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.

Late last year, Larry Garrett was released from Holman Correctional Facility after 38 years of incarceration. It would take more than four months, dozens of phone calls, multiple records requests, and loads of patience to secure the most basic document he needed to move on with his life – his birth certificate. Here is the account of how Appleseed’s Reentry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson made it happen.

By Kathleen Henderson, Appleseed Reentry Case Manager

Larry Garrett proudly holds his new driver’s license

The day after his release, I pick Larry Garrett up from Shepherd’s Fold, a reentry ministry, and take him on the first of many journeys. We gather documents to obtain the felon ID, which he must obtain within 24 hours of release. If he does not carry this card with him at all times for the rest of his life, he is in danger of reincarceration. Alabama is the only state in the nation with this law. We go downtown into the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office and wait. The office is imposing to many who have suffered so much at the hands of the justice system. Larry is feeling uncomfortable, but he is ready with his temporary prison ID and his release papers. This ID is a stark reminder that he committed three felonies and even though he paid with much of his lifetime, he remains marked with a Scarlet Letter and his convictions remain a factor in his daily life. He gets the ID as soon as the officer does the research and takes his photo. Tomorrow, he will apply for a birth certificate. Larry breathes a sigh of relief as this seems much more of a mundane process.

Just one day ago, Larry walked out of Holman prison, after being resentenced from Life Without Parole to time-served. He spent 38 years in prison following convictions for burglary and theft in which no one was physically injured. Larry grew up the oldest boy in an impoverished family in Talladega County; he felt pressure to help feed his siblings, which led to his convictions. Despite his strong family ties, a quirk on his birth certificate almost meant Larry Garrett would never be able to prove who he is.

The application for a birth certificate is simple if you know parental information and where and when you were born. His temporary prison ID serves as a picture ID. We drive to the local health department and Larry applies and waits about 30 minutes for the kind women behind the counter to produce a birth certificate. But he will have to file additional paperwork in Montgomery. His birth certificate was found, and all the information was correct, except his name was not on it. When we ask what name is on it they cannot tell us. She says “it probably just says baby boy.” She shreds the application and gives us the new packet with mailing instructions. 

The new packet has different identification requirements. However, at release, Larry was only given a temporary ID, release papers and a few years worth of prison medical records. Thankfully, after several weeks, Larry’s brother finds school records from 7th, 8th and 9th grade and his mothers’ birth certificate. So we send everything we have, every form of ID, every correspondence and after three weeks we are told we will need to provide additional information because it is his name that is missing, and that requires a stricter set of proof. I learn we must provide two of the following:

  • Marriage certificate
  • State ID 
  • Birth certificate of a child in which your name is listed as father 
  • Voter ID card from 5 years ago or better
  • Immunization records from 10 years old or better
  • DD 214 (the capstone documentation of completed military service)
  • Life Insurance policy.

That sounds simple, right? Except Larry has been incarcerated so long that the family keeper of the documents (his mother) has passed away. Also, he has never been married, or had children. He doesn’t possess any state ID except his felony ID and inmate ID. He couldn’t register to vote in prison (many people with felonies cannot restore their right to vote) and no one holds life insurance on him; they always felt he would die behind bars. 

This leaves the DD214 and immunization records from 10 years ago. Luckily, Larry is a United States veteran and the Alabama Department of Corrections should have immunization records. Most entities only hold immunization records for five years, and when we explain this to the helpful woman in Montgomery, she says records from five years ago will do. We comb through the records he has been released with and there are only two years worth of medical records. So we file paperwork with the ADOC to obtain the records. After several months – there is still no response.  In the meantime we apply for a DD214 and wait. The Veteran’s Services representative takes his prison ID as proof of who he is. After all, it is a state entity. 

At this point, Larry begins to feel a bit down. After being locked behind bars for so long and made to feel like a nobody, he still doesn’t exist in our system – at least in the ways required to obtain the most basic form of identification, proof that you were born. He is a veteran and a citizen and yet, this has not been validated. Making mistakes should not negate the fact that Larry is a human being, however, this is how he feels. Furthermore, Larry is energetic, eager to start a job and become self-sufficient, but this bureaucratic hurdle stands in the way of his future.

Believing there must be something that we can do without a birth certificate, we go to the Social Security office and are told that the list of documents has no exceptions. So I begin calling around trying to see if there is anything that can be done. After days of being told no, we visit several offices and are found lacking every time. 

Eventually, we speak to someone in the Social Security office who believes she has found the mistake. She sees someone named Larry (his step brother’s name) who was born one year earlier, to the same parents. She believes that is the mistake and we can obtain that birth certificate. We go straight to the Health Department and we receive that birth certificate. However, it says deceased on the front. It appears that this is a half brother of Larry’s that has passed away. We return the birth certificate and begin to wait again.

