Jail Standards and Inspection Programs

A jail cell
A jail cell

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.


St. Clair Dorm
St. Clair Dorm

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 conditionsEJI’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.

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.

Forcing a District Attorney’s Hand

Article originally published here & written by Sheila Dewan
At far right, District Attorney Douglas A. Valeska points, from inside a closet, at evidence bags in front of an investigator, Billy Crawford, on the stand, during a murder trial at the Henry County Court House in Abbeville, Ala, in September. Credit Phil Sears for The New York Times
At far right, District Attorney Douglas A. Valeska points, from inside a closet, at evidence bags in front of an investigator, Billy Crawford, on the stand, during a murder trial at the Henry County Court House in Abbeville, Ala, in September. Credit Phil Sears for The New York Times

Reporting on criminal justice in rural areas can bring with it a sense of foreboding, if not outright fear. I drive the speed limit, cross at the crosswalk and carry protection — in the form of my business card and Times identification. But sometimes, such measures don’t help.

I was in Dothan, Ala., one morning in May, working on a story about the criminal justice system — in particular, pretrial diversion, a program that is designed to give offenders a second chance. In Dothan, people pay high fees for that privilege. The program is run by the district attorney, Douglas A. Valeska, who had been in power for three decades and who, some said, was the most powerful man in Houston and Henry Counties. In my efforts to get a better feel for the place, I had just attended a meeting of the city commission.

Will Widmer, a New Orleans-based photographer working with me on the story, had also been trying to get a sense of the place, driving around taking photos.

Some strange things have happened to me as I have reported about the low-level offenses, fines and fees that dominate our justice system. Such cases rarely rise to journalistic scrutiny, though they can entrap the poor in an endless relationship with the courts and jails. In Dothan courtrooms, I saw defendants pleading guilty because they were unable to afford diversion. I also saw young women charged with felonies after the hospital reported that they had tested positive for marijuana when giving birth. A young, mentally ill black man had escaped from a psych ward and, still wearing a hospital gown, grabbed someone’s phone to call for a ride. Instead of being marched back to the hospital, he was arrested and jailed.

In thousands of courthouses, such cases are routine. The few observers stand out: No matter how inconspicuous I tried to be, I would get “made” within minutes of entering a courthouse.

In one town I visited, the courtroom was actually closed to the public, and I had to get special permission to be present. In another town, when my colleague, Andy Lehren, and I inspected one public record too many, a judge sent police officers to eject us from the courthouse. (Apparently he believed we were grifters trying to prey on the defendants of Pine Bluff, Ark., most of whom have no money out of which they could be scammed.)

For his part, Will, the photographer in Dothan, was having a more intense experience. Though he too had been careful, the police had followed him and pulled him over for failing to use his turn signal early enough. Moments later, a canine unit arrived. The dogs circled Will’s rental car and, allegedly, signaled the officers near the driver’s seat. On those grounds, the police searched first the car, then Will personally, but found nothing. They did not seem aware that he was a reporter, only that he had been driving around a poor neighborhood and, I later learned, had stopped in front of a “known crack house.” They let him go with a warning.

Coincidentally, I soon received a call asking if I would like to talk to Dothan’s chief of police. Yes, indeed I would.

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Bill giving Alabama jail inmates free feminine hygiene products moves forward

Article originally posted here on April 12, 2017
Jail Cell
Jail Cell (Wikimedia Commons)

Houston County Jail inmates have long complained at the atrocious and unsanitary conditions in which they are confined, many being held for years, unable to bond out and denied basic human rights, as they await trial.

Today, Alabama lawmakers have passed a bill requiring county jails to give inmates feminine hygiene products for free.

The House Public Safety Committee unanimously passed the motion on Wednesday.

Legislators said the bill was a “common sense” measure and questioned why some jails weren’t already providing female inmates with such products.

Arley Republican Rep. Tim Wadsworth is sponsoring the bill and says some smaller county jails aren’t giving the products to women who cannot provide them for themselves. Lawmakers asked the sponsor to compile a list of those facilities.

The legislation will now move to the full House of Representatives.

Alabama Prosecutor Sets the Penalties and Fills the Coffers

Jarvis Bracy and his wife, Khadijah Ross. He was charged with a felony for misidentifying himself to a police officer one drunken night. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

DOTHAN, Ala. — It was a run-of-the-mill keg party in an open field, until one guest, Harvey Drayton Burch III, objected to paying for his beer. Witnesses said Mr. Burch fired a gun over the crowd and began spraying Mace. With partyers fleeing, Mr. Burch jumped into the back seat of a car as it drove away.

The driver had a name well known in Henry County: Douglas A. Valeska II, the son of the local district attorney. When the car was stopped, a deputy found a loaded magazine and knife in Mr. Burch’s pocket, a gun and pepper spray in a backpack, and a pink pill on the floorboard. After Mr. Burch admitted to firing his weapon, he was arrested. The district attorney arrived to take his son and two other passengers home.

No Money, No Mercy…Articles in this series examine how money undermined reforms to America’s criminal justice system. 

Mr. Burch, then 28, was charged with gun and drug possession, but not with firing a weapon or spraying Mace. He did not face prosecution. Instead, District Attorney Douglas A. Valeska granted him pretrial diversion, an alternative to court that is usually reserved for nonviolent offenses. After Mr. Burch paid $2,396 in fees and stayed out of trouble for two years, the case was dismissed in 2011.

The same year, Mr. Valeska gave the Henry County Sheriff’s Office $2,300 from his pretrial diversion fund to pay for scuba gear. The department’s dive team was led by Lt. Troy Silva, the arresting officer in the Burch case. Lieutenant Silva said in an interview that the money was not related to the case and that Mr. Valeska routinely allocated diversion funds for police equipment.

