A trove of photographs depicting brutalized and murdered prisoners in Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility has thrust the treatment of our nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated people into public view. The first horror is what these people have endured in prison. The second horror is that while shocking, it is not a surprise.
As a lawyer who has represented prisoners for more than two decades, I have come to expect such violence and degradation of human beings held in appalling conditions like those seen in these photos. The only thing that’s unusual is that, for a brief moment at least, the curtain has been pulled aside and the everyday brutality of our prisons laid bare for all to see.
Transparency is like daylight — applied directly, it can be a disinfectant. And to protect the health and lives of incarcerated people across our country we need full transparency of how they are treated.
That is not the case currently. Prisons are closed institutions, literally walled off from public view. To some extent, this is unavoidable and understandable. While journalists and members of the public can freely wander into the Department of Motor Vehicles, in prisons safety and security considerations preclude similarly unfettered access. Those same considerations require some monitoring and control of communications between prisoners and the outside world.
But to a large extent, the hidden nature of U.S. prisons represents a deliberate policy choice — one that is unique among the democracies we think of as our peer nations.
Many countries have an independent national agency that monitors prison conditions and enforces minimal standards of health, safety, and humane treatment. In Great Britain, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has the power to conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons; a similar agency operates in Canada. In countries that have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture(OPCAT), prison monitoring by a national oversight body is supplemented by periodic visits by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.
By contrast, the United States has no independent national agency that monitors prison conditions. The U.S. also has not ratified OPCAT or any other treaty that would provide for outside monitoring. The bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons concluded that “[f]ew [U.S.] states have monitoring systems that operate outside state and local departments of corrections, and the few systems that do exist are generally underresourced and lacking in real power.”
Perhaps for this reason, the main vehicle for oversight of conditions in U.S. prisons has been the federal courts. Litigation can permeate prison walls and allow us into the housing units and the solitary confinement cells where prisoners live and die. It allows us to review videos and records otherwise shielded from public view. It allows us to compel prison officials to testify publicly and under oath.
But the federal courts’ oversight role has been sharply limited by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA subjects lawsuits brought by prisoners in the federal courts to a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no other litigants. Consequently, there has been a significant decline in judicial oversight of prison conditions. Between 1995 and 2000 alone, the number of states with fewer than 10 percent of their prison populations under court supervision more than doubled, from 12 to 28.
The lack of public knowledge about our prisons has real costs. Most obviously, a lack of oversight facilitates neglect and mistreatment of prisoners and prevents accountability when such misconduct occurs. But there are other consequences as well. Prisons represent the ultimate in big, coercive government — in many states, they represent one of the largest line items in the state budget. They are empowered to confine thousands of people against their will for years or decades and, in some circumstances, to use lethal force against them.
Given these high stakes and the potential for abuse, prisons should be subject to the most exacting scrutiny and public oversight. The reality, though, is just the opposite. Prisons are among the least transparent and accountable government agencies.
Many states ban in-person interviews with prisoners, and prison officials have barred specific journalists whose reporting they considered too critical. Some states have amended their freedom of information laws to limit their application to prisons, even barring prisoners from submitting requests. The federal prison system enacted a rule banning prisoners from publishing their writings under a byline; the rule was later invalidated by a federal court. Arizona went so far as to pass a law making it a crime for prisoners to post information on the internet; that statute, too, was overturned as a violation of the First Amendment.
As long as the public is kept in the dark, horrors like those at the St. Clair Correctional Facility will continue unseen. Increased transparency and oversight are just first steps in correcting the dreadful conditions in our prisons, but make no mistake — the need for them is as immediate as it is urgent.
The contraband is scary enough: Homemade knives with grips whittled to fit particular hands. Homemade machetes. And homemade armor, with books and magazines for padding.
Then there is the blood: In puddles. In toilets. Scrawled on the wall in desperate messages. Bloody scalps, bloody footprints, blood streaming down a cheek like tears.
And the dead: a man kneeling like a supplicant, hands bound behind his back with white fabric strips and black laces. Another, hanging from a twisted sheet in the dark, virtually naked, illuminated by a flashlight beam.
