About Alabama Appleseed: Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed conducts integrated culture and policy change campaigns to confront laws and policies that harm the poor and to remedy the root causes of poverty and injustice. Its campaigns use policy analysis, research and documentation, legislative action, public education, community organizing, pro bono engagement, coalition building, and litigation. Appleseed also represents older, incarcerated people in challenging extreme prison sentences and provides reentry services to clients released after decades of incarceration. Alabama Appleseed is a vibrant, growing organization that prides itself on creating strategic, evidence-based solutions to some of the most pressing problems in Alabama, and allowing the ingenuity of our staff to lead the way. Our work sits at the intersection of poverty and the justice system.

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 17 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary: The social worker provides services to Appleseed clients re-entering society after incarceration. The social worker will also be part of a collaborative research project that will explore the overlapping health and mental health-related needs of communities that have been impacted both by violence and over-incarceration, and the resulting lack of health services because of the state’s overinvestment in carceral systems and law enforcement infrastructure. This position is full time, 40 hours per week, with flexibility for some remote work, some requirements for inoffice work, and occasional work outside normal business hours. The social worker reports directly to the Executive Director and works closely with Appleseed’s Staff Attorney, Re-entry Coordinator and Research Director. The position is based in Appleseed’s Birmingham office. The position involves moderate in-town travel and limited out-of-town travel. As part of a small nonprofit, the social worker will occasionally be called upon to assist with events and presentations that are critical to Appleseed’s work.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Assist in developing re-entry plans for formerly incarcerated clients; connect clients to public benefits and services, such as food assistance, health care, Social Security.
  • Conduct mental health assessments of Appleseed clients, determine level of mental health services and/or counseling to best assist clients transitioning from incarceration to healthy lives in the community.
  • Provide individual counseling of Appleseed clients as soon as feasible following clients’ release from incarceration. Where indicated, provide referrals to more extensive services such as substance use disorder treatment. Client caseload is estimated to be no more than 10 at any given time.
  • Work closely with Appleseed Re-entry Coordinator to exchange information and share expertise on the challenges of returning to the community following decades in Alabama prisons.
  • Identify common themes, traits, and challenges, particularly as pertaining to trauma and mental health, experienced by long-term incarcerated clients.
  • Provide occasional transportation to clients to medical appointments, job training, grocery shopping, etc., until they are able to secure a drivers license.
  • Assist in implementation of Appleseed-led research project into overlap health-related needs of communities impacted by both violence and over-incarceration.
  • Work with multi-disciplinary team to ensure that the survey addresses confidentiality and informed consent, and intentionally captures the responses of individuals who have been directly affected by the issues and/or whose responses may have been historically underrepresented.
  • Meet regularly with Project Team, including Community Organizer, Project Manager, and Research Director to implement goals of the research project. May include assisting with focus groups and interviews.
  • Assist the Project Team and Appleseed in developing body of research around unique trauma and harm experienced by people incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons as a result of prison conditions.

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Five or more years of experience in social work, preferably in non-profit work;
  • Masters of Social Work;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Excellent written communication skills;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license – this position will involve some travel and use of personal vehicle, with mileage reimbursement for travel outside the Birmingham MSA;
  • Willingness to use personal cell phone for work calls, in accordance with Appleseed’s Personnel Policies;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Experience with trauma-informed care and counseling.

Salary and Benefits: This position will provide a salary range of $45,000 – $50,000 annually, depending on experience. Additionally, Appleseed offers a competition benefits package including health insurance, generous paid time off, and 401(k) after one year of employment.

Interested applicants can email a resume and letter of interest to Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org.

A Record Number of Violent, Preventable Deaths in Alabama Prisons, but the Same Responses from the Alabama Department of Corrections

By Eddie Burkhalter


The rising death count inside Alabama’s prisons continues to claim the lives of young Alabamians and devastate families left behind. Last month alone, an estimated 15 incarcerated people died from homicide, suicide, or drug overdose, preventable deaths that federal authorities lift up as evidence of unconstitutionally dangerous conditions across state prisons. 

Sarah Burch knew her son, Chadrick Wade, was having a mental health crisis and she tried to get help for him at Fountain Correctional Facility. But no one took him seriously. On July 4, Chadrick was found unresponsive in his cell and pronounced dead. He was 30 years old and serving time for property offenses.

