By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

Joe Raines walks free for the first time in 43 years, accompanied by Appleseed Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua, and Rick Hudson, a leader in Hunter Street Baptist Church’s prison ministry program and board member at Shepherd’s Fold Reentry Ministry, where Mr. Raines resides. (photo credit Bernard Troncale)

Joseph Raines spent 43 years in Alabama’s prison system for a robbery conviction. At age 69, he was still working in St. Clair prison’s vehicle restoration plant, lifting heavy pieces of metal for $1 an hour when Appleseed took on his case.

Like most of our clients, Mr. Raines was serving life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) and was supposed to die in prison. On February 9, he walked free, enjoyed bacon at the Burger King in Springville, and slept in a peaceful, nonchaotic place for the first time in four decades.  

Appleseed attorney Scott Fuqua served as lead attorney on the case, drafting the post-conviction petition that showed Mr. Raines’ LWOP sentence was excessive under current law; Jefferson County District Danny Carr did not oppose our efforts. There was no victim opposition either, as the conviction is so old the victim has passed away. Mr. Raines was resentenced to time-served by Jefferson County Circuit Judge Kechia Davis.

Joseph Raines with his attorneys, Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua and Executive Director Carla Crowder. (photo credit Bernard Troncale)

Appleseed lawyers were able to show that Mr. Raines demonstrated remarkable rehabilitation, despite his draconian sentence and having no reasonable hope for release. As one of his supervisors at St. Clair remarked: “I only saw politeness and a willingness to help others.”

It was shocking to him to be able to leave prison after so many years. “I was sitting in the car with Scott, and I said, ‘Am I really here?’” Mr. Raines said recalling those first moments as a free man. The surreal feeling continued as he walked into the bright morning lights of the Springville Burger King, “I just kept thinking, I am not here. This is not me,” he told me later. His other thought: “Do I deserve this?”

Working by age 8, homeless by 13

Because re-entry resources are threadbare in Alabama, Appleseed provides re-entry services to all of our legal clients, starting with ensuring they obtain the proper identification to move on with their lives. ID is critical for employment, housing, medical care, bank accounts and more.

But the only state-issued ID that Mr. Raines has is from the Alabama Department of Corrections identifying him as a recently released felon. He has never had a birth certificate, nor a social security card.

Joseph Raines on his release day. (photo credit Bernard Troncale)

We learned about his unusual background during early visits as we prepared his case and considered re-entry needs.

As Mr. Raines recalls, he was born in a trailer in Homestead, Florida. He was told his mother passed away due to an act of violence soon after his birth and his paternal grandmother took custody of him. Lacking a birth certificate, he did not attend school past kindergarten, and received little guidance, care, or support as a young child. He knew he was not wanted, but was too small to figure out where to go or how to take care of himself.

By the time he was 8-years old, he was wandering the dirt roads of the agricultural community where he lived and seeking out odd jobs. A farmer took pity on him and let him work in a produce-sorting barn. Sometimes Mr. Raines slept in the barn; none of his family checked on his welfare. That farmer also taught Mr. Raines how to drive, sending him on errands in a farm truck at a very young age. “He sort of took me under his wing,” Mr. Raines explained.

At 13, he hitchhiked to Miami, then found work as a flagman on a construction site in Daytona, Florida. He slept under a pier and kept his clothes in a bus station locker. There were jobs as a dishwasher, in construction, whatever he could find with his kindergarten education.

Throughout years of neglect, abuse, and just barely hanging on, Mr. Raines never once interacted with child welfare authorities, school officials, or any governmental agencies responsible for ensuring that children are not left to wander the streets with no education, resources, or care. His adventures took him from Virginia to California, and once involved reliance on a station wagon with no floorboards.

Joseph Raines with Appleseed clients (l to r) Robert Cheeks, Alonzo Hurth, John Coleman, Willie Ingram, Ronald McKeithen, and Lee Davis at Mr. Coleman’s 90th birthday party.

It was not until the inevitable occurred – hunger, need, and desperation led him to steal things, that law enforcement stepped in to punish and incarcerate him. It was in jail where he learned to read, with help from a pocket dictionary that a guard gave him.

