By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher



A recent report by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Council of State Governments (CSG) found that overall crime, including violent crime, across the U.S. and in Alabama, has been on the decline.

The report’s findings undercut the pervasive narrative of surging crime used to frighten communities and support mass incarceration. But as CSG’s data shows, as prison populations have declined, so has crime.

The CSG report, which used crime data reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also supports Alabama appleseed’s own research that showed overall crime is decreasing.

Appleseed is committed to educating policymakers as to the importance of using research, data, and evidence-based practices to tackle Alabama’s toughest challenges. As we head into the 2023 legislative session, we will continue to lift up nonpartisan research, such as this, to help craft informed decisions about public safety.

The CSG report notes that the violent crime rate between 2019 and 2021 fell in 25 states and increased in just four. Additionally, law enforcement agencies in 21 states failed to report sufficient crime data to the FBI to draw a conclusion on crime rates in 2021.

In states that didn’t report enough data to make a determination on changes in crime through 2021, researchers for the report looked at data through 2020.

In Alabama, which is among the 21 states with insufficient 2021 data, the overall violent crime rate between 2019 and 2020 fell by 12 percent, according to the report. Aggravated assaults dropped by 6 percent and robberies by 33 percent. Rapes fell by 32 percent while homicides increased by 12 percent. Gun violence remains concerning in several Alabama cities, but there is no evidence that fear of long prison sentences or harsh punishment is stemming the problem. Alabama has some of the nation’s harshest sentences, including the death penalty, yet gun violence persists.

The decrease in overall crime is mirrored in the decrease of incarcerated Alabamians, and a drop in the number of people serving prison sentences for violent crimes, according to the report.

In Alabama, “There were 15,189 people in prison for violent offenses at the end of 2020, comprising 60 percent of the total prison population,” the report reads. “Since 2010, the number of people in prison for violent offenses decreased by 10 percent. During that same period, the number of people in prison for nonviolent offenses decreased by 32 percent.”

Just 52 percent of law enforcement agencies reported their full data to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System for 2021, which the bureau had used alongside the older Uniform Crime Reporting Program until changing fully over to the new system last year.

Among Alabama’s agencies that did not report 2021 data are some of the largest, including the Huntsville Police Department, which covers a jurisdiction of 202,884 people, and the Montgomery Police Department, which covers a jurisdiction of 197,755 residents.

Additional, Alabama-specific crime data can be found at crime.alabama.gov, a collaboration between the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) and the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business, Institute of Data and Analytics. The website documents the steady decline in Alabama crime from 2005 to 2019 (the most recent year a full data set is available.)

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

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director


Lee Davis Jr. Photo credit Bernard Troncale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher


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

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

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

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

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

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

No response from prison officials 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are numerous instances where ADOC incident reports classified deaths as due to ‘natural’ causes when, in actuality, the deaths were likely caused by prisoner -on- prisoner violence,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s findings in a 2019 report on Alabama prisons. In 2020, DOJ sued the State over its dangerous and understaffed prisons; the State has refused to settle and the case is headed for trial next year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Glimmer of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

A death sentence for a probation revocation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Already, a violent start to 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter and Leah Nelson


Public outcry over the arrest of an 82-year-old Valley woman for $77 in unpaid garbage bills was swift, but records show the city has for decades arrested people over unpaid trash bills.  

Martha Menefield’s arrest three days after Thanksgiving, made international headlines. The charge against her was dropped after Menefield, on Dec. 5, paid the $77 and an additional $35 in court costs, records show. But an investigation by Alabama Appleseed and other outlets indicates that Menefield was but one of many victims of Valley’s trash police. 

This pattern of deploying police officers as bill collectors, particularly where the impacted residents are elderly, impoverished or both, does nothing to improve public safety and tarnishes the reputations of the small towns involved.  

Under a 2012 Valley municipal ordinance, nonpayment of garbage fees is a misdemeanor punishable by fine. Appleseed reviewed 26 arrests of Valley residents charged with failing to pay solid waste fees, 11 of which took place this year. Of 26 cases reviewed, 11 people had been arrested more than once over unpaid trash bills. 

