Before asking for Bruce Pearson’s freedom, we sought input from the victim in his 1994 robbery. She was relieved to learn he had turned his life around and happy to support his release. As she put it: “people change over time, so if someone has done well in prison, why wouldn’t you give them a second chance?”

By Scott Fuqua, Appleseed Staff Attorney

Bruce Pearson exits St. Clair Correctional Facility after serving 27 years in prison.

For more than a year, Appleseed had been investigating Bruce Pearson’s case as part of our Second Chance work. We visited Bruce at St. Clair Correctional Facility and were both struck by what an optimistic, outgoing, and kind person he is despite having spent decades in prison with no reason to believe he would ever be released. Bruce’s story was unique, but also similar in many ways to our other clients who were condemned to die in prison. 

In the grips of addiction, Bruce pretended to have a gun in his pocket to rob a convenience store. Due to his three prior felonies, Alabama’s draconian habitual offender law required him to be sentenced to life without parole. Despite having no hope of ever being released, he managed to turn his life around in prison. He kicked his addiction and became a positive person who tried to help those around him suffering through the harsh reality of life in prison. 

By late spring, one hurdle remained in filing Bruce’s case – victim outreach. How would the victim feel about him being released? Prior to filing a petition asking the Court to resentence Bruce, we needed to contact the person who was working at the convenience store the night of the robbery. Being the victim of a robbery is a traumatic experience so we try to speak with victims in every case to learn how the crime impacted them and whether they would be opposed to the client being released. 

Bruce Pearson is welcomed by Appleseed Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua and Reentry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen outside of St. Clair Correctional Facility

The former convenience store clerk’s name is Jennifer Rice. We were able to find a few possible addresses for her so in early April, Carla Crowder and I set out from the office to knock on doors. The first address we stopped by had a family who had recently moved in that had never heard of Jennifer. The second address was an abandoned home so we moved on to the third address on our list. There was a car in the driveway when we arrived so we thought we might be in luck. We rang the doorbell and within a few seconds, we heard a woman say hello through the Ring doorbell’s speaker. At first, she seemed understandably hesitant as few people are excited by the unexpected arrival of attorneys on their doorstep. She explained that she was actually at work and speaking to us through the doorbell’s app on her phone. Jennifer confirmed we had the right address and that she recalled the night she was robbed while working at the gas station. After explaining that we had reviewed Bruce’s case and found that he had done well in prison for 27 years, Jennifer told us she would be happy to support him getting a second chance. 

The next day I drove to meet with her at the hospital where she works as a nurse. As we talked about Bruce’s case, she explained that she had been praying for years for someone to have sympathy for her son who had been in prison for 17 years for a crime that occurred when he was still a senior in high school. Then out of the blue, Carla and I showed up on her doorstep to talk about giving someone the same type of second chance she hopes her son will have one day. She said she felt her prayers had been answered and God was giving her the opportunity to help someone. The robbery that had occurred in 1994 was a scary moment in her life, but she said she harbored no ill will towards Bruce. She was happy to hear he had turned his life around in prison. Jennifer explained that she strongly believes “people change over time, so if someone has done well in prison, why wouldn’t you give them a second chance?”

Jennifer illustrates something we frequently see in our work. The victims of crimes are often residents of economically disadvantaged areas who have been touched by the criminal justice system in negative ways. Jennifer explained that her son is a smart person who has the potential to be a productive member of society, but because he had the misfortune of being around the wrong people when a serious crime occurred, he was thrown away just as his life should have been starting. We talked about resources that are available to formerly incarcerated people and how Appleseed may be able to assist in her son’s transition to freedom when he finishes his sentence in a few years. 

In Jefferson County, we are fortunate to have a District Attorney who is willing to review select older cases and consider

Bruce Pearson with former Appleseed intern Meghan McLeroy who worked on his case.

whether they have earned a second chance through good behavior in prison. After reviewing all of the facts and speaking with Jennifer, District Attorney Danny Carr supported our effort to give Bruce a second chance. The ultimate decision rests with the judge who has jurisdiction over the case. Once again, Jefferson County residents are lucky to have judges who are concerned about both public safety and whether justice is served by requiring people to remain in prison until death in cases with no physical injury. With the victim and the District Attorney both in favor of Bruce being released, Judge Michael Streety granted our petition and Bruce was resentenced to time served. 

Before we even initiated this process, we got to know Bruce through prison visits and through information passed along by Richard Storm, another attorney who worked on his case. We learned that Bruce was a light in a very dark place. He told me how finding a positive mindset and his faith were the keys to turning around his life. He took substance abuse classes and beat his addiction despite living in a prison where drugs were even more readily available than they are on the street. Rather than despair over receiving a sentence that required him to remain in prison until death, Bruce set about becoming a leader and peacemaker. When fights erupted, Bruce would wade into the fray and try to prevent bloodshed. He told me about one incident where he was able to grab an improvised knife out of a person’s hand before he could use it to stab another inmate. His dream was to be released so that he could carry his recovery into the free world where he could find ways to use his life experience to have a positive impact on others. 

On April 21st, I drove Meghan McLeroy, an Appleseed intern who worked on his case, Appleseed Community Organizer Dana Sweeney, and our Reentry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen to St. Clair Correctional Facility to pick up Bruce. In a testament to how much respect he had earned among prison staff, several ADOC employees gave him a hug as he walked out the prison’s front door. It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching someone who was condemned to die in prison walk out as a free person. Each time I have picked up a client on their release day, it’s been the best day of my legal career. 

Bruce and John Coleman reunite

Bruce’s brother, sister, and brother in-law were waiting for him when we arrived back at the office. After a heartwarming reunion, we went to lunch and then on to Shepherd’s Fold, a reentry ministry that assists formerly incarcerated people with their transition out of prison. One of the best moments of the day was when one of our other clients, John Coleman, was reunited with Bruce. John and Bruce were close friends after serving many years together at St. Clair. When John was suffering from kidney failure and on dialysis, Bruce worked as an orderly who helped nurse him back to health. The emotional scene made me think of the closing moments of the “Shawshank Redemption” when Red and Andy were reunited. 

Freedom has suited Bruce extremely well. The day after his release, I had a call from a number I didn’t recognize. Unbeknownst to me, our Reentry Case Manager, Kathleen Henderson, was ahead of the game and had already gotten Bruce a phone. When I answered, Bruce quickly explained that his brother had picked him up first thing that morning and they were at a park. “Scott, can you believe these squirrels and these birds?!” The sense of unmitigated joy in his voice was something to which words can’t really do justice.

Bruce’s favorite refrain when I talk to him now is “I’m ready.” While he is excited to move forward with this life, he explained that, “If I pass away today, I’ll be happy that I’m free from prison, drugs, hate, and disappointment.” Everyone on our team has encouraged him to take his time as he transitions back to freedom, but he is eager to find a job and opportunities to help others. 

Bruce reunites with his siblings after his release.

Thanks to Jennifer’s support along with District Attorney Carr and Judge Streety’s belief in second chances, Bruce is going to have the opportunity to not only be a productive member of society, but someone who gives back to our community. Like all of our other clients released to date, Bruce’s story is an inspiration and a reminder that there are countless other incarcerated persons still inside our prisons who fit the same profile as Bruce and are deserving of a second chance.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

A 2021 law requiring enhanced reporting by the Alabama Department of Corrections has now produced a full year’s worth of data with detailed reporting on weapons, including firearms, at Alabama’s prisons.  

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 the firearms were found inside prisons, according to the department.

Former Alabama Department of Corrections officer Anthony Donnell Brown of Prattville was arrested Aug. 29, 2022, and charged with theft of property II and use of official position for personal gain, according to court records, which allege he stole a Glock .40 caliber handgun that belonged to the department.

Brown is alleged to have stolen the gun from Station Correctional Facility on Dec. 12, 2021, and sold it for $200 before it was recovered by Missouri State Highway Patrol on August 25, 2022, according to those records and a response from ADOC.

In addition to those firearms found by ADOC, 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. There is no additional information available on the reports as to how more than 400 manufactured weapons made their way into secure facilities.

Another firearm was found in a vehicle during a contraband traffic stop outside of Donaldson Correctional Facility on Aug 21, 2022, an ADOC spokesperson confirmed for Appleseed this week.

Two additional firearms were discovered in a vehicle during a checkpoint near Holman Correctional Facility on July 3, 2022.

“Regarding the firearms inquiries – all three cases are pending prosecution and no firearms have been found inside any facility,” the ADOC spokesperson wrote in a response to Appleseed.

In ADOC’s first quarterly report for the fiscal year 2023, which covers Oct. 1, 2022, through Dec. 31, 2022, three additional firearms were confiscated.

One firearm was confiscated at Donaldson Correctional Facility on Oct. 18, 2022, another was confiscated four days later at Ventress Correctional Facility and a third was found at a facility only listed in ADOC’s report as “OTHER.”

The ADOC spokesperson in the response declined to answer more questions directly about older contraband confiscations and said that doing so is “very time consuming” and questions should be submitted through ADOC’s public records request form.  Appleseed on Thursday submitted a records request regarding the three firearms confiscated later in 2022 and awaits a response.

Another firearm was found by a K9 unit on May 8, 2022, at an undisclosed facility, according to ADOC’s third quarter fiscal year 2022 report, and another firearm was confiscated on April 12, 2022, at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

In late 2021 two firearms were confiscated in vehicles outside of Alabama prisons. ADOC confirmed last year.

Prisons awash with weapons contribute to the soaring levels of violence and homicide in Alabama’s prisons for men, which are currently being sued by the United States Department of Justice for unconstitutionally dangerous conditions.

There have been at least 54 deaths inside Alabama prisons this year, according to Appleseed’s figures, although the number is likely higher. ADOC does not release timely information about in-custody deaths, and the department’s quarterly reports run six months behind and do not name those who died, leaving it to journalists and others to track deaths.

