On Thursday, November 14, 2019, at the same time that Unheard Voices OTCJ was speaking to the press outside the Montgomery County Courthouse in support of Andre Wallace’s complaint hearing, NPR program 1A aired a discussion on the prison crisis in Alabama. Here is the link: https://the1a.org/shows/2019-11-14/alabama-prisons-mass-incarceration.
We want to lift up and applaud organizers Devin Hill, Mona Song, and Monica Mann, who all took advantage of the platform to be heard on the issues critical to our organizers on the inside–and all of those on the outside that have loved ones inside or were formerly incarcerated. We also appreciate the insight and experiences related by Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Mary Scott Hodgin of WBHM. And finally, a big salute to Theresa Holmes, who has the courage to tell the story of her son’s passing at Limestone and the conviction and strength to continue to seek justice and change. We hope that she too will consider herself a part of our collective movement to build people power here on the outside as we uplift the voices of those inside who know the conditions–and horrors–on the ground daily. Now is no time to rest, we have to share this program, as well as the stories linked below, thanks to excellent reporting by Melissa Brown of the Montgomery Advertiser, featuring the voices from the inside, including that of Swift Justice.
Conditions have NOT improved, in fact everything Governor Kay Ivey has done since the DOJ report in April has been in exact opposition to the common sense and critical actions that should be taken to relieve the overcrowding and the violence, including the officer on inmate violence. We are still pushing for the Department of Justice to file suit. And in the weeks ahead, we will continue to investigate and amplify the stories of those incarcerated citizens such as Andre Wallace, who has been incarcerated for 45 1/2 years and denied parole 12 times for only arbitrary and capricious reasons. We know he has been denied freedom–even in the face of his completion of every rehabilitative program available and his commitment to his faith and community–because this is a racist and rigged system. We know Charles Graddick continues to operate according to the same agenda that won him the loyalty of such groups as the KKK, and that continues to operate with the intention of building up the prison population to ready Alabama for three new mega prisons. But we say, NO NEW PRISONS! Time to lay it on the glass, no time to rest!
Below, we have transcribed the majority of the 1A program so that you can send it in to your loved ones on the inside. Onwards, with love, power and the courage to take a stand and come together to end prison slavery once and for all.
Transcription of NPR’s program 1A Across America: Mass Incarceration in the Deep South
Thursday, November 14, 2019
All left-aligned text is the voice of host, Joshua Johnson
(Summarized beginning) The homicide rate inside the ADOC system is 6 times the national average, according to a recent report by the EJI.
Devin Hill spent two decades in this state’s prisons, he was released this year, this is how he describes his time in prison: “probably worse, because when you are living in it, you don’t even really understand, like, between a week’s time it might have been 8 stabbings, you know… only when you see it on paper do you realize… because it looks so bad on paper you realize, it’s this violent in here?”
US DOJ has repeatedly condemned the conditions… this April condemned it…
How did things get SO bad? And what can be done about it?
Let’s discuss as part of our special project, 1A across America (teaming up with local stations)
Theresa Holmes is the mother of Matthew Holmes, an Alabama prison inmate who killed himself in February. He was incarcerated at Limestone, in Harvest, the same place where prisoners went on a hunger strike this summer to protest inhumane conditions.
Theresa, welcome to the program. First of all, I am very sorry about the lost of your son. How are you doing these days, are you alright?
I am holding in there.
(They discuss how she only found out about her son through another wife of someone at Limestone. Prison never contacted her. Then when she did talk to them they said they had tried to call but was an old number, but she clarified her number hasn’t changed for 20 years… he was a mental health case. Knowing he was not right before he took his life)
I knew if I called up there to ask somebody (about how he is doing) they would just tell me my son’s a grown man, they can’t talk to me about it.
What does that mean, your son’s a grown man? Like he should be able to suck it up and handle it?
Yes… and (when I followed up after he had a medical issue months ago) and I had made a phone call to ask why he hadn’t gotten medical attention, that’s more or less what I was told. That they can’t discuss that with me, that he is a grown man.
Had he ever talked to anyone within the prison about the possibility of him killing himself? I understand he spent some time in solitary confinement.
Yes, he has discussed that, Matt has tried suicide before, and they knew this. He was a mental ill patient, placed on mental health observation before they put him in segregation. And he was in solitary confinement when he took his life.
