. Department of Justice announced today there is reasonable cause to believe conditions in Alabama prisons violate the Constitution in a report that includes jolting accounts of violence and death inside the crowded and dangerously understaffed facilities.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle, and Southern Districts of Alabama released the results of a statewide investigation launched two and a half years ago.

The DOJ concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions in men’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment because of a failure to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and a failure to provide prisoners with safe conditions. The report said Alabama prisons have the highest homicide rate in the nation and that violence has increased dramatically in the last five and a half years.

“The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision; overcrowding; ineffective housing and classification protocols; inadequate incident reporting; inability to control the flow of contraband into and within the prisons, including illegal drugs and weapons; ineffective prison management and training; insufficient maintenance and cleaning of facilities; the use of segregation and solitary confinement to both punish and protect victims of violence and/or sexual abuse; and a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive,” the report says.

Alabama prisons have about one-third the number of authorized correctional officers and several prisons have fewer than 20 percent of authorized staff, the report said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has led criminal justice reform efforts in the Legislature, said the state has 49 days to provide a response to the findings. Ward said he expects the Legislature’s prison oversight committee to be the forum to work on the issues and expects meetings to begin as early as next week. Ward said DOJ officials met with him and other state officials on Tuesday and showed them the report. He said it was not surprising but added new urgency to the need to improve state prisons.

“The governor, the attorney general, the leadership in the House and the Senate, we were all in one room when were presented with this,” Ward said. “So, we’re all on the same page in trying to get it fixed.”

The report says the U.S. attorney general may initiate a lawsuit in 49 days to correct deficiencies if state officials have not adequately addressed them.

The federal agency had announced in October 2016 that it would investigate the issues.

The investigation was conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, CRIPA. The DOJ said CRIPA investigations of other correctional systems have led to reforms through settlement agreements with those systems.

The DOJ said it has given the state written notice of the facts supporting the allegations the minimum steps needed to address them.

“The Constitution guarantees all prisoners the right to be housed in safe conditions and not be subjected to violence and sexual abuse,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in the press release. “Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result. The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns.”

U.S. Attorney Richard Moore of the Southern District of Alabama said in a statement the findings indicate a “flagrant disregard” for the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

“The failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection on those of us who live and work in Alabama," Moore said. "We are better than this. We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our State further embarrassment."

Northern District U.S. Attorney Jay Town said: “This massive undertaking alleges constitutional troubles in the Alabama Department of Corrections which are serious, systemic, and in need of fundamental and comprehensive change. That being said, I have great confidence in the State of Alabama’s resolve to correct the prison system’s problems. The commitment by Governor Ivey, Commissioner Dunn, and so many others in the State’s leadership to affirmatively address these inherited issues offers great promise of our development of a meaningful remedy.”

Middle District U.S. Attorney Louis V. Franklin Sr., said: “An extraordinary amount of time and effort was expended to investigate this matter. Although the results of this investigation are disturbing, I look at this as an opportunity to acknowledge that the problems are real and need to be addressed immediately. We are committed to working with State officials to ensure that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”

As evidence of the dangers inside Alabama prisons, the report recounts incidents during a single week in September 2017.

In a dorm at Bibb Correctional Facility known as the “Hot Bay,” with limited supervision and no programming, two inmates stood guard watching for correctional staff while other inmates stabbed a prisoner who bled to death.

At St. Clair Correctional Facility, a prisoner in the honor dorm was beaten by two other inmates with a sock filled with metal locks. At Staton prison, an inmate threatened an officer with a seven-inch knife. At Fountain, an inmate set another’s blanket on fire while he was sleeping. At Easterling, a prisoner was forced at knife point to perform oral sex on two others. And a prisoner at Bullock died from an overdose of a synthetic cannabinoid.

Those were just some of the incidents found in ADOC records from that single week that were described in the report.

For years, Alabama prisons have housed far more inmates than they were built for and employed too few correctional officers. Alabama Department of Corrections officials said the crowding and understaffing contribute to rising violence in prisons.