Of those 54 deaths so far this year, nine are suspected homicides, one is a suspected suicide and at least 32 are suspected overdose deaths. Last year Alabama prisons saw a record 270 deaths of incarcerated people.

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 the most recent year for which comparison data is available, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics 2021 report.

Late last year, Larry Garrett was released from Holman Correctional Facility after 38 years of incarceration. It would take more than four months, dozens of phone calls, multiple records requests, and loads of patience to secure the most basic document he needed to move on with his life – his birth certificate. Here is the account of how Appleseed’s Reentry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson made it happen.

By Kathleen Henderson, Appleseed Reentry Case Manager

Larry Garrett proudly holds his new driver’s license

The day after his release, I pick Larry Garrett up from Shepherd’s Fold, a reentry ministry, and take him on the first of many journeys. We gather documents to obtain the felon ID, which he must obtain within 24 hours of release. If he does not carry this card with him at all times for the rest of his life, he is in danger of reincarceration. Alabama is the only state in the nation with this law. We go downtown into the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office and wait. The office is imposing to many who have suffered so much at the hands of the justice system. Larry is feeling uncomfortable, but he is ready with his temporary prison ID and his release papers. This ID is a stark reminder that he committed three felonies and even though he paid with much of his lifetime, he remains marked with a Scarlet Letter and his convictions remain a factor in his daily life. He gets the ID as soon as the officer does the research and takes his photo. Tomorrow, he will apply for a birth certificate. Larry breathes a sigh of relief as this seems much more of a mundane process.

Just one day ago, Larry walked out of Holman prison, after being resentenced from Life Without Parole to time-served. He spent 38 years in prison following convictions for burglary and theft in which no one was physically injured. Larry grew up the oldest boy in an impoverished family in Talladega County; he felt pressure to help feed his siblings, which led to his convictions. Despite his strong family ties, a quirk on his birth certificate almost meant Larry Garrett would never be able to prove who he is.

The application for a birth certificate is simple if you know parental information and where and when you were born. His temporary prison ID serves as a picture ID. We drive to the local health department and Larry applies and waits about 30 minutes for the kind women behind the counter to produce a birth certificate. But he will have to file additional paperwork in Montgomery. His birth certificate was found, and all the information was correct, except his name was not on it. When we ask what name is on it they cannot tell us. She says “it probably just says baby boy.” She shreds the application and gives us the new packet with mailing instructions. 

The new packet has different identification requirements. However, at release, Larry was only given a temporary ID, release papers and a few years worth of prison medical records. Thankfully, after several weeks, Larry’s brother finds school records from 7th, 8th and 9th grade and his mothers’ birth certificate. So we send everything we have, every form of ID, every correspondence and after three weeks we are told we will need to provide additional information because it is his name that is missing, and that requires a stricter set of proof. I learn we must provide two of the following:

  • Marriage certificate
  • State ID 
  • Birth certificate of a child in which your name is listed as father 
  • Voter ID card from 5 years ago or better
  • Immunization records from 10 years old or better
  • DD 214 (the capstone documentation of completed military service)
  • Life Insurance policy.

That sounds simple, right? Except Larry has been incarcerated so long that the family keeper of the documents (his mother) has passed away. Also, he has never been married, or had children. He doesn’t possess any state ID except his felony ID and inmate ID. He couldn’t register to vote in prison (many people with felonies cannot restore their right to vote) and no one holds life insurance on him; they always felt he would die behind bars. 

This leaves the DD214 and immunization records from 10 years ago. Luckily, Larry is a United States veteran and the Alabama Department of Corrections should have immunization records. Most entities only hold immunization records for five years, and when we explain this to the helpful woman in Montgomery, she says records from five years ago will do. We comb through the records he has been released with and there are only two years worth of medical records. So we file paperwork with the ADOC to obtain the records. After several months – there is still no response.  In the meantime we apply for a DD214 and wait. The Veteran’s Services representative takes his prison ID as proof of who he is. After all, it is a state entity. 

At this point, Larry begins to feel a bit down. After being locked behind bars for so long and made to feel like a nobody, he still doesn’t exist in our system – at least in the ways required to obtain the most basic form of identification, proof that you were born. He is a veteran and a citizen and yet, this has not been validated. Making mistakes should not negate the fact that Larry is a human being, however, this is how he feels. Furthermore, Larry is energetic, eager to start a job and become self-sufficient, but this bureaucratic hurdle stands in the way of his future.

Believing there must be something that we can do without a birth certificate, we go to the Social Security office and are told that the list of documents has no exceptions. So I begin calling around trying to see if there is anything that can be done. After days of being told no, we visit several offices and are found lacking every time. 

Eventually, we speak to someone in the Social Security office who believes she has found the mistake. She sees someone named Larry (his step brother’s name) who was born one year earlier, to the same parents. She believes that is the mistake and we can obtain that birth certificate. We go straight to the Health Department and we receive that birth certificate. However, it says deceased on the front. It appears that this is a half brother of Larry’s that has passed away. We return the birth certificate and begin to wait again.

Reentry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson celebrates with Larry Garrett

We wait and wait, and wait. Weeks pass. We are told to contact the Health Department in the county where Larry was born, perhaps they have some immunization records, so we do and are told they do not have anything for us.

Back to the immunization records quest: After several months, we hear from ADOC that we sent the wrong paperwork, despite using the precise form the agency provided. However, the person in charge of medical records requests provides her direct information and requests that we fax it to expedite our request. We originally applied for the birth certificate on December 20, 2022. More than 90 days later, we received his DD 214 military record. We just need one more document from the list of seven to reach the Holy Grail.

For about the fifth time, I call the Alabama Department of Corrections only to hear that an invoice should have been sent by their contracted medical company more than two weeks ago. This particular ADOC staff member shows some sympathy for this story and incredulity that this has happened. She immediately requests a search by the records clerk.  Meanwhile, I make several phone calls to the ADOC medical contractor only to be told that there was no invoice sent and that there is no particular timeline that it would be done. After a week, I call the ADOC back and find that the medical company no longer has a contract with ADOC and we cannot access their database. The frustration builds in both Larry and me. 

After more investigation, I find that the elementary school that Larry attended was closed, but the records might have been transferred to another school. So I give that a shot. The administrative assistant says that she has no idea, but connects me to someone who might. There is no answer and no subsequent returned call. I call several more times and reach a voicemail each time. I try researching libraries and health departments to see if maybe they have something and the health departments do not have his records.

We keep researching for another week or more and thinking and calling people and we decide to go try to get a Social Security card with his DD214. It works! Oh mercy, it works! But a Social Security card is not on the list of required documents. After I explained our situation to the employee in the Montgomery birth certificate office, she asked, “Do you have a social security card? I hesitantly said, “We do, we actually do now.” So she said, “Well send me that and the DD214 and I will amend the birth certificate.” You know Larry and I both danced a dance of delight. 

And this is how the saga of the birth certificate ends, she did what she promised and within two weeks we received a birth certificate. However, this is only the beginning of great things for Larry Garrett as opportunities abound! He is enrolled in truck driving school and plans to work until he turns 70. After that, he plans to sit in a rocker on the front porch and spend time with the family he so desperately tried to help before he was incarcerated. 

By Leah Nelson, Research Director from the Appleseed report Afterward

On a rainy Thursday in early March, Alabama Appleseed sat down in the offices of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!) with 11 women who were victims of violent crime. Over tacos, we asked them to take our survey and invited them to talk with us about their experiences with violence and its aftermath. 

All the women spoke Spanish more fluently than they spoke English, so we provided a Spanish-language version of the survey (translated by ¡HICA!) and facilitated the conversation in Spanish. A bilingual interpreter took contemporaneous notes translating participants’ comments into English, and the author of this report debriefed afterwards with the Spanish-speaking facilitator to ensure that as little was lost in translation as possible.

To fill in knowledge gaps and develop an understanding of trends, Appleseed also spoke with several members of ¡HICA!’s Strong Families Program, who provide support to Hispanic Alabama residents who have experienced violent victimization. 

The Spanish-language version of our survey was almost identical in content to the English-language version, but after consulting with the experts at ¡HICA!, we determined it did not make sense to merge the results of the two surveys or rely on the Spanish-language survey to meaningfully document what participants have lived through. Although the words were translated accurately, the Spanish speakers who took our survey have significant experiences that the survey was not designed to capture. For instance, for undocumented immigrants, any contact with the criminal legal system can trigger deportation, but the section of our survey designed to document the experiences of people who are justice-involved does not get at that reality. Nor was our survey designed to account for the fact that many of ¡HICA!’s clients undertook dangerous journeys to flee violence and broken justice systems in the countries where they spent their youths. They live with trauma related to those experiences.

¡HICA!’s Strong Families clients often have that trauma compounded in the United States – first through violent victimization, then by the systems putatively in place to respond to it. Victim’s advocates at ¡HICA! said their constituents are vulnerable to predation and violence because of language barriers, immigration status, and bigotry. Many are afraid to call the authorities out of fear that contact with the law could trigger deportation proceedings, or because they or people they know have been treated callously in the past by law enforcement officials who make no secret of the fact that they consider Hispanic immigrants undeserving of equal protection.

¡HICA! stressed that law enforcement practices vary around the state and observed that some jurisdictions are doing better than others to meet the needs of the immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities they serve. Prosecutors in the Birmingham and Bessemer divisions of Jefferson County, and police and Department of Human Resources staff in Shelby County, have done substantial work to become more inclusive and culturally competent, ¡HICA! said.

But challenges remain, especially in rural areas. Many law enforcement agencies have no protocol for securing interpreters. Officers frequently use young children as interpreters. In one instance, the English-speaking husband of a Spanish-speaking woman who had been attacked and raped was made to describe her injuries to police in detail, which worsened the trauma and horror of the rape.