Can you point to one or two main factors that played the biggest role in your son taking his own life? Things that were done, not done, done wrong, done too late?
They do NOT … take into consideration the… the mental ill in the prison system. They need treatment, the attention, they are not getting it. My son was on mental health observation and was taken out of there and placed into segregation, and him TELLING them what he was going to do. And from me talking to other people that were in there, he was begging for help. And they refused to give it. And from what I am told, he was told to go on and do what he was gonna do. So he quit kicking the door.
…I’m sorry, wait, so he would quit kicking the door? Please explain that.
He was kicking the door, begging somebody to come help him. He was telling them what he was gonna do. And they allowed it to happen.
Just to kinda shut him up?
Yeah, I guess!
Theresa, we want to talk to our panel about what can be done to improve what is going on in Alabama’s DOC. It seems like more and more Americans are more compassionate these days to the plight of people behind bars, that more people are saying Yea, we need to do something about this. It doesn’t make sense to people on any side of the political spectrum. What would you say to the ADOC to Alabamians listening to this, about what needs to change. What message would you have for them?
I can say, my son, like many others, fought, and still fight, daily—to be treated humane. They are denied proper medical and mental health care, but unfortunately my son lost that battle. They need to put more effort into making sure these inmates get the proper mental and medical health care. And I made a promise to my son after he passed away, and I tend to keep my promise—that I will do everything in my power, to make these changes happen. So that this doesn’t happen to another inmate, so that another momma don’t have to go through the pain of losing their son or daughter.
Theresa, I know this is really hard to talk about… we are really grateful you are willing to tell your story… Thank you.
Let’s continue the conversation here at WBHM in Birmingham, joining us in the studio is WBHM’s Health and Science Reporter, Mary Scott Hodgins, Mary Scott, welcome. Senator Cam Ward is a Republican in Alabama State Senate where he chairs the judiciary committee, Senator Ward, welcome. And Carla Crowder is the executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, she spent more than a decade representing people incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons.
Could I start with you Carla and just your reaction to Theresa’s story? Is her story unusual in any way?
Her story is tragically NOT unusual. This year, there have been 22 deaths either by suicide, overdose, or homicide. The deaths continue unabated, even despite the Department of Justice’s findings that Alabama’s prisons are unconstitutional. We have to look back 40 years, because that’s when this started. The federal government first had to take over our prisons from 1976 to 1989, our state officials have known our prisons were underfunded, overcrowded, understaffed, and dangerous for decades, and that’s led to the lack of services and mental health care, medical care, and the lack of staff that pay attention to the cries that the people like Matt… they cried out for help and were ignored, and we hear that that is happening every day. It is really hard for the federal government to find a prison system unconstitutional. The standard is not real high. But in Alabama we have been subjecting prisoners to conditions that pose a substantial risk of harm as our regular practice since the 1970s.
Senator Ward, what was your reaction to this report from the DOJ, did it surprise you at all?
When I was first elected to the Senate 2010, one of the issues I was taking on as chairman of Judiciary was the prison system, the correction system. And it does anything but correct, there is nothing correct about the correction system—it is a reactive agency, it is not proactive. And as Carla said, you know you mentioned it is maybe one of the most dangerous prison systems in the country, I would say the stats show it is THE most dangerous. And it is heartbreaking because you hear those stories all the time, in addition to the high suicide rate, which, unfortunately I think goes underreported, as well as the violence, inmate on inmate, officer on inmate, which definitely goes underreported. Those stories have become so too common, and I think sometimes what is a little scary is that we may desensitize ourselves to it, and think, well this is just the norm, the way it should be. But its hard not to hear about that and have some kind of emotion about it, but at the same time, other stories, including parents and families being extorted, from other inmates. You know threatening violence on another inmate, threatening to harm their loved one if you don’t send money. So multiple stories of death, suicide violence, it really is throughout the entire system.
Mary Scott, could you speak to the larger reputation of the prison system. We’ve been talking mostly about the men’s side, but the DOJ has also had a lot to say about the women’s prison system, so this problem seems to be pretty global as it relates to the department in Alabama.
