By Carla Crowder, Executive Director and Scott Fuqua, Staff Attorney

Jerry Boatwright leaving Holman prison on his release date on September 27, 2023 after spending 34 years incarcerated

Jerry Boatwright spent 34 years in an Alabama prison for a burglary conviction. He was supposed to die there. Instead, he’s home just in time to become the primary caregiver for his ailing brother, Randy.

Jerry, 64, has always been a hard worker. At Holman prison, he worked in the sewing plant, earning praise from correctional officers. He did woodworking on the side, creating intricate pieces that he sold to support himself. No matter how hard he worked or how old he became, a life without parole sentence meant he had no hope of ever being released to the brothers he left behind, or as Jerry put it, “I didn’t have a prayer in the world of ever getting out.”

Jerry’s intricate woodworking creations

Scott Fuqua, Appleseed’s staff attorney, began investigating Jerry’s case and learned his most serious offense was a burglary at a Pinson residence in which the only person injured was Jerry. He was shot in the shoulder and had to be airlifted to UAB hospital when the homeowner returned and found Jerry inside his house. At the time of Jerry’s conviction in the 1980s, life without parole was the only available sentence because he had a series of prior convictions for minor offenses. But over three decades, Alabama’s laws have changed, and so has Jerry.

“Requiring Mr. Boatwright to remain in prison until his death for a crime that he would almost certainly not be sentenced to more than 20 years for today would represent a considerable miscarriage of justice,” Appleseed argued in his post-conviction petition. Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr agreed, and did not oppose release. On September 27, Appleseed attorneys traveled to Holman to collect Jerry and bring him home.

Less than two months following his release, Jerry Boatwright has become invaluable to his family, who always wanted him home, but had no idea how much they also needed him. 

“His coming home could not have come at a better time,” said Amber Melvin, Jerry’s niece and Randy Boatwright’s daughter.

Building a ramp and building a life

Immediately after release, Jerry settled in with Randy, 63, in a rural area of Blount County. Their other brother, Dennis Boatwright, was nearby, and connected Jerry with an area pastor in need of a handyman. The pastor put Jerry to work, painting fences and a barn, cutting trees and bushes, even planting flowers. Jerry loved the work, the independence, the pocket money, and the opportunity to help an 80-year-old pastor with long-neglected chores.

Jerry with his niece Amber

Appleseed’s Reentry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson made sure he acquired identification and connected him with doctors to help manage the persistent medical needs that most formerly incarcerated people have. Then, less than a month after Jerry’s release, Randy suffered a health crisis and was rushed to the emergency room. For days he was barely conscious. Family members struggled to try to figure out the best options for his care. They wanted him home, and not in a nursing home. But with most of the family employed full time, who would look after Randy back home?

Jerry would. “If he had not come home, we did not know what we were going to do,” Amber shared. “It’s been such a blessing.”

Jerry’s story is one more example of a truth that we have watched unfold over and over again at Appleseed. People who have been incarcerated, often for decades, deserve a second chance to prove themselves. When given that chance, they become assets to their families and communities. Jerry is the 15th person originally sentenced to life without parole freed by Appleseed’s legal work. Our clients give back in a range of ways, as truck drivers, auto shop workers, re-entry specialists, forklift drivers, barbers. Two clients help out in a faith-based program that mails books to prisoners. They have found purpose in a world that once gave up on them.

For Jerry, it started with the ramp.

The ramp Jerry built for his brother Randy to access their home

His family got to work, building a sturdy ramp and deck so Randy could get easily in and out of the home in a wheelchair or on a walker. They freshened up the place with curtains and a new rug. They agreed home was the best place for him, and they were right. Under Jerry’s care, Randy has improved dramatically. He’s talking, smiling, and eating again. He can walk and shower without assistance. “He is doing so wonderful,” Jerry said earlier this week. Jerry is still very much needed to help fix meals and make sure Randy takes his medications. 

Dennis Boatwright, is moving into a mobile home nearby, bringing the long separated brothers together again to lean on each other and grow old together. “The Lord has blessed me at every turn,” said Jerry, a comment that might seem incongruous coming from a man who spent more than three decades behind bars. Yet Jerry is determined to live a life of hope and gratitude after so many years in the bleak despair of a death-in-prison sentence.

He’s been to a Halloween Festival, a Covered Bridge Festival, and he’s discovered thrift store shopping for many of the necessities required to live life outside of prison.

Appleseed’s holistic approach to freedom

For more than a year before his release, Appleseed’s Scott Fuqua was in frequent contact with Jerry. And case manager Kathleen Henderson has been guiding his re-entry for the last two months.

“One of the things that struck me about Jerry has always been that, despite spending over three decades in prison, he was so grateful and patient as we worked on his case.” Scott said. “When I first met Jerry at Holman Prison in the summer of 2022, he was at a pretty low point and had resigned himself that he might never be released.” 

Despite decades of exemplary behavior and being someone the staff members at the prison placed great trust in, it appeared that Alabama’s draconian laws would require Jerry to remain incarcerated for the rest of his days. Over the course of the next year, Scott got to know Jerry well, talking to him on the phone on a weekly basis, and saw the powerful impact that hope can have on someone trapped in prison, even a prison as dreadful as Holman, where most buildings have been condemned. “The knowledge we were working on his behalf and the hope of eventually having his freedom restored made such a tremendous difference,” Scott said.

Jerry with Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua on release day

Jerry even went out of his way to help his friend and fellow Appleseed client, Larry Garrett, as his case made its way through the legal process. Jerry was instrumental in helping keep Larry’s case moving forward as he helped Scott stay in close contact with Larry and obtain all the documentation we needed for his case. No one was happier for Larry when he was released the week of Christmas, 2022 than Jerry. Two days after picking up Larry at Holman, Scott drove back to Holman to visit Jerry. Facing the prospect of spending his 34th Christmas in prison, it would have been easy for Jerry to be sad about his own situation after his friend of so many years had left. Instead, Jerry was excited to present handmade Christmas cards for the Appleseed staff. He expressed how thrilled he was that his friend was spending Christmas with his family and thankful that he had a reason to hope that he might be spending his last Christmas locked behind bars.

Thankfully Jerry’s hope came to fruition and he will be spending both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year with his family. 

Jerry loves to cook, has a voracious appetite, and is always willing to try new foods. But for all of his exuberance, he was timid about returning to the place where he had made mistakes as a young man.

“When I met Jerry, he was very unsure of the type of reception he would receive and he was very emotional. He worried that he would not be accepted, at least beyond his family,” recalled Appleseed’s Kathleen Henderson. “Jerry is a devout Christian and wanted to attend church. He feared the congregation wouldn’t want a “criminal” (his words not mine) among them. So Jerry took our advice and was open with his pastor and his family. Since then, he has become a very self-assured man. The privilege that I feel, being able to watch Jerry blossom into a more confident and capable individual is unmatched.”

Welcome home, Jerry!

The worsening toll of Stage 4 cancer in an Alabama prison.

This is a follow up to our first story on Ronnie Peoples in Appleseed’s series “Cruel and Unusual” focusing on the people harmed by Alabama’s overreliance on excessive sentences, which trap people in deadly, dysfunctional prisons long after they have paid their debt.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

It’s been six months since Ronnie Peoples was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, and he worries – from deep inside St. Clair prison – that he still doesn’t know if the treatments are working, or if the cancer has spread more into his ribs and lungs, where doctors found it months ago. 

Getting timely medical information on his condition while serving time in an Alabama prison is difficult, Peoples explained to Appleseed. One recent slip-up by a well-intentioned but overworked nurse in St. Clair resulted in a missed opportunity to get critical lab work needed, putting him another week behind in learning whether the cancer is receding or spreading, he said. 

“You’ve got to have someone on the outside,” Peoples said, referring to a friend from out of state who called the Alabama Department of Corrections, which resulted in medical staff ordering that lab work be done at Brookwood Baptist Medical Center. 

Ronnie Peoples

He received a second injection of a chemotherapy drug on October 10th, which treats his disease for three months, but the disease is taking a toll on him, both physically and mentally. “It’s been touch and go,” Mr. Peoples said when asked how he’s holding up. Pain is worsening, and he’s now suffering from shortness of breath. “I’m a fast walker. Now, I have to slow down. It’s hardest on stairs.” 

Mr. Peoples is 68 and has served 32 years of a life without the possibility of parole sentence under the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA). He is among the growing number of very sick and older incarcerated people in Alabama with lengthy sentences and no clear pathway for release. 

Mr. Peoples received his life without the possibility of parole sentence after a 1991 robbery at a beverage company conviction in Tuscaloosa County. No one was injured. His sentence was enhanced under the HFOA because of prior robbery convictions more than four decades ago in the 1970s, including in Ohio. Life without parole was the only available sentence at the time, but because of changes to Alabama sentencing laws, Mr. Peoples would have been eligible for a much shorter sentence if current laws applied to his case. 