Reentry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson celebrates with Larry Garrett

We wait and wait, and wait. Weeks pass. We are told to contact the Health Department in the county where Larry was born, perhaps they have some immunization records, so we do and are told they do not have anything for us.

Back to the immunization records quest: After several months, we hear from ADOC that we sent the wrong paperwork, despite using the precise form the agency provided. However, the person in charge of medical records requests provides her direct information and requests that we fax it to expedite our request. We originally applied for the birth certificate on December 20, 2022. More than 90 days later, we received his DD 214 military record. We just need one more document from the list of seven to reach the Holy Grail.

For about the fifth time, I call the Alabama Department of Corrections only to hear that an invoice should have been sent by their contracted medical company more than two weeks ago. This particular ADOC staff member shows some sympathy for this story and incredulity that this has happened. She immediately requests a search by the records clerk.  Meanwhile, I make several phone calls to the ADOC medical contractor only to be told that there was no invoice sent and that there is no particular timeline that it would be done. After a week, I call the ADOC back and find that the medical company no longer has a contract with ADOC and we cannot access their database. The frustration builds in both Larry and me. 

After more investigation, I find that the elementary school that Larry attended was closed, but the records might have been transferred to another school. So I give that a shot. The administrative assistant says that she has no idea, but connects me to someone who might. There is no answer and no subsequent returned call. I call several more times and reach a voicemail each time. I try researching libraries and health departments to see if maybe they have something and the health departments do not have his records.

We keep researching for another week or more and thinking and calling people and we decide to go try to get a Social Security card with his DD214. It works! Oh mercy, it works! But a Social Security card is not on the list of required documents. After I explained our situation to the employee in the Montgomery birth certificate office, she asked, “Do you have a social security card? I hesitantly said, “We do, we actually do now.” So she said, “Well send me that and the DD214 and I will amend the birth certificate.” You know Larry and I both danced a dance of delight. 

And this is how the saga of the birth certificate ends, she did what she promised and within two weeks we received a birth certificate. However, this is only the beginning of great things for Larry Garrett as opportunities abound! He is enrolled in truck driving school and plans to work until he turns 70. After that, he plans to sit in a rocker on the front porch and spend time with the family he so desperately tried to help before he was incarcerated. 

By Leah Nelson, Research Director from the Appleseed report Afterward

On a rainy Thursday in early March, Alabama Appleseed sat down in the offices of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!) with 11 women who were victims of violent crime. Over tacos, we asked them to take our survey and invited them to talk with us about their experiences with violence and its aftermath. 

All the women spoke Spanish more fluently than they spoke English, so we provided a Spanish-language version of the survey (translated by ¡HICA!) and facilitated the conversation in Spanish. A bilingual interpreter took contemporaneous notes translating participants’ comments into English, and the author of this report debriefed afterwards with the Spanish-speaking facilitator to ensure that as little was lost in translation as possible.

To fill in knowledge gaps and develop an understanding of trends, Appleseed also spoke with several members of ¡HICA!’s Strong Families Program, who provide support to Hispanic Alabama residents who have experienced violent victimization. 

The Spanish-language version of our survey was almost identical in content to the English-language version, but after consulting with the experts at ¡HICA!, we determined it did not make sense to merge the results of the two surveys or rely on the Spanish-language survey to meaningfully document what participants have lived through. Although the words were translated accurately, the Spanish speakers who took our survey have significant experiences that the survey was not designed to capture. For instance, for undocumented immigrants, any contact with the criminal legal system can trigger deportation, but the section of our survey designed to document the experiences of people who are justice-involved does not get at that reality. Nor was our survey designed to account for the fact that many of ¡HICA!’s clients undertook dangerous journeys to flee violence and broken justice systems in the countries where they spent their youths. They live with trauma related to those experiences.

¡HICA!’s Strong Families clients often have that trauma compounded in the United States – first through violent victimization, then by the systems putatively in place to respond to it. Victim’s advocates at ¡HICA! said their constituents are vulnerable to predation and violence because of language barriers, immigration status, and bigotry. Many are afraid to call the authorities out of fear that contact with the law could trigger deportation proceedings, or because they or people they know have been treated callously in the past by law enforcement officials who make no secret of the fact that they consider Hispanic immigrants undeserving of equal protection.

¡HICA! stressed that law enforcement practices vary around the state and observed that some jurisdictions are doing better than others to meet the needs of the immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities they serve. Prosecutors in the Birmingham and Bessemer divisions of Jefferson County, and police and Department of Human Resources staff in Shelby County, have done substantial work to become more inclusive and culturally competent, ¡HICA! said.

But challenges remain, especially in rural areas. Many law enforcement agencies have no protocol for securing interpreters. Officers frequently use young children as interpreters. In one instance, the English-speaking husband of a Spanish-speaking woman who had been attacked and raped was made to describe her injuries to police in detail, which worsened the trauma and horror of the rape.