Among those who were arrested on trash warrants by Valley police was 77-year-old Dee Kent, who was pulled over and arrested in November of 2021 while on her way to an appointment with her oncologist, CBS 42 first reported. 

Kent, now 79, told the news station she’d received no warning from the city prior to her arrest for failure to pay $141 in trash bills. She described her arrest to Appleseed by phone Thursday as “embarrassing.” 

“It was rough going to jail. Especially when everyone knows you. When you’ve grown up here,” Kent said. 

Nortasha Jackson, 49, was arrested Nov. 26 at her Valley home for $88 in unpaid trash bills, court records show. Her charge is listed as “Failure to Pay Solid Waste Fees” in those records. 

Jackson said she was arrested by two officers, one white and one Black, and described the younger Black officer as “gung ho.” 

“I came here to do my job. You’re going to be arrested,” the younger officer told her, Jackson said. 

Once at the Valley Police Department, she was given 20 minutes to arrange her bail or else be taken to the county jail. Panicked, Jackson said she got help from her adult son who was able to transfer a payment to help secure the bond before she was to be moved.

Jackson’s three children are grown and all have moved on. She receives partial disability benefits and works full time as a cashier, but her health problems prevented her from working during the months of October and November, Jackson said, meaning she had to stretch what little income she had even further. 

“It’s really hard,” she said. “My health is more important.” 

How a law becomes an arrest

With a few exceptions, participation in Valley’s garbage service program is mandatory. Residents are required to pay $18.10 per month for the service, or $15.60 if they are 65 or older and apply for an exemption. People who rely exclusively on Social Security benefits for income can also apply for full exemption.

Penalties for nonpayment include late fees, suspension of services, and civil actions. And pursuant to an ordinance adopted in 2012, people who violate any element of the city’s solid waste code “shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than $50.00 nor more than $200.00.” The ordinance spells out that those fines can be compounded, with each day of noncompliance constituting a separate offense.

Valley has clarified that Menefield was arrested for failure to appear, not strictly for failure to pay her trash bill. But in Valley – along with at least 47 other Alabama cities – failure to pay trash bills alone is technically enough to trigger criminal charges. 

How does enforcement transpire? Every town operates differently, but to get a sense of how cities go about enforcing criminal codes where the offense in question is not something that would result in a call to 911 or a police stop, Alabama Appleseed spoke with two former city clerks who worked for small rural towns in Alabama.

The former clerks, who between them have decades of experience in municipal governance, explained that it is common for cities to contract with outside companies to collect their trash, as Valley does with a company called Amwaste. The cities pay the bill for that service, and city councils have discretion to pass those costs on to residents by passing a local ordinance. Fees collected pursuant to such ordinances have to be used for trash-related purposes and cannot be disbursed to the general fund. 

Generally, the clerks said, cities have an entity – a water or utilities board in some, a solid waste department in others – that oversees garbage collection services and collects fees from residents. In order to keep track of payments, that entity maintains a list of delinquencies, which in a city with an ordinance permitting criminal consequences it could turn over to a magistrate on a periodic basis. Based on that list, the magistrate would issue warrants which police would be tasked with executing. 

“I imagine they don’t even think about it, it’s just automatic. I think it probably stems from a policy set by the council or a directive from the mayor, but the magistrate is just doing what they do,” said Herman Lehman, former city clerk and treasurer for the city of Montevallo who now works as a consultant.

Lehman said that every single step of that process involves discretion. Like Valley, Montevallo contracts with an outside company to collect trash. The city pays the bill each month and collects fees from residents, who are required to participate in the service but can obtain exemptions if they can show they are unable to pay. As in Valley, Montevallo city code makes nonpayment of trash fees a misdemeanor. 