The day after Mr. Peoples had his lab work done he planned to return to the job he’s had for more than two decades, keeping track of the tools used in the welding classes in St. Clair prison’s trade school. He’s known Bradley Black, the welding instructor at St. Clair prison, since Mr. Black began working there in the early 2000s. “His church prays for me every night,” Mr. Peoples said. 

In 2015, Mr. Black wrote a letter to a judge on Mr. People’s behalf. Mr. Peoples sought resentencing, but was unsuccessful despite support from people who knew he had been rehabilitated.. 

While speaking to Appleseed, Mr. Peoples said he was in pain, but that he couldn’t get his twice-daily pain medication dosage increased because the company that oversees healthcare in Alabama prisons, YesCare, has to approve all medication changes and medical procedures. The doctor at St. Clair prison told Mr. Peoples that he could ask for a dosage increase, but said “they’re going to deny you, and cuss me out,” Mr. Peoples said the doctor told him recently. 

The Tennessee-based private equity-owned company YesCare was formerly known as Corizon Health, but in 2021 the company was split into two separate entities, according to a report published in October 2023 by the nonprofit Private Equity Stakeholder Project.  YesCare retained much of the same staff as Corizon Health and the company’s prison contracts, while Tehum was saddled with the company’s debt. In February 2023, Tehum filed for bankruptcy. Thousands of lawsuits against Corizon Health in previous years alleged medical neglect and the deaths of incarcerated people, and the mounting debt from those lawsuits across the U.S. preceded the split, which allowed the company to continue operating as YesCare while leaving the debt with Tehum, the report details. 

“Tehum, the bankrupt new company created in the maneuver, owes more than $82 million to over 1,000 creditors, including former patients who were injured or neglected, former employees who were hurt on the job, hospitals, doctors’ offices, cities and states,” The Marshall Project reported. 

YesCare, meanwhile, got an enormous boost from the State of Alabama. The Alabama Department of Corrections in February 2023 approved a contract worth more than $1 billion with YesCare to provide healthcare in the state’s prisons.

The Private Equity Stakeholder Project report also details the company’s troubling past, and difficulty holding on to valuable contracts. “In the three years up to 2015, it lost contracts in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.” In late 2015, the company announced it would end its Florida contract early because the agreement was “too constraining,” the report states. “Patient deaths in the state had spiked to a 10-year high shortly after Corizon took over its prison healthcare services.” 

The report notes that in subsequent years Corizon lost contracts with New York City and a $188.6 million contract with the state of Arizona “after allegations of serious medical neglect.” The contract’s “per inmate day” rate “created an almost irresistible incentive to deny care,” according to the director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

“In 2021, Corizon lost its contract with the Idaho Department of Correction, and also lost a $1.4 billion bid to provide healthcare services in Missouri, where it had provided prison healthcare since 1992,” the report reads. 

As he awaits word as to whether his cancer has spread, Mr Peoples is also dealing with a loss of appetite caused by his treatments. “Sometimes when I smell the food I can’t eat it. It makes me nauseous,” Mr. People said. 

The pain is constantly increasing, his appetite is waning and he often loses his breath, but Mr. Peoples said he’s still hopeful that he’ll be cured and some day be freed from prison. 

He wants to be free again, to spend time with his sons and grandchildren and to work on the outside. 

“First thing I’d need is my drivers license back,” Mr. Peoples said. “Got to have that if I want to work.” 

But for now, Mr. Peoples waits for word on his cancer, and will go back to his work station at the prison’s trade school where Mr. Black has trusted him for more than two decades to take care of the tools that he carefully tracks. 

This story is part of Appleseed’s “Cruel and Unusual” series, focusing on the people harmed by Alabama’s overreliance on excessive sentences, which trap people in deadly, dysfunctional prisons long after they have paid their debt.

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

Leon “Bud” Hotchkiss at Sportsman’s Marine, a Fairhope boat dealership where he works days before returning to the Loxley Work Release Center

Every night after Leon Hotchkiss finishes up at the south Alabama boat dealership where he washes and moves boats, serves as a general maintenance worker, and is so trusted that he has his own key, he stands outside to wait for a ride. At the end of that ride, Mr. Hotchkiss is locked up with a key belonging to the state of Alabama, which has held him prisoner for 11 years and plans to hold him 29 more – all because of marijuana.  

Mr. Hotchkiss, who just turned 68, is serving a 40 year sentence for growing marijuana on his own property. Acting on a tip from his ex-wife, the Baldwin County Drug Task Force went to Mr. Hotchkiss’s home and found marijuana plants. They arrested him on a charge of trafficking, which is a Class A felony in Alabama, the most serious category of crime.

During his more than a decade of incarceration, Mr. Hotchkiss has assisted in educational programs, led Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and maintained a stellar institutional record with zero disciplinary infractions. None of that mattered when he went up for parole in February; the Parole Board denied his request and set his next hearing off for five years, the maximum set off amount permitted by law. 

It is unclear what public safety benefit is being served by Mr. Hotchkiss’s continued incarceration; he has been assigned to the minimum-security Loxley Work Release Center for years. His first job was sorting garbage at the transfer station in Bay Minette, commonly called “the dump.” Currently, he works at Sportsman’s Marine, a Fairhope boat dealership, where he washes and moves boats and assists with general maintenance. Though he has his own key to the dealership, he must return each night to the crowded doublewide trailer he shares with more than 45 other men at the prison camp.

“I cringe every night he goes back to Loxley,” said Jody Cullifer, who worked as general manager at Sportsman’s Marine until a few months ago. He described Mr. Hotchkiss as “the most dependable employee I’ve had in the three years I worked there.” 

It was Mr. Hotchkiss’s co-workers at the boat dealership who contacted Alabama Appleseed about his case and requested assistance in advocating for his release.Our entire staff is willing to do whatever it takes to help him with his case as we see this as a severe injustice and more than harsh punishment for his crime,” the initial email read. 

“Marijuana was a lot better pain reliever than anything I took.”

Appleseed began researching the case, interviewed Mr. Hotchkiss, and reviewed the court records, which confirmed that  Court records show that he signed a consent to search form, permitting Baldwin County Drug Task Force officers to search his home without a warrant.  A Department of Forensic Sciences Certificate of Analysis shows that officers found approximately 2600 grams, which is 5.7 pounds of marijuana growing on the property. This total is on the low end of weight considered sufficient for a trafficking charge.

The Alabama Code permits a charge of trafficking in cannabis for possession of 2.2 to 100 pounds, whether or not there is evidence of distribution. Mr. Hotchkiss readily admits that he relied on cannabis to treat his aches and pains from a lifetime of hard labor. He served in the Marines, worked as a commercial fisherman, and worked in construction, helping to build luxury hotels that bring tourists to the Gulf Coast beaches.  “I had a pine tree cut down on me one time that really messed up my head and my neck,” he said. Soon after moving to Alabama, he got a construction job building the Orange Beach Hilton. “They dropped a pallet of exterior sheetrock on top of me and it broke my collar bone, fractured my shoulder, my neck, and gave me this hernia I have in my chest in the top of my rib cage.”

He was prescribed opioid pain pills, he said, but chose not to take them long term as he did not want all the despair, and worse, that comes from opioid addiction. Besides, “marijuana was a lot better pain reliever than anything I took,” he said.

This was not Mr. Hotchkiss’s first marijuana arrest. In 1990, he served six months in prison for a conviction of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. No one is claiming he has lived a marijuana-free life, least of all Leon Hotchkiss, whose middle name is Bud. 

However, even considering this prior conviction, the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office initially offered a plea agreement, recommending a sentence of 15 years in the trafficking case and offering to dismiss a related charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. The plea agreement, dated June 29, 2012, was provided by the office of then-District Attorney Hallie S. Dixon to Mr. Hotchkiss’s appointed attorney. A 15 year sentence would have made him eligible for Correctional Incentive Time (good time) and release after 4.5 years (in 2017).

The record is not entirely clear as to why the case was not resolved pursuant to that plea offer. Shortly after the offer expired, Mr. Hotchkiss retained a new attorney and entered a blind plea to the trafficking and paraphernalia charges. At the sentencing hearing, his attorney told the Court: “Mr. Hotchkiss accepted responsibility as soon as consent was obtained by the police department. He was cooperative, told them everything, took them through the house, showed them all the marijuana. And, in addition, he told law enforcement that he was not making a living but that he had an injury and he was unable to work and earn money and that’s why he was growing the marijuana.”

A Baldwin County Circuit Judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison. 