Yeah, the recent DOJ report was strictly about the male facilities, but it is true that in 2014 there was a DOJ report specifically about the large female facility we have in the state called Tutwiler, and that specifically detailed acts of sexual abuse and harassment, specifically staff on inmate, and in 2015 the state came to a settlement with the DOJ about that report, and worked through it, to I think now they’ve complied with, they said, 41 of 44 orders from the DOJ. And you know, one thing to note, though, is that that report was about one facility, whereas this recent one is about systemic issues within all the male prisons—so it is much much larger animal, so to speak. But certainly these issues have been around a long time and noted by the DOJ for a while.
I should note, we did invite the Alabama DOC to be available for this conversation, they told us that no one was available, but they did provide a statement, the whole thing is available on our website [copy/pasted at the end of this transcription], but it reads in part, quote “we remain in a difficult position, with limited resources, which impacts both the speed and intensity for addressing long standing issues.”
Before I get your response to that, Senator Ward, let’s get to one of the voicemails that landed in our inbox.
My name is Mona, I am an outside organizer with Unheard Voices of the Concrete Jungle, an organization led by inside organizers. Right now these organizers are pushing against false narratives, such as the one Senator Cam Ward is attempting to sell to the public, that new prisons are necessary for rehabilitation programming. The guys inside know exactly the failures of the current programming and assert that infrastructure, or prisons, are not going to magically bring the true rehabilitative programming which the ADOC and politicians have always neglected and failed to invest in. We are organizing to stop the new private prisons, that would only be built with the intention of housing our children and grandchildren.
Mona, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. It is worth noting that Alabama’s governor Kay Ivey proposed building three new prisons to address overcrowding at a cost of about $900 million dollars. Senator Ward, the state government has a direct connection to the prison system’s resources and how they are spent, what would you say to Mona?
Well, first of all, I don’t think construction by itself IS the answer, and if anyone says, let’s just build our way out, that’s the false narrative. Now I will say I have been to every prison in this state, most recent tour of Holman, and I think that some of the reports that uh some groups have released showing the conditions inside those facilities, you wouldn’t put your dog in there. And uh, wires hanging from the ceiling at Holman prison, sprinkler systems and fire alarm systems that don’t work so that people just have to holler fire down the hall because the building is so old and outdated. Tutwiler, which was built during world war II, I think the key though is, on construction, that you are building for better conditions to house mental health staff, healthcare staff, but you’re not trying to build your way out of capacity.
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to blaze past something you said, you said that the system is so bad that if there is a fire – (In Holman -cam ward) – there’s no alarm that goes off, so someone has to yell fire-
They yell down the hall to each other because the building is in such bad repair, so my argument would be not that we need to build our way out of this problem—my argument would be… build to the current capacity if we have to, but make sure we have building that have functioning sewer and water, functioning electricity, and at the same time provides facilities where mental health can be treated. I mean, mental health is the driving issue of our prison system, and if we don’t have that treatment opportunities, you are never gonna solve this.
I wanna talk more about the solutions when we continue with Alabama State Senator Cam Ward, Carla Crowder of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and wbhm’s Mary Scott Hodgins.
Glad to hear some of you who shared your stories about dealing with the prison system, including here in the state of Alabama, Robin emailed: “I am an attorney who has represented prisoners on Alabama’s death row. The living conditions were absolutely deplorable, and the staffing was nearly non-existent. When I visited with my clients, we would be locked into a visiting room, it would often take hours to be released after the visit, I recall once having to use the bathroom so badly, that my client started yelling at the guards to open the doors. It took 45 minutes for me to be let out.”
Carla, I can’t hear these stories, without thinking of the Shawshank Redemption. This feels insanely cruel, it doesn’t just feel neglectful, it feels meanspirited, and it feels nasty, and it feels DAMNABLE. What the hell happened in Alabama?! How did it get this bad?!
It got this bad because the perfect storm of high poverty, low taxes, structural racism, and permanent punishment. We have not invested in services outside the prison, in mental health care, we have not expanded Medicaid, we have grossly inadequate substance abuse treatment, we have not expanded drug courts or diversion programs, except for the ones paid for by people who need them most. So our jails and prisons have become the de facto solution to alabama’s historic lack of investment in people and services and programs.
Well, I understand that, but that’s a problem in a lot of states. And they don’t have it as bad as what we are hearing in Alabama. This feels unique. Even among states that have all of these exact same problems.