Some officers refuse to take reports because of language barriers. In an incident that disappointed ¡HICA!, a mother of six called police after her partner strangled her twice in a single day. Two deputies showed up, but they refused to take a police report because the woman, for whom English is a second language, used the word “argument” to describe the incident instead of the word “fight.” The woman fled her home with her children and still has not returned because she fears for their lives. 

¡HICA! made sure the woman’s injuries were documented, and eventually police opened a case. But their refusal to take a report on the spot because of language issues undermined their credibility with both the victim and community members who heard about what happened.  “In our community, when someone has a bad experience, everyone will know about it,” said Angelica Melendez, who leads ¡HICA!’s victim advocacy work.

Contact with the system can even backfire, Melendez said. ¡HICA! once told a woman whose intimate partner violated a Protection from Abuse order (PFA) to go to the police station to file a report. While she was there, officers asked her for identification. She didn’t have any. When she drove out of the police station, an officer followed her. “Pulled her over. Took her car. Left her in the middle of the road with her child,” said Melendez.

¡HICA! paid to get the car out of impoundment, but the whole incident undermined their work with that specific victim – and beyond. “How in the world, if somebody goes to file a police report because a PFA was violated and she was in danger, how are you more worried about the fact that the person didn’t show you an ID than the safety of the person?” Melendez said. “When things like that happen, people don’t even trust us.”

Below, we share stories from victims who spoke up during our community conversation. This documentation would not have been possible without the work of Facilitator Catherine Alexander-Wright, Interpreter/Notetaker Giovanna Hernandez-Martinez, and ¡HICA!  Strong Families advocates including Angelica Melendez, Adriana Alderete, and Ana Ockert.

“They are hunting us.”

In 2022, a spate of robberies targeting families and workers at construction sites rocked Jefferson County’s Hispanic community. More than 40 Hispanic residents of Jefferson County were robbed in October alone, including six people in five separate incidents on a single day. 

¡HICA! explained that many of the people they serve do not have bank accounts and keep their money in cash because of their immigration status and lack of ID. A woman who joined our community conversation expanded on that: “We feel more vulnerable as Hispanics, because they know that we’re scared to call the police. They are hunting us because they know that a lot of Hispanics working in construction, they cash their checks at the gas station, and we carry a lot of cash. We are easy for them to target.” 

The Birmingham Police Department includes some Spanish-speaking officers who encouraged victims to report these incidents, and police have charged several suspects. But a woman who called police after her husband and father-in-law were held at gunpoint and lost their IDs, wallets, phones, cash, and equipment on one of these incidents told our community conversation that the officers who arrived on the scene were shockingly insensitive to the trauma her family had just experience. 

They “just kind of laughed and said ‘Oh, we got four more [victims],’” she said. “Like it was funny.”

“Only because I cannot speak English, I cannot explain things.”

One of the women in the conversation recounted a chilling experience in Chilton County, a largely rural central Alabama county where 8.1% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino – a rate higher than the overall Alabama rate of 4.8%. 

The woman, C, lives in Chilton County with her partner and her children. C’s partner is physically abusive, and one day in early 2023 C’s daughter called 911 because the partner was strangling C. 

C’s partner was still restraining C when police showed up, but he also had marks on him from where C had fought back to save her own life.

The partner speaks English; C does not. He leveraged the language barrier to his advantage, making a police report against C before she had a chance to get an interpreter who could help her. Even though a recording from the 911 call makes it clear that C’s partner was strangling her, the fact that he was able to make a police report first has put her in a disadvantaged and dangerous position. Chilton County law enforcement put C in jail and filed charges against her. She bonded out, but her status as a defendant became an obstacle to securing safety.

Police refused ¡HICA!’s efforts to help C file a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order, saying that because she was the defendant in the case and had not filed a police report (which was impossible due to the lack of an interpreter), she was ineligible for their help. After she was arrested, the children’s father took custody of them. She has not been able to get them back. She is afraid to return home, and police told her they would not help. 

C wept as she shared her frustration, fear, and grief. “To the sheriff, I am the aggressor. Only because I cannot speak English, I cannot explain things,” she said. “To this day, I cannot get my kids back, because I am labeled the ‘aggressor.’”

Aftermath of a murder

One of the women who joined our group had recently lost her son to homicide. Although her home address was on her son’s driver’s license (which police had in their custody), police didn’t come to notify her that he was dead. Instead, she learned about his murder from social media and confirmed it with a funeral home.

Her son was a U.S. citizen and left behind a child. The child’s grandmother is his next of kin, but because she is undocumented, she is not eligible for victim’s compensation or other funding she could use to help her grandchild. But because the woman’s son was not married to the child’s mother, there is no legal connection between them, so the mother of the child is not entitled to compensation either.

The murdered man’s grieving mother is working on getting documents that will allow her to become a citizen. All she wants, she said, is to get compensation so she can provide for the grandchild whose dead father no longer can. 

By Eddie Burkhalter, Researcher from the Appleseed report Afterward

Bryttian Linn’s mother, Jamie Linn, made the call to the sheriff’s office to protect her children. 

When the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Deputy arrived at their home, Jamie Linn hoped it would be the end of the death threats to her family from a man who said he’d kill them all, but especially “that faggot,” as the man called Bryttian Linn, Jamie’s 26-year-old.

The call did result in an arrest – but not of the man who was issuing threats. Instead, Bryttian Linn, the subject of those threats, was the one handcuffed and taken to jail.

Bryttian Linn was assigned male at birth. While she does not identify as transgender, she uses female pronouns and wears her brown hair long, wavy and loose, often paired with lipstick and feminine clothing. She prefers to go by her last name. 

“Did you know you have a warrant?” Linn said the deputy asked her at the door of their home, after running her driver’s license. “She told me it was for tickets.”  

The deputy placed Linn in handcuffs and drove her 18 miles from her home just outside of Jacksonville to the Calhoun County jail. Because her feminine presentation put her at risk of violence from other people incarcerated in the area of the jail reserved for men, Linn was placed in a cell alone, without running water or a working toilet and held for six days before a judge decided to release her.

Months earlier, Linn had been pulled over by a state trooper. Her sister was in the back seat and wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. She didn’t have auto insurance, and was ticketed for both, but couldn’t afford to pay the fines and court fees so a hearing was set to discuss payment. Linn said she was in court in August and understood the judge to have agreed to push back that court date, so she didn’t attend the September hearing. Her October arrest warrant was for a failure to appear charge related to that misunderstanding.

The deputy who arrested Linn took a report on the death threats and told Jamie Linn she’d have to follow up on the report if she wanted to press charges. That didn’t happen, because after Linn’s arrest, Jamie’s focus shifted to getting Linn out of jail – and for good reason. 

Linn had been sexually assaulted in the Calhoun County Jail in 2020, after a different arrest over other traffic tickets. Seeking to prevent that from happening again, jail staff in October placed her in a segregated unit. While Linn was protected against violence from other incarcerated people, the cell was dangerous in its own right.

“I didn’t have any running water. It was horrible. I didn’t have a working toilet. The smell in there…It smelled like death,” Linn said. “There was blood splatter on the bedframe and on the walls.” 

Deputies gave her a gallon of water when she first entered the cell. A sign outside the door warned deputies not to let Linn out, or anyone else in, Linn said. She never received an identification card that the jail requires in order to make phone calls, and only after five days of her and other inmates begging officers to let her out, an officer left the cell door open without saying a word, she borrowed an ID card from another incarcerated person and called her mother. 

A Calhoun County District Court employee told Jamie that Linn could only be released from jail if she paid the court $405 for those two tickets and fines and fees from older tickets. The family didn’t have the money. 

Six days after her arrest, Linn finally saw the judge by video from the jail. He released her soon after without requiring payment. 

Linn said the ordeal has left her with “extreme anxiety” and depression. Her driver’s license is suspended, making traveling anywhere – for work, to do the community service the court wants her to do in lieu of payment – dangerous and challenging. The fact that her October arrest was precipitated by a phone call that was intended to remove a threat that came from a man who wanted to kill her because of her identity makes things worse.

“Just being here and dealing with all of this. I’m just tired,” Linn said. 

The arrest has made both Linn and her mother leery of calling the police again. “Scared to,” Jamie Linn said, but especially if it has anything to do with Linn. 

“I’m so tired,” Linn said. “It’s been hard before, but it’s never been this hard.” 

By Leah Nelson, Research Director from the Appleseed report Afterward

Summer Sturdivant, an activist and pastry chef from Selma, Ala., watched her little brother die. He lay in the street while the police captured the man who shot him. The ambulance made a wrong turn, doubled back, arrived when he was still alive but got there too late to keep him that way. 

Sturdivant, then 25, didn’t have time to digest any of it. “It was like the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Trying to make sure my mom’s OK, trying to make sure everybody’s OK.”

When she spoke with Appleseed nearly a year later, she was still consumed with that task. Her brother left behind a very young son, and after her brother died, she became the little boy’s primary caregiver, responsible for food and clothing and doctor’s appointments but without access to state support because of legal obstacles and a bureaucracy that is ill-suited to the realities of her everyday life 

Her family was also worried about the money they still owed the funeral home for the cost of the burial. They applied for assistance from the Alabama Crime Victim’s Compensation Commission, which offers financial help to crime victims and their families. A year later, the Commission still hadn’t gotten back to them and the funeral home was threatening to take them to Small Claims Court.

The victims’ services workers Sturdivant interacted with seemed busy and distracted, uninterested in the particulars of her family’s needs or the depth of their grief. Sturdivant said that death by violence is “so normalized in this area,” that victims’ advocates have become used to it. 

“It’s a lot to bury a child and even be worried about where the money is coming from, then worry about whether you’re going to get to small claims court,” she said. “It just makes you feel like you’re on an island.” 

“I’m thankful to be connected to people that pour into me.”

Long before her brother was killed, Sturdivant was active with Mothers and Men Against All Violence In Solidarity (MAAVIS), an organization founded by Callie Greer, who also works as Alabama Appleseed’s Community Navigator. 