Parole-eligible again at age 72

In addition to his coworkers, numerous friends are disturbed about Mr. Hotchkiss’s continued incarceration as he heads into his eighth decade. They signed a support letter requesting that the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office reconsider the 40 year sentence in light of Mr. Hotchkiss’s excellent institutional record, obvious lack of danger to the community, and parole denial. District Attorneys have extraordinary power and can use it to assist in reducing sentences even years after a conviction is final.

Hallie Dixon, the District Attorney in office at the time of his conviction, frequently made headlines during her tenure for questionable activities in the DA’s office. She settled an EEOC Complaint, arising out of allegations of sexual harassment filed against her. Several DA’s office employees fell sick after someone brought marijuana-laced brownies to the office. Longtime Baldwin County Judge Robert Wilters ran against her in 2015 until she dropped out of the race.

Here’s what Mr. Wilters said about her office at the time:

“There just appears to be, I won’t say total chaos. . .  There is definitely a lack of leadership in the district attorney’s office and with that lack of leadership it trickles down to the assistants and investigators and everybody in the office and it’s time for a change in leadership there.”

Here’s where Mr. Hotchkiss’s case gets additionally complicated. Mr. Wilters was also the judge who sentenced him to 40 years back in 2012. Now Mr. Wilters is the current Baldwin County District Attorney.

So when attorneys at Appleseed contacted him about the community concern over Mr. Hotchkiss’s lengthy sentence, Mr. Wilters assigned an Assistant District Attorney to look into the request for a sentence review to avoid any potential conflict of interest. That prosecutor relayed that the office would not get involved and that he felt the parole board was the proper venue for relief.

Given this year’s parole denial and subsequent five year parole set off, which is an indicator that the Parole Board does not intend to grant parole any time soon, Mr. Hotchkiss could be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

Records from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles show that the reasons parole was denied were: the severity of the offense and negative input from stakeholders (victim, family of victim, law enforcement or elected officials). The parole report also stated there was no victim in this offense.

Mr. Hotchkiss won’t be eligible for parole again until February, 2026. He will be 72 years old and will have served 15 years in prison for growing a substance that is legal in states where half of Americans live.

“Packed like sardines” and living with a permanent catheter

Alabama prisons are notoriously overcrowded and violent, and state officials are fighting system wide litigation over unconstitutional conditions. In response, Alabama is spending $1.082 billion on a massive new prison, and has signed a healthcare contract that will cost $1.06 billion tax dollars over the next four years, an amount so high, in part, because of soaring numbers of older people, like Leon Hotchkiss, in prison. 

Cannabis has been approved for medical purposes, even in Alabama, and is fully legal in numerous states. And yet, short of an extraordinary intervention or major change in parole board practices, Mr. Hotchkiss may never get out of prison. Except, of course, to work in the community at his assigned work release job, that requires 40% of his salary, plus transportation costs, to be returned to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Adding to his struggles, Mr. Hotchkiss suffers from a medical condition that requires he permanently rely on a catheter. While assigned to Kilby Correctional Facility soon after his conviction, he suffered from a bladder stone that went untreated for weeks, despite his multiple sick call requests to the Kilby infirmary. Eventually, he was transferred to an outside hospital, where he spent four months and lost 100 pounds before returning to Kilby with chronic, painful urinary tract issues.

Since he’s been assigned to the Loxley Work Release, it’s easier to avoid infections while changing his catheter. But this summer, only one bathroom was available in the doublewide trailer he shares with 45 men at Loxley. So that was challenging.

Alabama’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and work release centers are no exception. Loxley houses 192 people in a space designed for 110. “There’s a top and bottom rack and we’re packed like sardines,” Mr. Hotchkiss said.

Bud Hotchkiss uses his spare time to make intricate paper boats out of catheter box packaging and Coca Cola boxes.

“Sometimes common sense demands a second look.”

Mr. Hotchkiss makes the best of it. He uses his spare time to make intricate paper boats out of catheter box packaging and Coca Cola boxes. He mailed his biggest one yet to his now 27-year-old son, who was only 16 when Mr. Hotchkiss was arrested.

Mr. Hotchkiss is grateful for the chance to leave the work release center most days, even though his work days are long and his paycheck is small, given the ADOC policy of keeping nearly half.

“I like boats, I’m very mechanically inclined. I’ve been around boats a lot in my life. I run the forklift,” he explained “I like running the forklift and keeping the yard straight. We do a lot of repowers, putting new engines on boats.”

Several of his coworkers, and even the owner of the boat dealership, recently signed a letter in support of Mr. Hotchkiss’s release and requested that the Baldwin County District Attorney’s office assist in obtaining a reduced sentence.

“We understand and respect your commitment to law and order in Baldwin County, and your dedication to the rights of victims. But sometimes common sense demands a second look. Leon Hotchkiss has paid dearly for the crime of growing marijuana, yet no victims were ever identified in this case.  We would welcome an opportunity to meet with you, share more about our friend and co-worker, and discuss the possibility for better options for Mr. Hotchkiss as he nears his 70s,” the letter read.

That was in June, and the DA’s Office has since declined to assist.

His friends and coworkers are disappointed.

“He is an honest, hard working family man. When he wasn’t working, he loved to work in his yard and nurture his son Jason, who he was a single parent of. Jason was the light of his world. They had a most happy family. This included Jason’s pet turkey, chickens and his dog, Ellie. He was a wonderful friend who would cook holiday dinners for those of us who had no family close. He would show up quickly for anyone who needed help.” said his longtime friend Teresa Harpole, who spoke at the parole hearing where parole was denied and set off until 2028. “No one I have spoken to that is aware of his case in the community and beyond can understand his unusually harsh, seemingly excessive, sentence for this offense. He has suffered much for his crime. The day he was denied parole his Mother died. …He still could be a productive member of society. He has so many skills and gifts to offer. He needs to be able to spend the last time of his life with his family and friends, his loved ones.” 

Mr. Hotchkiss holds out hope that somehow an opportunity for a few years of freedom will arrive so he can spend time with his children and grandchildren. He, accidentally, had a small taste of freedom when he first began his work release job.

“First time I was here, they were late picking me up. I was standing out front and they were 2 hours late picking me up. And I said to myself, ‘Bud, this is the first time in like 7 years you’re actually free.’ I could have just walked right away. It was a strange feeling. It ran across my mind, I could just walk away.”

But he didn’t. Instead he followed the rules. “I was hoping for the best, that things might work out and this might be over with.”

“My daughter has nightmares and wakes up screaming and crying because all she sees is her dad being beaten and strangled and screaming for help.” – Christy Martin, whose daughter’s father was killed in prison.

This story is part of Appleseed’s series “Cruel and Unusual” focusing on the people harmed by Alabama’s overreliance on excessive sentences, which trap people in deadly, dysfunctional prisons long after they have paid their debt.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

Chris Mount with his daughter MaKayla Mount. Mr. Mount died on Mothers Day 2023, in the segregation cell where correctional officers placed him along with another man at Easterling Correctional Facility.

It’s difficult to know for certain what happened during the morning hours on Mothers Day 2023, in the segregation cell where correctional officers placed Christopher Mount along with another man at Easterling Correctional Facility, but for his two daughters what matters most is that Mr. Mount never came out alive. 

Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) investigators believe the other man, William Smith, killed 44-year-old Christopher Mount in that cell. Smith, 48, was incarcerated after being convicted of choking his girlfriend to death in 2017. Mr. Mount was choked to death as well, according to his death certificate, which lists his cause of death as asphyxiation.  

For an individual in need of extra protection to be killed in a segregation cell represents a serious institutional security failure. Prison segregation cells are supposed to provide safekeeping for people on suicide watch, for people with mental illness, for people being threatened with violence. But within Alabama prisons, basic safety is out of reach for many, many incarcerated people. Because it was out of reach for Mr. Mount, he leaves behind a family who loved him even through his struggles and longed for his return.

“My daughter has nightmares and wakes up screaming and crying because all she sees is her dad being beaten and strangled and screaming for help,” said Christy Martin, mother to Mr. Mount’s 17-year-old daughter, MaKayla. “We were supposed to have him home in our arms and not in an urn.” 

MaKayla Mount, is a member of the National Honor Society and will graduate from high school this fall. She’s been accepted into the University of Alabama at Birmingham and plans to become a physician. “These are things me and my dad talked about for years,” MaKayla told Appleseed. Her father was supposed to be around when all of her dreams came true, she said. 

Letters between Chris Mount and his daughter MaKayla. “He was a great father, even from prison.”

MaKayla said her father, even from behind bars, was a constant presence in her life. The two wrote letters constantly, talked by phone and she’d visit the prison in person to see him. She’d go to him for advice and he’d respond with honesty and support. “He was a great father, even from prison,” Martin said. 

MaKayla would write a letter a day to her father about what was happening in her life, save them up and send a week’s worth all at once. He’d respond in letters that gave advice and support, and talked about what was happening in his life. “He helped build me up as a person,” MaKayla said. 