In 1982, with a handful of out-of-state priors for minor offenses such as check forgery and theft, Mr. Raines was involved in a robbery at a Shop-A-Snack convenience store on Montclair Road in Birmingham. His gun never left his pants and he assured the clerk he was not going to hurt her. Mr. Raines was pulled over 6 days later in Flagstaff, Arizona and confessed to the robbery. He explained to the detective that he was trying to get back to his 3-year-old son in southern California and had robbed the gas station because he had no money for gas or means to earn it, according to testimony at his trial. Also at his trial, he acknowledged having at least three prior felonies, which resulted in the mandatory Life Without Parole sentence. He was 26.

For the next 43 years, a government that failed to provide intervention, care, or assistance to Mr. Raines as a neglected and homeless child found the means to imprison him for most of his life for crimes in which no one else was physically injured.  

“I’ve tried to treat people better than I was treated.”

Every piece of Joseph Raines’ history adds up to a man who should be bitter and angry. Or at least hostile and wary. But this is not who he is at all.  

Joseph Raines with Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen and client John Coleman.

“I’ve tried to treat people better than I was treated,” he told us during one of our first visits with him at St. Clair. While incarcerated, he earned a GED, mostly avoided trouble and had been living in the honor dorm and worked in Alabama Correctional Industries for nearly 7 years.

Mr. Raines is open and easy-going. He asks for very little. Of course, he’s been somewhat overwhelmed by various aspects of the modern world. This is a man who had never before sat in front of a computer until February, 2024. 

“To be honest, I’m loving every minute of it. I find a whole lot of stuff amazing. Walmart for one. I’ve never been in a store that huge.” Buying a mustache trimmer at Walmart made him happy. Walking out the door without having to tell anyone where he’s going makes him happy. “I enjoy the freedom of just being able to walk and throw a rock if I want to.” Currently, he resides at Shepherd’s Fold Reentry Ministry, but is looking forward to his own apartment.

One of his biggest challenges is that he wants to work and stay busy. But without a social security number, he cannot obtain employment, and without a birth certificate he cannot obtain a social security number.

Joseph Raines with Appleseed Re-entry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson.

Appleseed’s re-entry case manager Kathleen Henderson has worked miracles with birth certificates before, proving our client Larry Garrett was indeed Larry Garrett, even though his birth certificate from Talladega County failed to include his actual name. Mr. Garrett is now joyfully employed as driving tractor trailers all over America for Western Express. For now, Kathleen is working every angle: genealogy experts, medical records, school records from 1960s rural Florida, brainstorming with the nicest people at the Social Security office.

Meanwhile, Mr. Raines stays hopeful, and has begun sharing his story with students and other groups. He enjoys spending time with one of his old friends from St. Clair, our client John Coleman, who was released in February, 2023 and just turned 90. They were housed in the same dorm for years, back when both men had been condemned to die in prison.

Despite all of this, his troubling childhood, his desperate youth, being incarcerated for two-thirds of his life in one of the country’s worst prison systems, Mr. Raines is upbeat.

“I was talking to Larry,” he shared. “I told him as soon as I’m able to get my ID, I’m going to enroll in the CDL class. If I can have seven to eight good years of driving, I can retire in peace.”

He certainly deserves that.

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

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

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

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

Jerry’s intricate woodworking creations

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

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

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

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

Building a ramp and building a life

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

Jerry with his niece Amber

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

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

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

For Jerry, it started with the ramp.

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

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

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

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

Appleseed’s holistic approach to freedom

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

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

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

Jerry with Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua on release day

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

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

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

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

Welcome home, Jerry!

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

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parole-eligible again at age 72

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Packed like sardines” and living with a permanent catheter

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sometimes common sense demands a second look.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

His friends and coworkers are disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.”

by Carla Crowder, Executive Director

Willie Ingram on his release day. Photo by Bernard Troncale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director 

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

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

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

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

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

“I used to program myself to be without bitterness”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Cheeks at his new residence.

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

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

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

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

Starting over at age 79

Appleseed staff and friends celebrate his 80th birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release Day

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

Mr. Cheeks celebrates his release day with a milkshake!