A spike in inmate suicides is one of the issues that has surfaced in a federal lawsuit over health care for inmates. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in 2017 that mental health care for inmates was “horrendously inadequate.” The ADOC is under court orders to increase mental health staff and security staff.

Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement this morning in response to the DOJ’s findings.

“We appreciate the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to ensure open lines of communication with the State of Alabama. DOJ has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time,” Ivey said. “Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”

The governor’s office said the Alabama Department of Corrections already acknowledged many of the issues in the DOJ’s findings letter and has been working to address them.

The Legislature has increased funding for prisons, partly in response to Thompson’s ruling. Ivey has asked the Legislature for a $40 million increase next year, with much of that money intended to help recruit 500 correctional officers. The court has ordered the ADOC to add about 2,000 correctional officers over the next few years, a number taken from an ADOC analysis of staffing needs.

Today’s DOJ report says the warden at Holman Correctional Facility told investigators she had “probably 11” security staff per shift at the prison, which has about 800 inmates.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, called the DOJ findings "deeply disturbing."

“No human being should be made to live in conditions that are both inhumane and outright unconstitutional,” Sewell said in a statement. "I urge Gov. Ivey and the state legislature to work with federal authorities to make substantial changes to address the report’s findings and foster an environment of rehabilitation, rather than one that perpetuates a cycle of trauma and violence.”

Over about the last five years, sentencing guidelines and criminal justice reforms enacted by the Legislature have reduced the prison population but it is still about 160 percent of the number prisons were built to hold.

The DOJ report says that occupancy in the state’s 13 major prisons is about 182 percent of capacity excluding work release and other facilities. In November 2018, Kilby Correctional Facility had 1,407 inmates in a facility designed for 440, and occupancy rate of 320 percent.

In February, Ivey announced her administration planned to seek proposals from companies to build three men’s prisons and close most of the existing facilities. ADOC officials say it would cost too much to fix the state’s aging prisons and that consolidating most of the prison operations in modern facilities will be cost effective, make prisons safer and allow for better rehabilitation, education and health care for inmates. An initial estimate placed the cost of new prisons at about $900 million.

In 2014, the Justice Department found conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women were unconstitutional because of a failure to protect inmates from sexual abuse and harassment by male staff.

The Justice Department and the ADOC reached a settlement in 2015intended to address the problems at Tutwiler. ADOC officials said conditions at the prison have improved.


Today’s notification, which is about men’s prisons, concerned two of three areas covered by the investigation, whether prisoners were protected from violence and sexual abuse by other inmates and whether conditions were safe. A third remains pending, the DOJ said -- whether prisoners are adequately protected from excessive use of force by prison staff and sexual abuse by prison staff.

The report says the investigation included site visits to four prisons -- Donaldson, Bibb, Draper and Holman -- and interviews with prisoners at several others. It says investigators interviewed hundreds of prisoners and about 55 ADOC staffers.

Investigators received hundreds of emails from prisoners and family members to an email account set up for the investigation.

The report says the ADOC publicly reported 24 inmate homicides between January 2015 and June 2018. It says investigators identified three additional homicides that were not reported as homicides.

“These unreported homicides provide reasonable cause to believe that ADOC’s homicide rate is higher than what ADOC has publicly reported," the report says. “There are numerous instances where ADOC incident reports classified deaths as due to ‘natural’ causes when, in actuality, the deaths were likely caused by prisoner-on-prisoner violence. This is especially concerning given that these incident reports are used for public statistical reporting as required by law.”

The report cites incidents that investigators said indicate prison officials cannot protect inmates even when they have warning. It says an inmate at Bullock was killed by blunt force head trauma in February 2018 one day after warning the prison’s shift commander that he had been threatened over the loss of a cell phone. The same month, an inmate at St. Clair was killed in a knife fight with another inmate who had three previous prison incidents involving knives.

In March 2018, an inmate at Donaldson was hospitalized and had emergency surgery after a broomstick was inserted into his rectum, the report says.