The suspect in a prison homicide later commits suicide

The full story of what happened will likely never be known as the segregation cellmate, William Smith, is believed to have taken his own life 20 days later. “The prisons failed both of these men,” Christy Martin said. “So unnecessary. It could have been prevented. Chris should not be dead.” 

The Alabama Department of Corrections declined to confirm to Appleseed that Mr. Mount and Mr. Smith were on suicide watch and cited “security reasons and for HIPPA violations.” The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protects release of personal medical information for a period of 50 years after a person’s death. Mr. Mount’s family says both men were on suicide watch at the time, however. 

Family members tell Appleseed that Mr. Mount’s mental health declined significantly following his second parole denial at an Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles hearing on Feb. 10, 2021. By then, he had served 15 years in Alabama’s violent, chaotic prisons. 

The two deaths add to the growing ranks of people sentenced to Alabama prisons who die there. Through June, the last month for which ADOC has released numbers, there were 164 deaths in state prisons. During the same timeframe last year there were 92 deaths in prisons statewide, yet Alabama saw record prison deaths in 2022, when 270 incarcerated people died in custody. 

Alabama Appleseed’s own tracking of prison deaths this year shows that at least 69 of those deaths were likely preventable, with 18 suspected homicides, 6 suspected suicides and 69 suspected overdose deaths, although those numbers are likely an undercount. Last year there were at least 95 preventable deaths in Alabama prisons. 

ADOC doesn’t release timely data on prison deaths, and names aren’t released in department reports, leaving it up to journalists and others to gather those names and seek confirmation. The department’s quarterly reports publish data that reflects what was happening in prisons three months prior, so it’s difficult to gauge the current state of violence and death inside Alabama prisons. 

It’s also difficult to gauge the impact that this loss of life has on the survivors, hundreds of Alabama families who’ve lost loved ones and lost faith in a criminal justice system that was supposed to provide rehabilitation and safety, not burials.

Parenting from prison

For a brief time before prison, Mr. Mount got to spend time with his youngest daughter. He was incarcerated at the Jefferson County Jail prior to his sentencing when MaKayla was born in 2006, but was freed on bond when MaKayla was three months old and was sent to prison five months later to serve his 30-year sentence. 

MaKayla still has the letter her father wrote to her from the Jefferson County Jail. “I want you to have strong morals, and stronger convictions. I want you to be a well educated, independent, strong willed and very happy girl. And if you fall down 6 times, stand up seven,” he wrote to her. 

One of the many letters Chris wrote to his daughter Maykala.

In a letter to MaKayla when she was older, her father wrote about his wishes to once again be free and with her. “MaKayla Grace Mount – I love you with all my heart and soul and dream of the day I can tell you that face to face,” Mr. Mount wrote. “Love you kiddo so much. Head up! Chin out! And never stop swinging! You got this!”

MaKayla said her father did what was expected of him while in prison so that he could return to her, but explained that it came to nothing. “He had rehabilitated himself. In that second parole hearing, when he was denied, that was his death sentence right there,” MaKayla said.  

“Prison is not supposed to be easy, but prison is not supposed to be a death camp. You’re not supposed to starve. You’re supposed to be taken care of medically, mentally,” Martin said. Both mother and daughter explained that Alabama prisons are failing to rehabilitate, and lives are being lost.

District Judge Myron Thompson in his 2021 opinion in the long-running Bragg V. Dunn lawsuit over ADOC’s inadequate mental health care in prisons sounded an alarm over severe staff shortages, overpopulated prisons, the failure to identify suicide risks adequately and inadequate treatment and monitoring to those who are suicidal.

Thompson wrote of the suicide of Jamie Wallace, one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, who killed himself days after Wallace testified in a hearing. Wallace had been released from suicide watch, received no followup care and killed himself two days later, according to the court filing. Thompson wrote that Wallace’s suicide was “powerful evidence of the real, concrete, and terribly permanent harms that woefully inadequate mental-health care inflicts on mentally ill prisoners in Alabama” and yet he noted in his 2021 opinion that “In the four years since, at least 27 more men in  ADOC’s custody have died by suicide.” 

“Prisoners do not receive adequate treatment and out-of-cell time because of insufficient security staff to supervise these activities. They are robbed of opportunities for confidential counseling sessions because there are too few staff to escort them to treatment, forcing providers to hold sessions cell-side,” Thompson continued. “They decompensate, unmonitored, in restrictive housing units, and they are left to fend for themselves in the culture of violence, easy access to drugs, and extortion that has taken root in ADOC facilities in the absence of an adequate security presence.” 

The U.S Department of Justice’s 2020 lawsuit against Alabama and ADOC alleges that the state “fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.” The trial is set for November 2024. 

Even a victim knew he needed drug treatment

At the time of his death Mr. Mount had served almost 17 years of a 30-year sentence after pleading guilty to a string of crimes in 2005 and 2006, all motivated by substance use.  In 2005, Mount attempted to have an altered prescription for Percocet filled at a Trussville Walmart, according to court records, and was charged with Attempt to Commit Controlled Substance Crime. Later that year, he was charged with first-degree robbery and attempted assault, which occurred while he was fleeing by car and dragged a police officer who was attempting to stop him across the parking lot. That same day Mr. Mount stole tools from his workplace and broke into a neighbor’s home, where he was caught by the neighbor while holding her jewelry. He was charged with first degree theft of property and third degree burglary for those crimes. He pleaded guilty to all of those charges in August 2006. 

Mr. Mount’s neighbor in that theft charge wrote a letter to the court on his behalf. The two families had been friends for more than 20 years, and Mr. Mount often helped his neighbors when their own son wasn’t at home to do so, the letter reads. “He is still a very young man and has a lot of good left in him. Drugs can ruin anyone,” the neighbor wrote, asking the court to get him help for his addiction problem so that he can get back to care for his newborn daughter.  “Life is very precious, and once it’s gone and the years have passed – it cannot be brought back,” she wrote. “Please send him to a facility where he might get the help he so desperately needs.” 

Instead, Mr. Mount found himself in Easterling prison, where officers bring in the drugs that drive the violence and death inside. Easterling prison was at 188 percent capacity the month that Mr. Mount was killed. That same month three other men died inside Easterling, according to ADOC’s quarterly report. So far this year ADOC has opened investigations into 12 deaths at Easterling. During the entire year that he entered prison in 2007, ADOC recorded one death in Easterling. 

Chris Mount with his daughter Brittani who is now 27. “He took me to movies and we had so much fun together.”

Brittani Mount, 27, MaKayla’s half-sister, was 10-years old when her father was sent to prison. She told Appleseed she was getting breakfast the morning she got a call from the investigator handling her father’s death. “I immediately knew. He didn’t even get two words out and I said, he’s gone, isn’t he, and he said yes,” Ms. Mount said. “I felt like that 10-year-old little girl again who just lost him, all over again.” 

Losing him to prison was hard for her 10-year-old self to understand, she said. Her grandmother, Mr. Mount’s mother, passed a decade ago and the death hit her father very hard. Brittani was born when Mr. Mount was just 17. She described her father as a good person with a big heart. “I remember eating hot wings with him and sitting in front of the TV and watching Scooby Doo,” she said. “He took me to movies and we had so much fun together. I got the Chris who was free and my sister didn’t.” 

Brittani said she and her father would sing together, and she’d memorize the words to their favorite songs by the recording artist Eminem. “I was very close to him. I was a big daddy’s girl,” Brittani said. “Everybody makes mistakes, and he just made a couple mistakes. It’s just so hard to think about. I think this is the first time I’ve actually talked about it,” she said. 

She believes her father’s sentence was far too harsh, and the lengthy sentence and parole denials cost him his life and removed any chance the two would reunite in person. “He did his time a long time ago,” she said. 

“Never seen this many people die in one prison”

While Appleseed gathered information on the deaths of Mr. Mount and Mr. Smith, more tragic news came.  September 7, a week after being beaten by several other incarcerated men, and two days after his wife said she paid those same men who had extorted him with the threat of death, Tommy Tunstall died in his cell at Donaldson Correctional Facility. 

Appleseed began corresponding with Mr. Tunstall in 2022 as part of efforts to investigate the cases of older, incarcerated people serving life without parole under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. Mr. Tunstall frequently wrote Appleseed lawyers with updates on living conditions at Donaldson.

In September of last year, Mr. Tunstall sent a detailed letter about the lack of security staff at Donaldson and the increasing number of deaths. “All of our lives are in danger, people are already dying off the radar here, but from what and why? I’ve never seen this many people die in a month,” he wrote. “Something’s not right. That’s for sure. I’ve been incarcerated 28 years day for day and I’ve seen it, but never seen this many people die in one prison.”