“They should have treated his mental illness. They should have treated his drug addiction. These things should not have been ignored,” said Burch, who lives in the small Mobile County community of Wilmer, told Appleseed. His death compounds her grief, as last year she lost another son to COVID. 

Adding to the suffering of families left behind is the lack of communication and lack of transparency at the Alabama Department of Corrections. ADOC doesn’t typically publicly release information on a death at the time of the death, and the agency’s reports do not identify the names of those who’ve died. It’s up to journalists and others to receive tips on deaths, speak with other incarcerated people and families and seek confirmation from the department.  

Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne began tracking ADOC deaths in 2018. She reported this week that the total number of deaths due to violence, suicide and drugs from 2018 to now is 151: 61 deaths after assaults, 32 suicides and 58 overdoses or other drug-related deaths. At least 40 of those occurred this year, according to Shelburne’s research.

Among all the deaths so far this year, at least 40 were likely suicides, homicides or drug-related deaths, according to Shelburne. 

The circumstances surrounding the death of Chadrick Wade show that the ADOC is unwilling, or unable to take the necessary steps to save lives. 

Sarah Burch said her son hadn’t been diagnosed with a mental health condition, but that he was showing signs of having a mental health crisis prior to his death, and had asked correctional officers for help.  

While in prison Wade also expressed a desire to kill himself, according to both his mother and another incarcerated man at Fountain, whose cell was near Wade’s cell. That other man showed videos taken by cell phone which he said shows a fire Wade had set just outside his cell in the days prior to his death.  

In another video taken by the man, two officers can be seen standing outside Wade’s cell, then walking away without providing aid to Wade. Wade’s mother said her son told her he’d been asking officers for help, but never got it.  

The other incarcerated man believes Wade may have intentionally overdosed on fentanyl, which he said Wade had been asking for prior to his death and indicating he wished to die by overdose. It’s not yet clear if Wade’s autopsy results have been completed. Attempts to reach the Escambia County coroner were unsuccessful.  

“He said that they didn’t take him seriously. He just said they didn’t do anything,” Burch said her son told her about the officers’ responses to him pleading for help. 

Wade had overdosed inside Fountain prison several times in the eight weeks he was there prior to his death, Burch said, but the family wasn’t notified by prison staff of those overdoses.  

The Alabama Department of Corrections declined to answer questions about Wade’s death, including whether he’d asked officers for help and threatened suicide.  

“ADOC can’t comment on ongoing investigations,” the department said in a response.  

Overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons, coupled with woefully inadequate staffing, is resulting in increased deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2020 lawsuit that alleges unconstitutional conditions in the state’s prisons for men.   

Less than half of Alabama’s correctional officer positions were filled in early 2021, according to the suit. And ADOC has reported a net decrease of 258 officers so far in fiscal 2022, according to the latest quarterly report.  

Fountain prison was at 149 percent capacity in June, the latest month for which ADOC has released a monthly report.  Wade is one of at least four people who have died there since April.

The federal government’s lawsuit followed DOJ reports released in April and July of 2019 that detailed systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons, and that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm.  

ADOC also hasn’t been able to control contraband, which is resulting in mounting overdose deaths, according to the complaint.  

 ADOC also fails to accurately report overdose deaths as such, sometimes referring to them as “natural causes” in reports, according to the federal government’s lawsuit. The drugs also continued entering prisons despite ADOC’s ban on visitations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

ADOC’s latest quarterly report lists the “incident type” as “Accidental/Overdose” of a June 15, 2021 death at Donaldson prison  with the final autopsy result as being “Fentanyl Toxicity” but lists the incident type of an Oct. 12, 2021, death as “Natural Death” yet the final autopsy result being “Fentanyl.”  

Two additional deaths at Staton Correctional Facility in September and November of last year list the incident types as “Natural Death” yet have autopsy reports that indicate drugs were the cause, according to ADOC’s report.  

ADOC’s inability to stem the flow of drugs, rampant violence, death and corruption come even while the department’s budget continues to grow. From 2010 to 2020, the Department of Corrections’ budget nearly doubled. For fiscal year 2022, it is $610 million, nearly a quarter of the State General Fund.   

