A bungled robbery in 1983 sent Lee Davis to prison on a life without parole sentence. Appleseed’s legal work brought him home.

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director


Lee Davis Jr. Photo credit Bernard Troncale.

Lee Davis spent 39 years incarcerated for a robbery conviction in which no money was taken and no one was injured. At age 70, he is finally a free man.

“I want to thank God for seeing me out of that prison at the age that I am,” Mr. Davis said.

Appleseed took on Mr. Davis’s case after learning that he had nearly four served decades in Alabama prisons without a single disciplinary infraction. We learned he spent his time working for no pay in the Donaldson prison laundry, exercising, and doing his best to set an example for younger people in prison. “I humbled myself and I didn’t accept having a life without parole sentence and never seeing the streets again,” he told us. “A lot of guys would say, ‘You got nothing to lose, you got life without parole.’ I say, ‘But I can still stay focussed on getting out of here. Ain’t nothing impossible with God.”

After researching his case, Appleseed lawyers also learned that the crime that resulted in his original life without parole sentence was a bungled robbery.  Mr. Davis entered a store in North Birmingham where two men were working, reached inside his jacket, and as he began to remove a weapon, a clerk jumped over the counter. A struggle ensued and the weapon slid under the counter. The two employees subdued Mr. Davis until police arrived. No one was injured, and no money was taken. These details are documented in the pages of the transcript from his 1984 trial in Jefferson County.

Lee Davis Jr. talks about being focus and staying positive while serving 37 years in prison under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. Video by Bernard Troncale.

At 32-years old, Mr. Davis was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without parole under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA).

He knew he needed help with the heroin addiction that led to his convictions. He’d been introduced to heroin by a friend who returned from the Vietnam War with an addiction. Prior to his heroin use, Mr. Davis held down a good job at Hayes Aircraft. He had a high school diploma, a wife, and young children.

He struggled with addiction for over a decade, and almost lost everything when he was sentenced to die in prison. But he did not lose hope.

In November, Appleseed filed a petition for resentencing in Jefferson County. District Attorney Danny Carr filed a response supporting release and Circuit Judge Michael Streety granted the unopposed petition in December. 

Mr. Davis leaving Donaldson prison with Appleseed Re-entry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson and Alex LaGanke

In addition to full-time work at Donaldson, Mr. Davis took advantage of rehabilitative opportunities. He earned certificates from numerous months-long programs focused on sobriety, leadership, fatherhood, and Biblical studies, completing over 150 classes and programs throughout his incarceration.

Most of his time in prison was spent performing unpaid labor for the prison system, as a barber, an infirmary worker, and in the laundry, often from 6 am until late afternoon. Mr. Davis never complained about the work; it was a way to stay out of the chaos of the dorms and stay productive.

Throughout his incarceration, he maintained close ties with family, particularly his mother and two sisters, all of whom have passed away.  These days, he is never seen without a locket that holds a photo of his late mother. She was his rock. They never lost contact, despite the bricks, bars, and razor wire separating them.

Mr. Davis has a brother still living and extended family, including nephews, who have embraced him, assisted in his reentry, and shared football-watching weekends with him. “I’ve got to learn all over again. I’ve got to renew relationships. I’ve got to start from scratch.”

Alabama prison deaths reach record levels in 2022. The Department of Corrections’ response? Less reporting on deaths.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher


Eddie Richmond was 17 years old at the time of the robbery that led to his death sentence in the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

He was not sentenced to die; the United States does not permit the death penalty for children or for individuals convicted of robbery. However, here in Alabama, prison terms routinely turn into death sentences. And 2022 was the deadliest year yet as 266 people died in government custody within Alabama Department of Corrections prisons.

Many, like Mr. Richmond, were young men serving relatively short sentences for offenses involving no physical injury to any victim. At the time of Mr. Richmond’s offense, he was not old enough to legally buy cigarettes, to join the military, to drink a beer, or to vote. Yet he was prosecuted as an adult, sentenced to prisons that have been declared so dangerous they violate the U.S. Constitution, then died six months later in prison. He was 20.

This week, news that the Alabama Department of Corrections is removing statistics about prison deaths from its monthly reports comes at the same time the Department reports the highest annual number of in-custody deaths since records have been kept.

An Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson said that 266 people died in state prisons through Dec. 28, 2022, which is the highest death count since at least 2002, according to the department’s statistical reports. That number was provided in response to Appleseed’s questioning, not as part of a general release of information.

 Those 266 deaths came to 1,330 deaths per 100,000 incarcerated people, based on the state’s prison population last year. That death rate is nearly 200 percent higher than a decade ago, a stark reminder at how deadly Alabama’s overpopulated, understaffed prisons are. 

No response from prison officials 

For years, state officials have watched prison deaths steadily rise, yet taken no action that has addressed the loss of life. The overall mortality rate in state and federal prisons in Alabama between 2008 and 2018 rose by 98.6 percent. Only two states had higher mortality rates than Alabama in 2018, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics 2021 report

In 2022, there were at least 95 preventable Alabama prison deaths: homicides, suicides, and confirmed or suspected drug-related deaths, according to investigative reporter Beth Shelburne. This is the highest number of preventable deaths since she began tracking them in 2018.

Of those 95 preventable deaths, 18 were caused by violence, five by suicide and two by either suicide or suspected overdose. Another 69 deaths were either confirmed or suspected as being drug-related, according to Shelburne’s tracking. She classifies drug-related deaths as suspected and confirmed overdoses, and deaths from disease or with prolonged or acute drug use as a major contributing factor. 

It is only through the efforts of unrelenting journalists, alongside family members of incarcerated people, that the public learns about the deaths of individuals in government custody. Another source is the Twitter accounts of incarcerated activists. 

Despite the surge in deaths in Alabama prisons, it’s unclear to what extent ADOC is working to address the crisis. Appleseed asked ADOC, among several questions, whether the department was looking into the reasons behind the rapid increase in deaths, or planned to do so. A department spokesperson declined to answer. 

ADOC also has a history of not accurately reporting deaths, and the department doesn’t routinely release the names of those who die, or report the number of deaths in a timely fashion, requiring journalists to request confirmation on those deaths after receiving tips. ADOC’s shoddy reporting practices have drawn the attention of the federal government. 

“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,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s findings in a 2019 report on Alabama prisons. In 2020, DOJ sued the State over its dangerous and understaffed prisons; the State has refused to settle and the case is headed for trial next year.

A change in reporting methods announced recently also means the public won’t get real-time information from ADOC on how many are dying in state prisons. 

In its October monthly statistical report, published in late December, the department noted that the number of deaths in state prisons would no longer be published in those monthly reports, and instead would only be reported in ADOC’s quarterly reports. Yet, the most recently published quarterly report contains data that is six months old.

“How in the world do they get a hold of this stuff?”

Eddie Richmond leaves behind a devoted family struggling to get answers.