These were ugly scenes from inside an American prison, apparently taken as official documentation of violence and rule violations.
Prisons are the black boxes of our society. With their vast complexes and razor wire barriers, everyone knows where they are, but few know what goes on inside. Prisoner communication is sharply curtailed — it is monitored, censored and costly. Visitation rules are strict. Office inspections are often announced in advance.
So when prisoners go on hunger strikes or work strikes, or engage in deadly riots, the public rarely understands exactly why. How could they? Many people harbor a vague belief that whatever treatment prisoners get, they surely must deserve. It is a view perpetuated by a lack of detail.
But some weeks ago, The New York Times received more than 2,000 photographs that evidence suggests were taken inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama. Some show inmates as they are being treated in a cramped, cluttered examination room. Others are clinical: frontal portraits, close-ups of wounds.
It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore. It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.St. Clair is the most violent prison in Alabama, which has the country’s highest prison homicide rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
As I scrolled through them, shock rose from my gut to my sternum. Was I looking at a prison, or a 19th-century battlefield? Those pictured betrayed little emotion and certainly none of the bravado broadcast by their tattoos: South Side Hot Boy, Something Serious, $elfmade.
After considering the inmates’ privacy, audience sensibilities and our inability to provide more context for the specific incidents depicted, The Times determined that few of these photos could be published. But they could be described.
For years there have been complaints that St. Clair inmates are heavily armed — some for self-protection — and allowed to move freely about the compound. In fact, St. Clair is more deadly now than it was in 2014, when the Equal Justice Initiative brought suit against it for failing to protect prisoners. There have been four stabbing deathsthere in seven months.
Last June, the group said the prison was failing to comply with a settlement agreement.
Prison officials dispute that, saying the Alabama Department of Corrections is committed to improving safety and security. The department has requested money to raise salaries and increase the number of officers. Multiple law enforcement agencies recently teamed up to conduct a contraband search at St. Clair that recovered 167 makeshift weapons, said Bob Horton, a department spokesman.
But as of October, the prison was still severely short staffed, with more vacancies than actual officers.
A second lawsuit, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group in Montgomery, says the prisons have failed to provide adequate mental health care. (The photos show a message painted on the wall in blood, with letters about the height of a cinder block. “I ask everyone for help,” it read in part. “Mental Health won’t help.”)
The photos were given to The Times by the S.P.L.C., which said it had received them on a thumb drive.
Bob Horton, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the department could not authenticate the photos.
But Maria Morris, a staff lawyer at the S.P.L.C., said the environment shown looked like St. Clair, and some photos had identifying information that corresponded to known inmates or showed men that the S.P.L.C. recognized as its clients (S.P.L.C. removed the identifying information before giving the images to The Times).
The man who painted the blood on the wall, referred to in the lawsuit as M.P., had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and repeatedly tried to kill himself. He testified that he had been held in solitary confinement for six years, allowed to exercise one hour a day in ankle shackles.
Ms. Morris has specialized in prisoner’s rights litigation for more than a decade. She hears accounts of rape, beating or stabbing on a daily basis. I asked what it was like for her to see the photographs.
They made it impossible, she explained, to retreat into that small, self-protective corner of her mind — the place where it was possible to imagine that her clients’ stories might not be as bad as they sounded.
“Seeing what had been done to those people’s bodies — it just stripped away all of the numbing,” she said. “It was very painful to see that all of the suffering that I’ve been hearing about and trying to relate to the court — how deep it goes.”
The thumb drive included a document titled “READ ME FIRST” and claiming to be from a corrections officer. It said the photos represented only a “small portion of the injuries from inmate-on-inmate violence in the past three years.”
The writer said that the current legal agreements governing the prison stood no chance of working: “The day-to-day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair. Until major fundamental changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men it will only continue to get worse. I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated day after day and year after year.”Testimony shows that fires in solitary confinement are common, and are sometimes used to get attention in a medical emergency.
