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. 

With over five years of experience in racial justice and people-centered community development work, I am thrilled to join the Alabama Appleseed family as Director of Advocacy. My work integrates project management, direct service, public education, and administrative management, in order to build people power, providing organizational support for communities to mobilize around progressive agendas that tackle America’s legacy of racial and economic injustice head-on. Like Alabama Appleseed, I work from a sense of urgency around the need to reimagine solutions for how we sustain a cross-cultural system of connection among Alabamians, forging an honest Southern reckoning. 

It’s been said that the heart of America can be found in Alabama. Everywhere we look, the roots of history run South. And we the protectors of land built from death, filled with red dirt in our veins, nurture life in the cradle of Alabama. 

I am a son and (oldest) brother. My parents grew up in the South beneath the shadow of Jim Crow segregation. They then joined the Air Force, and for over two decades served this country. Raised in Orrville, Alabama, my mom grounded our family in the power of language and spiritual discernment. My dad, a native of Biloxi Mississippi, is the first man I ever loved. Principled and deeply soulful, he filled our home with the sound of music. Together, my parents creatively built our home with shapeless walls that could not easily be destroyed.

A military brat, I was a child of discipline and order, schooled by the unyielding regimen of travel, parental deployment, and family separation. On the one hand, the military offered a semblance of belonging, an embrace of uniformity. In contrast, it also taught me how the politics of race could shade interactions, dictate opportunities, and weave silent narratives of exclusion. Each deployment, each move, brought a new chapter in my exploration of the human soul, as I witnessed the interplay of power, privilege, and prejudice.  As my parents answered the call to serve, I answered the call to understand, to question, and to illuminate. After they retired in 2006, we settled in Pelham, Alabama. 

Between 2006 to 2012, I grew up in the Birmingham area before attending college at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There had only been two minorities of color elected as SGA President in the history of the institution; Mr. Cleophus Thomas Jr. was elected in 1976, and on March 10th, 2015 I became the second. 

By 2016, following my time at UA, I felt disillusioned. A part of me rejected the thought of staying in Alabama but inwardly believed that the answers could be found at home. I needed to be still. So, I moved back to the Birmingham area and started my role as a YWCA Central Alabama Social Justice AmeriCorps Member. Through community engagement and education, I coordinated social justice programs for middle and high school students, investigating the role of heritage, culture, and racial identity in adolescent development. It was a path toward self-introspection that led me to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery. 

From 2017 and 2022, during my time at EJI, I managed several dozen community coalitions across the country – including Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, Nebraska, Maryland, and Louisiana – in their work to publicly memorialize the history of racial terror lynching in America. At EJI, I conducted research and writing for institutional development, projects, and program initiatives, such as EJI’s Segregation in America Report, and its national Soil Collection Exhibit, and worked closely with EJI’s Deputy Director of Museum and Memorial Operations and Senior staff to launch EJI’s inaugural narrative-historical sites, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018 (as well as the museum expansion in 2021). 

Drawing from my experience at EJI, and as Manager for The Toforest Johnson Banner Tour (2022-2023), I seek to empower community efforts at Alabama Appleseed to reimagine local systems and structures that equitably serve (and center) communities living on the margins. 

For over two decades, Toforest Johnson, a 50-year-old Black man, has suffered on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. In collaboration with Greater Birmingham Ministries, The Toforest Johnson Banner Tour Project banner tour is a state-wide advocacy campaign with faith-based institutions seeking to support his call for a new trial and bring him home to his family. 

Fostering a supportive environment from which our team is empowered, I will utilize my proven leadership, communication, collaboration, and advocacy skills to amplify Alabama Appleseed’s vision through commitment and love. By investing in the creative and organizational power within our partner network, we will contribute to shepherding Alabamians to assume the principles of true justice, and repair. Something terribly beautiful.

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 Leah Nelson, Research Director

Governor Kay Ivey signs SB154 into law with (from l to r) Frederick Spight, Elaine Burdeshaw, Leah Nelson, Teon Smith, Callie Greer, Faye Mitchell, and Rep. Tim Wadsworth. Photo by Billy Pope.

When Teon Smith and I got to talking at a June 2018 event for people who needed legal assistance, I think it’s fair to say that neither of us expected we were making an acquaintance that would change Alabama law for the better. Yet almost exactly five years later, here we are, watching Gov. Kay Ivey sign a bill we helped advocate for that will do just that. 