“I have a beautiful family waiting on me out there and God knows I want to be out there to spend time with them. I have a home plan and a job plan,” he wrote in February, 2023. “April the 14th of this year, I’ll be 54 years old. … I just want to get out, be a positive factor for the environment, work, take care of my wife, and live life one day at a time.” 

His death remains under investigation pending the results of an autopsy, according to ADOC. His wife, Theresa Tunstall, told Appleseed that she is certain he would not harm himself. Mr. Tunstall’s cellmate, however, told Appleseed he found Mr. Tunstall hanging by his belt from the top bunk, took him down and laid him across his bed and called for officers. The cellmate told Mrs. Tunstall the same version of events.The cellmate said Mr. Tunstall told him the night before he died that he was “tired” and had already served “too many years.”

As their son recovered from multiple stab wounds and fractures suffered at Bullock Correctional Facility, Brian Rigsby’s parents had their hopes up that he just might find safety through parole. Here’s what happened instead. 

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

Brian Rigsby with his family (l to r) mom Pamela Moser, sister Elizabeth Neely, and dad Mitchell Rigsby (photo courtesy of Pamela Moser)

Pamela Moser sat in front of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles in late August and waited for her son’s case to come up for consideration. Release was Brian Rigsby’s best chance at escaping the violence that earlier in the month left him with multiple stab wounds and lacerations that weren’t properly treated, his mother, who is a nurse, told Appleseed. 

But before Mr. Rigsby’s name was called, Ms. Moser, 67, and her son’s father, Mitchell Rigsby, 68, who came for the hearing, were told that a mistake had occurred and her son would not have a parole hearing that day. It will likely be five years before their son gets a chance for an early release. 

For Brian Rigsby, that means five more years in treacherous prisons with easy access to the kinds of drugs that got him there to begin with, but little access to rehabilitation or mental health care that might help him earn parole. Or at least avoid more brutality. It’s a seemingly endless cycle of hopelessness experienced by thousands whose convictions stem from substance use, mental illness or a combination. 

Mr. Rigsby, 46, had been turned down at a hearing on July 13, when the only two board members on what is supposed to be a three-member board voted against releasing him under parole supervision. Those two members disagreed on when to reset his next hearing, with one voting to set it off for three years and the other for five years. In the days following that hearing, however, Mr. Rigsby told his mother he’d received a letter from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles telling him they’d set him for another hearing on Aug. 31. Everyone got their hopes up. 

Brian Rigsby (photo courtesy of Pamela Moser)

“He was so excited about that letter, because it said they were going to reconsider,” Ms. Moser said. She worried that once she had to tell him the hearing never took place his mental health could decline further. She described the incident as “infuriating.” 

A Bureau attorney explained to Appleseed that when just two board members vote to deny parole, the next question before them is how long into the future to set the next hearing. If both members can’t decide, according to the Bureau’s rules, the date is automatically set at the maximum, which is five years. Since Mr. Rigsby’s parole hearing in July, a third board member was appointed, but through July the Board was on track this year to release the smallest percentage of eligible prisoners on parole in over a decade, according to Alabama Daily News, “granting parole to just 7.5% of the 2,332 prisoners eligible for release as of Thursday.” 

There is good reason for Ms. Moser to want her son out of Alabama prisons. After that July parole denial, Mr. Rigsby was attacked at Bullock Correctional Facility by two men in a dispute over drugs, Ms. Moser said her son told her. He was beaten in the head with a broom handle and stabbed several times before a correctional officer intervened, she said. Mr. Rigsby has served nearly two decades in Alabama prisons with mental illnesses diagnosed not long before the crime for which he was convicted. 

At a prison visit in August, his mother said she saw five wounds of between a quarter of an inch to a half inch long on his head, and while some had sutures she said “one was gaped open,” as were stab wounds on his calves. Just as concerning was his apparent mental state. During the visit her son dumped his food from his plate and ate it from the table “like a caged animal,” Ms. Moser said. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) in a response to Appleseed’s questions about the attack said that Mr. Rigsby was taken to a local hospital on Aug. 23 after an apparent assault and that “a suspect has not been identified by Rigsby.” He was returned to Bullock prison on Aug. 26, the mother said. The warden told her that in addition to the stab wounds her son had fractured ribs and a facial fracture. Mr. Rigsby told his mother in a Sept 7 phone call from prison that the doctor who treated him said he also had two small skull fractures. 

Brian with his sister Elizabeth (photo courtesy of Pamela Moser)

Her son declined to tell prison staff who attacked him over fear that doing so could place him in greater jeopardy, Ms. Moser said. “He’s afraid that if he reports them, even though they say they’ll protect him, you don’t know that that’s going to happen,” she said. She talked to her son after his return to Bullock prison and said he seemed very distraught and just kept saying “I love you.”

Speaking to the prison’s warden on Sept. 4, Ms. Moser said she was told that her son would be moved to another prison because “they can’t figure out who did this to him.” The next day Mr. Rigsby was moved to Elmore Correctional Facility, according to ADOC records. 

Mr. Rigsby is serving a life with parole sentence after pleading guilty in 2007 to first degree robbery in which no one was physically harmed, court records show. In 2003 at the age of 27 Mr. Rigsby robbed a pharmacy in Walker County, according to court records, and stole $315 and more than 1,000 combined oxycontin, methadone and oxycodone pills. Mr. Rigsby had four prior felony convictions – three burglary convictions and one conviction of possession of a forged instrument. 

Drugs have consumed much of their son’s adult life, his parents explained, and now Mr. Rigsby finds himself in Alabama prisons, where instead of effective drug treatment that might prevent his return to prison, he’s surrounded by drugs at every turn, drugs that are most often brought in by correctional officers and prison staff. Those drugs are also driving much of the violence and death. 

The federal government in December 2020, sued the state and the Department of Corrections alleging that the state “fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.” 

In a May 2021 amended complaint in the ongoing litigation, the DOJ makes clear that ADOC has fallen short in addressing the primary contributor to the unconstitutional violence: contraband. (“ADOC told us that ADOC staff are bringing illegal contraband into Alabama’s prisons,” a 2019 report by the DOJ noted.) 

The DOJ notes in the complaint that drugs and “the inability to pay drug debts leads to beatings, kidnappings, stabbings, sexual abuse, and homicides.”  

While there have been several recent arrests of ADOC correctional officers charged in connection with contraband, drugs still remain plentiful in prisons, incarcerated people tell Appleseed.

Brian with his sister Elizabeth when he was paroled in 2017 (photo courtesy of Pamela Moser)

Mr. Rigsby was released on parole in 2017, and was sent back to prison to serve that life with the possibility of parole sentence the following year, not because of a new criminal charge but because of a technical parole violation. 

Just prior to the pharmacy robbery Mr. Rigsby was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, psychotic disorder, opiate/polysubstance dependence and suicidal ideation and attempts, his attorney wrote in a court filing prior to his conviction. The attorney wrote that he was hospitalized at the South Lake Center for Mental Health in Merrillville, Indiana for a suicide attempt “where he stabbed himself in the neck with a paring knife.” 

Ms. Moser said the doctor in Indiana told her the psychotic break could have been from coming off Methadone too quickly, and that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder can’t be discerned from one incident, but that the suicide attempt was “very intentional” and required exploratory surgery on his neck. 

Alabama’s failure to properly treat and keep safe from harm those incarcerated people with mental illnesses is the centerpiece of a long-running lawsuit that seeks to force ADOC to make corrections. 

The federal judge in the 2014 Braggs v. Dunn lawsuit said in 2017 that Alabama’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners was “horrendously inadequate” and that prisons were woefully understaffed, which exacerbated the mistreatment. 

“Prisoners do not receive adequate treatment and out-of-cell time because of insufficient security staff,” Judge Myron H. Thompson of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama said in a 2021 order. “They are robbed of opportunities for confidential counseling sessions because there are too few staff to escort them to treatment, forcing providers to hold sessions cell-side. They decompensate, unmonitored, in restrictive housing units, and they are left to fend for themselves in the culture of violence, easy access to drugs, and extortion that has taken root in [DOC] facilities in the absence of an adequate security presence. The resulting sky-high rates of suicidality divert scarce mental-health resources from treatment provision to crisis management, exacerbating the deficiencies in care.”

Suicides, and suicide attempts,  among those with mental illnesses is all too common  in Alabama’s prisons, Thompson has noted in his orders.  In “light of the significant number of wholly unanticipated suicides in ADOC segregation units, by individuals who were not on the mental-health caseload, defendants’ contention that ‘the system works’ is astonishing,” Thompson wrote in a 2019 opinion

Brian with his mom Pamela when he was paroled in 2017 (photo courtesy of Pamela Moser)

As for Mr. Rigsby, he has not received any treatment for mental illness while in custody of the state, his mother said. 