MAAVIS brings together families who have experienced loss to help them process their grief together – over meals, through song, through art, through community, through activism. With the goal of building a more restorative community and defusing the retaliatory violence that can occur in the wake of a homicide, it also creates space for people to connect safely with the families of those who harmed their loved ones, if that is what they want to do. 

Sturdivant relied on what she learned from Greer and MAAVIS when, the day after her brother died, the mother of the man who killed him reached out, wanting to talk with Sturdivant’s mother.

“I was like, No, my mom is not in a place for that,” Sturdivant said. “So I spoke with her, and I had a prayer with her. We talked, and I let her know she’s a good mom,” she said. “She was crying because she lost somebody too, you know? She lost a child who – he might not be dead, but he’s in the system for good now.” 

She wishes people who work for that system had the same compassion. “When you’re handling families and specifically Black families, you got to be careful. You got to be really careful how you talk to them,” she said. 

Sturdivant is handling her struggles with grace. Even as she continued to deal with the bureaucratic, financial, and emotional aftermath of her brother’s death and the sudden experience of parenthood, she also let herself find joy in building her small business as a pastry chef while maintaining and strengthening the relationships she formed through her work with MAAVIS. Her brother always encouraged her dreams of baking, and her business, which she said “was birthed out of a loss.”

Reflecting on a community event she attended with other women who had lost loved ones to violence, she said, “I’m thankful to be connected to people that pour into me. To be the baby of directly affected women and still be able to give and even pour into other people.” 

State leaders promised to find an Alabama Solution to the “deeply humiliating” federal findings. But 698 incarcerated people have since died in state prisons, a new $1 billion prison will not open until 2026, and the federal trial is scheduled for next year. 

By Eddie Burkhalter and Carla Crowder

This week marks the fourth anniversary of the U.S. Department of Justice report detailing such horrific and widespread violence, death, and sexual abuse inside Alabama’s prisons for men that state officials were forced into account for “severe, systemic,” constitutional violations meticulously documented in the 56-page report signed by all three Alabama U.S. Attorneys. 

“This problem has been kicked down the road for the last time,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement, six weeks after the report’s release. “Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”

Those concerns were not addressed. The DOJ issued a second report in July 2020 detailing widespread use of excessive force, including deadly force, by corrections officers against incarcerated people. And in December 2020, the federal government sued the state and the Department of Corrections in a case that is scheduled for trial in less than 18 months. At that time, DOJ lawyers will attempt to prove 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,” as alleged in the lawsuit.

Those of us closely following the state’s promised responses, the so-called “Alabama solution” to the federal intervention, had reason to believe that there would have been progress by now against the constant violence, overcrowding, understaffing, corruption, and mismanagement documented four years ago by the Republican-led Justice Department..   

Instead, all of the factors contributing to the “enormous breadth of ADOC’s Eighth Amendment violations” in the words of the DOJ, have gone in the opposite direction; they’ve gotten worse. Except for one – the population of individuals crowded into ADOC’s major facilities has declined by 511 since April 2019.  But during this time frame, 698 incarcerated people have died in these prisons, according to ADOC’s monthly statistical reports. Thus, much of that decline can be attributed to the matter at the heart of the litigation, that “Alabama is incarcerating prisoners under conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm and death.”

Given that the clock is ticking on a trial that will have major ramifications for public safety and the justice system statewide, it’s important for Alabamians to understand how we got here, what has transpired in response, and how other states have fared in similar situations. 

“Minimal Remedial Measures”

News headlines highlighting Alabama’s prison crisis

Alabama’s prison crisis was nothing new, but the federal government’s report –  technically a Notice required by the Civil Rights of Incarcerated Persons Act (CRIPA), that provides statutory authority for the federal government to investigate and intervene in a state’s systemic failure to protect the incarcerated – brought the crisis to the nation’s attention. 

Shameful neglect and abuse of thousands of Alabamians that had been hidden for years suddenly tumbled onto the front pages of publications ranging from the Montgomery Advertiser to the New York Times. Fox News quoted then-Sen. Cam Ward describing the findings as “deeply humiliating” for Alabama. “It’s disgusting. I mean, it is.”

If ADOC leadership were confused about how to begin to ameliorate the myriad of problems, all they had to do was to keep reading. 

The 2019 report listed “minimal remedial measures” ADOC should take to begin making prisons safer and avoid a lawsuit. Among them:

  • contact the director of the National Institute of Corrections to arrange a joint conversation between the department, NIC and the DOJ to discuss the areas in Alabama prisons that needed immediate attention.
  • develop a centralized system to contain autopsy reports of all incarcerated people who die in ADOC custody. 
  • draft a policy requiring the screening of every person who enters prisons (staff, volunteers, visitors, etc…) and to implement that policy within one month.
  • reclassify every incarcerated person for sexual safety issues, and ensure that potential predators are separated from potential victims. 
  • immediately begin shakedowns to stem the flow of contraband, such that 15 percent of all housing areas are searched every day, with congregate areas searched every week.

An ADOC spokesperson in a response to Appleseed on Monday said the department was and is in contact with the director of the National Institute of Corrections to receive advice and training on correctional-related issues, including a recent training on staffing analysis. ADOC’s response did not address the question about the DOJ’s recommendation to develop a centralized system to contain autopsy reports of all incarcerated people who die in ADOC custody. 

ADOC also claimed in its response that some of the policies suggested by the DOJ were already in place and suggested that the federal lawsuit was premature. “Rather than continuing to collaborate with the ADOC to find workable solutions to these issues, DOJ surprised the state by abruptly filing suit in December 2019,” the ADOC stated. The lawsuit was filed in December 2020, twenty months after the Notice and following 52 deaths from homicide, suicide or drug overdoses in 2019 and 2020.

Subsequent DOJ filings, including the May 2021 amended complaint in the ongoing litigation, 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,” the 2019 report noted.) 

According to the DOJ, illicit cellphones and drugs that pour into the prisons through cell phone usage are a major contributor to the widespread violence, as “the inability to pay drug debts leads to beatings, kidnappings, stabbings, sexual abuse, and homicides.”  

The complaint goes on to note: “Although ADOC has not allowed visitors into Alabama’s Prisons for Men since March 2020 pursuant to COVID-19 restrictions, prisoners continue to have easy access to drugs and other illegal contraband,” suggesting visitors are not the source.

While ADOC has made arrests of officers charged with bringing in contraband, the flow of drugs, weapons and other contraband continues. Incarcerated people tell Appleseed that ADOC’s Correctional Emergency Response Teams often raid a prison dorm prior to a visit to the dorm by DOJ’s attorneys, clearing the area of contraband, only for it all to return shortly afterward. 

ADOC continues to insist that incarcerated people are single-handedly responsible for the delivery of contraband:  “The ADOC continues to employ a myriad of strategies to find and eliminate contraband in its facilities.  As the ADOC explores and develops new strategies, inmates continue to find new ways to introduce contraband.  Thus, ADOC’s efforts to find and prevent contraband are always evolving, and the department continues to look for new and innovative methods of eliminating the existence and introduction of contraband into its facilities,” the response reads. 

None of the numbers are moving in the right direction

A vigil in remembrance of the nearly 300 people who have died in Alabama’s prisons this past year was held on March 7, 2023 at the State Capitol. Photo by Lee Hedgepeth.

Year after year conditions have only worsened, and promises from state leaders then to fix the crisis have yet to materialize.

The DOJ report noted that an “egregious level of understaffing” results in increased violence and death, with prisons employing 1,072 of the 3,336 authorized officers. Four years later, ADOC Commissioner John Hamm stood in front of legislative budget leaders, basically threw up his hands at the persistent lack of security staff and asked with a straight face, “any suggestions you have we’re all ears.”

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in a separate case about mental health care in prisons in 2017 ordered the state to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers, but in February, 2023, the judge warned the state that staffing remains critically low.  “We had horrendous understaffing in this department and something has to be done,” Thompson said.

 Again, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.

ADOC’s quarterly report published in January states that for the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2022, ADOC recorded a net decrease of 415 security employees. The latest quarterly report shows another net loss of 52 security staff as of Dec. 31, 2022. 

ADOC has added new types of security staff to try and boost numbers – cubicle operators who can only operate doors, and basic correctional officers who have a shorter training period than other officers. The agency raised salaries so that officers at maximum security facilities start at $55,855, a salary it would take 17 years as a public school teacher to earn. It’s too soon to tell if that salary will help recruitment. Nothing else has.  

These deficits are not abstract for thousands of Alabamians living in prisons and for desperate family members who just want their loved ones to finish their sentences alive.

In images shared on social media by incarcerated people, correctional officers in several Alabama prisons can be seen sleeping inside their cubicles. Incarcerated people tell Appleseed that they’re often left to fend for themselves if attacked. In instances when a person is critically wounded, officers have been slow to respond, sometimes resulting in death while other incarcerated men clamor to get officers’ attention to render aid.  

“Inmates have knives and axes and drugs including fentanyl; they are available in copious amounts in these prisons,” wrote the mother of a man serving 15 years at Limestone prison. “He was attacked while on the phone 3 days ago and said nothing to anyone about it because that’s what causes you to be stabbed. He was attacked this morning going into the bathroom and now has a broken rib and received 7 stitches in his mouth and sent back to his dorm.”

If understaffing is one ingredient in the deadly mixture that makes up state prisons, overpopulation is the other. 

The month that DOJ’s report was published in 2019, Alabama prisons were at 168 percent capacity, according to ADOC’s statistical report. Alabama prisons remained at 168 percent capacity in January, according to the latest report

To add to the deadly mixture, paroles in Alabama have plummeted since 2017. 

During the 2022 fiscal year the three-member Pardons and Paroles Board denied 90 percent of applicants for paroles, according to board statistics, down from 46 percent denied during fiscal year 2017, and Black applicants are being paroled less than half as often as white applicants. 