The photos show dozens of wounded men. One had been stabbed at least 10 times. Another had a hole in his lip you could stick a pencil through. A pair of handcuffed wrists displayed 15 precise slashes. There was a recurring palette of pale red and sickly, Mercurochrome yellow. One man’s back had a shiv at least an inch wide still buried in it, right between the shoulder blades.
There were three individuals pictured in a folder called “Dead men” and seven in a folder called “Murders,” all of whom could be identified through news reports, press releases and booking photographs.
But most disturbing were the images that seemed to echo the most painful aspects of African-American history.
Many convincing arguments have been made that our penal system was at least partly designed to extend control of black people and their labor, particularly in the South, where after slavery ended black men were conscripted into chain gangs for offenses like vagrancy and “selling cotton after sunset.”
Amid the St. Clair pictures were 19 taken of a black man who was completely naked but for a pair of handcuffs, photographed from the front, back, left and right. In one frame two white officers, standing guard inches away from him, avert their eyes.
Another image brought to mind the photos of the monstrously disfigured face of Emmett Till, the teenage victim of a 1955 lynching in Mississippi, which galvanized the civil rights movement when they were published by Jet magazine.
Though separated by more than half a century and by a wide gulf in circumstances, the St. Clair photos showed another mutilated, African-American face, this time belonging to Emory Cook, a 54-year-old prisoner killed in a cell three years ago. Under Alabama’s harsh version of a three-strikes law, Mr. Cook had been serving a life sentence for third-degree burglary.
As a prisoner, he was entitled to be protected from harm. He looked like he had been hit with a plank.
Correction: April 1, 2019 An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization. It is in Montgomery, Ala., not Birmingham.
Shaila Dewan is a national reporter and editor covering criminal justice issues including prosecution, policing and incarceration. @shailadewan
One prisoner had been dead for so long that when he was discovered lying face down, his face was flattened. Another was tied up and tortured for two days while no one noticed. Bloody inmates screamed for help from cells whose doors did not lock.
Those were some of the gruesome details in a 56-page report on the Alabama prison system that was issued by the Justice Department on Wednesday. The report, one of the first major civil rights investigations by the department to be released under President Trump, uncovered shocking conditions in the state’s massively overcrowded and understaffed facilities.
Prisoners in the Alabama system endured some of the highest rates of homicide and rape in the country, the Justice Department found, and officials showed a “flagrant disregard” for their right to be free from excessive and cruel punishment. The investigation began in the waning days of the Obama administration and continued for more than two years after Mr. Trump took office.
The department notified the prison system that it could sue in 49 days “if State officials have not satisfactorily addressed our concerns.”
Alabama is not alone in having troubled, violent prisons. But the state has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates and its correctional system is notoriously antiquated, dangerous and short-staffed. The major prisons are at 182 percent of their capacity, the report found, contraband is rampant and prisoners sleep in dorms they are not assigned to in order to escape violence.
“The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report said, noting that some facilities had fewer than 20 percent of their allotted positions filled. It also cited the use of solitary confinement as a protective measure for vulnerable inmates, and “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive.”
State officials said the report addressed issues that Alabama was already aware of and working to fix.
“For more than two years, the D.O.J. pursued an investigation of issues that have been the subject of ongoing litigation and the target of significant reforms by the state,” a statement from the office of Gov. Kay Ivey said. “Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with D.O.J. to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”
But the report called the state “deliberately indifferent” to the risks prisoners face, and said, “It has failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence.” Legislative efforts to reduce overcrowding through measures such as reducing sentences were not made retroactive and have had “minimal effect,” the report said.
Alabama’s prisons have for years been the subject of civil rights litigation by the Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center, nonprofit legal advocacy groups based in Montgomery. Maria Morris, the lead lawyer for the center’s lawsuit, also disputed the assertion that the problems were being fixed.
“They’re not fixing them,” Ms. Morris said. “They’re giving a lot of lip service to the need to fix them, but the lip service always comes back to we just need a billion dollars to build new prisons and, as the Department of Justice found, that’s not going to solve the problem.”