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama Appleseed’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session are narrowly focused on sensible reforms and investments. Our priorities reinforce what so many Alabamians are beginning to understand: as a state, we pour too much money into prisons and punishment and fail to invest in policies and services that will make us all safer and more prosperous.

This session, help us pass the following three priorities: 

End drivers license suspensions for low-wealth Alabamians

Right now, nearly 170,000 Alabamians have their driver’s licenses suspended because they failed to pay traffic tickets or failed to appear in court. That’s 170,000 people who can’t easily hold down jobs, take care of themselves or their families, or otherwise go about their lives – not because they’re dangerous drivers, but because they owe the state money. At the same time, Alabama is facing a staggering labor shortage, with more than two jobs for every jobseeker. Something’s got to change.

This session, Appleseed will support bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) and Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) that would sever the connection between unpaid traffic debt and driver’s license suspensions while ensuring accountability for individuals who receive traffic tickets and maintaining protections against dangerous drivers. Specifically, the legislation will end suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets and failure to appear at compliance hearings about payment plans, while also making plain that drivers who simply ignore tickets can have their licenses suspended and leaving in place the points system that governs suspensions for habitually reckless drivers.

Reform is urgently needed. Businesses are suffering for lack of workers, and Alabamians who lost their licenses due to debt are making desperate choices in the meantime. Our 2018 survey of Alabama drivers whose licenses were suspended due to unpaid traffic debt found 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.

Alabama drivers need licenses so they can get decent jobs and do what they need to do to care for themselves and their families. This bill aims to help them get back on the road.

Invest federal COVID-relief funds into prison re-entry and diversion programs

In Alabama, individuals transitioning back into society after serving time for a criminal offense face a blockade and there is virtually no reasonable pathway for re-entry without family support. Individuals who have served their time and are trying to make a life change, but have no financial resources, need basic necessities to have any chance for safety and stability.

The State of Alabama currently provides no re-entry housing support for the vast majority of people exiting from the Alabama Department of Corrections’ custody. In fiscal 2021, that number was 4,122.  Appleseed’s proposal seeks to provide bare minimum support to this population in order to provide stability during their first months outside of prison and increase public safety. 

The Legislature should approve $10 million in American Rescue Act (ARPA) funding for licensed, private, nonprofit providers of housing and re-entry services throughout the State. Housing could be provided using two models: the group home/halfway house setting and the community-based transitional home model.  For $10 million annually, approximately 2,000 returning individuals could be safety housed as they get back on their feet. Models in Georgia, Texas, and Michigan have been enormously successful.

Already lawmakers have devoted $400 million in ARPA funds to help build two, new mega prisons, a controversial decision that has been widely criticized. Lawmakers must decide this session how to spend another $580 million. A small fraction for re-entry housing would help address the desperation and homelessness that thousands of people who leave prison every year face.

On the front end, lawmakers should use this rare federal funding opportunity to improve and support programs such as drug courts and diversion that treat people arrested for minor, nonviolent drug crimes in communities rather than sending them to Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons.

As Appleseed found in our 2020 report, In Trouble, these programs can cost thousands of dollars, which makes them inaccessible for low-income people.  More than eight in 10 participants we surveyed gave up a necessity like food, rent, or medicine to pay for a diversion program. One in five had been turned down for a diversion program because they could not afford it. 

Provide a grace period for individuals returning from prison to pay fines and fees

Finally, Appleseed is working to provide greater opportunities for success to formerly incarcerated people through legislation that would grant people a six month “grace period” following release before they must begin paying back court fines and fees. 

People often leave prison with little more than a few dollars and a change of clothes. They have no identification, they have a felony conviction, plus housing challenges. It is hardly a formula for success. On top of these challenges, most justice-involved people have accumulated thousands of dollars in court fines and fees – sometimes for decades-old traffic tickets. They must begin paying immediately or face re-arrest. It’s an endless cycle that costs all Alabamians and makes no one safer. 

Representative Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) will sponsor legislation that will grant justice-involved people a six-month “grace period” before they have to begin paying back fines and fees after being released from prison. It just makes sense.

Join Appleseed’s Action Network to keep updated on our priority issues and more this session. Thank you for standing with us to build a better Alabama! 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Motis Wright, who was originally sentenced to die in prison under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act for a 1994 robbery conviction, was released on time served after being represented by Alabama Appleseed.