Despite the systemic problems as described in the DOJ’s lawsuit and increased spending on Alabama’s prisons, the state is moving ahead with a plan to build two new prisons, calling the buildings necessary to address the federal government’s concerns. The new prisons won’t relieve overcrowding, however, as those plans also call for the closure of several existing prisons.  

The DOJ also makes clear in the federal government’s lawsuit that new buildings alone won’t solve Alabama’s prison crisis.  

Alabama Appleseed provides care and support to individuals formerly sentenced to life without parole under the Habitual Felony Offender Act through its Second Chance Program. Our clients are between 50-80 years old and previously served 20-40 years for crimes that involved no physical injury. Of individuals who receive our services, all are living independently, either staying with family or paying rent for safe housing. They are contributing to their families, communities, and places of worship. Even those who qualify for government-funded assistance, such as Medicaid, are utilizing far less governmental resources than they would be if still housed within the state correctional system.

A key component of supportive case management is retaining a strong relationship with community partners. Alabama Appleseed is grateful for HUB Worldwide, a nonprofit organization in Birmingham. HUB is an acronym for “Health Under-resourced Biomedical.” Laura Gilmour founded HUB Worldwide in 2019 with the twin goals of “bringing surplus supplies to healthcare institutions with shortages, thereby increasing the range of care available, and of preventing more degradation of groundwater and the ground itself due to toxin/leachate filled decay of non-organic medical supplies in landfills.”

Because of HUB Worldwide, Alabama Appleseed was able to meet two individual needs for older, justice-involved individuals providing a second chance at life on the outside. These are the victories that we celebrate. We lift them up as examples of how community-based support is vital and thriving, as are our clients.

Pictured above are Laura Gilmour, President and CEO of HUB Worldwide; Ronald McKeithen, Reentry Coordinator for Alabama Appleseed; and Catherine Alexander-Wright, Social Worker for Alabama Appleseed

My name is Ella Cobbs, and I am so incredibly excited to be interning with Alabama Appleseed this summer! I am a rising senior at Sewanee: The University of the South pursuing an English major, minors in Politics and French, and a certificate in Civic and Global Leadership. 

I have lived in Birmingham, Alabama for the majority of my life, and as I have grown into adulthood as an Alabamian, I have experienced a complicated relationship with my state. As an Alabamian, I have witnessed how deeply certain inequalities are entrenched within our State. I have come to understand the history of violence against those most vulnerable in our State. I have also felt defeated by how difficult it seems to attain progress in our State. But as an Alabamian, I have been privileged to live in a place immersed in a deep history of social justice and civil rights victories. I have the opportunity to engage in the vast web of coalitions and organizations dedicated to pursuing progress for all Alabamians. And now I am incredibly grateful to work first-hand within these coalitions as an Alabama Appleseed Intern.

Because I love Alabama I want to see the state become more equitable for all its inhabitants. For me, this starts with addressing issues within the Alabama Criminal Justice System. Through my education at Sewanee and outside engagements, I have found my passion lies in improving the criminal justice system in Alabama and in America. I hope to attend law school after my college graduation, and for me, Alabama Appleseed is the perfect introduction to the legal and advocacy work required to make substantial changes. This summer I will be taking on the role of Community Organizing Intern. In this position I have the privilege of aiding in activism surrounding the prison and criminal justice crisis in the state. Alabama Appleseed is doing the exact work I want to be doing in the future, and I am very grateful that this internship has allowed me to join a team making real, tangible change for Alabamians.

My name is Eddie Burkhalter and I’m excited to join Alabama Appleseed as a researcher. I’ve long been an admirer of the work done here, and I’m humbled to be a part of this team.

I grew up in Georgia, and lived in the Kennesaw and Marietta area for most of my time there. I moved to Alabama in 2001 and started college later in life, graduating from Jacksonville State University with a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies.

While in college I took an interest in writing, and eventually landed a job at a local weekly newspaper. I quickly fell in love with journalism, and worked my way up to the company’s daily, The Anniston Star, where I spent almost a decade covering nearly every beat, from school boards and county commissions, to homicides, the trials that ensued and the deadly tornadoes that too often tear homes and lives apart. The job connected me to my community in ways that no other job had, and it also meant that I was responsible to that community.