Alabama inmates continue to die in high numbers. There have been 15 suicides in the past 15 months, and the homicide rate vastly exceeds the national average for prisons.
The department is still investigating excessive force and sexual abuse by prison staff members, an investigation that former federal prosecutors say could lead to criminal indictments.
[Our reporter went inside St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala. He found it was “virtually ungoverned” and the inmates were armed.]
Investigators visited four prisons and interviewed more than 270 prisoners. To “provide a window into a broken system,” the report detailed a single week’s worth of injuries and attacks, including days that saw multiple incidents including stabbings, a sleeping man attacked with socks filled with metal locks and another man being forced to perform oral sex on two men at knife point.
The department also concluded that the system does not provide “safe and sanitary” living conditions. Open sewage ran by the pathway that government lawyers used to access one facility, which the state closed soon after the visit. One investigator grew ill from the toxic fumes of cleaning fluids while inspecting the kitchen, the report said.
The report said the state failed to track violent deaths or adequately investigate sex abuse. At least three homicide victims — including one who was stabbed and another who was beaten — were classified as having died from natural causes, the report said. The report listed nine killings in which the victims had been previously attacked or officials had received other warnings that they were in danger.
Sexual assaults occur in “dormitories, cells, recreation areas, the infirmary, bathrooms, and showers at all hours of the day and night,” the report said. Prisons must screen inmates and separate sexually abusive prisoners from those at risk of sexual abuse, particularly gay and transgender people; the report said Alabama does not do so.
Inmates are raped to pay off debts, and one mother told the Justice Department that a prisoner had texted her to say he would “chop her son into pieces and rape him if she did not send him $800,” the report said.
Last month, Governor Ivey warned of “horrendous conditions” in the prisons and an impending federal intervention in her State of the State speech.
Ms. Ivey said the department had increased the prison budget in recent years, given raises to corrections officers and requested $31 million to hire 500 more correctional officers and increase pay in the coming fiscal year.
But Mac McArthur, the executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, which includes state corrections workers, said attrition was still outpacing recruitment, in part because starting salaries were still below $30,000 a year for some officers, and in part because the job was so dangerous.
The federal investigation was opened during the Obama administration, after the lawsuits over prison abuses and published accounts of endemic brutality, violence and torture. The investigation continued under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had also served as a longtime senator from Alabama.
The report included a series of measures necessary to remedy the constitutional and other violations that regularly occur in the Alabama prison system, including additional screening for those entering the prisons, moving low-risk inmates, hiring 500 additional corrections officers and overhauling disciplinary processes around violence and sexual assault.
Similar federal civil rights investigations have resulted in consent decrees — court-approved deals that include a road map of changes that institutions such as police departments and state correction departments must adhere to in order to avoid being sued.
But in a break with past practice, Mr. Sessions placed three key restrictions on consent decrees. He said that a top political appointee must sign off on any deal. Department lawyers must show proof of violations that go beyond unconstitutional behavior. And the deals must have a sunset date, meaning they can expire before violations have been remedied. The current attorney general, William P. Barr, has not changed Mr. Sessions’s policy.
Mr. Sessions said that the consent decrees interfered with states’ rights, a position echoed by Ms. Ivey in her statement insisting on an “Alabama solution.”
But Vanita Gupta, a head of the civil rights division in the Obama administration and one of the officials who opened the investigation, said that given the pervasive problems and the history of inaction, “nothing short of a comprehensive consent decree will adequately address these constitutional violations.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it would seek a consent decree.
Ms. Ivey is hardly the first governor to reckon with the prison system and its decrepit conditions. Her immediate predecessor, Robert Bentley, pushed a plan for $800 million in bonds to build four new prisons and to close some existing facilities.
But governors have only so much influence in Alabama, and the Legislature balked, especially as a scandal left Mr. Bentley weakened. This year, Ms. Ivey proposed a similar plan for new prisons that state officials hoped would be ready by 2022.
This week Defense Attorney Eric Davis represented Cody Lee Fulgham.