Lehman said he is unaware of the city ever having enforced that provision of its code. Instead, when Montevallo found a resident was struggling to pay, it sought to connect them with assistance through local churches, community-based organizations, or a Shelby County fund that is available to people with certain types of financial difficulties. Montevallo also made sure that eligible individuals knew they could apply for exemptions from the mandatory fee. When people habitually failed to pay or act on their bills, Montevallo used civil and administrative measures to sanction them and attempt to recover the money. 

“The idea that police were there to protect and serve, we sort of felt that serve was the operative word,” Lehman said of Montevallo’s reluctance to deploy police as debt collectors. “It just doesn’t make sense when you’re living in a community, particularly in a small community, to always play the bad guy, particularly in a situation where people may need help.”

Alabama law does not require custodial arrests for all misdemeanor charges. Among myriad unserved warrants for a wide variety of offenses dating back to 2003, Appleseed identified 22 for unpaid trash bills throughout Chambers County, along with one unserved warrant for the offense of “pants below waist.”

It is possible that the city of Valley issues summons initially, telling people who are delinquent on trash fees to come to court on a particular day for a hearing before a judge. What seems to have happened with Menefield is that she missed her initial court date. Typically, failure to appear at a court date prompts the issue of a second warrant, this time for failure to appear. That is the type of warrant that led to  Menefield’s November arrest.

But even failure to appear warrants are subject to discretion, retired Birmingham Police Captain Jerry Wiley explained to Alabama Appleseed. Wiley said that police in Alabama are required to take people into custody for certain misdemeanor charges such as driving under the influence. But alternatives to arrest, including warnings and admonitions to resolve the problem that prompted the warrant, are available for many misdemeanors. In a small town like Valley, Wiley said, expectations about how police should proceed in cases like Menefield’s are set by the police chief, who answers to the mayor and/or city council. Though individual officers legally have the discretion not to arrest for certain offenses, Wiley said that in a small town, they would have little authority to defy such policies without risking their jobs. 

But using police to punish nonpayment comes with a price for public safety. Research shows that when residents perceive police as debt collectors with badges, violent crimes are solved at a lower rate. 

“If the only thing you’re interacting with your police department is for is arbitrary arrests and silly things like that, it becomes an adversarial relationship,” Wiley said. “If the police are out doing this, they’re not fighting the crime they should be fighting.”

The Costs of Debt

 Making failure to pay trash fees a criminal offense doesn’t only make police officers debt collectors. It also results in many of those residents owing much more than their original fees.

Court records show that the average cost of unpaid garbage fees in those cases was $138.79. But as the cases progressed through the court, the average cost of all fees and additional court costs levied ballooned to an average of $402. 

The racial breakdown of the arrests mirrored Valley’s racial demographics fairly closely: 42 percent of the people arrested in the 26 cases reviewed by Appleseed were Black, and the town’s population is about 38 percent Black. 

These arrests could be stopped in a number of ways, but doing so would require action from Valley Mayor Leonard Riley and the seven-member Valley City Council, which could vote to change the language in the ordinance that makes nonpayment a misdemeanor. City officials could also simply stop the process that leads to the referral of those who are behind on payments for prosecution, and instead handle those debts as civil matters. 

Several attempts to reach Valley city officials and its police chief this week were unsuccessful. The only public statement from city officials was from Valley Police Chief Mike Reynolds, who in a press release stated that while officers can use discretion in certain matters “the enforcement of an arrest warrant issued by the court and signed by a magistrate, is not one of them.” 

“City of Valley Code Enforcement Officers issued Menefield a citation in August of 2022 for non-payment for trash services for the months of June, July, and August,” the statement reads. “Prior to issuing the citation, Code Enforcement tried to call Menefield several times and attempted to contact her in person at her residence. When contact could not be made, a door hanger was left at her residence. The hanger contained information on the reason for the visit and a name and contact phone number for her to call. The citation advised Menefield that she was to appear in court on September 7, 2022, in reference to this case. A warrant for Failure to Pay-Trash was issued when she did not appear in court.”

Jackson, the Valley woman arrested at home on Nov. 26, said the city needs to change how it handles unpaid garbage debt. She said that using police officers to collect such small amounts is “really stupid” and is not the sort of work taxpayers want from police departments. 