Well, I think the DOJ pointed out some reasons why it is unique, and that is within the Alabama DOC you have a culture of corruption and inability to weed out the bad actors, wardens who have overseen um mismanagement, high rates of homicide and suicide in their prisons, sexual abuse of prisoners—we don’t get rid of them we just move them around from one prison to another. Um, and also, I can’t emphasize enough the lack of funding for prisons. Our prisons have been funded the lowest in the country and yet our incarceration rate is the fifth highest and has been for decades. So we are just, have refused to pay for humane, safe, housing, and we have refused to hold the public officials accountable that perpetuate the culture of violence and inhumanity.
I want to note, by the way, I know that we are talking about the corrections department—if you work for the ADOC or have worked, we really want to hear your thoughts about this. I don’t want to just be a chance to beat up on people who are sharing their voices, because we HAVE heard from some ADOC employees, here is what Monica left in our inbox:
My name is Monica Mann, I was a former employee of Alabama DOC, and my opinion as far as prison reformation is that reformation begins at the top. ADOC allowed me to be harassed, bullied, and suffer a life disabling injury because I was a licensed, ordained evangelist who actually cared about the mission statement. I was very very very pro corrections, I was a team player, but that seems to be not what they want.
Mary Scott, could you respond to what we heard from Monica in terms of the steps that the DOC HAS taken? I mean, I am sure the DOC hasn’t been doing absolutely nothing, right?
(Laughs) Well, since the DOJ report was released, what we’ve kind of seen is this most recent legislative session there was an increase in the budget to the DOC and a lot of that was to pay for an increase in salaries for correctional officers and to hire more correctional staff. Keep in mind that they are under a court order as well, with a separate class action lawsuit to hire over 2,000 correctional staff in these coming years. So they have a lot of room to go with that, and the salary increase, still keeps like a starting correctional officer maybe in the upper 30,000 around 40,000 a year. So the position itself, if we are talking correctional staff, um, you know those are tough positions to fill, um and then if we look at what the DOC is doing, they have this four part strategic plan, um, something that they have emphasized in recent months is this increase in contraband raids at the state facilities. Um, some folks have pushed back on that, what happens after these raids—you know, they go in and they do get a lot of contraband but once those raids are done, there are reports that the contraband comes right back in. So… And then the DOC is also supporting this plan to build three new prisons to address the infrastructure issues.
Senator, with regards to what is going on inside the prison system, Nicholas asked; “What are the contributing factors to this problem? Are there more violent than usual prisoners? Lack of resources? A culture of violence amongst guards?” Senator, what about the culture inside the prison system?
It’s a terrible culture, and I think, going back to what some of my colleagues here just said, one of the biggest driving factors in that is a lack of public policy support. You know, if you are going to address the problems at DOC, there are some laws to be changed, but at the end of the day you are gonna have to spend money. There is just no way around not spending more money on treatment, and also, we talked about hiring more officers. You gotta pay em more. We passed a bill this past session that would actually increase their pay, but it’s the lowest paid law enforcement officer in the state of Alabama is a corrections officer. And it is guaranteed to be the most dangerous job you go to every single day. So at lot of times you are going to have some bad apples that get those jobs but I will say this, we have to do more on the transparency of reporting and these abuses that take place.
Do you think, Senator, that Alabamians really care about the people who are in prison? It doesn’t campaign well to say “let’s be nicer to prisoners.” Tough on crime, law and order, three strikes and you’re out, that’s built a lot of political careers, and I just don’t know if the political will exists, not just in Alabama, but in a lot of places, to say, “you know, maybe we were too hard on drug dealers, murderers, rapists, gang members, and we should treat them a little more humanely.” That’s a hard political sell.
You should go on my social media page, I get that hard sell every day. (I bet you do—Joshua.) In fact, I was in north Alabama today talking and had… and I would say, you really wanna get down to fixing this, you are gonna have to rally public support, and yesterday, someone told me, why do you keep talking about this prison stuff, lock em up, throw away the key, they deserve what they get—you know the same lines—and I try to echo back, why you should care. You know the Eighth Amendment is still the Eighth Amendment, it equals every other constitutional amendment, the bill of rights, you can’t support the Second and Tenth and ignore the Eighth, and you know we try to sell that but public support is what’s going to drive the change in this. If you don’t have public support your elected officials aren’t going to go along with it. So it’s a continuing education process.