Diversion was created nationwide to spare first-time or low-risk defendants the harsh consequences of a criminal record and to give prosecutors more time to go after dangerous offenders. But things have played out differently in places like southeast Alabama’s Wiregrass Country, where an investigation by The New York Times found that diversion resembles a dismissal-for-sale scheme, available only to those with money and, in some cases, favor.

Mr. Valeska has proved exceedingly adept at using diversion, generating more than $1 million for his office in the last five years.

The money has helped him consolidate his singular power over the justice system in Houston and Henry Counties, where he has presided as the chief prosecutor for three decades.

Dothan, the seat of Houston County and, with 70,000 residents, the regional hub, can feel like it is caught in a Southern time warp, immune to change and defined by racial division. Dothan, where one in three residents is black, has never had a black mayor, police chief, circuit judge or school superintendent. Meetings of the city commission are held in a room adorned with 28 portraits of city leaders, all of them white men. An old photograph shows police officers, including the current chief, posing beside a Confederate flag.

The Prosecutor’s Deal, the Defendant’s Dilemma

A process called pretrial diversion is intended to relieve overburdened courts and help low-risk offenders get on with their lives. You decide if it’s really that simple.

Many black residents say they are at a significant disadvantage in the criminal justice system, complaining of nearly all-white juries and harsher sentences. Last year, two-thirds of those arrested in Dothan were black.

In the 1990s, Mr. Valeska had a string of convictions overturned for illegally striking blacks from the jury pool — a practice critics say continues to this day. He referred to one black defendant as “the yard boy.” He has never hired a black prosecutor.

“If you take Doug Valeska personally, I don’t think he’s racist — I don’t agree with that,” said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, a black ex-convict and longtime advocate for criminal justice reform. “But he represents and endorses and enforces and upholds a racist system.”

Mr. Valeska declined repeated requests for an interview.

Though he is a prodigious user of diversion, he has shown little inclination toward its goals of mercy and rehabilitation. At 65, with a thatch of tungsten-colored hair and an impatient forward lean, Mr. Valeska takes an Old Testament approach to justice, asking juries to exact “an eye for an eye.”

Houston County ranks in the top 10 counties nationwide for death row prisoners per capita.

In one case dating from 1996, Mr. Valeska continues to pursue a death sentence that has been overturned four times by higher courts. In 2014, Mr. Valeska successfully moved to bar testimony from a victim’s relative who wanted to request mercy for the defendant. Last month, a jury considered the sentence yet again but deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial.

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Wife of jail commander arrested on felony theft charge

Denise Reed, wife of Houston County Jail Commander Keith Reed was arrested Monday on felony theft charges
Denise Reed, wife of Houston County Jail Commander Keith Reed was arrested Monday on felony theft charges

Arrested by the Dothan Police Department, Denise Reed, wife of Houston County Jail Commander Keith Reed was arrested Monday on felony theft charges. Reed, according to investigators, is accused of stealing jewelry valued at almost $4000.00 dollars from a Dothan jewelry store.

It is alleged that Keith Reed has been running the jail with an iron fist, violating inmates civil and constitutional rights by incorrectly assuming that every inmate is guilty assigning himself as judge and jury without due process and denying them exercise, religious materials, maintaining a freezing cold living environment and failing to protect inmates under PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) laws, creating an environment hazardous to mental and physical health.

Why else would you prevent the toilets from flushing more than twice an hour even though they are used by up to 30 people in the same pod and are constantly full of blood, urine and faeces?

It would appear that Denise Reed was processed far quicker than most and released before being issued her orange jumpsuit, so she probably wasn’t subjected to those same degradations that the other inmates in the pods face, whilst awaiting trial, likewise she probably, and rightly so enjoyed the presumption of innocence that is seemingly absent for the rest of the people detained there. Reed posted a $5,000 bond and was released from the jail.

Alabama’s Failure of Moral Turpitude

Its felony disenfranchisement scheme is grossly unconstitutional and racially biased.

By Mark Joseph Stern article originally published here 

Alabama disenfranchisement

In 1901, Alabama passed a constitution that stripped voting rights from any person who committed a “crime involving moral turpitude.” The purpose of this disenfranchisement, the president of the convention explained, was to “establish white supremacy in this state”; Alabama labelled those offenses more frequently committed by blacks as crimes “involving moral turpitude” in order to purge minorities from the voter rolls. In 1985, the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the “moral turpitude” provision as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. But 11 years later, the state quietly reinserted the same words into its felony disenfranchisement law. Today, the statute has helped to disenfranchise 250,000 Alabamans, most of them black. Indeed, a stunning 15 percent of otherwise qualified black voters in Alabama can’t cast a ballot because of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law.

A new lawsuit spearheaded by the Campaign Legal Center argues that the statute is a gross violation of Alabamans’ rights under both the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution. Their ambitious suit—which is joined by influential Alabama litigators, the white-shoe firm Jenner and Block, and voting rights luminary Pamela Karlan—combines conventional legal arguments with innovative constitutional theories in order to try to demonstrate that Alabama’s law contravenes the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment, as well as the 15th Amendment, the 24th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act.

On Tuesday, I spoke with Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, about the suit she helped to architect. Our interview has been edited and condensed.

Mark Joseph Stern: There are lots of draconian voting laws in America of dubious constitutionality. Why did the Campaign Legal Center choose to challenge this one?

Danielle Lang: We spoke to voting rights lawyers in Alabama who had reached out to the black community to say, “What is the most pressing issue here?” And the answer was felon disenfranchisement, which is one of the most sweeping set of voter suppression laws in the country.

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