What happens when you have understaffed, overpopulated prisons? According to the DOJ report, “inadequate supervision that results in a substantial risk of serious harm.” The report highlighted five stabbing deaths in prisons that year in which those men had previously been stabbed and survived. “ADOC, with the knowledge that previously stabbed prisoners were at risk for further violence, took no meaningful efforts to protect these prisoners from serious harm—harm that was eventually deadly,” the report reads. 

The meticulous documentation of death after death after death seemed shocking in 2019. But shock gave way to resignation and this grim status quo is just that, just the way prisons are, for most of Alabama’s elected leadership. In a recent meeting to discuss prison conditions and possible solutions, a freshman representative dismissed our concerns, saying that prisons aren’t supposed to be “the Taj Majal.”  

Against the persistent backdrop, prison deaths have surged, reaching a record high 270 last year, more than double the 130 deaths in 2019 when the report was released and officials vowed to take the bloodshed seriously. At that time the homicide rate in Alabama’s prisons was eight times the national rate. It has gotten worse.

At least 95 of the 270 deaths in 2022 were preventable 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.

So far this year someone has died in Alabama prisons every other day. Our research has confirmed 36 prison deaths. Among those, 27 were suspected to be overdoses, one suicide and four suspected homicides.  

Study group formed, but results lacking

The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

We are not suggesting state leadership has not responded to the allegations in the four-year-old report, but the meager responses have produced few results to assuage the breathtaking brokenness of Alabama’s largest law enforcement agency as documented in 2019.  And the 2023 legislative session so far has seen efforts to fast-track bills that will increase prison sentences and intensify the ADOC chaos.

Initially, the Governor’s Office promised a multi-faceted, data-driven solution. By executive order three months after the DOJ report was released, Ivey formed the nine-member Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy and tasked the members with analyzing data and best practices, and seeking solutions to the prison crisis. 

Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons and chairman of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy

The task force met for seven months and in a 10-page letter to Ivey suggested modest sentencing reforms, a focus on educational and rehabilitative programs aimed at reducing recidivism and an increase in the number of people released early and placed on mandatory supervision. 

The study group noted that a 2015 law that allowed for early release and mandatory supervision for some incarcerated people only applied to those sentenced after 2015, and suggested it be expanded to those sentenced prior to the law being enacted. Under the law those sentenced to up to five years could be released as early as five months before the end of their sentence. Those serving up to 10 years could be released as much as a year early. 

A bill to impact those sentenced before 2015 passed decisively with bipartisan support in 2021. Its supporters saw it as a way to reduce recidivism and ease prison overcrowding, noting studies that found that monitoring those released does just that. 

Systematic problems with underfunded, chaotic victim notification systems slowed those early releases, Appleseed discovered, but once releases began, pushback was swift and now there is legislation to undo this slim bit of reform. 

“When this bill passed in 2021 originally, it was something that I was very much opposed to, and had concerns about the passage of,” Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, told Alabama Reflector. Elliott filed a bill on Jan. 31 that would delay those early releases until 2030. 

Ivey’s study group also recommended enhanced early release incentives. 

Sen. April Weaver (R-Brierfield) introduced the Good Time Bill in the 2023 legislative session

“As with sentencing reform, public safety requires  great  caution  in  determining  who might  be  eligible  for  such  incentives,” study group chairman and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons wrote to Ivey. “Nevertheless, we support the award of early release incentives for those inmates who complete certain courses and maintain good behavior while incarcerated.” 

The Alabama Legislature approved of that recommendation, and Ivey in May 2021 signed into law a bill that reduces prison sentences by up to one year for incarcerated people who complete academic and vocational programs while in prison.

But it didn’t take long for the Legislature to begin working to reverse that gain, and 10 months after Ivey signed that the Alabama Senate approved a bill sponsored by Sen. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, that would reduce the amount of “good time” incarcerated people can earn. 

Weaver has cited the June 2022 shooting death of Bibb County Deputy Brad Johnson as the impetus. Austin Patrick Hall, who has been charged in the death, was allowed early release on good time despite numerous infractions, both in and out of prison, including an escape, for which Hall was not charged for three years – until after Johnson’s death.

Had ADOC followed existing law and forfeited Hall’s good time after his escape from the Camden Work Release Center in 2019, or if Hall had been timely prosecuted for the escape, Hall would not have been out of prison when Johnson was shot, the Alabama Political Reporter noted in August 2022.

Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) has repeatedly sponsored bills aimed at reducing the prison population and holding ADOC accountable

In reality, a dysfunctional system unable to follow laws already in place contributed to Johnson’s death. Lengthening sentences in prisons unable to provide rehabilitative services or even keep prisoners alive is unlikely to produce the public safety results Alabama deserves. It’s important to recognize that multiple instances in which lawmakers have toughened sentences were in response to individuals who have served time in these hellish settings, been released with no rehabilitation and then gone on to harm Alabamians. 

Not all lawmakers have been complacent. Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) has repeatedly sponsored bills aimed at reducing the prison population and holding ADOC accountable. England’s bill requiring increased reporting by ADOC passed in 2022. The agency now posts quarterly reports that document drugs and weapons confiscated at the prisons. The reports routinely list free world weapons and even firearm confiscations. But no one in state leadership has expressed concerns about this new data.

Alabama’s long history of abusing the incarcerated until federal officials make us stop

When it comes to Alabama’s prison crisis, there’s nothing new under the sun. 

That’s how Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College in Massachusetts, described the state’s prison problems, and placed them into historical context during a conversation with Appleseed. Sarat has been a visiting professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, teaching a course on punishment.

Sarat discussed U.S. District Court Judge Frank Johnson’s 1976 opinion in the landmark Alabama case Pugh v. Locke, in which the plaintiff, an incarcerated man named Jerry Pugh, sued ADOC for failing to protect him and others from violence in violation of the Fourth and Eighteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. 

U.S. District Court Judge Frank Johnson’s 1976 opinion in the landmark Alabama case Pugh v. Locke. Photo by Birmingham News.

Johnson agreed, and appointed a special master to ensure ADOC followed his orders to resolve the dangerously unconstitutional conditions nearly 50 years ago. ADOC remained under federal supervision for 13 years. The Court enjoined ADOC from accepting any new prisoners, except escapees, into four prisons until the population was reduced. In July 1988 ADOC was forced to release 222 incarcerated people early. State prisons had many of the same problems then as today; they were overcrowded and violent, the buildings were dilapidated and unsanitary. “Reading the DOJ report and findings, if you close your eyes, it could have been Frank Johnson writing them,” Sarat said. 

Sarat described Johnson’s remedial decree as “extraordinarily detailed and quite controversial.” 

“At the time that he made the decision, he was among the first judges to say that prisoners retain all rights, except those necessarily lost as an incident of confinement,” Sarat said. 

Lost in the emphasis on prison construction as a remedy to the current crisis is the fact that Alabama embarked on a prison building spree in the 1980s to make things right. It was not a long-term solution.

A warning from California and a lesson from Texas

California Institution for Men from Brown vs. Plata

What could Alabamians expect to come out of the federal government’s lawsuit over Alabama’s broken prisons? One might look at a similar case in California that resulted in a court order to reduce the state’s prison population by more than 30,000 people within two years. 

“The situation had gotten so bad, reading the Plata decision, I realized that we were really heading down the exact same road,” said then-Sen. Cam Ward, as chair of the Legislature’s Prison Oversight Committee eight years ago. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in the 2011 Brown v. Plata case ordered California to remedy unconstitutional conditions that deprived incarcerated people of adequate medical and mental health care. For starters, the State had to find a way to reduce its prisons to 137% of designed capacity from about 200%.  One tactic, called “realignment” required county systems to house all non-violent and non-sex offenders upon conviction to free up prison space for everyone else. Implementation was not easy, however, given that most county jails lacked unused space as well as sufficient treatment and programming to provide rehabilitation. 

It’s important for Alabama officials to recognize the Plata Court’s emphasis on violence and death. The Court noted that in 2006 “a preventable or possibly preventable death occurred” somewhere in California’s prison system “once every five to six days.” 

Alabama is worse. Our prisons have thousands fewer people than California’s, but more deaths. In Alabama prisons so far this year, someone has died every other day. Of the 36 deaths in Alabama prisons Appleseed has confirmed so far this year, 32 were preventable. 

If Alabama’s conservative “tough on crime” lawmakers might wince at the notion of looking at California for answers to Alabama’s problems, perhaps they should look at Texas.

Texas was on track to need 17,000 new prison beds by 2012, at a cost of approximately $2 billion, but instead, lawmakers appropriated $241 million for drug treatment programs in and outside of prisons, and created specialty courts to handle those struggling with drugs, and veterans in need of special care. 

“According to Texas Department of Public Safety statistics, from 2007 to 2008 Texas saw a 5 percent decline in murders, a 4.3 percent decline in robberies, and a 6.8 percent drop in rapes,” according to the Daily Beast. “ In those same years, Right on Crime, a conservative think tank devoted to criminal justice reform, reports the number of parolees convicted of a new crime fell 7.6 percent; the number of incarcerations dropped 4.5 percent.”

Texas lawmakers in 2011 closed the state’s second-oldest prison, and within another two years shuttered two more prisons. 

“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked the audience at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference. “Shut prisons down. Save that money.” 

Alabama’s Billion Dollar Solution

Thus far, the Alabama Solution does not involve saving money.

The DOJ in the 2019 report wrote that while new buildings may solve some of the problems it identified “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional conditions.”

Even so, dating back to Ivey’s predecessor, Gov. Robert Bentley, the plan for many years has been to build new prisons, with the promise that doing so will solve the crisis. 

Ivey’s previous plan, which called for new prisons to be built by the private prison company CoreCivic and leased to the state at a cost of $3.6 billion, fell through when CoreCivic was unable to secure financing for the deal, following much pressure against financial firms from investing in prisons.

