Chase Mathis was confined to a wheelchair when he went to prison. His mobility challenges meant he often did not have enough to eat and did not get his basic needs met. But in Alabama’s drug-infested prisons, lethal drugs are always available even when food is not.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

Chase Mathis died inside Elmore Correctional Facility on June 4, 2024. His grieving family is seeking answers (photo courtesy of his family).

Chase Mathis died inside Elmore Correctional Facility on June 4 moments after his father last spoke to him by phone. Now the father is seeking answers, and wants to expose Alabama’s troubled prisons that failed to keep his son, who entered prison in a wheelchair, alive.

Before prescription pills took their toll, Chase was a farm boy and a prankster, affectionately called Plowboy in his community. “He’s been climbing on tractors since he was big enough to ride a bicycle to the fields…He could pretty much run anything. If he could reach the controls he could run it,” Tim Mathis said. His son grew up in a small rural community between Dothan and Cottonwood. “He loved to shoot fireworks. He loved to hunt. Just normal country stuff.”

Chase Mathis loved making friends and family laugh (photo courtesy of Chase’s family)

Chase went to great lengths to make people laugh, his father remembered. During a friend’s birthday party at a local fast food restaurant, Chase dressed in full clown costume, makeup and all, just to make people smile. 

His son’s life took a turn when he became addicted to prescription pain pills, Mr. Mathis said, but it was a 2014 car accident that sent him to prison. Chase was driving with a friend and was intoxicated when they believe he fell asleep at the wheel. The car struck a tree, killing his friend. Chase suffered multiple broken bones throughout his body, three skull fractures, a torn spleen and an aneurysm. “We stayed in the trauma unit for 41 days before we knew he was going to live,” Mr. Mathis said.  A year-and-a-half later Chase was indicted for murder, but Chase later agreed to a plea deal and a reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 15 years. 

Chase’s attorney asked that he be put into the Alabama Department of Corrections’ Substance Abuse Program (SAP), Mr. Mathis said, but he never received that critical treatment once incarcerated. “Ain’t none of that happening,” Mr. Mathis said of the SAP program. “It’s just a crock…If we had known that at the time, if I could go back and do it again I’d say, take your damned chances, go to trial and see what the jury says.” 

ADOC’s own data confirm that there has been a 64% decrease in the number of incarcerated people completing drug treatment over the last decade. Staffing is threadbare at the troubled agency, which constricts the availability of rehabiliative programming. Magnifying Chase’s challenges in prison was the fact that he relied on a wheelchair. He called his father one day in tears, and said he was hungry. “I can’t walk,” Chase told his father, and his dorm is too far from the dining hall. By the time he wheels himself there it’s too late, and the food is being put up, he said. If he buys food from the prison store he has to eat it as soon as he buys it, or else he’ll be robbed of the food, and the officers do nothing to stop it, Chase told his father. 

Mr. Mathis called then-ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn to discuss his concerns but Dunn declined to talk to him, so Mr. Mathis said he’d like to visit the prison and talk to him in person. 

“And I was advised that if I set foot on the property up there I’d be charged with a terroristic threat,” Mr. Mathis said. 

“There was no medical rehab whatsoever. He had to teach himself how to walk,” Mr. Mathis said. His son began using drugs in prison, he believes, to get his mind off of the brutal violence and unchecked depravity surrounding him inside daily. 

Mr. Mathis spoke to his son the day he died. Their call ended at 8:32 p.m. on June 4th. He received a call from the prison at 10 p.m. with the news of Chase’s death. An investigator with ADOC’s Law Enforcement Services Division told Mr. Mathis that he believes Chase died within 15 minutes of talking to Mr. Mathis.

Chase Mathis (photo courtesy of the family).

Mr. Mathis said it’s hard to know for certain, but he’s concerned his son may have been killed with what’s known as a “hotshot,” or a lethal dose of drugs administered against one’s will and meant to kill. 

“Chase told me he owed these guys money. He didn’t tell me who they were, but he told the investigator. He gave them their names,” Mr. Mathis said. Chase owed more than $1,000 in separate amounts to three men at Staton prison, he said. He assumed it was drug debt, which is common in Alabama prisons and often results in the extortion of family members, assaults and homicides. Because of that debt and threats he was receiving, Chase told investigators and asked to be moved, his father said, but instead of placing him in a cell by himself for protection, his son was placed in general population. Chase’s deaths just moments after arriving at Elmore prison is suspicious, he explained. 

Chase’s body was sent to the state’s lab at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for an autopsy, Mr. Mathis said. He was told by ADOC that the autopsy would be done because the death was under criminal investigation. 

ADOC first confirmed for Appleseed that autopsies would no longer be done by the state for suspected natural or overdose deaths. UAB Hospital terminated its longstanding agreement with ADOC to conduct autopsies and/or toxicology screens on suspected natural and overdose deaths on April 22, 2024, ADOC told Appleseed. Families recently filed a lawsuit against UAB after discovering that their incarcerated loved ones’ bodies were returned to them for interment missing internal organs. 

Mr. Mathis has signed up to speak at the upcoming public hearing during the Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee meeting on July 24th. He’s still not sure what he’ll say, but knows he wants to talk about the drug crisis in Alabama’s prisons. 

Mr. Mathis said he’d like to see a nationwide news agency come in and expose the crisis in Alabama’s prisons. “So the average person out here can see, because if we had a dog pound that was run like the facility my child’s been at, they’d be pitching a fit,” he said. 

National coverage of Alabama’s horrific prisons has been widespread at least since 2019, and sadly the humanitarian crisis persists. Reports have appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, CNN, Politico, Fox News and more.

Families with incarcerated loved ones attend the Prison Oversight Committee hearing in December 14, 2023 (photo courtesy of Alabama Daily News).

Reaction from lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee after hearing from family members of incarcerated people at a previous public hearing in December 2023 resulted in passage of SB322 this past legislative session, which creates a family services unit to provide answers and information to families of incarcerated people who have been injured or hospitalized. 

Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed and deadly prisons have been in a state of crisis for decades, yet with each week the crisis only gets worse. Appleseed regularly talks to family members who have lost loved ones inside prisons, or who are being threatened with violence or death, and family members extorted to keep them safe, and it’s not just Appleseed staff who are having these conversations. 

“I know I’ve said this before, but I’ve gotten another call from another constituent where their son was beat up because the gangs are running our prisons, and the prison guards are bringing the drugs and the cell phones to the gang members,” Alabama House Speaker Pro Tem Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, said during a Legislative Contract Review Committee’s meeting in June. “I mean, these people call me and they’re crying their eyes out because they’ve got a video tape of their son that’s just been (sexually assaulted) or beaten up by the gangs. I feel sorry for you all, but please God, we’ve got to do something to protect these prisoners. It’s insane what’s going on in our prison system.”

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