I spent a lot of 2018 camped out at events like the one where I met Teon, asking people to take surveys for some research on how court debt haunts people for years, impeding their ability to work, earn, parent, and live freely. 

Teon made an impression right away: striking, thoughtful, with four gorgeous children in tow. After she took the survey, she shared about how excited she had been to earn her associate degree recently and how devastated she was when she learned that her driver’s license was suspended due to unpaid tickets. Without her license, she struggled to find a steady job and was working irregular hours at a low-paying job at a mall store. She was scared every time she drove, and her pay was so low that “we run out of food, for real,” she said.

Teon and I kept in touch. In November 2018, she told me she had a court date where she hoped the judge would agree to accept an installment on her payment plan and give her a clearance letter allowing her license to be reinstated. It was a pay docket day, and the courtroom was packed as church on Easter – except for the judge’s bench up front, which was empty when I arrived. I asked a man in the back row if I was in the right courtroom. “Ain’t no judge in this m*****f***ing courtroom,” came the answer.

The judge never showed up. Instead, two court staffers sat in his place making decisions that would affect the lives of hundreds of litigants. Teon offered evidence of her dire financial circumstances, but they rejected it, telling her that she had to pay her roughly $1,400 balance in full or she could not have her license back. They told her she had to pay at least some money that day or she would be jailed. She paid what she could and went back to the life that was waiting for her.

I met Faye Mitchell around the same time. She was recently out of prison and thrilled to have a job as a housekeeper at a Montgomery church. It was summer, and she was walking to work, she told me, because her license had been suspended due to a court hearing she had missed while she was incarcerated. The clerk in Brookside, Alabama, which had issued the suspension, wouldn’t tell her what she needed to do to get it back. The clerk said Faye would have to come to the courthouse to find out – and that on arrival, she would be arrested and held until a judge found time to see her. 

“I wanted to be able to go ahead and just – what is it that I need to pay, what is it that I need to do?” Faye told me that summer. “What I’m facing now is not really being able to go handle it myself for fear of being locked back up.”

“I just got this new job. I cannot afford to not be at work,” she said.

Through Appleseed, Teon and Faye found lawyers who helped get their licenses back, but it was clear to our team that this problem was not best tackled one person at a time. As things stood, a single missed payment or court date could result in a suspended license, triggering an avalanche of consequences like job loss and food insecurity. It was going to take a change in law to meaningfully reduce the harm caused by debt-based drivers license suspensions.

Over the next several years, our team worked with lawmakers and experts to devise a bill that would balance compassion with accountability, making space for people like Teon and Faye to experience financial or other setbacks without immediately losing their licenses while maintaining consequences for people who flout the law by ignoring their tickets entirely. The bill that passed in 2023 allows people to miss up to two payments on a payment plan (like Teon did) or one compliance hearing (like Faye did) before their license can be suspended. It also requires judges to clear people for license reinstatement when they show up in traffic court.

Our campaign drew on support and expertise from economists, social workers, educators, faith leaders, and law enforcement officials who believed change in law would be an investment in safety and prosperity. In May, the bill passed unanimously in Alabama’s Senate and received overwhelming support in the House.

Its passage doesn’t solve every problem Teon and Faye might face. Life is complicated, especially for people who lack savings and juggle work and childcare obligations. But it does remove a major obstacle that held both women back for far too long. And it reinforces the idea that thoughtful, evidence-based advocacy can achieve results everyone can be proud of.

And today, in a state where policymaking too often benefits the wealthy and reinforces the rights of the already-comfortable, Teon and Faye stood behind our governor as she signed a piece of legislation aimed specifically at making their lives freer. 

That, I believe, is a win for us all. 

By Frederick Spight, Policy Director

The dust has finally settled and the 2023 Legislative session has ended. We wanted to provide a recap of our legislative priorities, efforts, and initiatives. This session was different, beginning with a special session to disburse the remaining ARPA funds. There were many twists and turns, but overall we have considered this to be a successful session. We thank all of our supporters and especially legislators who decided to put aside partisan politics and fight for the people of Alabama.

Though much of our legislation changed this session, we can confidently say that Appleseed stuck true to our word by introducing and passing legislation that focused on good, efficient government policy as well as providing support and relief to many Alabamians.