Arrested on November 29, 2016 on 98 counts of Possession of Porn Material, Fulgham could not afford to hire an attorney to represent him. Houston County Distirct Court Judge Benjamin Lewis appointed Attorney Eric Davis to represent Cody Fulgham in Circuit Court.
On May 16, 2016 a Houston County Grand Jury indicted Fulgham. ( Understand – in Alabama Grand Juries are the biggest joke and a ham sandwich could get indicted.)
This week Cody Fulgham went to trial before 20th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Larry Anderson. Davis (Court Appointed) represented him.
The phone in Fulgham‘s possession was not his phone. And evidence did not show that it his phone.
In the end a jury of 12 peers of Cody Lee Fulgham declared a mistrial.
The unfortunate thing is the case will have to be tried again.
A substantial body of law protects the rights of the accused and incarcerated as well as those of the victims of crimes. All citizens enjoy the right to due process, to a fair and speedy trial, and to appeal a verdict all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. The decision to prosecute is based on the sufficiency of the evidence the police have uncovered and on a grand jury process.
Trial is by a jury of one’s peers, which hears the evidence and decides guilt or innocence based on the facts presented. Although not perfect, the system has checks and balances and has as its goal fairness and equal treatment for all. Unfortunately, conditions in some U.S. jails do not reflect the enlightenment of the nation’s legal system.
Appalling conditions, including overcrowding, a lack of sanitation and appropriate medical care, and poorly trained and abusive guards can still be found in jails that are subject to little or no regulatory oversight or that have no set of standards to follow.
Stakeholders responsible for building, funding, operating, or working in a jail and citizens in communities in which jails are located should be aware of the following facts:
Jails hold a wide variety of inmates. Often the public thinks that all the “really bad people” are in a prison somewhere in another part of the state. In fact, every person who goes to prison has spent time in a local com- munity jail while awaiting trial and sentenc- ing. This means that a neighbor sent to jail for shoplifting may be in jail with someone accused of rape or murder.
Inmates need to be protected while in custody. An inmate has a right to a safe environment while in jail. This objective is advanced by placing an inmate in a housing area that is appropriate for his/her unique set of characteristics (e.g., handicapped, developmentally disabled, suicidal, in need of special medical attention).
Most inmates will return to the community. Jails do not simply lock inmates up and toss away the key, and inmates who are not treated properly while in custody will likely continue to have the same problems that resulted in their arrest once they are back in the community.
People with mental health problems constitute a large portion of the jail population. Surveys indicate that many inmates in the United States have a diagnosable mental health problem (James and Glaze, 2006). Returning them to the community without a plan for continued counseling and medication often sets them up for failure and a quick return to jail.
Inmates lose very few basic individual rights when they are incarcerated. Felons may lose the right to vote, to own firearms, and to obtain certain professional licenses. They do not lose the right to be free of abuse, to contact and retain legal counsel, and to converse with and visit their friends and relatives under defined conditions.
The jail setting and conditions are not meant to be punishment. The function of a jail is to safely and humanely hold inmates remanded to its custody by the courts. Some of these inmates have only been charged with a crime but not yet adjudicated. The jail holds these inmates to ensure their appearance in court and/or to protect the community until their next court appearance or until they are otherwise released (e.g., bail). For jail inmates who have been convicted of crimes, the punishment is isolation from society rather than the conditions of confinement. Holding inmates under inhumane conditions (i.e., cold, dark, dank cells) is inappropriate and illegal.
Inmates have a right to medical treatment. All inmates deserve an acceptable standard of medical care. Because inmates are unable to access medical treatment in the community the way that free persons can, the courts have determined that it is the responsibility of the jail to provide this medical care.
Inmates must be provided with adequate, nutritional meals. Dieticians should ensure that each meal provides inmates with a balanced diet appropriate to their age and medical conditions. Teenagers may need a different caloric intake than older inmates. Diabetics, inmates on dialysis, and those with food allergies all need to have medically approved and appropriate diets. Inmates with legitimate religious dietary restrictions also must be accommodated.
Inmates must be provided with clean clothes and bedding. Clothing, towels, and bedding must be exchanged, laundered, and inspected on a regular basis. Failing to do so will result in an unhygienic facility for both the inmates and the staff.