“The robbery happened soon after he came back to Alabama, and I have often thought Brian didn’t plan on coming out of that drugstore alive. Once he got in the system, there was no follow up, as far as I know, about evaluating his possible/probable bipolar diagnosis,” Ms. Moser said. 

Last year, Alabama prisons saw a record 270 deaths, which was nearly 200 percent higher than a decade ago. Between January and June, the last period in which ADOC has released numbers, there have been 164 deaths in state prisons. If that pace keeps up, 2023 will be another record year of prison deaths in Alabama. 

Ms. Moser worries that even if her son survives and is some day released, he may come out a different person. 

“The longer they stay in there, the less chance that they’re going to be able to function in society,” she said.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Researcher

Donaldson Correctional Facility. Photo by Gigi Douban.

It’s been eleven days since Derrol Shaw walked the hallways of William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility carrying a semi-automatic pistol, and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has yet to publicly mention the gun or provide the public with assurances that whatever security failures led to the bizarre series of events that unfolded on Facebook Live have been addressed.

In a video shared widely on social media, Shaw can be seen holding that pistol inside the maximum-security prison on Sunday, and in another Facebook Live video that morning Shaw speaks of going out “in a blaze of glory.”

That did not happen, but what exactly did occur during the early morning hours on Sunday, Aug. 13, has not been explained by the department, by anyone in law enforcement, or by anyone in state government.

Interviews with several incarcerated men at Donaldson prison and their loved ones paint a picture of a prison fully out of ADOC’s control, one where injuries could have been much more serious were it not for other incarcerated men who ended the incident themselves. It was those other incarcerated men who secured the gun from Shaw and wheeled an injured Shaw outside in a wheelchair, those men told Appleseed. 

A handgun inside the highest security level prison in Alabama represents a serious security breach within the largest law enforcement agency in the state, and yet conditions within Alabama prisons have deteriorated to the point where this incident was a blip in the news cycle, and ADOC leadership has refused to even acknowledge the gun.

ADOC came close to using the word pistol once, in a followup press release later that Sunday after the incident in which the department shortened Shaw’s charge of Certain Persons Forbidden to Possess a Pistol to “certain persons forbidden to possess.” No other mention of the gun has been used by the department, which had repeatedly declined to discuss how the department believes the gun entered the prison, citing an ongoing investigation.  

While the details of what happened at Donaldson prison are not completely clear, in those interviews and statements to Appleseed, several men serving there described seeing numerous officers leave the prison through two exits shortly after the incident began. No other officers could be seen anywhere in the prison for several hours afterward, those men said. The facility was abandoned to the incarcerated, the men said– one of them, Shaw, had a gun. A SWAT team and an ADOC correctional emergency response team (CERT) arrived outside the prison after daybreak, two of those men told Appleseed. 

It’s unclear how Shaw got the pistol. Two men told Appleseed he forcibly removed it from a female officer – officers aren’t allowed to carry guns in the prison – but another man at the prison was adamant that the gun had been in the prison for some time prior to that day. Asked if the gun was loaded, the man said “it was loaded.” 

The men said that early on during the incident Shaw ordered a female officer inside a cubicle to remove her uniform, which he then wore himself before gaining access to another area of the prison where he took a male officer’s vest, which he wore for much of the remainder of the morning, as can be seen in the Facebook Live videos. 

With no officers in sight, Shaw unlocked numerous doors which would allow the other incarcerated men to roam freely, those men told Appleseed. 

Derrol Shaw is seen holding a gun during a Facebook live video at an incident at Donaldson Correctional Facility on August 13, 2023.

In those videos Shaw can be seen bleeding from his arms, which appeared hastily bandaged. In one of those videos Shaw said he injured himself on razor wire. One of the men who spoke to Appleseed said Shaw injured himself while moving from one area of the prison to another, and that one of the inner fences outside of the prison is electrified, meaning Shaw couldn’t have attempted to scale that fence without disabling the system that electrified the fence. Shaw then made his way to the prison’s honor dorm, where one man told Appleseed he watched Shaw tending to his wounds. 

The men said Shaw moved into another area of the prison, where at least two of the three videos were shot. In the videos he can be seen smoking what Shaw said was marijuana. 

It was in that location that one incarcerated man eventually convinced Shaw to hand over the gun, which the man placed into a trash can, walked the can outside and told an officer in a watch tower what he was doing. That man was himself questioned for much of the rest of that day, incarcerated people told Appleseed. 

With the gun no longer in the prison, several of the men turned their attention to Shaw, who was bleeding badly, the men said. Several of those men wheeled Shaw outside in a wheelchair, they said, bringing an end to what could have been a deadly day in Donaldson prison. The men said there was concern Shaw could bleed to death or be beaten by officers if they didn’t intervene. 

Shaw is serving a life without the possibility of parole sentence after pleading guilty to four murder charges in 2006.

Appleseed asked ADOC to respond to the description of the incident the men provided, and in a response Tuesday afternoon the department declined to do so. “There are no further updates at this point. The LESD investigation is active and ongoing. Additional charges are pending additional findings. Donaldson Correctional Facility is back to normal operations with controlled movement, including external communications,” the statement reads. “The ADOC cannot confirm any statements made by unsubstantiated sources.”

After the incident Shaw was charged with possessing the gun, promoting prison contraband, and making a terrorist threat, according to ADOC, but as of Wednesday none of those charges appear in the state’s online legal database, Alacourt. Asked why that was, an ADOC spokesperson told Appleseed that “I have no idea why they aren’t showing up in Alacourt.” 

The presence of the gun inside Donaldson comes after the department last year confiscated 4,921 weapons made by incarcerated people and 432 “free world” weapons, which are manufactured weapons to include knives, during 2022, according to ADOC’s quarterly reports

A total of nine firearms were confiscated by the Alabama Department of Corrections last year, one of which was reported stolen from the guard tower outside a prison. A former correctional officer is charged with that theft. None of those firearms were found inside prisons, according to the department. The large numbers of weapons inside Alabama’s prisons contribute to the soaring levels of violence and homicide in the state’s prisons for men, which are currently being sued by the United States Department of Justice for unconstitutionally dangerous conditions

In addition to weapons, contraband cell phones are also rampant at Donaldson, and within the last few months, cell phone video has been shared showing incarcerated men barbecuing chicken in the prison yard on makeshift grills, men sleeping in makeshift beds in prison common areas and similar evidence of disarray. 

With over five years of experience in racial justice and people-centered community development work, I am thrilled to join the Alabama Appleseed family as Director of Advocacy. My work integrates project management, direct service, public education, and administrative management, in order to build people power, providing organizational support for communities to mobilize around progressive agendas that tackle America’s legacy of racial and economic injustice head-on. Like Alabama Appleseed, I work from a sense of urgency around the need to reimagine solutions for how we sustain a cross-cultural system of connection among Alabamians, forging an honest Southern reckoning. 

It’s been said that the heart of America can be found in Alabama. Everywhere we look, the roots of history run South. And we the protectors of land built from death, filled with red dirt in our veins, nurture life in the cradle of Alabama. 

I am a son and (oldest) brother. My parents grew up in the South beneath the shadow of Jim Crow segregation. They then joined the Air Force, and for over two decades served this country. Raised in Orrville, Alabama, my mom grounded our family in the power of language and spiritual discernment. My dad, a native of Biloxi Mississippi, is the first man I ever loved. Principled and deeply soulful, he filled our home with the sound of music. Together, my parents creatively built our home with shapeless walls that could not easily be destroyed.

A military brat, I was a child of discipline and order, schooled by the unyielding regimen of travel, parental deployment, and family separation. On the one hand, the military offered a semblance of belonging, an embrace of uniformity. In contrast, it also taught me how the politics of race could shade interactions, dictate opportunities, and weave silent narratives of exclusion. Each deployment, each move, brought a new chapter in my exploration of the human soul, as I witnessed the interplay of power, privilege, and prejudice.  As my parents answered the call to serve, I answered the call to understand, to question, and to illuminate. After they retired in 2006, we settled in Pelham, Alabama. 

Between 2006 to 2012, I grew up in the Birmingham area before attending college at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There had only been two minorities of color elected as SGA President in the history of the institution; Mr. Cleophus Thomas Jr. was elected in 1976, and on March 10th, 2015 I became the second. 

By 2016, following my time at UA, I felt disillusioned. A part of me rejected the thought of staying in Alabama but inwardly believed that the answers could be found at home. I needed to be still. So, I moved back to the Birmingham area and started my role as a YWCA Central Alabama Social Justice AmeriCorps Member. Through community engagement and education, I coordinated social justice programs for middle and high school students, investigating the role of heritage, culture, and racial identity in adolescent development. It was a path toward self-introspection that led me to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery. 