Eddie Richmond was found unresponsive on December 15th in his bed and died there at Fountain Correctional Facility

He survived what may have been an overdose at Fountain Correctional Facility on Nov. 25, 2022. About three weeks later, on December 15, he was found unresponsive in his bed and died there, ADOC confirmed for Appleseed.

“They were pretty much saying he was gone then, but he wasn’t. They were able to bring him back,” his mother, Wisteria Richmond, told Appleseed in December, speaking of that first incident in November that required an airlift to a local hospital. 

ADOC did not call Richmond’s mother immediately to tell her her son was dead. Instead, as has become routine due to ADOC’s stunning indifference to the importance of informing people in a timely fashion that someone they love has died, the family first learned about his death from other incarcerated men. While he hadn’t expressed suicidal thoughts to his mother on the daily calls the two had from prison, she was worried that he might be considering taking his own life.

She expressed her concerns about her son’s well being with a prison captain but said “she really didn’t have any words for me.” The family learned from those other incarcerated men that her son may have taken fentanyl in the first possible overdose. “We had a million questions. How in the world do they get a hold of this stuff?,” she asked. 

Richmond grew up with his mother in the small, rural community of Salem in Lee County. As a child, he played football, and was a talented running back and quarterback, his mother said, playing until about the eighth grade. He loved his family and his friends, and was passionate about rap music, said Ms. Richmond, who now lives in Phenix City. 

Richmond was serving a three-year sentence after pleading guilty to a robbery that occurred when he was 17, according to court records. A Lee County Circuit judge denied Richmond’s request to be tried as a youthful offender, those records show.

After his release from jail on the robbery charge, and before that charge was adjudicated in court, Richmond was charged with breaking into two vehicles and two additional thefts, offenses that occurred on the same day in April 2021, according to court records. 

Andrew Stanley, the attorney who represented Mr. Richmond on the robbery charge, told Appleseed that his client wasn’t alone that day in April, when the group of young people Richmond was with broke into those cars. “When I talked to Eddie in person, whether he was in jail or out of jail, he was respectful,” Stanley said, but added that was clearly hanging out with the wrong people. 

Stanley explained that even without incurring the new offenses it would have been hard to get the judge to approve youthful offender status to a young person who was facing a first-degree robbery charge in which a firearm was used. 

Eddie Richmond with his family. Photo courtesy of Wisteria Richmond.

Once in prison, Richmond called his mother often and it was clear to her that he was struggling. “He was worried about coming home and being judged. He said, ‘Mom y’all don’t even know what we go through down here’,” she said. 

In phone conversations from prison before he died, Richmond told his mother that once he got out he wanted to travel with his parents. He wanted to go to New Orleans with them, get a job and save up to move away and start over somewhere new.  “He had things he wanted to do. He had dreams.” 

In many of those phone calls from prison, her son expressed concern that once he got out he wouldn’t be able to shake the stigma of his past. “I tried to instill in him that people make mistakes. You learn from them,” his mother said. His death at a young age in an Alabama prison put an end to that chance. 

Wisteria Richmond buried her son on Dec. 29 at Evergreen Cemetery in Opelika. When his birthday comes around on May 20 the family plans to gather together and celebrate his life. “Even though he won’t be here for it,” she said. 

A Glimmer of Hope

News of the decrease in reporting on deaths at ADOC has raised concerns among elected officials, including lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and judges. 

Considering how bad things are going in ADOC, now is certainly not the time to be less transparent,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said in a Tweet this week. “If ADOC insists on doing the bare minimum here, then maybe we need to change the law to force them to do better. Fortunately, Session starts in March.” 

Rep. Matt Simpson, a Republican and former prosecutor from Baldwin County, who has called out ADOC mismanagement in the past, responded: “He’s not wrong.”

To put Alabama’s staggering number of prison deaths into perspective, officials with the Vermont Office of the Defender General and the Vermont Department of Corrections in December formed a task force to investigate prison deaths there after an eighth incarcerated person died in Vermont prisons for the entire calendar year. 

Vermont’s Defender General Matthew Valerio told a local newspaper that the group will also look into changing release dates for those who have served good time “are not a threat to themselves or society, and are looking for better release dates based on age, health issues and COVID numbers.” 

A death sentence for a probation revocation

Another recent death involved an Etowah County man originally convicted of drug charges – distribution of salvia – and sentenced to probation, only to have his probation revoked.

Marc Snow died on November 25, 2022 at Ventress Correctional Facility. He was 25 years old. Photo courtesy of Snow’s family.

Marc Snow died in the health care unit at Ventress Correctional Facility just a few short months later, on Nov. 29. He was 25.

The warden told the family that Snow had just smoked a cigarette and was seen visibly sick in his bed. Snow had a history of using synthetic marijuana, a mix of spices and herbs sprayed with a synthetic compound, and salvia, a plant with psychoactive properties, court records show. The exact cause of Snow’s death awaits a full autopsy and toxicology results.

Snow graduated from a rehabilitation program in Birmingham in February 2021, court records show. Soon after, he was reunited with his young son because he was doing so well, said Tera Cothran, who has had legal custody of Snow’s son since the boy was 18 months old. Cothran’s niece, the boy’s mother, has also struggled with drug addiction, Cothran told Appleseed. “We told my nephew at the beginning of the summer that Marc was his biological dad, and he got an opportunity to spend some time with Marc over the summer,” Cothran said. 

Later this summer, Snow’s probation officer received a tip that Snow was selling drugs, and evidence surfaced that he was associating with a woman who had admitted to the officer that she was selling drugs, a woman whom the officer told Snow to stay away from, according to court records. The officer filed for a probation revocation. An Etowah County Circuit judge in September ordered Snow to serve three years in prison, court records show.  “That bought him three years at Ventress prison, and a death sentence,” Cothran said. 

Snow was not known to use any drugs other than synthetic marijuana and salvia, and court records don’t show he was ever charged with, or tested positive for, any other drugs. “This five-year-old boy’s father was essentially stolen from him, and somebody should answer for that,” Cothran said. “I took this kid to a funeral and he’s barely tall enough to see in the casket.” 

Already, a violent start to 2023

A slew of stabbings at St. Clair Correctional Facility over two days at the start of 2023 left numerous men with injuries, a violent start to the new year in Alabama’s deadly prisons. 

Appleseed received tips that several men had been stabbed, and the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed that Bienemy Luther on Jan. 2 was attacked by another incarcerated man at St. Clair prison, and was taken to a local hospital for treatment. 

The following day at St. Clair, three men – Martin Adams, Montrell Towns and Ladarius Lucas  – were involved in a fight with weapons, ADOC confirmed. Adams was treated for his injuries at the prison, and Lucas was taken to a local hospital for treatment. 

That same day Shedrick Williams III was assaulted with a weapon by more than one other incarcerated man, ADOC confirmed. He was treated at the prison for his injuries. 