Inmates are not the only ones in the facility. Besides the inmates, there are the officers who work with and supervise them, cooks and maintenance people, nurses, ven- dors, educators, and volunteers. An unsafe facility puts community members at risk. Facilities operate around the clock, without time off for holidays or weekends. Those who work in the jail are entitled to a work setting that is safe, stable, and healthy.
Inmates are at a higher risk of attempting or actually committing suicide than the general population. Research indicates that the suicide rate in jails is 47 deaths per 100,000 population, compared with approximately 11 deaths per 100,000 in the community at large (Mumola, 2005). Factors associated with inmate suicide and suicide attempts include isolation, the prospect of spending large amounts of time locked up, and mental health problems.
Rationale for Jail Standards and Inspection Programs
Most people see the value of standards as a guide to how jails should be operated and maintained. The rationale for independent inspections and regulatory oversight to ensure that these standards are met is more difficult for some to accept. However, it is in society’s best interest to ensure that jails are used and operated properly. This can be achieved only by establishing a clear set of standards coupled with a process of inspections and followup to see that any identified deficiencies are corrected.
A federal court ruled yesterday that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to people in state prisons, finding that mental health services are “horrendously inadequate” and have led to a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among incarcerated people.
In a 302-page opinion, the court detailed “serious systemic deficiencies,” including the failure to identify prisoners with serious mental health needs and inadequate treatment for suicidal prisoners. It found that Alabama prisons discipline mentally ill prisoners for the symptoms of their illnesses and segregate them for prolonged periods. Rather than providing effective treatment, Alabama prisons are “warehousing” the mentally ill, the court wrote.
Evidence presented during a two-month trial that ended in February demonstrated that the state has shown “deliberate indifference” to the unconstitutional conditions in state prisons. “Officials admitted on the stand that they have done little to nothing to fix problems on the ground, despite their knowledge that those problems may be putting lives at risk,” the court found.
The court further found that “staffing shortages, combined with persistent and significant overcrowding, contribute to serious systemic deficiencies in the delivery of mental-health care.” Alabama is an outlier in its refusal to enact meaningful sentencing reforms to address its prison overcrowding crisis, and so the state’s prisons continue to hold double (190 percent) their design capacity and have the highest inmate-to-officer ratio in the country.
During the trial, Jamie Wallace testified about the Department of Corrections’s failure to provide him with treatment, telling the court he received only minimal attention from mental health staff even when he was on suicide watch. Less than a month after he testified, Mr. Wallace died by suicide, alone and unmonitored in his prison cell. The court wrote that Mr. Wallace’s case “is powerful evidence of the real, concrete and terribly permanent harms that woefully inadequate mental-health care inflicts on mentally ill prisoners in Alabama.”
The court ordered the parties to discuss a remedy, emphasizing that “given the severity and urgency of the need for mental-health care explained in this opinion, the proposed relief must be both immediate and long term.”
The ruling caps the second of three phases of a lawsuit filed in 2014 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, and the law firms Baker Donelson, and Zarzaur Mujumdar & Debrosse.
“For far too long, Alabama prisons have been little more than warehouses where many people struggling with mental illness have been hidden away and abandoned by the state,” said Lisa Borden, an attorney with Baker Donelson. “Once locked behind prison walls, in deplorable conditions with little or no treatment, any hope for improvement or recovery was lost, and many became more profoundly ill. We look forward to now having the opportunity for our clients to receive real treatment for their illnesses, and to seeing them afforded the basic dignity to which any human being is entitled.”
The lack of mental health care in Alabama’s prison system is representative of broader systemic failures that subject inmates to unconstitutional conditions. EJI’s federal class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at St. Clair Correctional Facility challenges the corrections department’s failure to remedy violent conditions there, and violence, abuses, and poor conditions throughout the state prison system prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Earlier this year (March 27th 2017), the newly appointed Alabama prosecutors announced that they were no longer seeking the death penalty against Kharon Davis, who has been jailed for nearly 10 years while he awaits trial. The $64,000 Question has to be, why did it take only 30 days for the new prosecutors to make the decision that the previous prosecutors seemingly let drag on for a decade?