From 2017 and 2022, during my time at EJI, I managed several dozen community coalitions across the country – including Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, Nebraska, Maryland, and Louisiana – in their work to publicly memorialize the history of racial terror lynching in America. At EJI, I conducted research and writing for institutional development, projects, and program initiatives, such as EJI’s Segregation in America Report, and its national Soil Collection Exhibit, and worked closely with EJI’s Deputy Director of Museum and Memorial Operations and Senior staff to launch EJI’s inaugural narrative-historical sites, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018 (as well as the museum expansion in 2021). 

Drawing from my experience at EJI, and as Manager for The Toforest Johnson Banner Tour (2022-2023), I seek to empower community efforts at Alabama Appleseed to reimagine local systems and structures that equitably serve (and center) communities living on the margins. 

For over two decades, Toforest Johnson, a 50-year-old Black man, has suffered on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. In collaboration with Greater Birmingham Ministries, The Toforest Johnson Banner Tour Project banner tour is a state-wide advocacy campaign with faith-based institutions seeking to support his call for a new trial and bring him home to his family. 

Fostering a supportive environment from which our team is empowered, I will utilize my proven leadership, communication, collaboration, and advocacy skills to amplify Alabama Appleseed’s vision through commitment and love. By investing in the creative and organizational power within our partner network, we will contribute to shepherding Alabamians to assume the principles of true justice, and repair. Something terribly beautiful.

Ronnie Peoples has paid dearly for a series of robberies decades ago. Now he’s fighting for his life following a cancer diagnosis.

This is the first story in Appleseed’s new series “Cruel and Unusual” focusing on the people harmed by Alabama’s overreliance on excessive sentences, which trap people in deadly, dysfunctional prisons long after they have paid their debt.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

For more than two decades Ronnie Peoples has kept track of the tools used in the trade school at St. Clair Correctional Facility. He’s never been paid for that work, but even today, as cancer spreads across his body, he shows up for work. 

The 67-year-old’s workstation is a private respite from the chaos inside the prison. He goes to work to collect his thoughts and ease his mind. It’s hard to find peace in a prison, even harder with cancer. 

Mr. Ronnie Peoples

Mr. Peoples has served 32 years of a life without the possibility of parole sentence under the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA). He is among the growing number of very sick and older incarcerated people in Alabama. He was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer in April and while his treatment continues, the disease has spread to a lung and to a rib. 

“On July 4th, they gave me two shots and started me on chemo. The shots is for 3 months and after 3 months that’s when I go back to the doctors for radiation. My radiation will be on the 4th of Oct. I do not feel comfortable about this, but my trust is in the Lord,” Mr. Peoples’ wrote in a followup letter after our visit.

Despite an impressive record of rehabilitation and years of positive contributions to living conditions at St. Clair, Mr. Peoples has been condemned to suffer through this disease in the overcrowded, overheated misery of an Alabama prison. More and more Alabamians will face a similar fate, battling life-threatening illnesses in an environment designed for punishment, not healing, as the State’s embrace of life and life without parole sentences plays out to its only possible conclusion.

Mr. Peoples received his life without the possibility of parole sentence after a 1991 robbery of a beverage company conviction in Tuscaloosa County. No one was injured. His sentence was enhanced under the HFOA because of prior robbery convictions more than four decades ago in the 1970s, including in Ohio. Life without parole was the only available sentence at the time, but because of changes to Alabama sentencing laws, Mr. Peoples would have been eligible for a much shorter sentence if current laws applied to his case. 

In 2005, Mr. Peoples asked the court to reconsider his sentence. Bradley Black, welding instructor at St. Clair prison’s trade school, in a letter to the judge 18 years ago wrote: “He is an excellent worker and a person whom I can count on and trust. .. I normally do not write letters for the inmates. When Ronnie asked me to write this letter for him, I felt it was the least I could do for someone who has helped me so much and has never asked for anything in return.”

The support letters have stacked up, but still fall on deaf ears. “If not passing out/checking in tools you’ll find him reading the Bible or assisting Mr. Black in what needs to be done in the shop,” a St. Clair trade school security officer wrote to the court in 2005. “Always shows a positive attitude towards inmates/officers.” Another correctional officer wrote to the court in 2005 that Mr. Peoples was a “respectful and trouble free inmate” and that Mr. Peoples played a critical role in helping the officer and another officer quell a gang-related problem at St. Clair prison. “Inmate Peoples appears to be ready to make change in his life,” the officer wrote. 

Mr. Peoples’ plea for his sentence to be reconsidered was denied, and 18 years later, he still ensures all the tools in the trade school are accounted for. 

Sentences of life without parole essentially make it impossible to pay one’s debt, despite decades of good behavior, accolades, rehabilitation, and toiling away for no pay. Even despite cancer, the punishment is never enough.

A letter from Mr. Peoples to Appleseed’s Executive Director Carla Crowder after their last visit

Mr. Peoples smiled when he talked about his two grown sons, one of whom is a Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s deputy, but said of his extended family that most of those who were “in my corner have all died.”  

Until recently, Peoples said he’s never had problems with anxiety or depression, but news that his cancer had spread to his lungs and ribs hit him hard. He described an incident in June as a “meltdown“ that took two nurses with kind hearts to ease his mind. They encouraged him to speak about his condition with his female friend outside of prison. Peoples said that his friend tends to pepper him with questions about his well-being and expects that he should be able to ask and get answers from those tending to his medical needs. “But it’s not like that in here,” Peoples said. He’s often left wondering what’s next, and can’t get answers from prison medical staff, he said. 

He knows that when cancer spreads to bone the timeline for care shrinks, and it’s weighing on him heavily. Few medical staff in the prison are as kind as the two nurses who helped calm him after his “meltdown,” he said. It’s seen as a weakness among prison staff to express concern for incarcerated people, he explained. “If they see you helping others they’ll run you out,” Mr. Peoples said. 

He spends time each week in a program called CORE, an acronym for Community, Opportunity, Restoration, and Education, which is a two-year program that teaches incarcerated people how to think differently about themselves and their actions. 

“Mr. Peoples has always had a positive attitude towards staff and other members of the CORE community and has been an asset to the program,” Chris Rothoff, CORE program director, said in a statement to Appleseed, adding that Mr. People’s participation in the program “has been outstanding.” 

St. Clair Correctional Facility where Mr. Peoples has spent more than two decades

It’s a good program, Peoples explained, and he compared it to a program he and four other incarcerated men started in around 2007 at St. Clair prison called Convicts Against Violence, or CAV. CORE gives students in the program a chance to work on themselves, Peoples said. It’s a chance to better oneself in a prison where drugs and violence are all around you, he explained. 

As of May this year there were 7,258 incarcerated individuals aged 50 and older, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections latest monthly report.  Over a 50 year period from 1972 to 2022, there was a 3,640% increase in prisoners aged 50 and above. Comparatively, Alabama’s general prison population grew 607% over the same time span. Alabama’s elderly prison population rapidly outpaces Alabama’s general prison population and the state population.

There is no end in sight. The number of people aged 50 and older in Alabama prisons jumped by 17% from May 2020 to May 2023, and the percentage of those aged 60 and older incarcerated in Alabama jumped even higher during those three years, rising by 28 percent. 

Medical furlough was a much heralded response when unveiled more than a decade ago. It has accomplished little. Of the 24 medical furlough applications received in 2022, ADOC approved 9, but four applicants died during the review process, according to the department’s report. ADOC approved 10 for medical furlough in 2021. 

As prisons fill with more and more older, sicker people, the cost to the state to care for them continues rising. ADOC in 2010 paid $116 million for healthcare “and other professional services.” A decade later, in 2020, that figure rose to $177 million, and jumped again in 2021 to $221 million. ADOC Commissioner John Hamm in February asked legislators for an additional $122 million to the department’s budget, to be spent on infrastructure and health care needs. Now the cost is $1 billion for four years, recently awarded to  Tennessee-based YesCare, a for-profit provider.

“There were three stabbings here recently,” Mr. Peoples said. Much of the violence is driven by drug use, especially a synthetic cannabinoids called “Flakka” which can cause a person to act erratically and violently. 

Overdoses and overdose deaths are also common at St. Clair prison and throughout Alabama’s prison system, which is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice that alleges the state and the Alabama Department of Corrections fail to keep incarcerated men in Alabama free from sexual and physical violence and death. 

The 2020 lawsuit followed a Department of Justice 2019 report that details horrific instances of abuse and death in Alabama’s prisons. After those concerns went unaddressed the federal government released a subsequent report in July 2020 that detailed widespread use of excessive force, including deadly force, by corrections officers against incarcerated people. 

Alabama overcrowded and understaffed prisons saw a record 270 deaths in 2022, and according to ADOC’s quarterly report, the 80 deaths through March of this year are on pace to set another record high. 