Of the men injured this week, three are serving 20-year sentences and one is serving a 25-year sentence. All are to be released from prison and return to their communities in the future, if they survive Alabama’s deadly prisons. 

There were 12 preventable deaths at St. Clair prison in 2022, according to investigative journalist Beth Shelburne’s tracking, which defines such deaths as drug-related, deaths caused by assaults and suicides. 

Four days into the new year, the first homicide of 2023 at ADOC occurred. “Ariene Kimbrough, 35, was killed in his cell at Limestone prison. ADOC confirmed the murder but provided no details. Sources say prison staff placed Kimbrough & another man in a segregation cell designed for one person,” Shelburne shared on Twitter.

by Carla Crowder, Executive Director


Willie Ingram on his release day. Photo by Bernard Troncale

Willie Ingram, who served 39 years in prison after being convicted of a $20 robbery while armed with a pocketknife, celebrated his first Christmas and New Year’s Day as a free man. 

Mr. Ingram was originally sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act; his priors were all nonviolent property offenses from the 1970s. Appleseed took his case and with assistance from attorneys Mark White and Hope Marshall at White Arnold and Dowd, won his freedom. Mr. Ingram was resentenced to time served in November and walked out of St. Clair Correctional Facility to be welcomed by his two sons, sister, and a brother. 

On his release day, Mr. Ingram was understandably overwhelmed. “I didn’t know what to think, I was so happy. I thought I was going to be in prison for the rest of my life, but God made a way for me.”

Mr. Ingram is now 70 years old, having spent more than half his life behind bars.

Mr. Ingram with Appleseed Staff Attorney Alex LaGanke & Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen. Photo by Bernard Troncale

His prison record makes clear that years ago he turned away from the alcohol use that led to his convictions. For five years, he worked in the chemical plant at St. Clair prison. At the time of his release, he was serving as a runner for his dorm and a dorm cleaner. Throughout his incarceration, he actively resisted the gangs, drugs, and violence that permeate the prison system, attending Bible classes instead and accumulating an excellent disciplinary record. 

Despite the fact the State of Alabama condemned him to die in prison for a drunken confrontation that occurred nearly four decades ago, Mr. Ingram found purpose and created a life of rehabilitation and service within the most degraded of environments. 

“I didn’t know what to think, I was so happy. I thought I was going to be in prison for the rest of my life, but God made a way for me.” Mr. Ingram with his family outside of St. Clair Correctional Facility on his release day. Photo by Bernard Troncale

Appleseed began representing Mr. Ingram in early 2022. With pro bono assistance from Mr. White and Ms. Marshall, a commitment was secured from the Russell County District Attorney’s office not to oppose resentencing efforts. Russell County Circuit Judge Michael Bellamy granted the unopposed petition in November. 

Mr. Ingram is one of hundreds of older, incarcerated Alabamians serving sentences of life or life without parole for offenses with no physical injury that occurred decades ago.  The state’s “three strikes” law, the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), mandated these lengthy sentences for a single Class A felony (even a robbery, burglary, or drug trafficking offense where no victim was physically harmed) if an individual had three prior felony offenses, no matter how minor. Drug possession, forgery, and theft of a small amount of property count as priors toward a death in prison sentence. The three underlying offenses that contributed to Mr. Ingram’s sentence were two burglaries in the second degree and grand larceny for a $50 purse-snatching, all property crimes.

Our research into dozens of cases from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s shows that many prosecutors were eager to seek life without parole sentences in these kinds of cases. Black defendants, like Mr. Ingram, were especially vulnerable, as 75% of people serving life without parole for robbery convictions under the HFOA are Black, in a state with a Black population of 26%.

Mr. Ingram and his sister grabbing breakfast after his release. Photo by Libby Rau.

Mr. Ingram was sentenced to permanent incarceration, separated from his sons, and denied the ability to earn a living for himself.  Most of his sentence was served at St. Clair Correctional Facility. During his time there, incarcerated people rioted over prison conditions, a class action lawsuit was filed when St. Clair became the most violent prison in the country, and the United States Department of Justice sued the State of Alabama over unconstitutional conditions across the entire state prison system for men. 

Mr. Ingram is now enjoying the peace and comparative comfort of a reentry center and looking forward to moving closer to his family once he completes the reentry program. He shared that the best experience since his release has been spending time with his grandchildren, many of whom he had never met before. “It was a wonderful thing to see them and talk to them, to hold them and love them.”

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director 


Leaning on his walker, Robert Cheeks shuffled out of Donaldson Correctional Facility and took his first breaths as a free man in 37 years. He was 79 years old.

The state of Alabama meant for him to die in prison. In 1985, Mr. Cheeks received a mandatory sentence of life without parole after being convicted of robbery. He never pulled out a gun, a knife, or a fist. 

No one was physically harmed. In fact, the victim’s response was to chase Mr. Cheeks down the street. His priors – non-violent offenses including 3 forgeries that occurred in 1969 – meant the judge had no choice but to impose a death-in-prison sentence pursuant to Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, one of the harshest “three strikes” laws in the nation.

He spent the better part of three decades reporting for work in the kitchen before prostate cancer and rheumatoid arthritis sidelined him. No longer useful in the kitchen, he was left to die in the infirmary at Donaldson Correctional Facility, alongside younger men recovering from stab wounds and assaults from pervasive violence in the chaotic prison.

“I would tell myself, ‘don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out under any circumstances.’ That was my motto,” he said. But “I never thought I would get out. I thought I would be deceased at Donaldson, but the Lord spared me and here I am.”

“I used to program myself to be without bitterness”

Mr. Cheeks is finally free, and turning 80 years old. As Appleseed celebrates his birthday with him this week, our joy comes with the knowledge that this gentle, hardworking man should not have been trapped in prison nearly four decades.

He spent his last two years of incarceration housed in Donaldson Correctional Facility’s infirmary. Too old and frail to be safely housed in the general population, he was largely confined to the grim, cramped infirmary away from sunlight or fresh air. He so rarely moved about that he did not have proper shoes when he finally walked, ever so slowly, out of Donaldson’s gates on July 22. 

Appleseed’s Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen assists Mr. Cheeks as he exits Donaldson prison.

Despite sharp pain throughout his body, the worst in his hands, he has been charming everyone he meets with his gentlemanly manners and constant attempts to stay upbeat. “I attribute that to the way I used to program myself to be without bitterness,” he said.

Mr. Cheeks acknowledges the role drugs and alcohol played in his crimes. His father was sent to prison when he was a young boy. Raised by an impoverished, single mother, he fell into alcoholism and drug use and stole to support his addiction. 

Once incarcerated, even with no hope for release, Mr. Cheeks set about a course of self-improvement. He chose to expand his education by earning his GED. He took classes in accounting, typing, and automotive repair. He realized he loved poetry and devoured the writings of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson. 