Over the 13 years I spent reporting, later at Alabama Political Reporter, where I covered state politics, COVID-19 and Alabama’s criminal justice system, I strove to get the best information to the public so that people could make better choices. I always aimed to be transparent and accountable to my readers, and tried daily to hold the powerful to account.

It was during my time at Alabama Political Reporter that I took an interest in Alabama’s broken prisons, and what state officials were doing, and weren’t, to address them. I spoke to families who’d lost loved ones to violence and drugs inside our prisons. I poured over records and tried to bring transparency to a system that fought it. When state officials revived a plan to build new prisons, I worked to learn more than was being told.

When COVID hit, it was clear that Alabama’s overpopulated prisons, where many people sleep in dorms an arm’s length from others, would get hit hard, and they were. I covered the death of Colony Wilson, who collapsed in a stairwell at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and died while staff delayed giving her aid. She was never tested for COVID, despite having symptoms. 

I also looked closely at Alabama’s harsh sentencing laws, including the state’s Habitual Felony offender Act, which fills the state’s overpopulated prisons and falls hardest on people of color.

In covering prisons, I found the work being done at Alabama Appleseed, which successfully freed six men who would otherwise have died in prison, sentenced under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. Appleseed’s mission of fighting economic injustice, mass incarceration and its work to hold the government accountable are near to my heart, so when the chance came for me to join Appleseed as a researcher, I jumped at it.

I look forward to working with my new colleagues as we all work to positively impact the lives of people who are too often underserved and overlooked in our state. 

I’m Justin McCleskey and I’m excited to start my internship with Alabama Appleseed over the summer! I completed my bachelors degree in political science at the University of Alabama and am in my second year as a master’s student in public administration.

As a first generation college student, I have to admit I stumbled into academia rather naively. I knew that I wanted to use my education to help others, but my interests seemed extremely broad at the time. Among my values, economic and legal reform began to reach the forefront, but I was still discovering how I could meaningfully contribute through debate, student government, and other areas of campus involvement.

In my master’s classes, I developed an affinity for public budgeting and data analysis, seeing it as a route to create solid arguments for effective reform. Along the way, I began watching a new student group, Alabama Students Against Prisons (ASAP), from afar. I was drawn in by their protests urging Regions Bank to divest funding from CoreCivic’s three new prison initiatives, but their strategies resonated deeply with me.

Using economic and legal approaches, ASAP established common-sense arguments against the creation of new prisons while recognizing a need for rehabilitation and changing laws to address overpopulation. Their success in blocking funding revealed a major route to effective change in Alabama; rational policy approaches precede political messaging.

Learning how my skills and interests intersect with Alabama’s criminal justice struggles, I saw a route to make this state a home for everyone. I’ll be using my time at Alabama Appleseed to research the correlation between Alabama’s aging prison populations and growing expenditures to find a solution. I hope to learn from the communities I work with while gaining professional insight that I can use to make Alabama a more welcoming environment for all!

Ten years ago, I interviewed for a college scholarship in front of a large panel of interviewers. I intended to enter college with the goal of becoming a criminal defense attorney. One of the interviewers asked me, “How could you ever defend someone who was guilty?”

Reader, I wish I could tell you I had a perfectly prepared answer. Something rooted in the U.S. Constitution about due process and the right to counsel. Maybe something about how our legal system depends upon equitable representation and access to justice. But at the time, I stumbled. I let out a string of “um”s and “uh”s until I blurted out an answer of which I can’t remember the details but that I’m sure contained all the legal buzzwords 18-year-old me knew at the time: defendant, justice, law. Needless to say, I did not win the scholarship.

Now, a decade later, after changing my college major no fewer than four times, jumping from careers in editing, writing, and publishing to career services to theatre, moving from my born-and-raised home in Cullman, Alabama, to St. Louis, Missouri, to Chicago, Illinois, to Louisville, Kentucky to Tuscaloosa, I finally have an answer. And that answer is, that question asks the wrong question.

One of my mentors at Alabama Law, where I am currently a 3L, put it this way: We always ask, “How could you defend someone who is guilty?” and never “How could you prosecute someone who is innocent?” That is, the language we use is important, as the words we use—or don’t use—drive how the story is told.