“It needs to be done better. It stigmatizes people,” she said.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher


Alabamians are faced with competing narratives regarding crime and punishment. On one hand, Alabama’s prison system is brutal, broken, and fails to rehabilitate. On the other hand, some believe crime is on the rise and long prison sentences are the only answer. 

Because Appleseed believes that policy decisions must be based on evidence and data, that government must be transparent and accountable, we examined actual crime data from various Alabama cities in order to begin to separate truth from myth.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation earlier this month released its annual crime stats, but changes in how that data are reported, and the large number of law enforcement agencies that failed to report data, make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from the numbers. 

Just 52 percent of law enforcement agencies reported their full data to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System for 2021, which the bureau had used alongside the older Uniform Crime Reporting Program until changing fully over to the new system last year. 

While the FBI has always used the data to make estimates about crime trends, the lack of complete data in this latest report makes those estimates much less useful this year, experts warn

Even so, the FBI estimates that the overall violent crime volume for the nation decreased 1 percent from 2020 to 2021, while murders increased by 4.3 percent, but that’s within the margin of error, so according to the bureau’s estimation murders could be down by seven percent or up by as high as 17 percent. 

Looking elsewhere, the crime data analysis firm AH Datalytics tracked homicides in 200 major U.S. and found a 5.2 percent decline in homicides from 2021 to 2022, year to date. 

The robbery rate nationwide decreased 8.9 percent, according to the FBI’s estimate in the report, which “heavily contributed to the decrease in overall violent crime despite increases in murder and rape rates at the national level.” The national property crime rate decreased by 4.5 percent as well, according to those estimates. 

Trying to glean anything about crime in Alabama by looking at the FBI’s report is difficult. Across the state’s 436 law enforcement agencies, only 44 percent reported a full year’s worth of crime data to the FBI for 2021, and 81 percent of agencies reported partial data to the FBI. 

Even among some large agencies, reporting was scant. The Huntsville Police Department, the Montgomery Police Department and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office didn’t report data to the FBI last year, while the Birmingham Police Department reported 11 months worth of crime data, as did the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. 

Because of such low reporting from Alabama, the FBI declined to make comparisons between the state’s 2020 and 2021 crime data. However, a look at longer term trends across multiple years tells an encouraging story. The state’s rate of violent crime offenses by population fell by 14.8 percent in 2020 from a spike in 2016, according to the FBI’s data

Additionally, some law enforcement agencies statewide have published 2021 crime data  and those numbers show a decline across many types of crimes. 

In Anniston, violent crime – homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, and aggravated assaults – decreased by 12.10 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the Anniston Police Department’s 2021 annual report

Violent crime in the city reached an historic low in 2019,  when 334 violent offenses were reported, the department noted in the report, citing the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, which stores crime statistics back to 1985. There were 414 violent offenses reported in Anniston 2021, which was the second lowest number recorded since 1985. 

Property crimes, which include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft,  remained relatively flat in Anniston between 2020 and 2021, increasing by 2 percent. 

The Huntsville Police Department’s 2021 crime report shows 25 homicides in 21, down from 29 in 2018. 

In Mobile, total crime in 2021 was down 6.6 percent from 2020, but the department’s annual report notes that violent crime increased by 18.7 percent. There were 51 homicides citywide last year, up by five from 2020. 

Again, looking at longer term trends is encouraging. Mobile’s total crime between 2011 and 2021 declined by 35.7 percent, according to the department’s report. 

The Tuscaloosa Police Department’s annual reports show that across the five crimes the department tracks and publishes data on – vehicle break-ins, burglaries, vehicle theft, robbery and homicides, those crimes in total declined by 32.4 percent between 2019 and 2021. Robberies alone fell by 46.5 percent and burglaries by 43 percent. 

Birmingham has also experienced declines in crime. Total violent crimes, which also include rape, robbery and aggravated assaults, were down 19 percent. Property crimes were down by just less than one percent, according to the Birmingham Police Department’s statistics as of Oct. 13.