Alabama lawmakers in 2022 approved $1.3 billion to build two 4,000-bed prisons for men, agreeing to direct $400 million in federal COVID aid toward the projects. That budget includes a $785 million bond issue and $135 million from the state’s General Fund. The state in April 2022 signed a $623 million contract with Caddell Construction to build a 4,000-bed prison for men in Elmore County. 

Last month, the cost of one prison jumped to $1 billion and the expected completion date was extended several months. At this rate, it will not be open until about 2 years after the 2024 trial. A second prison, promised for Escambia County, is without a contractor and seemingly without most of the funding needed to build it, unless state leaders have a surprise funding stream. Gov. Ivey has requested $100 million from the Education Trust Fund budget to go into prison construction, but that still would not come close to bridging the funding gap created by the Billion Dollar Prison.    

It’s unclear how the state will pay for the second planned new 4,000-bed prison in Escambia County. The new construction will not add space, but will only replace dilapidated prisons.

“Alabama is not the only state, but it turns out that it seems that prison construction is one place where budget constraints, at the end of the day, often don’t matter,” Sarat told Appleseed. “They matter in public education. They matter in health care. They matter in infrastructure, but it doesn’t seem to matter all that much when it comes to how much we’re going to spend on the prison system.”

“This is abnormal and so wrong.” Views from the inside

Family members at the Vigil for Victim’s on March 7, 2023. Photo by Lee Hedgepeth

Beyond the back-and-forth between state leaders and the federal government attempting to hold them accountable are the voices of people barely surviving in the prisons they were supposedly sent for rehabilitation.

The sister of a man serving at Bullock prison described to Appleseed two separate attacks that nearly cost her brother his life.  “My brother was assaulted on March 6th and 21st 2021 at Bullock Correctional Facility. He almost lost his life on the 21st; he had to be airlifted, placed on life support and was left with a collapsed lung, [and] they returned him from the hospital within 3 DAYS!!!! They put him back in population, with stitches, staples, a tube and he had to sleep on the floor!!!!!! He was stabbed over 30 times,” the sister wrote. 

A man who served several years at Fountain Correctional Facility told Appleseed that when he first entered the prison he had no idea what he was in for.  “Over the 2 years I was there I saw more stabbings than I could count and was beaten several times myself,” the man wrote. “I woke up one night tied to my bunk and was beaten and sexually assaulted for what seemed an eternity. I continued to be sexually assaulted multiple times and never reported it for fear of being killed if I did.” 

“I was forced to do things that I never dreamed of doing in order to survive,” he said in the letter. “I tried reporting one incident when I was almost stabbed by someone who was trying to rape me and wasn’t taken seriously by officers, even humiliated and made fun of.”

An elderly man serving a sentence of life without parole at Donaldson Correctional Facility wrote to Appleseed about his concerns over understaffing, poor living conditions and the rash of overdoses. 

“At night time [there is] only one officer to watch 650 prisoners,” he wrote. “We have prisoners here who are ‘homeless.’ Prisoners who are afraid to to go into an assigned cell b/c of being raped, set up to be robbed, beat up, and etc. These prisoners sleep in the open day room, some sleep under the stairs, some sleep in the old–not used–showers.” 

Donaldson prison’s infirmary sees two to three overdoses daily. “We have had as much as 5 in one day. The Infirmary does not keep a count on overdoses…90% of the contraband coming into prison is coming in by officers; and these officers are being aided with the help of other officers.”  

Four years ago, the DOJ began its report, with a description of a scene from Bibb County Correctional Facility: “At the back of the dormitory and not visible from the front door, two prisoners started stabbing their intended victim. The victim screamed for help. Another prisoner tried to intervene and he, too, was stabbed. The initial victim dragged himself to the front doors of the dormitory. Prisoners banged on the locked doors to get the attention of security staff. …The prisoner eventually bled to death. One resident told us he could still hear the victim’s screams in his sleep.”

The State of Alabama still houses tens of thousands of people in these conditions. Four years after a blistering warning from the U.S. Department of Justice, nothing has changed.

In July, Antonio Wallace wrote to Appleseed from Bibb. Wallace had survived in Alabama’s prisons since age 17. He had served 35 years for his role in a murder at age 16 when he was homeless and using drugs. Wallace was hoping to finally be granted parole. “I’m ready to come back [into] society and live the life of which I know what I suppose to do, be the father to my daughter and a grand dad to my grand baby girls,” Wallace wrote. “So I ask again: please don’t let me die in here.”

Just three months after sending this letter, Wallace was found unresponsive and pronounced dead, the result of a suspected overdose, according to sources inside Bibb prison. He was 51 years old. 

Yes I was a juvenile when I got off into this mess and from there my life hasn’t been much of anything and it’s sad when I look back at my situation and see nothing from there,” Wallace wrote. “I know I have good in me. I know I can function, if and when [given] a chance back into society. …I came in as a juvenile and I had to grow up in a place such as this which is abnormal and so wrong.” 

Appleseed Legal Assistant Libby Rau contributed to this report.

John Coleman served 34 years for offenses involving no physical injury under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. Now he’s free and experiencing kindness for the first time in way too long.

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

John Coleman was sentenced to die in prison and is released after serving 34 years. He recently celebrated his 89th birthday. Photo by Bernard Troncale.

“I’m 86 years old and all alone. Please don’t let me die in prison. I’m not ready to die yet.” 

John Coleman wrote those words to me in June of 2020. He was suffering with kidney disease and living in the infirmary at St. Clair Correctional Facility, once the state’s most violent and mismanaged prison and recently the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit. I visited St. Clair frequently and had toured the entire place nearly a decade ago. It was shameful that Alabama housed anyone in these third-world conditions, much less octogenarians.  

“I’m proud to say that at 86 years old I can still bathe myself, still put my underwear and clothes on right, my socks and shoes all by myself,” Mr. Coleman wrote, as if to signal that he would not be much trouble if he was, somehow, released from prison.

For the last three years, Appleseed has been working to free incarcerated Alabamians from extreme sentences imposed decades ago under the state’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA). Everyone comes to us with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole; they’re supposed to die in prison. Because none of their offenses involved physical injury to another person, we are sometimes able to persuade prosecutors and judges that these sentences are excessive, these men have been punished enough, and they are no longer a threat to anyone.

Mr. Coleman blows out his candle on his requested pecan pie for his 89th birthday.

Once our clients are freed, we cover them with supportive reentry services. Our small Appleseed team has embraced working closely with men in their 60s and 70s, newly freed and unsteady in our fast, modern world. We’ve gotten pretty good at this. 

But the thought of finding – and funding – safe and stable re-entry housing and care for someone leaning toward 90 was daunting. With hundreds of incarcerated people asking for our services and two lawyers to tackle the stacks of desperate requests, I believed in 2020 that Mr. Coleman would have to wait until we were on surer footing with geriatric re-entry. I could not bear the thought of extracting him from St. Clair into an unknown future without robust medical care. 

He turned 87, then 88. We got a grant to hire an experienced social worker who could navigate the byzantine world of federal social security and Medicaid forms. We secured release for another elderly client and got him safely situated in a nursing home within weeks.

Mr. Coleman celebrates his 89th birthday with Legal Assistant Libby Rau and some new music!

So on June 12, 2022, a team from Appleseed arranged a legal visit with Mr. Coleman, during which he began to whistle. During the next visit, he began to sing.

And since then, he has joyfully confirmed what he first wrote to us nearly three years ago. He was not ready to die. And for that we are grateful. On March 14, Mr. Coleman celebrated his 89th birthday on the sunny porch of a Birmingham restaurant, surrounded by Appleseed staff and other recently freed clients, all older men ranging in age from 61 to 80. 

I baked him a pecan pie, his requested dessert. Libby Rau, our legal assistant, swung by Seasick Records for some B.B. King and Al Green. Upon opening his gifts, once again Mr. Coleman began to sing.

After his birthday celebration, Mr. Coleman sat in my car nearly in tears. “Ms. Crowder, nobody has been nice to me like this in so long, I don’t know how to respond.”

The Legal Part 

 Once Appleseed agreed to take Mr. Coleman’s case, we began collecting legal documents and medical records. We knew he was serving life without parole for robbery and kidnapping as a result of one incident.

John Coleman with Executive Director Carla Crowder at the Appleseed offices on the day of his release.

A review of the trial transcript painted a fuller picture: In 1988, he attempted to rob a woman outside a Birmingham nightclub. An off-duty police officer was working security and immediately intervened when a woman came running towards him announcing that Mr. Coleman had a gun. Mr. Coleman backed away using the woman he had attempted to rob as a hostage. The off-duty officer called for back-up which quickly arrived. Mr. Coleman was cornered and ultimately dropped his weapon and was apprehended. The victim was freed without physical injury. When officers recovered Mr. Coleman’s weapon, they discovered it was not loaded. However, prior robbery convictions from the 1970s permitted an enhanced sentence under the HFOA, and Mr. Coleman was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

We determined the victims in this 34-year-old case had moved to California and long since passed away. There would be no victim opposition. Also promising was the fact that this case was in Jefferson County, where District Attorney Danny Carr was occasionally willing to not oppose our resentencing efforts, as long as the victims were not opposed. 

But the question still loomed – how does a small, legal nonprofit ensure an 88-year-old man with little family support will have the medical care he needs? I did not need broken hips on my watch.

We acquired his 4-inch stack of medical records and Dr. Michael Smith, a Hoover physician who joined our Board of Directors last year graciously agreed to review them. Dr. Smith confirmed what we suspected, that Mr. Coleman had some mobility issues and once was provided a wheelchair. (It is unclear whether he agreed to actually use it.) There was some chronic age-related illness, but some hopeful news as well, he had once required dialysis for kidney disease but was off of dialysis. Onward!