That emphasis on storytelling, fueled by my aforementioned forays into writing, publishing, and theatre, drives me as a law student and legal advocate. The language we use and the questions we ask when we talk about the criminal legal system allow us to detach justice-involved individuals from the whole of their humanity—their personal narratives, who they are outside of what they’ve done. As such, I believe criminal justice reform requires us to change the way we talk about criminal justice. If we ask the same old questions, we find only the same old answers. Reforming our criminal legal system means asking new questions.

I am excited to spend my summer as a legal intern with Alabama Appleseed because they understand what it means to ask new questions and tell new stories. Appleseed’s focus on justice-involved individuals as the tellers of their own stories guides every aspect of their work. I am grateful to learn from Appleseed as they write a new chapter in Alabama’s criminal justice narrative.

Meghan McLeroy is a part of the Justice John Paul Stevens Foundation Public Interest Fellowship Program which provides grants to enable law students to work in public interest summer law positions.

My Name is Frederick M. Spight Jr. and I am elated to be joining Alabama Appleseed as the new Policy Director. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to create broad reaching changes and reforms that positively affect the most vulnerable in the state of Alabama. My approach to the work is informed by a myriad of experiences as an attorney, educator, parent and life-long Southerner.

I am a native of Marietta, GA and received my undergraduate degree in history with a concentration in philosophy from Morehouse College. As a history major we were always told (particularly by those outside of the field) that you either go into teaching or law. I was keen on neither, but in a twist of irony I would go on to experience both. 

While working in a packing plant during my college years I came to the realization that law can be a tool to help the most marginalized and voiceless in our society. It was here that I decided to go into the legal profession which took me to Winston-Salem, NC. 

I graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, NC. While there I interned abroad at a Hungarian NGO, studied human and civil rights law in Austria, worked with Legal-Aid of North Carolina and the Community Law and Business Clinic while also serving as an Executive Editor of the Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy. Not to mention, I met my lovely wife while there. My constant goal was to find the best, and most effective method of advocacy that could bring broad-reaching and lifelong change to lower income people and the communities in which they live.

Eventually, my perspective changed and this led me into education where I followed the charge of Frederick Douglass who said, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” My goal in education was to reach a younger generation of students and to inspire them the way I had been inspired at Morehouse College. With the intended effect of instilling with them the knowledge to avoid many of the traps that I had seen from low-income clients at my time in Legal Services organizations. One of my fondest memories came from a student who many would describe as “troubled”. He was severely behind on virtually every metric and had significant disciplinary issues. In trying to get him to do his work I found that the key was not to let this student have any down time. I made sure to always give him more work and even would sneak in more advanced work for the challenge. One day he came to my desk and said:  “You know, Mr. Spight, all of these subjects are interconnected and build off of each other.” He then went on to explain the interplay between language arts, social studies, math and the sciences and how the skills from one directly and indirectly translate to others. I told him that he has grasped what many adults who are making educational policy have failed to understand and maybe he should be the one at the table.  I’m always grateful for this experience and I probably learned just as much from my students as they learned from me.

After teaching, I came back into the legal profession and to the state of Alabama via the John Lewis Fellowship at Legal Services Alabama. I focused on public benefits law, consumer issues and education law. I was able to successfully represent several clients in unemployment hearings before the Alabama Department of Labor wherein they received over $10,000 in back pay. Furthermore, I was able to use Mckinney-Vento, a federal act that allows homeless children to stay at their school of origin regardless of the district in which they might currently be living, to keep two cousins in a school after one of their mothers died and the other’s father was missing. They were both being raised by their older sister/aunt who was also a single mom of two young children at 21. 

Also, I was able to create the JLF Community Growth Project wherein we focused on helping small businesses, nonprofits and other community centered organizations with their basic legal needs. To support the work I supervised a community asset mapping project conducted by several law students and also did research surrounding payday lending. This was a multipart project in that it aimed to create specific information that could be used to directly target services into communities with the highest concentrations of poverty while also identifying anchor institutions in these communities for outreach and relationship building in the future. Payday lending became an ancillary project as I realized that it wasn’t enough to help foster economic growth in low-income communities without addressing sources of resource extraction, such as payday lenders, from these same communities. 