The anomaly is homicides. The often-sensational nature of homicides means they dominate local, breaking news coverage, creating fear and outrage. That onslaught of news reports generally lacks context or any meaningful explanation of contributing factors or trends.

By mid-October, there had been 113 homicides in the city this year, up 37 percent. 

Speaking about the tragic rise in homicides this year, Birmingham Police Chief Scott Thurmond told AL.com, that even considering several cases of innocent victims caught in the crossfire, the reality of crime in the city is better than the perception.

“You don’t have a parent going to get gallon of milk or a pack of diapers at 9 p.m. getting murdered,’’ Thurmond told the news outlet. “You do have people, places and behaviors. If you engage with people doing illegal things in places where you shouldn’t be with people who are known for violence or other issues, the likelihood of something happening to you is very high.”

One of the most comprehensive resources to track Alabama crime trends can be found at crime.alabama.gov. This collaboration between the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) and the Culverhouse College of Business Institute of Data and Analytics, provides county-by-county as well as state-level data dating back to 2005. Tools such as these – not sensational headlines or political ads – are critical to making informed decisions about criminal justice policy.

My name is Erin Nicole Smith and I am humbled to work at Alabama Appleseed as a Policy Extern. I am currently a 2L at The University of Alabama School of Law and am seeking opportunities to embrace social justice activism. I have a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and minored in Political Science from Oakwood University, where I learned to embrace our motto: “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.” I plan to do just that as an aspiring attorney and it starts with community. 

My interest in criminal justice reform was piqued after choosing to do a research paper on mass incarceration my junior year of high school. I had never encountered that term before, so I explored avenues to learn more about the topic. Through my research, I was exposed to 13th, a documentary produced by Ava Duvernay. I was shocked to learn about the conditions of U.S. prisons and how African Americans are disproportionately funneled into the prison system. Also, I learned how in the U.S. a new form of slavery has been invented by depriving those who are incarcerated of their basic human rights. Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” sheds light on the various tools used to oppress minorities. These tools included the rhetoric of ‘law and order’, declaring the War on Drugs, and projecting an abundance of stereotypical images of minorities in the media. 

During my time at Oakwood University, I was able to encounter experiences that confirmed my desire to become an attorney. When I studied abroad in Sagunto, Spain, I developed a deeper level of empathy for how immigrants feel when placed in a new environment while having a language barrier. The experience allowed me to be more aware of the struggles that minority communities face inside the U.S. Upon my return, I took classes that further informed me of issues present in America. These classes included U.S. Constitutional Law, Public Policy, Special Topics in Law, State and Local Government, and American Diplomacy. One of my favorite classes was Social Justice Advocacy because we discussed how race affects the law. 

In law school, my passion to do public interest work has stemmed from my interest in the intersectionality between race and the law. After working as a legislative intern my junior year of college, I developed a love for policy because it opened my eyes to a new way of implementing far-reaching change. My goal is to combine both the fields of law and policy into my career. Alabama Appleseed gives me the avenue to explore these facets. 

I learned about Alabama Appleseed after attending an admitted student session with The University of Alabama School of Law. I was connected to Akiesha Anderson, an alum of the law school and the former Policy Director of Alabama Appleseed. Because my interest in policy was new, I had never heard of anyone else starting their law school journey with the knowledge that policy was their end goal. It was really amazing to talk to another Black woman about our passions and interests to help others through policy. Fast forward to now, I am honored to be a part of this organization and further the mission “to achieve justice and equality for all Alabamians.”

By Eddie Burkhalter


An Alabama correctional officer, caught on video beating an incarcerated man on a prison rooftop last week, has been placed on mandatory leave.  

The violence caught on camera and shared widely on social media is a visible example of the often unseen violence that regularly takes place in Alabama prisons.

Jimmy Norman, 44, climbed on top of a building at the Elmore Correctional Facility on Sept. 14, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed for Alabama Appleseed on Monday. 