Appleseed Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen, Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua, and Executive Director Carla Crowder outside of St. Clair Correctional Facility with John Coleman on his release day.

Attorney Scott Fuqua set out to draft a post-conviction petition and began regular communication with Mr. Coleman. “Whenever he called to check in, he started referring to all of us collectively as ‘fam.’ He was so excited at the prospect of freedom, but was never in a rush. He was just happy to know someone cared and was working on his behalf,” Scott shared.

In January, DA Carr agreed not to oppose our release efforts, which meant Jefferson County Circuit Judge Kechia Davis would have jurisdiction to rule on a matter stemming from a 34-year-old conviction.  

“Coleman has been incarcerated for 34 years under the Habitual Felony Offender Act (the “HFOA”) and has reached the extremely advanced age of 88-years old. He is serving a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The incident which led to his incarceration did not result in any serious physical injury to the victim,” Carr wrote in his response. “As shown in Petitioner’s brief and supporting documents, Coleman has demonstrated clear evidence of rehabilitation, participated in extensive programming, and compiled an exemplary institutional record with only 1 disciplinary infraction in 34 years of incarceration.”

Judge Davis agreed and ordered Mr. Coleman’s resentencing to time-served. On February 9, he walked out of St. Clair prison with the assistance of a cane. It was a bleak, overcast day, but that did not matter to John Coleman. 

Release Day

From the moment he walked into the parking lot with the fence and razor wire of St. Clair Correctional Facility behind him – in his past –  John Coleman was smiling.  A prison worker driving by as he walked out of prison wished him well. Mr. Coleman was well liked among prison staff, many of whom came to say goodbye before he left. Of all the Alabama prisons he’d been in, St. Clair prison was the most dangerous, Mr. Coleman told us. 

“I’m glad y’all got a few of them out of there,” Coleman said. “I really thought I was never going to get out.” 

Mr. Coleman at Burger King for breakfast after his release with Appleseed Researcher Eddie Burkhalter and Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen.

We stopped at a nearby Burger King for biscuits and orange juice, but mostly for reassuring conversation that he would be taken care of as he gets back on his feet.

Lee Davis, who had served time in prison with Mr. Coleman in the 1980s and another man Appleseed successfully freed from a life without sentence, called Ron McKeithen on our staff during breakfast to say hello. 

“Hey Hen! What’s going on?” Mr. Davis asked Mr. Coleman over the phone, calling him by his nickname, Hen. “Ain’t nothing happening. I’m just trying to get there,” Mr. Coleman told him. 

“Everything is going to be good. I’m glad you’re on this side,” Mr. Davis said. 

Attorney Scott Fuqua talked to him at breakfast about the next steps, and how he’d be able to live where he wanted, with support along the way from Appleseed. It was all a lot to take in, Coleman explained. 

“I’m so satisfied right here I don’t know what to tell y’all,” Coleman said of sitting in a restaurant and eating a meal outside of prison fences for the first time in 34 years. 

Asked what he was looking forward to most in the first days of his freedom, Mr. Coleman returned to talking about the men he’d served time with and whom Appleseed won freedom for. 

“I just want to meet all the guys,” he said, and asked who’d be next to be freed.

Finally free and almost 90

Mr. Coleman with Appleseed clients Larry Garrett, Ronald McKeithen, Robert Cheeks, Lee Davis, and Willie Ingram. Photo by Bernard Troncale.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Coleman has brought almost as much joy to us as we have given him. The only thing he’s ever asked for, aside from some snacks, was a battery for his dad’s old watch that he treasures. He loves orange juice and salad, as long as thousand island dressing is available. He’s determined to walk without a cane; we’re not sure exactly where he’s hidden it.

Mr. Coleman with Appleseed client Robert Cheeks.

Mr. Coleman resides at Shepherd’s Fold Reentry Ministry, joining three other older men who have been freed from death-in-prison sentences over the last few months. They all look out for each other. 

Nearly every day, Appleseed’s Reentry Case Manager, Kathleen Henderson, checks in on him. She has helped him acquire critical identification and medical care. Her calm, reassuring presence has convinced Mr. Coleman that people in this world care about him. She’s begun the search for senior housing.

At his first medical appointment at Christ Health, the doctor noticed he and Mr. Coleman shared a birthday. The doctor left the room, then returned with a giant cookie and other staff singing “Happy Birthday.” Mr. Coleman told the doctor he didn’t know how to respond; he’s not used to anyone doing anything for him. “I ain’t never had anyone before ‘cept Appleseed.”

Appleseed Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua, Researcher Eddie Burkhalter, and Reentry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson contributed to this post.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher 

Loved ones stand in front of the State Capitol in Montgomery on March 7, 2023 for a vigil in remembrance of the nearly 300 people who have died in Alabama’s prisons this past year while Gov. Kay Ivey gave her State of the State speech. Photo by Lee Hedgepeth

Alabama prison deaths are again surging, after state prisons saw a record high year of deaths in 2022. 

At least eight men have died in Alabama prisons this month, following 12 deaths in February and 12 in January, although the actual numbers are likely higher. Those 32 deaths include three homicides, numerous suspected drug overdoses, deaths likely caused by illnesses and one suspected suicide. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) doesn’t release timely reports on prison deaths, leaving it up to journalists and others to receive tips and seek confirmation. With prisons woefully overpopulated and understaffed, despite a court order to increase the number of correctional officers, the State has failed to keep incarcerated people safe from deadly drugs and violence..

Appleseed confirmed that from the start of 2022 through Dec. 28 there were 266 deaths in Alabama prisons. The Montgomery Advertiser confirmed four additional deaths between Dec. 28 and the end of the year, bringing the total to 270 last year. 

Loved ones hold pictures of those who have died in Alabama’s prisons. Photo by Lee Hedgepeth

Of the 270 Alabama prison deaths, at least 95 were preventable: 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.

There is no evidence suggesting that ADOC investigations, interventions, or the plans to build new prisons are stemming the loss of life. In fact, as the Legislature has poured increasing amounts of tax dollars into the prison system, conditions have only gotten more brutal. Currently, ADOC costs Alabama taxpayers around $3 billion: $1.3 billion for new prisons, $1.06 billion for a healthcare contract, about $700 million in annual General Fund dollars.

Most recently, Steve Cliff, 57, on Tuesday was found unresponsive at Staton Correctional Facility and was pronounced dead, ADOC confirmed for Appleseed. 

Felix Ortega, 39, died on March 7 at Elmore Correctional Facility after being assaulted by several other incarcerated people, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. ADOC in a response on March 14 wrote that “There has been no report of an assault on inmate Felix Ortega.” 

Tony Evans, 51, was found unresponsive at Donaldson Correctional Facility on March 5 and was pronounced dead that day in the health care unit, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed for Appleseed. 

Joshua Ledlow, 39, was found unresponsive and died at Limestone Correctional Facility on March 2, ADOC confirmed. Sources tell Appleseed his death is suspected to be caused by an overdose. Ledlow was serving a 15 year sentence after pleading guilty in 2017 to a charge of burglary in Cullman County, according to court records. 

A day after Ledlow’s death, 33-year old Mohamad Osman was found unresponsive at Limestone prison and was pronounced dead, ADOC confirmed. Sources tell Applseed his death was also likely the result of an overdose. 

Bunyan Goodwin, Jr., 51, told prison staff on March 4 that was having trouble breathing, ADOC confirmed for Appleseed. 

“He was transported to the Health Care Unit for evaluation and treatment. His condition deteriorated and he became unresponsive,” a department spokesperson wrote to Appleseed. “Life-saving measures were administered, but medical staff was unable to resuscitate him, and he was pronounced deceased by the attending physician.”

That same day, Bobby Ray Bradley, 69, died at Donaldson Correctional Facility, as did 40-year-old Joshua Strickland. Bradley’s death followed a long illness, according to the Jefferson County Coroner’s office. Strickland was found unresponsive in his cell and was pronounced dead at the prison’s health care unit, according to ADOC. 

According to several sources who spoke to Appleseed, Michael Hubbard, 46, was beaten by another incarcerated person at St. Clair Correctional Facility days before he died on Feb. 22 at a local hospital.

The ADOC spokesperson wrote that Hubbard’s death was reported but gave no information about how he may have died. In a photo obtained by Appleseed, Hubbard appears to be in physical distress, lying under a bed. The incarcerated man who supplied that photo said it was taken after Hubbard was beaten. 

Appleseed asked in a followup request whether he had been assaulted prior to his death, and the spokesperson responded “ADOC can’t comment on open investigations.”

The Vigil for Victim’s on March 7, 2023. Photo by Lee Hedgepeth

Appleseed replied that the department regularly states in press releases when a person dies as the result of an assault, and sent the photo of Hubbard to the department. 

In a followup response five days later the spokesperson wrote to Appleseed that “there has been no report of an assault on inmate Michael James Hubbard” and that he was taken to the prisons health care unit “for evaluation and treatment due to a suspected overdose.”

“During transport, he stopped breathing. Life-saving measures were administered, and he was stabilized. He was transported to an area hospital for further treatment. Unfortunately, his condition never improved and ultimately, he died,” the response continued. 

Brian Keith Wanner, 47, died at Bullock Correctional Facility on Feb, 4 after being assaulted by another incarcerated person two days before, according to ADOC. 

Family members honor their loved ones who died in Alabama’s prisons this past year. Photo by Lee Hedgepeth

Families across Alabama whose loved ones have died in state custody are trying to get the attention of elected officials, but have largely been ignored. On March 7, the first day of the 2023 legislative session, about 100 Alabamians gathered at the Alabama State Capitol for a vigil in honor of those who died in state prisons in recent years.