Some officers refuse to take reports because of language barriers. In an incident that disappointed ¡HICA!, a mother of six called police after her partner strangled her twice in a single day. Two deputies showed up, but they refused to take a police report because the woman, for whom English is a second language, used the word “argument” to describe the incident instead of the word “fight.” The woman fled her home with her children and still has not returned because she fears for their lives. 

¡HICA! made sure the woman’s injuries were documented, and eventually police opened a case. But their refusal to take a report on the spot because of language issues undermined their credibility with both the victim and community members who heard about what happened.  “In our community, when someone has a bad experience, everyone will know about it,” said Angelica Melendez, who leads ¡HICA!’s victim advocacy work.

Contact with the system can even backfire, Melendez said. ¡HICA! once told a woman whose intimate partner violated a Protection from Abuse order (PFA) to go to the police station to file a report. While she was there, officers asked her for identification. She didn’t have any. When she drove out of the police station, an officer followed her. “Pulled her over. Took her car. Left her in the middle of the road with her child,” said Melendez.

¡HICA! paid to get the car out of impoundment, but the whole incident undermined their work with that specific victim – and beyond. “How in the world, if somebody goes to file a police report because a PFA was violated and she was in danger, how are you more worried about the fact that the person didn’t show you an ID than the safety of the person?” Melendez said. “When things like that happen, people don’t even trust us.”

Below, we share stories from victims who spoke up during our community conversation. This documentation would not have been possible without the work of Facilitator Catherine Alexander-Wright, Interpreter/Notetaker Giovanna Hernandez-Martinez, and ¡HICA!  Strong Families advocates including Angelica Melendez, Adriana Alderete, and Ana Ockert.

“They are hunting us.”

In 2022, a spate of robberies targeting families and workers at construction sites rocked Jefferson County’s Hispanic community. More than 40 Hispanic residents of Jefferson County were robbed in October alone, including six people in five separate incidents on a single day. 

¡HICA! explained that many of the people they serve do not have bank accounts and keep their money in cash because of their immigration status and lack of ID. A woman who joined our community conversation expanded on that: “We feel more vulnerable as Hispanics, because they know that we’re scared to call the police. They are hunting us because they know that a lot of Hispanics working in construction, they cash their checks at the gas station, and we carry a lot of cash. We are easy for them to target.” 

The Birmingham Police Department includes some Spanish-speaking officers who encouraged victims to report these incidents, and police have charged several suspects. But a woman who called police after her husband and father-in-law were held at gunpoint and lost their IDs, wallets, phones, cash, and equipment on one of these incidents told our community conversation that the officers who arrived on the scene were shockingly insensitive to the trauma her family had just experience. 

They “just kind of laughed and said ‘Oh, we got four more [victims],’” she said. “Like it was funny.”

“Only because I cannot speak English, I cannot explain things.”

One of the women in the conversation recounted a chilling experience in Chilton County, a largely rural central Alabama county where 8.1% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino – a rate higher than the overall Alabama rate of 4.8%. 

The woman, C, lives in Chilton County with her partner and her children. C’s partner is physically abusive, and one day in early 2023 C’s daughter called 911 because the partner was strangling C. 

C’s partner was still restraining C when police showed up, but he also had marks on him from where C had fought back to save her own life.

The partner speaks English; C does not. He leveraged the language barrier to his advantage, making a police report against C before she had a chance to get an interpreter who could help her. Even though a recording from the 911 call makes it clear that C’s partner was strangling her, the fact that he was able to make a police report first has put her in a disadvantaged and dangerous position. Chilton County law enforcement put C in jail and filed charges against her. She bonded out, but her status as a defendant became an obstacle to securing safety.

Police refused ¡HICA!’s efforts to help C file a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order, saying that because she was the defendant in the case and had not filed a police report (which was impossible due to the lack of an interpreter), she was ineligible for their help. After she was arrested, the children’s father took custody of them. She has not been able to get them back. She is afraid to return home, and police told her they would not help. 

C wept as she shared her frustration, fear, and grief. “To the sheriff, I am the aggressor. Only because I cannot speak English, I cannot explain things,” she said. “To this day, I cannot get my kids back, because I am labeled the ‘aggressor.’”

Aftermath of a murder

One of the women who joined our group had recently lost her son to homicide. Although her home address was on her son’s driver’s license (which police had in their custody), police didn’t come to notify her that he was dead. Instead, she learned about his murder from social media and confirmed it with a funeral home.

Her son was a U.S. citizen and left behind a child. The child’s grandmother is his next of kin, but because she is undocumented, she is not eligible for victim’s compensation or other funding she could use to help her grandchild. But because the woman’s son was not married to the child’s mother, there is no legal connection between them, so the mother of the child is not entitled to compensation either.

The murdered man’s grieving mother is working on getting documents that will allow her to become a citizen. All she wants, she said, is to get compensation so she can provide for the grandchild whose dead father no longer can. 

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.”