Officer Ell White can be seen in the video approaching Mr. Norman, who was seated at the peak of the building with his legs dangling off the edge, and upon pulling Mr. Norman from the edge proceeded to hit him with a closed right fist at least five times. The camera moved off of the men for a moment. Five other officers can be seen on the ground watching the incident. 

“Once the ADOC became aware of the following incident at Elmore Correctional Facility, the department immediately placed Officer Ell White on mandatory leave pending investigation,” an Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson responded to Appleseed in a message.

Appleseed asked the department about the assault and any response from the officers who witnessed it. The spokesperson wrote that the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division is investigating this incident “and the response by the staff involved.” 

Mr. Norman was sentenced to 15 years in December 2020 on a probation revocation connected to previous convictions of breaking and entering vehicles. His previous convictions, all non-violent, were for breaking and entering vehicles, one conviction of illegal possession of a credit or debit card and one conviction of fraudulent use of a credit or debit card. 

After the assault, Mr. Norman was moved to the infirmary at Kilby Correctional Facility. The extent of his injuries was not immediately clear, or why he was in the prison’s infirmary. ADOC on Monday declined to discuss Mr. Norman’s medical condition.

Last week’s assault wasn’t the first time Officer White has been connected to prison violence. As a rookie officer in 2017, Officer White was present for portions of an incident that resulted in the death of Billy Smith, 33, who was incarcerated at Elmore prison. 

An autopsy that Mr. Smith died of blunt force trauma, and initially, both another incarcerated man and a correctional officer, Jeremy Singleton, were both charged in Mr. Smith’s death, with prosecutors saying both men had beaten Mr. Smith in separate instances the day of the attack. 

Officer White told investigators that after he was ordered to take an injured Mr. Smith to nearby Staton Correctional Facility, Mr. Smith collapsed when they tried to get him to stand up. 

Mr. Smith became unresponsive, so Officer White “rapped him lightly on the back of his neck” to wake him, according to a report from Injustice Watch. White declined to take a polygraph about the incident, the watchdog journalism nonprofit reported. 

Officer White told investigators he poured an ice chest of water onto Mr. Smith, who was unresponsive on the floor of his cell. According to an ADOC report, nurses later discovered the sound of water in Mr. Smith’s lungs, Injustice Watch reported. Mr. Smith died 26 days after the attack. 

Elmore County Circuit Court Judge Ben Fuller in September 2020 dropped manslaughter charges against both Officer Singleton and the other incarcerated man, after attorneys for both asked the court to drop the charges because the state was attempting to charge two separate people for the death. Officer White was never charged in connection with Smith’s death. 

The violence caught on camera last week at Elmore Correctional Facility gives a glimpse into what incarcerated people and their loved ones explain to Appleseed is ADOC officers’ routine use of violence, and indifference to violence between incarcerated people. 

A 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama found systemic problems of unreported or underreported excessive use of force incidents, a failure to properly investigate them and attempts by correctional officers and their supervisors to cover them up. 

“Specifically, the department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that prisoners are subjected to excessive force at the hands of prison staff,” the Justice Department said in a press release. 

Severe overcrowding and understaffing contribute to the “patterns or practices of uses of excessive force,” the report states.

Elmore Correctional Facility was at 193 percent capacity in June, the latest month for which ADOC has made monthly statistical reports available. 

“In addition, inadequate supervision and the failure to hold officers accountable for their behavior contribute to an increase in the incidence of excessive force,” according to the DOJ report. 

“These uses of excessive force—which include the use of batons, chemical spray, and physical altercations such as kicking—often result in serious injuries and, sometimes, death,” the report continues. 

The DOJ in that report also notes concerns over how ADOC’s  Law Enforcement Services Division investigates use of force incidents. 

The investigative arm of ADOC “requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt in order to refer a use of excessive force for prosecution,” which has come under criticism by federal investigators. 

“While using this heightened burden of proof is appropriate for criminal prosecutions, it should not be employed by a prison system making a criminal referral as it interferes with prosecutors’ evaluation of a case and decision on whether to prosecute,” the DOJ report states. “In other words, by requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt to refer a matter for prosecution, I&I limits the number of uses of force that are reviewed by outside prosecutors.”