For 30 years, he worked – without pay – in Donaldson’s kitchen. He served as the cook for diabetic meals, a sandwich maker, and worked on the serving line.  “I was up at the crack of dawn almost every day,” he said. “And I would volunteer to stay in there and clean up to stay away from what was happening in the dorms.”

Mr. Cheeks stopped working in the kitchen only due to deteriorating health. In June 2020, he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. His struggles with prostate cancer caused him to be hospitalized at Brookwood Baptist hospital for three months. That same year, Mr. Cheeks was diagnosed with debilitating joint and skeletal pain and inflammation which confines him to the walker and forces him to walk with a slow, unsteady gait.  His condition prevents him from stretching his fingers and causes shooting pain throughout his body and feelings of electrical shock in his mid-section. He is unable to stand without aid. Twice while housed in the general prison population, he fell in the shower. 

Once situated in the prison infirmary, he became a favorite of medical staff, an affable gentleman known for imploring the young men surrounding him be courteous to one another, to stop all the fussing that so quickly escalates into violent conflicts.

Elderly people like Mr. Cheeks are the fastest growing group of prisoners

Mr. Cheeks’ case exemplifies the unintended consequences of Alabama’s overreliance on life imprisonment. Alabama has the nation’s fourth highest number of individuals sentenced to life and life without parole. The costs are enormous, draining state resources and impacting the ability of the Alabama Department of Corrections to effectively manage prisons.

Mr. Cheeks at his new residence.

The sheer increase in the numbers of older, incarcerated people is stunning: In 1972, there were 181 individuals over the age of 50 in Alabama’s prisons. That number now exceeds 6,750. Since 2000, the population of prisoners aged 60 and above grew from 85 to 2,393. Older prisoners have quickly shifted from a small group on the fringes to nearly a quarter of Alabama’s entire prison population. Entire prison dorms have been turned into crowded, often dilapidated nursing facilities, and infirmaries have been converted into long-term housing for the most frail, people like Robert Cheeks, in order to protect them from rampant violence in the general population.

The prison infirmary was no place for Mr. Cheeks. Alabama’s prisons aren’t safe for anyone, let alone a frail, elderly man. Mindful of the danger he faced on a daily basis, in July, Appleseed lawyers filed an unopposed petition for post-conviction relief in Jefferson County, where District Attorney Danny Carr recognized the excessiveness of this sentence and joined our efforts to right a wrong. Circuit Judge Shanta Owens immediately granted the motion and ordered the release to be expedited.

Appleseed attorneys determined that under current Alabama law, he would have been eligible for parole in 1994. Given this fact, along with his age and medical condition, we were successful in getting him re-sentenced to time served and released. 

Prison staff cheered as Mr. Cheeks departed their custody. As we whisked him away, a corrections officer yelled at us from the guard tower, shouting a name – someone else serving life without parole who does not need to be there. 

Starting over at age 79

Appleseed staff and friends celebrate his 80th birthday.

Appleseed learned about Mr. Cheeks in 2020 from investigative journalist Beth Shelburne, who has developed a database of people serving life without parole under the HFOA. “In one of his first letters to me, he told me his mother and his pen pal of 30 years had both died earlier that year, and it broke my heart. I couldn’t imagine experiencing that kind of grief in prison, alone,” she said. “He was always so positive and hopeful. The only place that can come from is incredible grace.”

A prolific letter writer, Mr. Cheeks sent Appleseed occasional cards and letters. We knew he deserved his freedom, but given his medical needs, we were not sure where he could safely live.  

Appleseed lawyers visited Mr. Cheeks at Donaldson this Spring. They reviewed his medical records, realized he was mentally sharp and eager to help us plan for his life after incarceration. And they measured his feet for shoes, after learning that he had been getting around with only shower slides for 3 years.

Brenita Softly, former Appleseed intern. She currently works at the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, LA.

“When I met Mr. Cheeks, my initial thought was that this man looks nothing like how people who are sentenced to life without parole are perceived. He came into the prison visiting room tiptoeing on a walker, and when he spoke you could feel the warmth in his personality,” said Brenita Softly, an Appleseed Legal Intern and then a third-year law student at the University of Alabama School of Law. “He reminded me of my grandfather since they both speak with a chuckle in their voice that instantly causes you to smile.”

Brenita is using her experience gained in Alabama to represent incarcerated individuals in Louisiana.
“When I heard that Mr. Cheeks was getting released, I immediately fell to the floor thanking God. This man went from being condemned to die in prison to finding out that he gets to spend his 80th birthday as a free man,” she said.

Appleseed Social Worker Catherine Alexander-Wright researched how to secure Social Security and Medicaid as quickly as possible, should Mr. Cheeks get released. A quirk in the law prevents advocates from filing those applications while a client is incarcerated, which means we could not line up skilled nursing care in advance of his release. But once we had that court order, Catherine hit the phones and applications began flying.

Release Day

On Release Day, Appleseed Attorney Alex LaGanke, along with Legal Intern McKenzie Driskell and Reentry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen, who served decades in Donaldson alongside Mr. Cheeks, picked the newly freed septuagenarian from the prison, which has been experiencing record homicides and drug overdose deaths. We couldn’t get him out of there fast enough. 

Mr. Cheeks celebrates his release day with a milkshake!

We welcomed Mr. Cheeks into his new life of freedom with cheeseburgers and milkshakes. His longtime friends, Ruth and Van Johnson – who faithfully visited him at Donaldson once they realized he had no biological family – drove up from Montgomery to join the celebration.

Thankfully, Shepherd’s Fold reentry ministry agreed to temporarily provide housing to Mr. Cheeks, while we awaited Medicaid approval. Appleseed client Alonzo Hurth, then a resident at Shepherd’s Fold, helped out, sharing a room with Mr. Cheeks and making sure he got his meals and got around safely. Within a few weeks, the Appleseed team was able to find a skilled nursing facility for Mr. Cheeks, where he currently resides.

Over the last few weeks, we have tried to provide some of what was lost during his excessive incarceration: comfortable clothes, encouraging conversations, assurances that he is free and cared for.  “It’s the least we can do for someone who has suffered so much,” said Appleseed attorney Scott Fuqua, who’s tracked down everything from poetry books to an electric razor to a recliner for our elderly client.

It is a learning experience for the Appleseed team to figure out what he needs to make the rest of his life better, to help him feel truly free.

But we know what he did not need – to die an old man, alone and in pain, in America’s most violent and dangerous prisons.

Family members of incarcerated people struggle for answers as violence and death escalate in ADOC prisons

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher


It was five days after Jason Freeman was found lying in the yard at Ventress Correctional Facility in August – two stab wounds  piercing his heart  – before his mother received a call from a prison official letting her know her son was in the hospital.

His open-heart surgery would take place in a matter of hours, a prison captain told her, and there wasn’t enough time for her to make arrangements to get to the Montgomery hospital from her home in Dalton, Georgia. 