“This incident is just one of hundreds of similar incidents that are documented by ADOC throughout Alabama’s prisons," the report says. "Prisoner-on-prisoner violence is systemic and life-threatening. ADOC is failing to adequately protect its prisoners from harm, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

The report says extortion of prisoners and family members is common. The mother of a prisoner at Ventress reported that her son was beaten and threatened with rape for failure to pay an alleged $600 debt to another prisoner. The mother later reported that a prisoner at Ventress texted her photos of a prisoner’s genitals from a cell phone and threatened to chop her son into pieces and rape him if she did not send him $800.

Dangerous and illegal drugs are prevalent in Alabama prisons, the report says. ADOC employees are not screened for contraband, the report says.

The report concludes with a list of remedial measures.

One is to add 500 correctional officers within six months. Another is to commission a study within six months to determine the feasibility of transferring prisoners to non-ADOC facilities in sufficient numbers that remaining prisoners will be adequately supervised.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lane Woodke, Jason Cheek, and Carla Ward from the Northern District of Alabama Civil Division helped to lead the statewide investigation.


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Shelby Legislative Delegation Addresses Chamber

HOOVER – Alabama lawmakers representing Shelby County gave the local business community an idea of what to expect in the upcoming session during the Legislative Preview sponsored by The Shelby County Chamber on Thursday, Feb. 21.

Legislators at the event, which was held at Jefferson State Community College’s Shelby-Hoover Campus, said funding for infrastructure improvements would likely be the most talked about topic.

Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield) was the first legislator to speak and the first to mention a possible package for infrastructure.

As chairwoman of the Health Committee, Weaver said she would like to see legislation passed that would allow nurses to work in a compact arrangement that would make their licenses effective in 32 states instead of one—a measure that could help with a nationwide shortage of nurses.

Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) brought up the infrastructure package for a second time.

“The infrastructure is going to be the biggest part of our session,” Ward said.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Ward said he wants to address legislation that would make it easier for former inmates to find work. “That sounds elementary, but I promise you it’s making a big difference in reducing our crime rate,” Ward said.

Rep. Jim Carns (R-Birmingham) said that while he lives in Jefferson County and is chairman of the Jefferson County delegation, he also represents part of Shelby County and sees the positive things happening here. “I look forward to serving you,” Carns said. “I look forward to working with you in the next year.”

Rep. Matt Fridy (R-Montevallo), an attorney himself, said he would seek in the upcoming session to address “case driving,” which is when attorneys solicit clients who have already signed agreements with other attorneys. Fridy said he would also like to see college campuses designated as free speech zones. “We’re going to treat each other civilly, and we’re going to treat each other well,” he said.

Rep. Corley Ellis (R-Columbiana) said the funds sheriffs use to feed inmates at county jails could be a topic for legislation. Leftover funds have been used for unrelated purposes in the past. Though Ellis said he worked with Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego to avoid any problems locally, he said he would like to see a permanent state-wide solution.

Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) told attendees about receiving an email warning him to not vote for a tax increase to fund infrastructure improvements. “Welcome to the Legislature,” McClendon said. McClendon said he sponsored a recent bill banning texting while driving but will seek to go further this session. “Unfortunately, enforcement was essentially ineffective,” he said, because law enforcement officers could not determine if a driver was texting or using a phone for legal purposes such as making a call. But the Legislature could consider a bill to ban using a phone for any reason while driving.

McClendon said he will also sponsor a bill to give residents a chance to vote on instituting a lottery, with half the money generated going into the General Fund and the other half to the Education Fund.

Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) said he has enjoyed working with local government agencies—such as the ones representing Pelham, Helena, Alabaster and Shelby County.“The joy of this job has been the opportunity to work with people outside the Legislature,” he said.

The newest member of the delegation, Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Birmingham), said the creation of The Shelby County Chamber was his first opportunity to work with local officials.“It’s truly a light for the rest of the state to see how we can work together,” Roberts said and also touched on the topics of telemedicine and payday lending.

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