Alabama’s Gruesome Prisons: Report Finds Rape and Murder at All Hours

April 3rd 2019 and published here By Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan
The segregation unit at Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility houses inmates in solitary confinement. Many have come to see the unit as a haven from the prison’s general population.CreditCreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times

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.”

[The New York Times received more than 2,000 photos taken inside an Alabama prison. This is what they showed.]

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 Justice Department report focused on the failure to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence because of what it said was inadequate training, failure to properly classify and supervise inmates, and failure to stem the flow of contraband including weapons and drugs, among other problems.

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.

Alan Blinder contributed reporting.

Follow Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan on Twitter: @ktbenner and @shailadewan.

No death penalty for AL man jailed 10 years awaiting trial & now dismissal hearing set

Kharon Davis has been held at the Houston County Jail for almost 9 years with no trial or bond
Kharon Davis has been held at the Houston County Jail for 10 years with no trial or bond

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.

Alabama NAACP request dismissal hearing in the Kharon Davis case.
Alabama NAACP request dismissal hearing in the Kharon Davis case.

SPLC, other civil rights groups challenge wealth-based bail system in impoverished Alabama county

Article originally published here
Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime
Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime.

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.

A Long Legal Battle Over Prosecutorial Misconduct by the AL Attorney General’s Office Results in the Dismissal of Murder Charges Against George Martin

Copied article originally posted here Mar 30, 2016

“If the Martin case is not one which is appropriate for dismissal, there may never be one.”

That’s not a quote from a defense brief or a member of the defense team’s mouth. It is a direct quote from Judge Robert H. Smith’s March 11, 2016 order dismissing George Martin’s capital murder indictment with prejudice. “Had this case been tried fairly,” he adds, “all would have had resolution of this matter long ago.” Indeed, though the State is appealing the judge’s decision, the trial court’s order reveals the disturbing truth that the Alabama Attorney General’s office has engaged in intentional misconduct in the Martin case for more than a decade.

Though we have previously covered the case, we add some additional details here in light of these latest developments. George Martin, a former State trooper in Alabama, was charged with killing his wife, Hammoleketh Martin, for pecuniary gain. She died in a fire inside her car in 1995. Because the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the case, the Attorney General’s office took over. The State alleged that Martin intentionally set his wife’s car on fire while she was inside, killing her to collect life insurance payments. At trial, Martin’s defense was that the death was an accident caused by a mishap with the gas can the victim kept in the car.

The State prevailed at trial and won a conviction in 2000. The jury initially returned an 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence, but the trial court judge (then-Judge Ferrill McRae) overrode that recommendation and sentenced Martin to death. (This death sentence was soon lifted by the Alabama Supreme Court with instructions for additional consideration of the jury’s sentencing recommendation; after that additional consideration, Judge McRae again imposed a death sentence despite the jurors’ earlier vote in favor of mercy.) The Alabama judiciary denied Mr. Martin’s direct appeals.

In post-conviction proceedings in 2008, Martin’s defense team requested access to the prosecution’s files because it believed the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence. Those motions sparked an epic legal battle that lasted several years in which the Attorney General’s office fought tooth-and-nail to keep its files from the opposition. On three separate occasions, the prosecutors launched mandamus petitions in an effort to shut down the trial court’s orders to turn over the information the defense had requested. The first effort succeeded, temporarily. But, the trial court then made the “good cause” finding the appellate court requested in order to compel disclosure. The State’s second effort to stave off discovery also succeeded temporarily, but in 2010 the trial court again granted the defense’s discovery motion. The State filed another mandamus petition to avoid fulfilling the order; finally the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court denied the State’s petition.

So, what happened when the State at long last turned over its file? What had it been sitting on for so many years? Why was the Attorney General’s office so profoundly reluctant to give Martin an opportunity to look at the documents compiled during its investigation? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the discovery contained a treasure trove of exculpatory evidence that would have facilitated Mr. Martin’s defense at trial.

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ALABAMA COURT REVERSES HOUSTON COUNTY DEATH SENTENCE FOR THE FOURTH TIME

Article originally posted on the equal Justice Initiatives website here, June 3, 2016

Today, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed EJI client Jerry Smith’s death sentence for the fourth time, finding that the sentence sought by Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska was again unconstitutionally obtained.

Mr. Smith was convicted of capital murder and illegally sentenced to death in 1998. That sentence was reversed by the Alabama Supreme Court because the trial court improperly excluded mitigating evidence from the jury’s consideration.

Mr. Smith was illegally sentenced to death a second time; the Alabama Supreme Court reversed that sentence because potential jurors had unconstitutional contact with members of the victims’ family.

Mr. Smith was illegally sentenced to death again in 2012 after a proceeding where the jury was wrongly told to consider an improper sentencing factor. That error was so clear the Attorney General’s Office agreed the case should be reversed and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Mr. Smith’s death sentence.

In a fourth sentencing proceeding, District Attorney Doug Valeska again obtained a death sentence for Mr. Smith. That sentence was reversed today because the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with EJI’s arguments that the trial judge violated the Sixth Amendment when he barred members of the public from the courtroom during the proceedings.

EJI also argued that Mr. Valeska illegally barred African Americans from serving on the jury for Mr. Smith’s fourth sentencing trial. Mr. Valeska removed every one of the 11 qualified African Americans from the jury. As a result, Mr. Smith, who is black, was tried by an all-white jury in a county whose population is 25 percent African American. The Court of Criminal Appeals did not address this issue in today’s opinion because it reversed Mr. Smith’s death sentence because his right to a public trial was violated.

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