“Even if I couldn’t have visited him while he was in the hospital, I’d have been there,” Freeman’s mother, Teresa Self said. Lack of information from the Alabama Department of Corrections about loved ones injured or killed in Alabama prisons is common. That same lack of transparency around violence is underscored in the U.S. Department of Justice litigation against the state and the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The 2020 lawsuit, which documents unconstitutional treatment of men in Alabama prisons, is ongoing, yet the death toll in those prisons continues to rise. Families of incarcerated Alabamians face constant worry over their loved ones’ safety and are rarely provided sufficient or accurate information from prison officials. 

 “He could have died. I would have been there,” Self said of the lack of knowledge that her son had received life-threatening wounds until hours before the surgery. 

Self said she got a call from a captain at the prison on Aug. 18 telling her about the pending surgery, but providing no explanation how her son suffered life-threatening injuries while incarcerated for a minor felony. 

An Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman in a statement said Freeman, who is serving a four-year sentence for drug possession, was found injured in the prison yard on Aug. 13 and was taken by helicopter to a Montgomery hospital.  

Self said she tried unsuccessfully for five days to reach the prison’s warden by phone to learn what happened to her son. She didn’t learn he’d been stabbed until a doctor from the hospital called the day of the surgery.  She worries for his safety now that he’s back at Ventress. When she finally was able to speak to the warden on August 24, he only told her several other incarcerated men were involved in her son’s attack.

Freeman has since returned to Ventress prison and placed in the prison’s health care unit. “I just hope he gets the right care,” his mother said. “I need to get him moved because if he goes back there they’ll kill him, because they almost did.” 

Self is one of many family members who struggle to get the most basic answers from ADOC at a time of near daily reports of homicides, suicides, and drug overdoses within the state’s chaotic prisons and frequent lockdowns due to insufficient staffing.  Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne, who tracks ADOC deaths, has documented 55 deaths, likely due to violence, drugs, or suicide thus far in 2022. Last year, there were 42 such deaths.

The family of a man serving at Limestone prison couldn’t get a response from the department about injuries the man sustained in an Aug. 7 attack. They had to learn the extent of his life-threatening injuries, which included a skull fracture, collapsed lung and loss of sight in one eye, by working through family friends, WAAY 31 news station reported. 

It wasn’t until after the news station contacted ADOC asking about the attack that the prison’s warden called the family with information, the station reported. WAAY 31 didn’t identify the inmate “due to fears of more targeted violence.”  

Carla Underwood Lewis in 2020 found out her 22-year-old son, Marquell Underwood, died at Easterling Correctional Facility from other incarcerated men, and despite attempts to learn how he died from prison officials, she only learned it was a suspected suicide after reading a news article. 

Underwood was found unresponsive in his cell on Feb. 23, 2020, but the family received no information from the prison about how he died. 

An ADOC spokeswoman told a reporter that it was a suspected suicide, and later said the department “was not made aware that, in this case, the apparent cause of death was not communicated to Marquell Underwood’s mother when the facility’s chaplain contacted her to share this unfortunate news on Sunday evening.” 

The U.S. Department of Justice in the federal government’s 2020 lawsuit over Alabama’s prisons for men wrote that the violence and death inside prisons is spurred by overpopulation and a “dangerously low level of security staffing” and ADOC isn’t transparent about that violence and death. 

“Defendants, through their acts and omissions, have engaged in a pattern of practice that obscures the level of harm from violence in Alabama’s prisons for men,” the complaint reads. 

Meanwhile, ADOC is hemorrhaging security staff. The agency’s most recent quarterly report listed 1879 security officers, less than half of the 3862 required to safely staff the mandatory and essential posts.

(Once you read this, you’ll see why.)

By Libby Rau


Libby with Michael and his binders full of letters

“Tonight the severity of my sentence has finally started to sink in. …I looked at the law books on my floor and this thought came to me: ‘I’m only pacifying myself.’ I truly don’t know if I can take any more negative encounters with the courts. I keep asking myself, ‘Why me?’ I’m 28 years old. …I know I have to be punished by the law, but it’s inhumane never to be released from prison, especially when no one was hurt….”

In early September of last year, I found myself plopped down at a desk in Appleseed’s Birmingham office, reading these words off yellowed paper. It was the first day of my internship, four giant binders were stacked in front of me, and I’d just been given my first task: begin to read through 36 years’ worth of letter correspondence between Appleseed client Michael Schumacher and his Texan pen-pal, Gene.

Of the thousand-plus letters I would read over the next seven months, these words from a letter that first day would remain some of the most impactful, desperation drenching their every syllable. Michael had written them while in solitary confinement for defending himself against sexual advances by another incarcerated person. He was five years into a life sentence.

I won’t go into the details of Michael’s story because he’s already written about it here, but the short version is that in 1984, at only 24 years old, he was sentenced to life without parole for his role in a robbery under Alabama’s three strikes law. Despite never physically harming anyone, he was deemed by law and by society to be unworthy of any chance to show he had changed—of any chance to be free. But against all odds, Michael chose redemption for himself and, with Appleseed’s help, was resentenced to time served in 2021 and released after almost four decades in prison.

In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson talks about the importance of proximity, saying that it was visiting incarcerated individuals in prison that made him realize what career he wanted to have as an attorney. What legal textbooks and analyses could not reveal to him, an incarcerated man singing an old hymn in a prison visiting room did.

While any account–however abbreviated–of Michael’s story is compelling, the details found in the “long version” that I read allowed me a rare proximity to his life in prison that taught me more about Alabama’s legal and prison system than anything else could. I may have known that in 2020 the Department of Justice declared Alabama’s entire prison system for men unconstitutional, in part due to guard-on-prisoner violence, but Michael’s January 5, 1989 letter described to me how a guard broke a nightstick over an incarcerated man’s head, beating him long after he fell unconscious. I may have known that prison is dehumanizing and degrading, but Michael’s experience on March 21, 1990 when he was falsely accused of holding drugs and handcuffed for over 24 hours until he could defecate in a can in front of female guards showed me just how much. I may have known that high security prisons offer the individuals within almost no contact with the natural world, but I didn’t realize the extent of this deprivation until I read in Michael’s October 13, 1999 letter that he touched a leaf for the first time in 15 and a half years. I may have known that life has to somehow go on after being sentenced to die in prison, but I didn’t know the joy that being the prison Scrabble champion and winning “a six-pack of Cokes and bragging rights” could bring until I read Michael’s July 23, 2017 letter.

The point is, proximity like what Michael’s letters gave me changed the way I think about the issues our state faces because they humanized them on a much deeper level. But the power of proximity isn’t just found in words on pages. It’s encountered in everyday, unassuming conversations or observations, and it’s these little (and not so little) interactions that provide the fuel to keep fighting for a better Alabama even when a brighter future seems distant.