After the Fellowship I transitioned to the position of Court Debt Project Attorney where I focused on Fines and Fees work statewide. In this position, I was able to get an intimate look at oftentimes overlooked issues confronting justice-involved people. Practicing state wide allowed me to witness first hand the diversity of this great state. It also showed me how, regardless of perception or political affiliation, there are many actors who seek to reform the criminal justice system, while also battling with entrenched forces that would prefer it to stay the same. Once again, I saw this as an opportunity to address not only the economic strain on my clients, but also the strain it put on their families and communities in which they lived. I was able to get thousands of dollars of court debt remitted throughout the state. During this period I also became more aware of Appleseed’s initiatives as they focused on a lot of the issues I was focused on from a policy perspective, whereas my role brought me into courtrooms throughout the state.

As I reflected on these experiences, one of the constant forces that negatively impacts low income individuals is unfavorable legislation. For instance, as a Fines and Fees attorney the main mechanism by which I aimed to remit or reduce an individual’s court debt is based on judicial discretion. This means that regardless of an individual’s ability or likelihood of being able to pay their debt to the court, the decision to remit is largely and oftentimes based on other considerations such as an individual judge’s subscription to one theory on crime and punishment over another. One of the more painful situations I experienced was a woman who served over 10 years in prison and has been unable to find a steady job since her release. Even still, she works a variety of odd jobs to support herself. She pays what little money she can to the court, even though she frequently has a household deficit in relation to her income. To this day the court still compels her to come to court, under threat of issuing a warrant (which will most likely result in her arrest) as it tries to increase her monthly payment arrangement. 

In joining Alabama Appleseed, as the new Policy Director, it is my goal to let my experiences influence good policy initiatives that will positively impact the citizens in the state of Alabama.

My name is Mercedes Davis, and it is with so much gratitude that I announce my internship with Alabama Appleseed this summer. I am a rising 2L at Cumberland School of Law and hold a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

My interest in criminal justice reform, specifically prison reform, began in the middle of my undergrad journey when I learned about Kalief Browder. In 2010, a 16-year-old Kalief was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack containing certain valuables. At the time of his arrest, a judge set his bail to $3,000 and with his family not able to afford his $900 bond, Browder was sent off to Rikers Island. Two and a half months after entering Rikers, Browder appeared in front of a judge who consequently remanded him without bail because his arrest was a violation of his probation. Even if his family could have raised the money for his release, this judgment made bail no longer an option, and he was held at Rikers Island for three years without a trial. A backlog in the Bronx DA’s Office, combined with continuance upon continuance, amounted to Browder appearing before eight judges and nearly 1,000 days passing—more than 700 of those days in solitary confinement. Browder experienced violence at the hands of inmates and officers alike, and he attempted suicide numerous times while in prison.

On May 29, 2013, a judge freed Browder in anticipation of dismissal of the outstanding charges. Once released, he passed the GED exam and enrolled in Bronx Community College thereafter. Yet the horrors of solitary confinement and carceral violence Browder experienced at Rikers persisted, and he was admitted to a psychiatric ward three times after his release. On June 6, 2015, Browder died by suicide. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Mr. Browder’s experience in the 2015 Supreme Court decision Davis v. Ayala as an indicator of a necessary “consideration of the many issues solitary confinement presents.”  

Learning about Kalief Browder’s experience with the criminal justice system forever changed my view of the American justice system. The horrors he faced that ultimately led to his death, opened my eyes to the ugly truth about criminal justice—how the system perpetuates trauma for those intertwined in the legal system as well as the greater community rather than resolve and rehabilitate. For me, his story brought to light the deficiencies in mental health resources necessary for successful reintegration and the reality that many of our prisons operate as breeding grounds for ongoing, generational trauma. 

As I began to delve into the world of prison reform, I couldn’t help but discover the horrific state of Alabama’s prison system. The issues that often make national headlines are in my own backyard. Learning about the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into Alabama’s prisons and mental health conditions litigation provided insight into the living conditions incarcerated individuals in Alabama are subjected to. The penal system that we have in place, in simple terms, is a big bully; and the bullied are the disenfranchised, the poor, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The more I learn, the greater my interest becomes in addressing criminal justice issues and human rights violations right here in Alabama.

