We need governors to act immediately so that we can protect the lives of people who are currently incarcerated in prisons, jails and detention facilities across the country. The Innocence Project has signed on to a letter issued by a coalition of organizations calling on governors to act immediately to help protect people in prisons and jails and the larger community. We ask you to call your governor by filling out the form above and you’ll be connected.
Below are a few of the most vulnerable people who need relief:
Prioritize the immediate release of the elderly and medically vulnerable, including individuals who are pregnant or who have asthma, chronic illness, lung disease, or heart disease.
Release anyone who is within 18 months of his/her release date.
Urge a hold to all new state prison sentences for anyone who is currently not detained.
Release all people held on probation and parole technical violation detainers or sentences. Ensure no new jail or prison sentences based on technical violations.
Ensure that all people released from prison have a transition plan that includes seamless access to medical care and health-related services.
Ask parole boards to release all individuals who are currently on parole and develop an emergency process that can expedite parole hearings.
Create a framework that facilitates the expedient release of as many incarcerated individuals as possible.
For the link to the Innocence Projects action page for petitioning your governor
Montgomery, Ala. — Close to 22,000 Alabamians incarcerated by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) face a much higher risk of contracting coronavirus than the general public, but there’s been no mention of plans to ensure their safety and well-being. Last week Governor Kay Ivey announced the formation of a Coronavirus Task Force, and the ACLU of Alabama urges the group to prioritize plans for Alabama prisons, which were already experiencing a sustained overcrowding and understaffing crisis before the pandemic.
Statement from Randall Marshall, Executive Director, ACLU of Alabama:
“Incarcerated people cannot follow the CDC recommendation of social distancing, and because Alabama prisons are already operating at 170 percent of their designed capacity, these men and women are at an increased risk of exposure and contamination in the prison population. Furthermore, with over 20 percent of people in ADOC custody over the age of 50, there are thousands who are at higher risk of serious health complications or death if they are infected.
It is imperative that the Governor and ADOC release their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the prisons, to quarantine and care for any prisoner who shows symptoms, and to ensure all supplies and food remain stocked during this crisis. They must also address how they plan to provide continued staffing in the event of staff shortages due to illness or caring for an ill family member. ADOC staffing is currently at 40 percent.
These and other questions must be answered now. Alabama leaders have historically disregarded the health and safety of the men and women incarcerated in state prisons. The ACLU of Alabama urges state leaders to not follow that old pattern and make prisons a top priority in Alabama’s COVID-19 response.”
Twenty U.S. states’ constitutions, including the Constitution of Alabama, contain the same shortcoming found in the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They permit slavery, or in the case of Louisiana, “involuntary servitude,” as punishment for a crime.
Banning slavery is not simply a formality. U.S. prisons market the labor of prisoners and have created financial incentives to maintain that labor force. While prisoners may benefit from training, and may prefer employment to doing nothing, they and society as a whole do not benefit from labor without a living wage, labor without workers’ rights, labor that undermines others’ wages, and labor that creates motivations to keep more people in prison longer.
Paying prisoners for their labor enables them not only to better provide for themselves while in prison, but also to pay bills and unpaid court fees that may have landed many of them in prison in the first place. Compensating prisoners for their labor through a legitimate “Work Time” system that reduces their sentence grants hardworking prisoners the opportunity to be reviewed early by parole boards — which also helps state taxpayers.
As a constituent, I urge you to take immediate action to amend our state constitution to ban slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, and in all circumstances. While Colorado has amended its Constitution to ban slavery entirely, our state lags behind. Our current Constitution protects and promotes the legal exploitation of people’s labor and human dignity and should be amended immediately.
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P.S. RootsAction is an independent online force endorsed by Jim Hightower, Barbara Ehrenreich, Cornel West, Daniel Ellsberg, Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Bill Fletcher Jr., Laura Flanders, former U.S. Senator James Abourezk, Frances Fox Piven, Lila Garrett, Phil Donahue, Sonali Kolhatkar, and many others.
1. Rhode Island has banned slavery in its Constitution since 1843. Twenty-seven states’ constitutions don’t mention slavery. Vermont’s Constitution allows slavery for people under 21 years old or consenting to it or enslaved for payment of debts, damages, fines, or costs. These are the 20 states that allow slavery as punishment for crime: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregeon, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin. The state of Colorado has removed itself from that list.
A federal judge has determined that the risk of suicide among state prisoners in Alabama “is so severe and imminent” that he ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to immediately implement permanent mental health remedies to address “severe and systematic inadequacies.”
The decision by Judge Myron Thompson on Saturday, comes after 15 prisoners killed themselves in the span of 15 months.
In a 210-page ruling that includes summaries of the circumstances leading to each of the inmate suicides, Thompson agreed with prisoners’ attorneys that the spike had reached crisis levels, a result of what he previously said are “horrendously inadequate” mental health services provided to inmates.
In addition to ordering the Alabama Department of Corrections to comply with a host of court ordered measures he issued in a 2017 ruling, Thompson also required the state to establish an internal monitoring system and said the court will appoint an interim external monitor to oversee the department’s progress.
“The more someone fails to do something he agreed to do, the bigger the need to supervise whether he does it in the future,” Thompson wrote, adding that existing monitoring efforts “have been too little, too late.”
Five of the 15 suicides occurred between January and March this year. In one instance a prisoner with “severe mental illnesses, as well as intellectual and physical disabilities” killed himself 10 days after testifying in court that he had not received adequate treatment, according to the documents. In another, a man hanged himself roughly 12 hours after being transferred from mental health observation to a segregated cell, rather than being placed on suicide watch.
Although ADOC acknowledged in the court documents that persistent and severe correctional understaffing has significantly contributed to its noncompliance, attorneys had argued that prison officials were working on a plan to reduce the rash of suicides.
“The defendants argue that they cannot prevent all suicides in ADOC. It is true that, as in the free world, not all suicides can be prevented. But this reality in no way excuses ADOC’s substantial and pervasive suicide-prevention inadequacies. Unless and until ADOC lives up to its Eighth Amendment obligations, avoidable tragedies will continue,” Thompson wrote.
Lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, which represent prisoners in the ongoing case, welcomed the increased oversight.
“The court’s opinion recognizes the urgency of the situation facing ADOC. The system remains grossly understaffed and people are dying as a result,” Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC told Mary Scott Hodgin, reporter for NPR member station WBHM.
“The time has long since come for ADOC to comply with its constitutional obligations, Morris added in a written statement.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice determined the state “routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse,” NPR’s Debbie Elliott reported.
The immediate steps ordered by Thompson were intended to address specific failures by the ADOC. They include adequately-trained personnel for suicide risk assessments; placing people who are suicidal or potentially suicidal on suicide watch; following up with inmates released from suicide watch; and limiting segregated confinement for prisoners released from suicide watch.
Additionally, ADOC must enforce existing policies, including 30-minute check-ins on people in segregation, where most of the suicides occurred, and requiring that staff take immediate life-saving measures when they find an inmate attempting suicide, including immediately cutting down inmates who have hanged themselves.
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.