At St. Clair prison, which was at 112 percent capacity in May, Mr. Peoples said it’s not uncommon to see incarcerated people living “homeless” after being forced by other incarcerated people to give up assigned beds and sleep instead in the dayroom, or even outside. The drugs and the debt those drugs can generate between the men inside is fueling such aggression, he explained. 

And it’s the older men inside who most often become targets for the younger men, Mr. Peoples, explained, men like him who just want to live, in a place where staying alive is a daily struggle with no guarantee. 

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

An Alabama Department of Corrections officer was arrested Thursday and charged with murder in connection with the death of an incarcerated man, who had nearly completed a 20-year sentence. The violence occurred at Elmore Correctional Facility, the site of numerous incidents of unlawful brutality by correctional staff toward incarcerated people.

D’Marcus Sanders, a sergeant, faces murder charges and resigned his position at ADOC after the incident, ADOC told Appleseed in a statement. Two incarcerated men are also charged with murder in the death.

Rubyn Murray, the victim, had served 19 years of a 20 year sentence for a 2004 robbery. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole denied parole for Mr. Murray in February of 2021. His conviction stemmed from a robbery of a Montgomery convenience store in which $125 was stolen; no one was injured, according to court records. He was 39 years old when he died.

Violence and mismanagement at Elmore has been pervasive over the last decade. Sgt. Ulysses Oliver Jr. was sentenced last year to 30 months in federal prison for the 2019 assault of two incarcerated persons at Elmore Correctional Facility. Both men were handcuffed behind their backs and did not resist, according to court records.

Also in 2022, Correctional Officer Eli White was caught on video beating an incarcerated man on a prison rooftop at Elmore. The violence caught on camera and shared widely on social media became a visible example of the often unseen abuse that regularly takes place in Alabama prisons, Appleseed reported in September 2022.

And in 2017, correctional officers allegedly beat and hogtied Billy Smith, leaving him screaming for help as supervisors worked nearby. Mr. Smith soon died, and Elmore Officer Jeremy Singleton was charged with manslaughter, according to reporting by Injustice Watch.

Mr. Murray’s death is at least the fourth violent death of an incarcerated Alabamian since 2020, the year the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Alabama over unconstitutional violence, death, and sexual assault across the entire prison system for men.

Mr. Murray was involved in an altercation with another officer earlier on Wednesday which resulted in minor injuries on both the officer and Mr. Murray, according to the ADOC statement. Murray was then taken to a “back gate holding area” and was to be taken to Staton Correctional Facility for medical assessment and treatment.

“Before the transport could occur and in violation of ADOC policy, two other inmates gained access to the holding area,” the statement reads. “Inmate Murray was found unresponsive and was transported to SHCU and then to an area hospital for emergency treatment. Medical staff was unable to resuscitate inmate Murray and he was pronounced deceased by the attending physician.”

“Based on evidence gathered so far, Correctional Sgt. Demarcus Sanders and inmates Fredrick Gooden and Stefranio Hampton have been charged with Murder,” the statement continues.

Two sources tell Appleseed that Mr. Murray was eating breakfast Wednesday morning when a female officer ordered him to return to his dorm, and the altercation ensued.

Other incidents in which ADOC officers are believed to have been responsible in deaths and assaults of incarcerated people in state prisons include:

  • Former ADOC Lt. Mohammad Jenkins was arrested in March 2022 and charged with second-degree assault in connection with the beating of Victor Russo at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility. Russo died days later at a local hospital.
  • Two other Alabama correctional officers were arrested in May 2022 and charged in connection with the April death of an incarcerated man at Donaldson Correctional Facility after he became stuck in the door to his cell, according to jail records and a source with knowledge of the incident.
  • Jason Kirkland, 27, died on July 5, 2021, when he became stuck in the door of his cell, according to reporting by Beth Shelburne, an investigative reporter.
  • Steven Davis, 35, died in 2020 after being beaten by officers at Donaldson prison, according to witnesses who spoke to the U.S. Department of Justice, which didn’t name Davis in a DOJ report released that year but wrote that “numerous prisoner-witnesses … reported that correctional officers continued to strike the prisoner after he dropped any weapons and posed no threat.”

by Eddie Burkhalter, Researcher

Richard Robertson

Traffic laws exist for good reason — including regulatory laws that require drivers to be licensed and carry insurance. But there is a reason these laws carry fines rather than incarceration as a penalty: violating them is common, and the lawmakers who set the penalties mean for them to be a financial inconvenience, not a life-changing catastrophe.

For people who lack the means to pay what they owe right away, though, that’s exactly what traffic tickets are.

Richard Robertson, 33, sat in the back of Anniston’s municipal court on Feb. 8, 2023, held his head in both hands and looked down at the floor as Judge James Sims talked with someone else about their traffic tickets.

His jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes spattered with white paint, Robertson asked to borrow and write in an Appleseed researcher’s notebook. The court’s bailiff strictly enforces a no talking rule among those seated in court. On any given day in court at least one person is forced to wait in the lobby outside court after breaking that rule.

“Homeless,” Robertson wrote on the notepad. “Walk 40 miles…I’m a very well-mannered person. Lost everything. Had to walk here to stay out of jail. I’m just pissed and tired.”

Robertson owes $1,000, despite having only been ticketed for non-moving violations. His life has been turned upside down and stability is beyond his grasp, all because of the combination of poverty and traffic tickets.

He found work painting houses with an acquaintance, but getting to and from job sites was proving difficult, he explained. Robertson was also suffering from the lingering effects of a head injury he sustained after being hit by a vehicle, he said.

His car was impounded by the state trooper who last pulled him over, so the day before his court hearing Robertson walked those 40 or so miles to Anniston from the home of an acquaintance, where he’d slept the night before.

Once downtown, he made his way to the parking deck a short walk from the courthouse. As the darkness set in, he curled up in a corner of that parking deck and slept, assured he’d make his court hearing and prevent another arrest warrant for failing to appear. Unhoused persons often take shelter in that concrete structure in Anniston, as the Salvation Army closed its Anniston shelter in 2019, leaving no other emergency shelter for men in the city.

A search of Robertson’s court record on Alabama’s online database shows only a handful of traffic tickets handed out to him by state troopers over three traffic stops in 2007 and 2009. He was also stopped by an Anniston Police officer in January, which led to his court hearing in Sims’ courtroom the following month.

Robertson was pulled over in his 2003 Ford Taurus by a state trooper at 3:10 p.m. on Aug. 12, 2022, on Zinn Drive in Anniston and ticketed for an expired license.

Robertson on Sept. 7, 2022, was pulled over by an Alabama State Trooper at 4:05 p.m. on Joni Lee Drive in Anniston and was ticketed for failure to register a vehicle.

Calhoun County District Judge Randy Moeller on Nov. 22, 2022, filed an order noting that Robertson failed to show at a Nov. 9 hearing to discuss those tickets. He warned that if Robertson didn’t send the court a written motion to reset the court date, the judge would issue a warrant for his arrest on a failure to appear charge. A notice mailed to Robertson at a Munford house address on Dec. 8, 2022, was returned to the court as undeliverable.

Moeller on Jan. 5, 2023, issued that arrest warrant. Robertson was arrested on Feb. 2, 2023, court records show. He appeared before the judge from the Calhoun County Jail via webcam five days later, where he pleaded guilty and was set on a payment plan of $50 a month to pay off just more than $1,000 in court debt connected to those tickets.

Anniston Municipal Court Judge James Sims at the Feb. 22, 2022, hearing dropped the failure to appear charge, thereby saving Robertson the cost of additional fines and fees related to that charge. Sims also credited $125 to Robertson’s debt for serving those five days in jail, which all but took care of his court debt for the Anniston traffic ticket. Even so, he remained behind on paying tickets issued by state troopers.

With Robertson’s permission, Appleseed followed him to the city of Gadsden, which has more resources for the homeless and where he received clean clothes, regular meals and help finding a job — but that job was 10 miles from the shelter where he was staying. A donated bicycle promised him access to his job in February, but the bicycle was stolen the next day.

Robertson later made his way to the city of Boaz, 19 miles north Gadsden, where he found work with a construction crew framing homes. It was work he’d never done before but he was excited for a new start.

“I’m not great but I catch on fast,” Robertson texted Appleseed on Feb. 22 about his new job. Appleseed lost contact with Robertson after that text message, and numerous attempts to locate him have been unsuccessful.

A “payment delinquent notice” regarding his court debt was mailed to Robertson on March 14, 2023, according to court records, but it’s unclear where the court mailed that notice to. The address listed for Robertson in that court case is a Munford home, where he hasn’t lived for some time.

Read more from Appleseed’s newest report Taken for a Ride.