Below is a list of the incarcerated people who have died in state custody so far this year:

January deaths

  • Carl Kennedy, 57, died at Limestone Correctional Facility on Jan. 2 after being found “in distress,” according to ADOC.
  • Ariene Kimbrough, 35, died at Limestone Correctional Facility on Jan. 4 after being assaulted by another incarcerated man, according to ADOC.
  • Paul Rolan Ritch, Jr, 53, died at Staton Correctional Facility on Jan 6, according to Alabama Political Reporter.
  • Kevin Marcus Ritter, 33, died at Donaldson Correctional Facility on Jan. 7 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.
  • Ronald Nowicki, 66, died at Limestone Correctional Facility on Jan. 10 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.
  • Corey Jerome Johnson, 49, died at St. Clair Correctional Facility on Jan. 11 in a suspected suicide, according to Alabama Political Reporter.
  • Trenton Jamario White, 30, was found unresponsive and died at Donaldson Correctional Facility on Jan. 28, according to ADOC.
  • Justin Douglas Grubis, 25, was found unresponsive at Ventress Correctional facility on Jan. 28 and was pronounced dead, according to ADOC.
  • Michael Theodore Medders, 61, was found unresponsive and died at Donaldson Correctional Facility on Jan. 29, according to ADOC.
  • Christopher Shannon Fulmer, 44, died Jan. 31 at Elmore Correctional Facility after being found “in physical distress,” according to ADOC. Fulmer’s mother in April told the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles that her son would die in prison if they denied him parole.
  • Roderick Demarcus Lee, 33, died at Kilby Correctional Facility on Jan. 27 after the department said he was found “behaving erratically in his dorm.”

February deaths

  • Brian Wanner, 57, died at Bullock Correctional Facility on Feb. 4 after being assaulted by another incarcerated man, according to ADOC.
  • Alfred Lee Williams, 57, died at Staton Correctional Facility on Feb. 4 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.
  • Craig Randall Lee, 67, died at Staton Correctional Facility on Feb. 5 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.
  • Timothy Sanderson, 57, was pronounced dead at St. Clair Correctional Facility on Feb. 5 after being found in his dorm’s shower, according to ADOC.
  • Michael Wayne Perry, 62, died at Donaldson Correctional Facility on Feb. 8 after being found unresponsive, according to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office.
  • Larry Dewayne Dill, 44, died at Fountain Correctional Facility on Feb. 13 after reporting chest pains to prison staff, according to ADOC.
  • Reginald Rashard Davis, 41, died at Staton Correctional Facility on Feb. 15 after experiencing “respiratory issues,” according to ADOC.
  • Michael James Hubbard, 46, died at St. Clair Correctional Facility on Feb. 22. Sources tell Appleseed he was assaulted by another incarcerated man days before he died. ADOC says his death is a suspected overdose.
  • Michael Joe White, 45, was found unresponsive at St. Clair Correctional Facility on Feb. 22 and died that day, according to ADOC.
  • Christopher Melton, 37, died at Ventress Correctional Facility on Feb. 22 after being attacked by another incarcerated man, according to ADOC.
  • C. Borden, Jr, 55, was found unresponsive and was pronounced dead at St. Clair Correctional Facility on Feb. 25, according to ADOC.
  • Fredrick Bishop, 55, died at Easterling Correctional Facility on Feb. 27 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.
  • Charles Daniel Waltman, 41, died at Easterling Correctional Facility on Feb. 27 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.

March deaths 

  • Joshua Felton Ledlow, 39, died at Limestone Correctional Facility on March 2. Sources tell Appleseed his death is a suspected overdose. ADOC says he was found unresponsive.
  • Mohamad Osman, 33, died at Limestone Correctional Facility on March 3 of a suspected overdose, sources tell Appleseed.
  • Bobby Ray Bradley, 69, died at Donaldson Correctional Facility on March 4 and was being treated for multiple medical problems, according to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office.
  • Joshua Strickland, 40, died at Bullock Correctional Facility on March 4 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.
  • Bunyan Goodwin, Jr, 51, died at Bibb County Correctional Facility on March 4 after reporting trouble breathing, according to ADOC.
  • Tony Edward Evans, 51, died at Donaldson Correctional Facility on March 5 after being found unresponsive, according to ADOC.
  • Felix Ortega, 39, died on March 7 at Elmore Correctional Facility after being assaulted by several other incarcerated people, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
  • Steve Cliff, 57, on March 14 was found unresponsive at Staton Correctional Facility and was pronounced dead, ADOC confirmed for Appleseed.

By Frederick Spight, Policy Director and Elaine Burdeshaw, Policy Associate


As we look forward to the start of the 2023 legislative session, and the beginning of the Quadrennium, Appleseed plans to bring forth several legislative priorities. As is our custom, these initiatives are based on evidence and research that will advance the goals of good, efficient government as well as providing support and relief to many Alabamians.

This session help us pass the following four priorities:

End Drivers License Suspensions for Low Wealth Alabamians


Once again we are bringing our Drivers License Suspension Bill. The Bill made it through the Senate last year and in both the House Judiciary and State Government Committees, but unfortunately never made it to the House floor for a vote. Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) along with Sen. Merika Coleman (D-Jefferson County) will sponsor in the Senate. This year Rep.Tim Wadsworth (R-Arley) will sponsor in the House.

Just to recap: as of 2021 almost 170,000 Alabamians had their drivers licenses suspended in the state for failure to pay a traffic ticket or for failure to appear in court. In this state, the loss of a driver’s license is particularly devastating for the poor and working class. Without a driver’s license people have a hard time getting to work, getting children to school, and taking care of the day to day needs of adult life. This creates a cascade of effects on not only the individual, but their families and communities. Based on the result of our survey of Alabama drivers whose licenses were suspended due to unpaid traffic debt, we know that 89% had to choose between basic needs like food, utilities, or medicine and paying what they owed; 73% had to request charitable assistance they would not have otherwise needed; 48% took out high-interest payday loans; and 30% admitted to committing crimes like selling drugs or stealing to pay off their tickets.

Getting these drivers back on the road will also have a positive impact on our workforce. Business leadership and the Governor have been trying to institute, or influence, policies to get Alabamians to work. Currently, Alabama ranks 45th in the country for workforce participation at 57%. The national average is around 62%. A recent Cygnal poll showed that 31% of Alabamians cited transportation as the main reason they are unemployed– we have plenty of jobs, but often lack people to fill them. The Driver’s License Bill is a simple solution that will achieve higher workforce participation, stabilize communities and provide relief for thousands of low income Alabama families.

End Fines, Fees and Court Costs for Children


Alabama Appleseed has been working to reform unjust court fines and fees for more than  5 years. So far, these efforts have been geared toward the adult court system. As we began to dig into the issue we found another court system about which there has been less advocacy around fines and fees: the Juvenile Court System. This is for a myriad of reasons, but particularly due to the confidential nature of the proceedings themselves. Also, many parents and youth are unwilling to publicly speak out, lest they draw more attention to the mistake they made as a minor. Unfortunately, this has led to many families suffering in silence.

The goal of the Juvenile Justice system in Alabama is to rehabilitate the child. The imposition of fines, fees, and court costs are overly punitive measures. A growing body of research has shown that the imposition of fines and fees on youth can actually lead to poorer outcomes such as continued involvement in the criminal justice system well into adulthood. Therefore, we aim to end the practice of assessing these fines and fees, with the exception of restitution to victims. This legislation will be sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) and Sen. Kirk Hatcher (D-Montgomery).

Provide Older People Serving Long Prison Sentences a Second Chance at Life


Currently there are about 230 incarcerated Alabamians serving life without parole for crimes that did not involve homicide or sex offenses. Most of these crimes involve no physical injury to the victim. These individuals were sentenced under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, a three-strikes law created in the late 1970s. Many have served 30-plus years and are over 50-years old.

As this population has aged, prison health care costs have climbed. The Alabama Department of Corrections is now poised to spend $1 billion on prison health care, a figure that is sure to continue growing as people with death-in-prison sentences continue to age behind bars.

Continued punishment of elders is not a wise investment. Criminality declines by age 40 and continues to fall as people reach their 50s. By age 60, recidivism is virtually nonexistent. 

Our prisons are overcrowded and extremely violent. The conditions have already been declared unconstitutional by the federal government. One solution to alleviate some of this pressure is to release individuals who pose little to no threat to public safety.

As such, Alabama Appleseed has crafted the Second Chance at Life: Elder Review Act that will give those serving sentences of life imprisonment without parole for offenses in which there was no physical injury to the victim an opportunity to have their sentence reviewed by the sentencing judge to determine if additional punishment is warranted. Individuals who have reached age 50, served at least 15 years, and have no homicide or sex crimes on their record will be eligible for resentencing. Representative Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) will sponsor the bill.

Re-entry Housing Pilot Program

Three of Appleseed’s recently released clients Willie Ingram, Larry Garrett, and Lee Davis outside of Shepherd’s Fold re-entry facility. Photo credit Bernard Troncale.


Even with $3 billion going to prisons, Alabama spends no money whatsoever on housing for the thousands of individuals who leave those prisons every year with nothing. Our final legislative priority is securing funding for a re-entry pilot program in Jefferson County.

Already, Appleseed has begun to provide re-entry services for individuals released from prison. This includes: acquiring birth certificates, driver’s licenses, social security cards, securing housing, employment, and health care. We have found, and studies have shown, that housing security is a major determining factor to success following incarceration. It should surprise no one that those with stable housing and a solid network are significantly less likely to reoffend than those with few resources.

Therefore, we are requesting a $500,000 budgetary line item for re-entry within the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles budget. We have secured participation from Aletheia House, a Birmingham-based nonprofit with decades of housing experience, that will receive all of the $500k in state funding to coordinate housing. Appleseed will provide wraparound services based on the model we have developed over the last three years. Alabama will not be the first state to invest in re-entry housing as a way to reduce recidivism. In fact, many states, including our Southern neighbors, have recognized the necessity of supporting formerly incarcerated people as they get back on their feet. If we want to get serious about reducing the prison population, investing in adequate re-entry services is imperative.