Here are a few of these interactions that stand out from my time as an intern: When Michael was talking about North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain and was calling it “granddaddy mountain.” The fact that we both have German backgrounds, and comments like “I’m still stuck on the fact that I have family now. That’s just so awesome to me.” The little bag of dried flowers we threw in celebration at his wedding that I kept as a memento and have sitting on my desk. When another Appleseed client, Ron McKeithen, told me about the first time in 37 years he heard the crinkle of fall leaves under his feet. Ron’s contagious smile, and the little note on the index card he wrote me in his beautiful, unique handwriting. How, for a while after his release, he had to remind himself he didn’t have to walk sideways down the stairs anymore–that if he left his back exposed he wouldn’t be stabbed. Our client, Alonzo Hurth’s expression of pure excitement when he walked out of the DMV after passing his driver’s permit test, and the contented smile on his face as he ate his favorite salmon sandwich from a 4th Avenue restaurant where he used to work before his incarceration. The look of disbelief and joy on Joe Bennett’s face as he walked free from Donaldson Prison after 24 years.

And it wasn’t just spending time with clients, it was observing the level of care Appleseed staff put into their work and into those around them, too. It was Carla bringing a fresh apple or other piece of fruit when we would go to a prison to pick up a newly-freed client because she knew that they likely had not had one in years, if not decades. It was Alex planning and setting up Michael and Kathlyn’s wedding on top of already devoting every waking minute of her life to our clients. It was how Callie, our Community Navigator who has her own background of poverty, addiction, loss, and incarceration, sang a hymn as a way of an introduction before giving a talk about her life.

When you are proximate to people and the details of their personalities and stories, you are reminded just how much you have in common–you are reminded of your shared humanity. This is such a simple truth, yet it’s one that is wholly lacking from our systems of prisons and punishment. People are thrown away, out of sight and out of mind, and society is allowed to forget they are human, and they are never really allowed a chance to truly repair the harm done, because punishment is one dimensional and restoration is three dimensional.

I recently had a brief conversation with an Alabama state legislator who expressed the view that empathy and “heart” watered down the “facts” of policy and policy proposals. As if the compassion spurred by others’ suffering is somehow not to be trusted when making laws. As if the more humanized issues were, the less factual they became.

All I know is that my time as an Appleseed intern allowed me to understand the facts and facets of these issues better than I ever had precisely because I was closer to the people. I learned that to get to the heart of the matter is to get to the heart of people–to their stories, to their details. And most of all, I learned that liberation is never only one-way.

I can not thank Appleseed enough for these lessons and experiences. I’m humbled to be able to continue working as a Legal Assistant with an organization founded on centering the people most harmed by Alabama’s unjust and inequitable systems and thereby affirming their humanity in everything they do. Thank you, Appleseed. The work continues.

A Record Number of Violent, Preventable Deaths in Alabama Prisons, but the Same Responses from the Alabama Department of Corrections

By Eddie Burkhalter


The rising death count inside Alabama’s prisons continues to claim the lives of young Alabamians and devastate families left behind. Last month alone, an estimated 15 incarcerated people died from homicide, suicide, or drug overdose, preventable deaths that federal authorities lift up as evidence of unconstitutionally dangerous conditions across state prisons. 

Sarah Burch knew her son, Chadrick Wade, was having a mental health crisis and she tried to get help for him at Fountain Correctional Facility. But no one took him seriously. On July 4, Chadrick was found unresponsive in his cell and pronounced dead. He was 30 years old and serving time for property offenses.

“They should have treated his mental illness. They should have treated his drug addiction. These things should not have been ignored,” said Burch, who lives in the small Mobile County community of Wilmer, told Appleseed. His death compounds her grief, as last year she lost another son to COVID. 

Adding to the suffering of families left behind is the lack of communication and lack of transparency at the Alabama Department of Corrections. ADOC doesn’t typically publicly release information on a death at the time of the death, and the agency’s reports do not identify the names of those who’ve died. It’s up to journalists and others to receive tips on deaths, speak with other incarcerated people and families and seek confirmation from the department.  

Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne began tracking ADOC deaths in 2018. She reported this week that the total number of deaths due to violence, suicide and drugs from 2018 to now is 151: 61 deaths after assaults, 32 suicides and 58 overdoses or other drug-related deaths. At least 40 of those occurred this year, according to Shelburne’s research.

Among all the deaths so far this year, at least 40 were likely suicides, homicides or drug-related deaths, according to Shelburne. 

The circumstances surrounding the death of Chadrick Wade show that the ADOC is unwilling, or unable to take the necessary steps to save lives. 

Sarah Burch said her son hadn’t been diagnosed with a mental health condition, but that he was showing signs of having a mental health crisis prior to his death, and had asked correctional officers for help.  

While in prison Wade also expressed a desire to kill himself, according to both his mother and another incarcerated man at Fountain, whose cell was near Wade’s cell. That other man showed videos taken by cell phone which he said shows a fire Wade had set just outside his cell in the days prior to his death.  

In another video taken by the man, two officers can be seen standing outside Wade’s cell, then walking away without providing aid to Wade. Wade’s mother said her son told her he’d been asking officers for help, but never got it.  

The other incarcerated man believes Wade may have intentionally overdosed on fentanyl, which he said Wade had been asking for prior to his death and indicating he wished to die by overdose. It’s not yet clear if Wade’s autopsy results have been completed. Attempts to reach the Escambia County coroner were unsuccessful.  

“He said that they didn’t take him seriously. He just said they didn’t do anything,” Burch said her son told her about the officers’ responses to him pleading for help. 

Wade had overdosed inside Fountain prison several times in the eight weeks he was there prior to his death, Burch said, but the family wasn’t notified by prison staff of those overdoses.  

The Alabama Department of Corrections declined to answer questions about Wade’s death, including whether he’d asked officers for help and threatened suicide.  

“ADOC can’t comment on ongoing investigations,” the department said in a response.  

Overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons, coupled with woefully inadequate staffing, is resulting in increased deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2020 lawsuit that alleges unconstitutional conditions in the state’s prisons for men.   

Less than half of Alabama’s correctional officer positions were filled in early 2021, according to the suit. And ADOC has reported a net decrease of 258 officers so far in fiscal 2022, according to the latest quarterly report.  

Fountain prison was at 149 percent capacity in June, the latest month for which ADOC has released a monthly report.  Wade is one of at least four people who have died there since April.

The federal government’s lawsuit followed DOJ reports released in April and July of 2019 that detailed systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons, and that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm.  

ADOC also hasn’t been able to control contraband, which is resulting in mounting overdose deaths, according to the complaint.  