I’ve seen, senator, there is increasingly a bipartisan argument around prison reform, where progressives and conservatives are both able to kind of attack the same problem from different perspectives with different sets of solutions that seem to interlock rather neatly. Does that kind of… does that exist here in Alabama?
The only way you are gonna fix this is through bipartisan support. There is no way to do it—one party, the republicans can’t do it by themselves, the democrats can’t do it by themselves—the issue is, I think there is a lot of common goals, the question is how you get there. We did that in 2015 when we did part of the sentencing reform we have now, however it’s gonna take both parties, and we’ve had those conversations going well, I just don’t want it to get overly politicized because again – because if it ever becomes democrat versus republican the whole issue goes away and that’s unfair.
One real challenge is that there is this narrative that exists, a false narrative, that the majority of people in Alabama prisons are violent people who should not get out. The parole board recently has clamped down on paroles, they stopped paroling people for several months, um, but what folks don’t know unless you have spent time with incarcerated people is… our prisons are full of folks probably like Matthew, who got in trouble when they were teens, got sentenced for 20, 30, 40 years for robbery – um, I have a client who I worked with, who was severely injured at St. Clair prison. He was in what was called a therapeutic community, his name is Antonio, and he had his ear partially bitten off because he was assaulted in prison. Um, he ended up taking programs, doing well, got parole—he probably wouldn’t have been paroled but for that injury, because that made him more sympathetic to the parole board. He’s been out for four years, he is working, he is doing fine. If not for my advocacy, he would have been stuck in prison because he was labelled a violent offender. There are thousands of Antonios in Alabama’s prisons and we are not giving them the chance that they deserve.
And Carla can you compare what the typical path would be say for a convict behind bars in Alabama who doesn’t have an advocate, who is trying to get better treatment, trying to get parole, trying to advocate for themselves, as opposed to having someone help advocate for them? How big is that difference?
There is a huge gap because the guards have so much power, they will write people up for disciplinaries, um, incarcerated individuals cannot challenge their disciplinaries, so they often have to fight to save their own lives, or to have enough food to eat or a place to live. There are homeless people in Alabama’s prisons because someone else is living in their assigned bunk and there is no guard or staff to help them find a place to live. So people are trying to survive in those conditions. Their institutional records look bad and they go up for parole and the parole board says oh my goodness they got into a fight, look, they had some contraband food, parole is denied without advocacy and their set back 4 or 5 years and they are stuck in those prisons.
Yea, I think, I was actually at the first day of parole hearing that the parole board had last week after a two month delay… Who is paroled? And a lot times families and inmates, they try to present you know, I have participated in this program or this certificate—but you have to remember our system does not have a lot of, we lack programming, we lack mental health treatment, we lack drug treatment, so we don’t have the services on the inside to prepare folks to reenter, and then if they are released, they get, what, ten dollars, bus ticket, and a set of clothes when they leave prison, and then we don’t have a lot of programs on the outside!
Yea, to that point, can we play another clip from Devin Hill, you met him at a meeting to discuss prison reform, Mary Scott, he served 20 years and was released this year:
Well me, personally, I used to be critical of people who get out and don’t prosper, because you know I feel like you should succeed just on your will alone, but… I’ve realized that it ain’t that easy. You need a support system. I went to the career center at least 26 times. So, I mean what about the people that don’t have transportation, you understand? So, I understand now why it ain’t that easy to just get out and access services, you know, it take money and support for everything. So for those that don’t have it, then it will be much harder.
Mary Scott, where does that stand in terms of the state giving released inmates more help in terms of reentering society?
Well… (laughs)… not much. We have a very disjointed system as I understand it in terms of any kind of community reentry programs they are basically non existent. We have some programs here locally, the Offender Alumni Association helps with reentry and that’s really a grassroots organization started by formerly incarcerated people. So it is sort of like groups that have come together to fill in these gaps, um, but we definitely lack reentry programs. And I think, on the note of mental health and drug treatment, that’s something system wide in Alabama, whether you have been in the prison system or not. So, for a lot of people… you think about spending 10, 20 years in this prison system that you have just heard horrific accounts, and then you leave—think about the impact that that has on someone, whether or not they had mental issues to begin with, you know?!