Since becoming interested in criminal justice reform, I have volunteered with Aid to Inmate Mothers where I saw firsthand how maintaining and strengthening family connections can produce positive societal outcomes, such as reduced recidivism and healthy child development. I was also able to observe how the other side of the legal system worked during an internship with DA Lynneice Washington. I sat in on trials, learned about resources that help Jefferson County youth entering foster care, and researched programs with the potential to combat overcrowding in our jails and prisons for misdemeanors. Those experiences combined with my education in Criminal Justice and Sociology, have allowed me to better understand the intersectionality of the harmed and the harm inflicted by our criminal justice. I am eager for the opportunity I have at Appleseed to gain further understanding. 

My goal for this summer is to learn as much as I can from Alabama Appleseed on how to fight for this state—working towards a better Alabama and protecting the Alabamians who need it most.

by Catherine Alexander-Wright, MSW, LICSW, Alabama Appleseed Social Worker

Appleseed client Joe Bennett with Judy Allen from the United Way of Central Alabama

April 15 along with its not-so-much-recognized but equally-dreaded friend April 18 can be, let’s be honest, a negative experience ranging from nuisance to financial hardship. Regardless of one’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings about taxes, I doubt that tax day is anyone’s favorite date other than – and with my express apologies to – those with birthdays and anniversaries on this date! What if, however, we looked at taxes differently? Imagine you had not been able to work in 2021, meaning you could neither earn an income nor pay taxes. Imagine viewing today as one of the days of the year to exercise one’s participation in the democratic process inextricably linked to election day. 

That’s what paying taxes means to Appleseed’s Second Chance clients. For these men, now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, the consequences of criminal convictions decades ago, included forfeiting the freedom to earn a living, contribute to the economy, and pay taxes. Taxes mean freedom, a welcome consequence of their new lives of meaning and productivity. 

Joe Bennett is one such client. In 1997, Joe was given two life-without-parole (“LWOP”) sentences for two counts of robbery stemming from a single incident at a barbecue restaurant. Joe is one of the many people in Alabama who had been condemned to die in prison for an offense without physical injury, enhanced by minor prior offenses under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA). Due to changes in that law in the 1990s and sentencing reforms in 2015, three of the four prior offenses used to enhance Joe’s sentence under the HFOA could not be used for enhancement purposes today. If sentenced today, Joe would be ineligible for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole; instead, he likely would receive a split sentence with two years prison time and seven years on probation: two years versus a lifetime. 

Upon Joe’s release on September 21, 2021, he became employed at a tree service, where he is a dedicated and trusted employee. In early 2022, Joe acknowledged that he needed to file income tax returns for 2021, the first he has been able to file in decades. I used to experience anxiety or dread for my clients during tax time. So many well-meaning friends and family members, in addition to pop-up tax shops with a variety of discernable intentions, appear this time of year. The last thing I wanted our clients to experience is a tax anomaly or worse, be taken advantage of, while they were attempting to re-establish themselves personally and professionally. Not to mention that a few of our clients experienced identity theft while incarcerated, specific issues of which needed to be addressed by a trained tax preparer.

Several decades of social work have made calling the United Way of Central Alabama, specifically Judy Allen with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, a reflex. As I explained to Judy what Joe and other Appleseed clients might face as they attempted to file their 2021 taxes, she already knew. She asked me some screening questions, explained specific tax nuances that might apply, and gave me a list to help our clients organize for their tax appointments. She made in-person appointments for those clients who needed them and made them during a time minimally impactful to their work schedules. On the day of the appointments, Judy took the time to explain why she was asking for each document and what each section of each tax form meant. Our clients felt secure in that they had done everything they needed to do to comply with federal law in a trustworthy setting that respected their dignity and privacy. With this assistance, United Way of Central Alabama has become one of many service providers across the Greater Birmingham area who have embraced our formerly incarcerated clients. We are so grateful!

Today does not have to be a nuisance; it can also be one of gratitude. Today, I am grateful for attorneys who persist, public servants who listen, and reconsideration of inequitable sentences. I am grateful for second chances. I am grateful for employers who give jobs to justice-involved individuals and to our clients who want to participate fully in a system that has not always been fully just with them. I am grateful to Judy Allen and the United Way of Central Alabama for providing services to all without judgment, and providing essential, responsible tax preparation services so that individuals don’t inadvertently end up with additional tax issues. And I am grateful for Appleseed’s clients, whose hope, determination, and tenacity inspire me every day.