Kharon Davis has been held without bail in the Houston County Jail since his arrest in 2007, his supporters say that he has been relentlessly and unfairly punished during the time that he has been held in the jail. He is accused of killing Pete Reeves of Dothan. Davis has maintained his innocence throughout, being charged with capital murder because prosecutors said the shooting occurred during a robbery. Davis’ supporters have argued there was no evidence to support that charge.
The trial, now scheduled for September, has been delayed several times, however the Alabama NAACP announced on May 26th 2017 that a hearing with Judge Kevin Moulton has been scheduled to dismiss the charges altogether. The hearing is on June 6th 2017, 08:30 at the Houston County Courthouse.
Editor’s note: Within hours of the lawsuit’s filing, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing officials from continuing to jail Kandace Edwards for her inability to pay bail.
The money bail system in Randolph County, Alabama, violates the constitutional rights of people charged with misdemeanors or felonies because it creates a “two-tiered” system of justice based on wealth, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Alabama, and the Civil Rights Corps.
The suit is among the first to challenge the constitutionality of felony bail practices.
As in many other jurisdictions across the country, people charged with crimes in Randolph County are jailed following arrest if they can’t afford to pay bail. Those who face the same charges but can afford to pay are freed until trial.
“Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime,” said SPLC Deputy Legal Director Sam Brooke. “Keeping people in jail cells for weeks or months simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom coerces people to plead guilty even if they are innocent, wastes taxpayer money on unnecessary detention, and is a form of wealth-based discrimination prohibited by the Constitution.”
The suit was filed on behalf of 29-year-old Kandace Edwards in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Eastern Division. It accuses judicial and county officials of violating Edwards’ due process and equal protection rights.
Edwards, who has two young children and is seven months pregnant, was arrested yesterday for forging a $75 check. She is currently being held in jail because she cannot afford to pay $7,500 required by the court’s bail schedule.
“I am concerned about my health because I am currently sleeping on a mat on the floor in the jail,” she wrote in a declaration accompanying the complaint. “I am indigent. I have no assets.”
Edwards, who served in the Army National Guard from 2006 until 2010, wrote in the document that she recently lost her job due to her high-risk pregnancy and has been homeless since December.
In Randolph County, each offense has an assigned dollar amount. Anyone who can pay the full amount or arrange for payment through a bail bond company or other third party, is released automatically, without regard to whether they are likely to flee before trial or be a danger to the community. Those who cannot pay must remain in jail for up to a month for a release hearing. If they are not released after the hearing, they face six months in jail – or longer – until trial, because trials are scheduled only twice per year.
Studies show that money bail systems like Randolph County’s make it more likely that innocent people will plead guilty before trial so they can get out of jail.
Nationwide, as in Randolph County, the ability to pay is the most important factor in determining whether someone is released. Yet research demonstrates that money bail does not improve public safety or court appearance rates. Non-financial conditions of release – such as unsecured bond, reporting obligations, and phone and text message reminders of court dates – are more effective.
In Randolph County, money bail has a devastating impact. Nearly one out of every five people in the county lives in poverty. Almost half of the residents 17 and older are unemployed. The system is also particularly costly for the county. The Legislature recently passed a sales tax increase to build a new jail. The current jail is operating at more than three times capacity, and the vast majority of the people detained there are being held prior to trial.
Over the past two years, lawsuits have successfully challenged wealth-based detention in a number of municipal courts, resulting in reform and judicial orders condemning these practicesin Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. In 2014, an Alabama federal judge held in one such case that “[j]ustice that is blind to poverty and indiscriminately forces defendants to pay for their physical liberty is no justice at all.”
Following that decision, the SPLC and Civil Rights Corps worked with the 75 largest municipal courts in Alabama to reform their practices. Those courts no longer require most arrestees to pay for their release, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the state’s municipal court jail population. In the city of Hoover, the jail population dropped by almost 90 percent.