Senator Ward, what would an ideal reentry program look like to you?
Well, you know I tell everybody this, look at a person the day before they are released and they are going to look that same exact way the day after they are released. If you treat someone like an animal in a cage, when they get out, they are probably not going to be a nice person. I think reentry, I think that is a huge key part of what we have to do, in addition to mental health treatment. We have to help these people reenter society, and I think something progressives and conservatives can agree on is what do you want someone to look like—get a job, have the skills to be a successful tax paying citizen, that means getting job training, life skills, that a lot of folks take for granted, that also means mental health or drug addiction treatment. But it’s a complex system, but those reentry skills can greatly reduce the chance for recidivism.
Everybody agrees on that so it’s really confusing to advocates that the governors office is just saying we have $900 million dollars for new prisons, and she’s not saying anything about reentry. We can look to Texas, we can look to Oklahoma, both southern states with high incarceration rates that have greatly reduced their prison populations by rehabilitative programs, by making sure people have the tools, um, something as simple as a drivers license, identification when they get out. And Alabama hasn’t even started that process.
Mary Scott, one detail question I forgot to ask, but Chris a listener threw it in: “How many of these prisons are privately owned? And how can the state regulate them with limited funding?” How much is this private prisons vs. state prisons?
So our system, we don’t have any privately owned prisons right now, there is a facility – (Cam Ward: Over in Columbia an educational and reentry uh prison) –OK, so but that has been a criticism I believe of the plan because one of the options, I don’t believe it has been finalized as the funding system, but, that has been thrown out is to pay for these prisons the three prisons proposed, is to do a build-lease program where a company would build them, and the state would just lease them from that company. The state says that would not be privatization, because they would continue operating the prisons, but that has been a criticism.
Cam Ward: I would fight to the death if we tried to privatize our prison system. It doesn’t work, it’s never worked. Now as far as the construction side goes, building a prison—a private company is going to build it either way, the question is do you do it through a bond issue or through a lease back. But I think as long as they are run by private—by public—citizens, by the department of corrections, that’s the way to go. But I would not want to turn it over to a private company to manage and run it.
All the goodbyes. End of program.
Statement From The Alabama Department Of Corrections
“The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) recognizes the magnitude and scope of the long-standing challenges faced by our department and stands optimistic that current actionable solutions to address the challenges are making a sustainable difference.
ADOC’s three-year strategic plan presented in May was the launch of not only a plan, but rather a pressing movement of a strategic transformation that was envisioned prior to the release of the DOJ report in April 2019. The fresh insight has led to the uplevel of the department’s long-standing processes and procedures, systems, and goals and objectives regarding staffing, rehabilitative programming, infrastructure and culture.
The transformational initiatives that have been implemented include:
- An effective workforce development campaign that is delivering dozens of qualified correctional officers to our valued staff, in addition to a new salary and bonus structure
- Amplified rehabilitative programming, and enhanced healthcare and mental healthcare which includes an increase in healthcare staffing
- Multiple major recurring contraband confiscation operations to remove contraband from our prisons
- Amplified rehabilitative programming, and enhanced healthcare and mental healthcare which includes an increase in healthcare staffing
- Numerous initiatives designed to improve conditions and the safety of our inmates and our correctional officers
- Improvements to the perimeter security of each of our facilities in order to cut off channels through which contraband enters our facilities.
- Establishment and implementation of recurring efforts to identify and remove items used within our aging facilities – including broken pieces of metal from inmates’ beds – that can be used as weapons
- Maintaining an anti-corruption campaign which includes a hotline to report
We remain in a difficult position with limited resources, which impacts both the speed and intensity for addressing long-standing issues. An increase in resources will enable ADOC to build on some of the new processes and procedures that have been implemented. Also, additional resources will improve access to alternative and diversionary programs regardless of the offender’s ability to pay for a prison diversion program.
The ADOC’s progress in addressing these complex challenges is a testament to the power of collaboration. We are grateful for the commitment of stakeholders across the state to this important work and we look forward to continuing these transformational initiatives. While we are pleased with the progress made this far, we recognize there still is work to be done.”