Ending Drivers License Suspensions for Low Wealth Alabamians

This was a huge lift and a massive win for lower income Alabamians. We were able to finally get passed and drivers license relief has officially been signed into law. This was the result of long conversations, compromise, and an incredible bipartisan effort. We couldn’t have done it without our excellent bill sponsors: Sen. Will Barfoot, Sen. Merika Coleman, and Rep. Tim Wadsworth. Despite the changes made, we still believe this will bring much needed relief to thousands of Alabamians. The law now allows driver’s to miss one post-adjudication compliance hearing before their driver’s license can be suspended as well as up to 3 payments while on a payment plan. Furthermore, it allows individuals who have had their driver’s license suspended for failure to appear to get their license reinstated even if they can’t immediately pay off their ticket. If you’d like to check out how the bill turned out in the end, you can find it here.

End Fines, Fees and Court Costs for Children

Prior to the beginning of the session, this was a bill that seemed to have quite a bit of support. Admittedly, it even surprised us, but maybe that’s just a testament to how much our lawmakers understood the need to end the practice of saddling youth with court debt that has been shown to not only be contrary to the stated purpose of our juvenile justice system (to rehabilitate the child), but is actually counterproductive, in that it can lead more youth into the adult criminal system. Unfortunately, timing was not our friend here. We tried to push it as much as possible towards the end of session, but we fell out of the “sweet spot” where a bill could be introduced in the later half, but still easily move through the legislature. Even though the bill didn’t gain traction this session, we still have to shout out our great sponsors Sen. Kirk Hatcher and Rep. Jeremy Gray for being patient and ready to carry this legislation. We believe this is only the beginning, and we look forward to bringing it home in the near future.

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

We knew going into the session that out of all our priorities, our Second Chance Bill was going to be the most difficult. So difficult in fact that we saw it as a win if we could get it out of the House Judiciary Committee. Through a shocking turn of events, not only did it make it out of the House Judiciary, we were one Senate vote away from getting it passed! Again, this was a huge bipartisan effort with many unlikely allies working together to make this a passable, but still effective bill. Unfortunately, we became an unintended victim of party politics and the bill was taken off the calendar on the last day of session. Even though it did not pass, we were extremely proud of the progress it made and the tenacious advocacy of our bill sponsor Rep. Chris England. Appleseed and our allies will return with a Second Chance bill in 2024, especially now that we’ve seen such strong bipartisan support for reviewing sentences of life without parole for individuals whose offenses caused no physical injury.

Re-entry Housing Pilot Program

Depending on who you ask, or maybe the day or even the hour you asked, this was a pretty easy task to accomplish. We were able to successfully get the requested line item in the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles’ budget at the beginning of the session. Unfortunately, the Governor’s budget was less generous to the BPP. Among the millions of dollars of requested monies, the $500,000 pilot program was also nixed. We learned a valuable lesson– once something is taken out of the budget, it can be very hard to get it back in. This was essentially the story here. The silver lining is that many lawmakers have been educated on the issue and the need for reentry services. Once again, when framed as crime prevention, and breaking the cycle of recidivism which also saves the state money, we found many willing to support the program. Sometimes, dispelling rumors and educating our legislature is consolation enough.

Appleseed Bill Watch

One new initiative our Policy Team worked on this year is the Appleseed Bill Watch. It was an effort to educate the broader public about the legislative process, keep track of some interesting legislation (for all kinds of reasons) and let’s be honest, to professionally get some jokes off and lighten the sometimes heavy air that is State House Politics. Out of the nine Bills that officially made it on our bill watch this year, four were passed and signed into law! One bill, HB4 the microchipping bill, was originally a quirky addition that seemed to be a fun thing to keep track of. By the end of the session, it was pretty clear that this was one of the more forward thinking pieces of legislation to come out of the State. Particularly as governments rush to deal with rapidly advancing AI technology and unregulated implementation of a variety of technologies into everyday life. Maybe next year we should have a little bet on how many of the bills and which ones will make it over the finish line. Just kidding, we don’t need anymore nastygrams, particularly not about gambling. Check out the results and continue to stay tuned!

We’re so proud of what we were able to accomplish this session, and we couldn’t have done it without people like you– everyday Alabamians who care and are willing to work to make our state the best it can be. Contrary to naysayers, our legislature and our state is at its best when everyone comes to the table to Fight for a Better Alabama. Until next time, keep fighting, Alabama.

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.

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

By Scott Fuqua, Appleseed Staff Attorney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce and John Coleman reunite

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

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

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

Bruce reunites with his siblings after his release.

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

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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