 ADOC also fails to accurately report overdose deaths as such, sometimes referring to them as “natural causes” in reports, according to the federal government’s lawsuit. The drugs also continued entering prisons despite ADOC’s ban on visitations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

ADOC’s latest quarterly report lists the “incident type” as “Accidental/Overdose” of a June 15, 2021 death at Donaldson prison  with the final autopsy result as being “Fentanyl Toxicity” but lists the incident type of an Oct. 12, 2021, death as “Natural Death” yet the final autopsy result being “Fentanyl.”  

Two additional deaths at Staton Correctional Facility in September and November of last year list the incident types as “Natural Death” yet have autopsy reports that indicate drugs were the cause, according to ADOC’s report.  

ADOC’s inability to stem the flow of drugs, rampant violence, death and corruption come even while the department’s budget continues to grow. From 2010 to 2020, the Department of Corrections’ budget nearly doubled. For fiscal year 2022, it is $610 million, nearly a quarter of the State General Fund.   

Despite the systemic problems as described in the DOJ’s lawsuit and increased spending on Alabama’s prisons, the state is moving ahead with a plan to build two new prisons, calling the buildings necessary to address the federal government’s concerns. The new prisons won’t relieve overcrowding, however, as those plans also call for the closure of several existing prisons.  

The DOJ also makes clear in the federal government’s lawsuit that new buildings alone won’t solve Alabama’s prison crisis.  

Appleseed joins the many (many!) outstanding nonprofits for the Giving Tuesday campaign on Tuesday, November 30, 2021. This global day of giving highlights the important work accomplished because of generous donors everywhere.

Appleseed humbly asks for your support this day (and beyond) specifically for our re-entry work. Our legal advocacy and support for older, formerly incarcerated men changes lives. Appleseed is proud to stand with people who have turned their lives around and are returning to Alabama communities after decades behind bars. These men leave prison with nothing and support is desperately needed. 

As our client Michael Schumacher explained in a recent presentation, the prison gave him $10 and a one-way ticket to the county of arrest, where he would not have a clue what to do, with his family gone and so many changes in the world. Because of supporters like you, Appleseed has provided his transportation, housing, and a warm embrace into a new life of hope. Michael, a gentle soul and former prison Scrabble champion, is starting over at age 61.

From securing social security cards, driver’s licenses, and bank accounts; to scheduling  medical appointments; to teaching our clients about cell phones, food safety, and more, Appleseed is with our clients every step of the way. Thank you for your generosity as we support justice-involved Alabamians as they transition to their newfound freedom and a second chance at life.

  • $21 covers the fee to secure a client’s birth certificate
  • $36.25 covers the fee for a driver’s license or ID
  • $50 covers a tank of gas for our Re-entry Coordinator to drive clients to their necessary appointments weekly
  • $100 covers a week of housing for one of our clients
  • $500 covers a post-release shopping trip for our clients for necessities and a wardrobe, including interview clothing

Please click here to donate! Thank you for your fabulous support.

We are thrilled to announce the release of another client, Joe Bennett, today – his first free world birthday in 24 years. Once sentenced to die in prison, Mr. Bennett walked out of Donaldson Correctional Facility on September 21, 2021, after a Jefferson County judge granted Appleseed’s motion for post-conviction relief and resentencing. 

Staff Attorneys, Alex and Carla pose for a picture with the newly released Joe Bennett outside the entrance of Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Staff attorney Alex LaGanke and Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen have been working in tandem with Joe and have come together to share his story.

Alex will open the blog with background on Joe’s case. Ronald, former Appleseed client and inaugural Reentry Coordinator, will share his reflections aiding his first client through reentry. 

Two Years Versus a Lifetime
By Alex LaGanke

In 1997, Joe was given two life-without-parole (“LWOP”) sentences for two counts of robbery stemming from a single incident at a barbecue restaurant in Birmingham’s Eastlake neighborhood. Joe is one of the many people in Alabama who have been condemned to die in prison for an offense without physical injury, enhanced by minor prior offenses under the Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA).

Due to changes in that law in the 1990s and sentencing reforms in 2015, three of the four prior offenses used to enhance Joe’s sentence under the HFOA could not be used for enhancement purposes today. His prior offenses included low-level felonies that are now classified as misdemeanors, including two purse snatching cases, and possession of a controlled substance.  If sentenced today, Joe would be ineligible for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole; rather, he likely would receive a split sentence with two years prison time and seven years on probation: two years versus a lifetime. 

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr recognized the unfairness of this sentence and did not oppose our post-conviction motion for resentencing, and Circuit Judge Shanta Owens signed the order granting immediate release.

Joe Bennett on the day of his release.

At 27-years-old, Joe’s LWOP sentence meant leaving behind two small children, who are now grown adults with children of their own; forfeiting the chance at a career; and missing over two decades of significant societal changes, making adjustment to today’s world increasingly challenging. But it is also true that Joe’s prison sentence provided discovery of a wide-ranging musical talent, cultivation of a lifelong support network, and even drug rehabilitation. Remarkably, Joe managed to avoid receiving a single disciplinary infraction during his 22 years in prison. If you know anything about Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”), where you can get a write-up for having an extra pack of ketchup, you know this to be a miraculous feat. 

At Appleseed, we see our clients’ remarkable institutional records as a testament to the human capacity to evolve, mature, and realize unearthed potential. We have the highest regard for our clients – who are artists, Scrabble champions, ministers, musicians, and paralegals – because they corrected themselves in a corrections system that encourages anything but correction, improvement, or rehabilitation. To be clear, Joe Bennett did not just survive a corrections system that necessitates violence for protection, fuels drug trafficking, and maintains inhumane living conditions declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Department of Justice; he thrived. He was a leader, an honor dorm resident, and musician at the prison chapel.

In fact, Joe is so phenomenal that at 52-years-old (53 today!), he has been working day in and day out as a tree groundsman. But before I get too carried away with all the impressive things Joe has done since he’s been out, I’ll let Ronald take it from here to discuss, rather poetically, Joe’s reentry process.

“Who better to assist them than a person like me?”
By Ronald McKeithen

It’s difficult to describe the emotions that overwhelmed me as I waited for Joe to walk through those prison gates, the same gates I exited nine months prior after serving 37 years. Being back at Donaldson Correctional Facility that Friday in September, I found myself reliving that same burst of joy that exploded within me once I laid eyes on the people that saved my life and wondered if Joe will be able to restrain from dropping to his knees with tears of joy shamelessly flowing down his cheeks. 

As I stood there, I also couldn’t help but think about the difficulties he will face as he struggles to rebuild his life in a world he hasn’t seen in over two decades. You see, my reason for being at Donaldson wasn’t just to greet a friend on the happiest day of his life, but also to ensure that his transition has as few hurdles as possible. Which is why Alabama Appleseed hired me. 

Here’s me super psyched about Joe’s release, taking an awkward pic on the side of the road at a convenient store after we got kicked off Donaldson prison campus for celebrating Joe’s release.

Freeing their clients is only the first step. Ensuring their clients’ success in becoming productive members of society has become a priority as well. And who better to assist them than a person like me who has endured the same pain and has faced the fear and uncertainty that this new world brings?