Mr. Wright walked free in May, greeted by his son, Chris Burton, whom he had not seen in 15 years. They climbed into Mr. Burton’s gleaming black pickup truck and traveled through the night to Columbus, Ohio, where Mr. Wright reunited with his extended family. He has begun a re-entry program run by the Columbus Urban League and, at age 58, is enrolled in robotics classes.

Greeted by his son, Motis Wright leaves Staton prison after 27 years of incarceration.

Mr. Wright’s case is yet another example of an older person in Alabama sentenced more harshly for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences today. Because a series of sentencing reforms passed by the Legislature are not retroactive, Alabama punishes our elders with extreme sentences; the state’s unconstitutional prisons are crowded with men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Many, like Motis Wright, live in honor dorms and have long aged out of criminality.

During his 27 years of incarceration, Mr. Wright developed an exceptional record of service and leadership. He aided in the establishment of the first honor dorm offered through the Alabama Department of Corrections and was instrumental in bringing the nationally recognized Long Distance Dads prison program to the state of Alabama.  Hundreds of incarcerated people have access to productive and rehabilitative programming because of Mr. Wright’s leadership.  Teachers, chaplains, and correctional officers all recommended Mr. Wright for release.

Mr. Wright’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole was originally reduced to life with parole in March of 2019. In his order, Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Ray Martin concluded that Mr. Wright “has taken advantage of his time as best he can, has accepted the consequences of his actions, and returned to the Court as a humble, changed man.”

With a life sentence, Mr. Wright became eligible for parole last year. Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne alerted Appleseed about the case.

Appleseed lawyers submitted a comprehensive parole packet including character references from ADOC staff, documentation of Mr. Wright’s participation in numerous classes and programs, a re-entry plan at a certified re-entry facility, support from 17 family members, and the 2019 court order declaring that Mr. Wright deserved another chance.  There was no victim opposition to his release.

Motis Wright emerged from Staton Correctional Facility and was greeted by his sister, niece, and son, who are just a few members of his large extended family.

Nevertheless, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole denied parole and set off his next consideration date five years, the longest possible set off. It appeared that Mr. Wright’s well-earned opportunity for a new life with his family would have to wait, at least until he was 63.

Beginning in fiscal year 2019, the Parole Board reduced the number of parole hearings to a 30-year low. That same year, then-Director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Charlie Graddick indicated that individuals with violent convictions would not be granted parole because of the nature of their convictions, despite parole eligibility for such offenses per Alabama law. “Just because they’re eligible doesn’t mean they’re going to get out,” the Director stated, adding “[W]e don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. [We] just don’t.”

Fortunately, the Parole Board did not have the last word.

Alabama Appleseed lawyers filed a post-conviction petition on behalf of Mr. Wright, arguing that for the Court’s 2019 order “to have meaningful impact and for Mr. Wright to be able to secure employment and support himself before old age becomes an impediment, resentencing to time-served is appropriate.”

Judge Martin agreed, noting in his order: “The Court is well aware of the accomplishments of the Petitioner during his years of incarceration. The Court is also aware that his sentence would have been much different under the current Sentencing Guidelines.”

Motis Wright and Appleseed Staff Attorney Alex LaGanke stop for ice cream at Peach Park following his release from Staton.

Mr. Wright now lives with his 82-year-old mother and one of his sisters in Columbus, Ohio. He is eager to obtain employment, to use his agile mind and positive energy to contribute to society, and has been slowed only by the obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face in obtaining identification. “The biggest thing I noticed that I had to get used to was not having somebody watching me, or having to ask permission to ask or move. It was hard to get used to that,” he told us. “I had to get used to that feeling of being at home.”

This 58-year-old father and grandfather can now spend unlimited time with his sons and grandchildren.

He helped start the prison system’s “Long Distance Dad” program. He stayed connected with his sons during 27 grueling years in Alabama’s prison system. And now he’s creating a bond with his granddaughters. The first time they met, he recalled, they wanted to tell him all of their talents and what they like to do. One of his granddaughters even played the piano for him.