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director 


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

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

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

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

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

“I used to program myself to be without bitterness”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Cheeks at his new residence.

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

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

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

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

Starting over at age 79

Appleseed staff and friends celebrate his 80th birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release Day

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

Mr. Cheeks celebrates his release day with a milkshake!

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Alabama Appleseed: Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed conducts integrated culture and policy change campaigns to confront laws and policies that harm the poor and to remedy the root causes of poverty and injustice. Its campaigns use policy analysis, research and documentation, legislative action, public education, community organizing, pro bono engagement, coalition building, and litigation. Appleseed also represents older, incarcerated people in challenging extreme prison sentences and provides reentry services to clients released after decades of incarceration. Alabama Appleseed is a vibrant, growing organization that prides itself on creating strategic, evidence-based solutions to some of the most pressing problems in Alabama, and allowing the ingenuity of our staff to lead the way. Our work sits at the intersection of poverty and the justice system.

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 17 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary: The social worker provides services to Appleseed clients re-entering society after incarceration. The social worker will also be part of a collaborative research project that will explore the overlapping health and mental health-related needs of communities that have been impacted both by violence and over-incarceration, and the resulting lack of health services because of the state’s overinvestment in carceral systems and law enforcement infrastructure. This position is full time, 40 hours per week, with flexibility for some remote work, some requirements for inoffice work, and occasional work outside normal business hours. The social worker reports directly to the Executive Director and works closely with Appleseed’s Staff Attorney, Re-entry Coordinator and Research Director. The position is based in Appleseed’s Birmingham office. The position involves moderate in-town travel and limited out-of-town travel. As part of a small nonprofit, the social worker will occasionally be called upon to assist with events and presentations that are critical to Appleseed’s work.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Assist in developing re-entry plans for formerly incarcerated clients; connect clients to public benefits and services, such as food assistance, health care, Social Security.
  • Conduct mental health assessments of Appleseed clients, determine level of mental health services and/or counseling to best assist clients transitioning from incarceration to healthy lives in the community.
  • Provide individual counseling of Appleseed clients as soon as feasible following clients’ release from incarceration. Where indicated, provide referrals to more extensive services such as substance use disorder treatment. Client caseload is estimated to be no more than 10 at any given time.
  • Work closely with Appleseed Re-entry Coordinator to exchange information and share expertise on the challenges of returning to the community following decades in Alabama prisons.
  • Identify common themes, traits, and challenges, particularly as pertaining to trauma and mental health, experienced by long-term incarcerated clients.
  • Provide occasional transportation to clients to medical appointments, job training, grocery shopping, etc., until they are able to secure a drivers license.
  • Assist in implementation of Appleseed-led research project into overlap health-related needs of communities impacted by both violence and over-incarceration.
  • Work with multi-disciplinary team to ensure that the survey addresses confidentiality and informed consent, and intentionally captures the responses of individuals who have been directly affected by the issues and/or whose responses may have been historically underrepresented.
  • Meet regularly with Project Team, including Community Organizer, Project Manager, and Research Director to implement goals of the research project. May include assisting with focus groups and interviews.
  • Assist the Project Team and Appleseed in developing body of research around unique trauma and harm experienced by people incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons as a result of prison conditions.

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Five or more years of experience in social work, preferably in non-profit work;
  • Masters of Social Work;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Excellent written communication skills;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license – this position will involve some travel and use of personal vehicle, with mileage reimbursement for travel outside the Birmingham MSA;
  • Willingness to use personal cell phone for work calls, in accordance with Appleseed’s Personnel Policies;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Experience with trauma-informed care and counseling.

Salary and Benefits: This position will provide a salary range of $45,000 – $50,000 annually, depending on experience. Additionally, Appleseed offers a competition benefits package including health insurance, generous paid time off, and 401(k) after one year of employment.

Interested applicants can email a resume and letter of interest to Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org.