Not long ago, the State of Alabama believed that a person needed only $10 and a one-way bus ticket to start a new life after prison, regardless of how many years they served. The State has been so kind to increase it to $10 for every five years you’ve served, which is still not enough for a meal, room, and board. And for those of us who’ve served decades, we are unlikely to have the proper documents needed to get a job. Getting copies of birth certificates, social security cards, non-driver’s license, driver’s license, and medication, for starters, is a long process that will require resources, far more than the amount awarded upon release. 

Here at Appleseed, we lessen our returning clients’ fears by not only standing beside them as they maneuver through this reentry maze, but also assisting them, if needed, in paying the fees of each document, finding housing, taking them on an initial trip to the store for all the necessary things returning citizens’ don’t have. And that just scratches the surface. 

I have put in hundreds of miles, alongside my amazing mentor and fearless, all-knowing supervisor Alex (wow, Alex), to secure Joe a valid state ID, birth certificate, and bank account; taking him to and from a job-readiness course at Salvation Army to his tree cutting job at sites all across Birmingham; and sharing with him everything I’ve learned about this city and world that has changed so much since we were kids here. 

I asked Joe to share some words about his transition thus far, and this is what he had to say: “I’m enjoying life by God’s grace through the way of the wonderful organization of Alabama Appleseed – I thank you all so much. I’m just learning, experiencing. And just knowing that I’m being a productive citizen feels wonderful and great.  I’m just elated. I can’t thank Appleseed enough.”

I even had the opportunity to talk to a long-time supporter of Joe’s and current employer, Robert Reid of Greenbriar Tree Service, LLC, who has been instrumental in Joe’s release and reentry. Mr. Reed said this about Joe: “Joe has become one of my greatest employees at Greenbriar Tree Service. He is faithful, has integrity, and does anything you ask him to. He is learning so fast and has done such a great job.” Mr. Reid met Joe at Donaldson prison through a prison ministry years ago and continues to support him by providing this job and many other supports. 

Joe and Robert pose for a picture at Cracker Barrel after Joe’s release. He wanted breakfast for his first free world meal!

I am so elated to have the opportunity and responsibility of assisting Joe Bennett as he takes necessary steps to building a life he could only dream of just a few short months ago. And I can’t wait to see what freedom has in store for him! 

Appleseed’s local clients gather for a picture with Joe at Shepherd’s Fold the day after his release. L to R: Alonzo Hurth (70 y/o, 27 years in DOC); Joe Bennett (53 y/o, 22 years in DOC); Ronald McKeithen (59 y/o, 37 years in DOC); Michael Schumacher (61 y/o, 36 years in DOC).

We cannot do this work alone

Over the last year, Appleseed has worked with incredible partners – individuals and organizations who care deeply about returning citizens and help provide the necessary supports. We would be remiss in giving thanks where it is undoubtedly due, to our amazing community partners whose resources, services, and kindness to the most vulnerable make acclimation for our clients possible: 

  • Shepherd’s Fold
  • Christ Health Center
  • Greater Birmingham Ministries, Voting Restoration Program
  • Community on the Rise
  • Salvation Army, Ready to Work Program
  • UAB Eye Care 

Ronald and Alex are signing off, but stay tuned for more updates on Joe’s amazing progress and Ron’s job with Appleseed! 

By Idrissa N. Snider

Tameca Cole’s “Locked in a Dark Calm”

On September 17th, the Abroms-Engle Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) premiered its opening of the “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” exhibition. The installation showcases work by incarcerated and non-incarcerated artists “concerned with state repression, erasure, and imprisonment.” 

As guests perused various drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other mixed-media artifacts – all reflecting the dismal state of the nation’s prison system – looming over the night’s events was the upcoming special legislative session scheduled for Monday, September 27th to address Alabama’s prison crisis.

Idrissa Snider with artist George Anthony Morton and his work “Mars”

The exhibit is a physical and symbolic embodiment of what is occurring in our state, where prison conditions are so catastrophically bad that the U.S. Department of Justice is suing the Alabama Department of Corrections for subjecting its prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment. “Marking Time” recognizes talent from people who are often stereotyped as fully criminal to the exclusion of any other identity. It is also a sobering and daunting reminder of the systemic challenges facing the women and men who are incarcerated. 

The argument against reform boils down to the notion that people who are incarcerated in Alabama need to stay in our deadly prisons for long periods, maybe even until they die, because they are irredeemable. One key strategy to tackle this problem is to reduce incarceration while investing in people and programming outside the prison walls. 

Artist and Appleseed client Ron McKeithen with his work “Black Lives Matter” and Idrissa Snider

“Marking Time” is a shining example of what can occur when we put funding into rehabilitation and programming. Among others, it features work by Appleseed client and staff member Ronald McKeithen, who served 37 years in prison for a convenience store robbery. McKeithen’s “Black Lives Matter” (2020) print is placed in the center of a collage of sketches by other Alabama artists before you enter the exhibit. The pain of resistance is present in his piece and in works like Tameca Cole’s “Open Wounds: Feel Mary Turner” (2021) paper-mache sculpture advocating against violence targeted towards women of color. 

Yet the beauty of these artworks also resonates. George Anthony Morton’s “Mars” (2016) graphite and chalk rendering captures the elegant splendor of Black beauty and femininity. Just as Dean Gillispie’s “Spiz’s Dinette” (1998) sculpture made of tablet backs, stick pins, popsicle sticks, and cigarette foil repurposes menial everyday objects into something of value. 

Creating such stunning pieces of art, while enduring the hardships of prison life with little to no resources is reminiscent of the tradition of enslaved Black women seamstresses who made elaborate quilts out of scraps of tattered and discarded fabric to tell their stories. Art gives voice and agency to the oppressed and marginalized. “Marking Time” brings an often-forgotten population of people into the high society of the art world, and it is reflexive of the many issues facing Alabama’s prison system.

Dean Gillispie’s “Spiz’s Dinette”

In the face of a federal lawsuit over the state’s horrific prison conditions, overcrowding, and overall safety of inmates, the debate over roughly $1.2 billion in funding for new prisons is taking place in one of the nation’s poorest states. In the same way “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” displays the tension between justice and systemic barriers within our prison system, Alabama sits at the intersection of perpetuating age-old practices of mass incarceration and fundamental prison reform.

Appleseed staff with Joi Brown, Jefferson County Memorial Project

“Marking Time” is organized by Nicole R. Fleetwood, Ph.D., James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, and reflects her decade-long commitment to research and programming on the visual art and culture of mass incarceration. The exhibition will show through December 11th at UAB’s AEIVA center and will feature a talk with Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director, Carla Crowder, and artist Ronald McKeithen on October 12 , 2021. To register for this free event, click here for the online presentation and here to attend in person. To learn more about the exhibition, click here