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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The suspect in a prison homicide later commits suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parenting from prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even a victim knew he needed drug treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never seen this many people die in one prison”

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Rigsby (photo courtesy of Pamela Moser)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Researcher

Donaldson Correctional Facility. Photo by Gigi Douban.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

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

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

Mr. Ronnie Peoples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Eddie Burkhalter, Researcher

Richard Robertson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

Two men in two separate Alabama prisons attempted suicide on Sunday. One of the men, 34-year-old Steven Craig Seay, died at St. Clair Correctional Facility, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) confirmed for Appleseed.

The other man, a 32-year-old, survived and was taken from Donaldson Correctional Facility to a local hospital, according to sources and ADOC. Appleseed isn’t naming the man to respect his privacy as he recovers.

Mr. Seay’s death is at least the second in Alabama prisons this month and follows at least nine in-custody deaths in May. There have been at least 56 deaths in Alabama prisons this year, but that number is likely higher. Of those deaths this year, nine are suspected homicides, two are suspected suicide and at least 33 are suspected overdose deaths.

ADOC doesn’t release timely reports on prison deaths, leaving it up to journalists and others to receive tips and seek confirmation. With prisons woefully overpopulated and understaffed, despite a court order to increase the number of correctional officers, the State is failing to keep incarcerated people safe from deadly drugs and violence. The staffing woes also leave some dorms and cellblocks with minimal supervision delaying medical attention after assaults or suicide attempts.

William Lynn Smith, 48, died on June 3 in a segregation cell at Donaldson prison and was on suicide watch at the time, according to sources. Smith’s cause of death awaits a full autopsy.

Alabama prison deaths reached a record high 270 last year, more than double the 130 deaths in 2019 when the U.S. Department of Justice released a report detailing horrific and widespread violence, death, and sexual abuse inside Alabama’s prisons for men.

Suicides in Alabama prisons aren’t uncommon, and the deaths are the result of ADOC’s failure to protect the most vulnerable from harm and to comply with multiple court orders.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in the ongoing Braggs v. Dunn case concerning mental health care in Alabama prisons ordered the state to hire an additional 2,000 officers. Thompson’s 2017 ruling found that Alabama’s “horrendously inadequate” care of mentally ill inmates violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

By December 2021, the state still had not complied. “What was true four years ago is no less true today: ADOC does not have enough correctional staff to provide constitutionally adequate mental-health care to prisoners who need it,” Thompson wrote in that order.

This January, ADOC’s quarterly report published 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. 

Appleseed regularly talks to incarcerated people who have witnessed attacks and suicides in areas where officers aren’t present, and where even after such incidents it can take many minutes to draw officers’ attention to provide aid, which has cost lives.

The federal government in December 2020 sued the state and ADOC and allege 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,” according to the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge David Proctor in an order told attorneys for both sides to be ready for trial in November 2024.

Appleseed advocates for increased public safety solutions outside of incarceration because little, if any, treatment and rehabilitation occur in conditions that are so deadly and dangerous.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

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

A total of nine firearms were confiscated by the Alabama Department of Corrections last year, one of which was reported stolen from the guard tower outside a prison. A former correctional officer is charged with that theft. None of the firearms were found inside prisons, according to the department.

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

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

In addition to those firearms found by ADOC, the department last year confiscated 4,921 weapons made by incarcerated people and 432 “free world” weapons, which are manufactured weapons to include knives, during 2022, according to ADOC’s quarterly reports. There is no additional information available on the reports as to how more than 400 manufactured weapons made their way into secure facilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The overall mortality rate in state and federal prisons in Alabama between 2008 and 2018 rose by 98.6 percent. Only two states had higher mortality rates than Alabama in 2018 the most recent year for which comparison data is available, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics 2021 report.

By Eddie Burkhalter, Researcher from the Appleseed report Afterward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.