Appleseed joins the many (many!) outstanding nonprofits for the Giving Tuesday campaign on Tuesday, November 30, 2021. This global day of giving highlights the important work accomplished because of generous donors everywhere.

Appleseed humbly asks for your support this day (and beyond) specifically for our re-entry work. Our legal advocacy and support for older, formerly incarcerated men changes lives. Appleseed is proud to stand with people who have turned their lives around and are returning to Alabama communities after decades behind bars. These men leave prison with nothing and support is desperately needed. 

As our client Michael Schumacher explained in a recent presentation, the prison gave him $10 and a one-way ticket to the county of arrest, where he would not have a clue what to do, with his family gone and so many changes in the world. Because of supporters like you, Appleseed has provided his transportation, housing, and a warm embrace into a new life of hope. Michael, a gentle soul and former prison Scrabble champion, is starting over at age 61.

From securing social security cards, driver’s licenses, and bank accounts; to scheduling  medical appointments; to teaching our clients about cell phones, food safety, and more, Appleseed is with our clients every step of the way. Thank you for your generosity as we support justice-involved Alabamians as they transition to their newfound freedom and a second chance at life.

  • $21 covers the fee to secure a client’s birth certificate
  • $36.25 covers the fee for a driver’s license or ID
  • $50 covers a tank of gas for our Re-entry Coordinator to drive clients to their necessary appointments weekly
  • $100 covers a week of housing for one of our clients
  • $500 covers a post-release shopping trip for our clients for necessities and a wardrobe, including interview clothing

Please click here to donate! Thank you for your fabulous support.

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

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary:  Alabama Appleseed seeks a Legal Fellow to assist with direct representation of incarcerated clients in post-conviction and parole proceedings. This is a one-year contract for a grant-funded position in our Birmingham office, with the possibility of a longer-term commitment. Appleseed’s Legal Fellow conducts legal research, examines clients’ backgrounds and institutional records, and prepares legal memos and post-conviction pleadings. This position is also involved in re-entry planning and supports for formerly incarcerated clients. The Legal Fellow reports directly to the Executive Director and works closely with the Staff Attorney. Occasional travel will be required to Appleseed’s Montgomery Office and to prisons in Alabama. This position comes with the opportunity to apply creative advocacy to serious injustices that impact thousands of incarcerated Alabamians. You will make a difference here.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Legal research, specifically criminal law, post-conviction law and procedure, and Eighth Amendment jurisprudence;
  • Review and organize requests for legal assistance from incarcerated Alabamians;
  • Visit and interview incarcerated clients;
  • Draft post-conviction petitions;
  • Represent incarcerated Alabamians in parole proceedings;
  • Contribute to Appleseed’s blog;
  • Assist formerly incarcerated clients with release plans and re-entry services.

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Juris Doctorate from an accredited law school; 
  • Demonstrated interest in criminal law;
  • License to practice law in Alabama preferred;
  • Excellent legal writing skills;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Ability to multi-task effectively and occasionally embrace administrative duties;
  • Skilled in Excel, Microsoft Word, and Google Docs;
  • At least one internship or professional experience with post-conviction litigation; recent law school graduates considered with relevant internship or clerkships during law school.

An Ideal Candidate Brings:

  • Some experience in post-conviction legal practice;
  • Experience in researching criminal backgrounds, especially using Alacourt;
  • Experience drafting Rule 32 petitions in Alabama courts;
  • Ability to organize large amounts of data in Excel;
  • Demonstrated interest in challenging excessive punishment in the criminal justice system; 
  • At least minimal knowledge of Alabama parole procedures;
  • Willingness to work closely with formerly incarcerated people and assist their successful re-entry.

Salary and Benefits: This position offers a competitive non-profit salary of $50,000, along with a benefits package including health insurance, generous paid leave; reimbursement of travel-related expenses.

To Apply:  Send a cover letter, resume, writing sample, and three references to Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director, Carla Crowder, at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org. Please write “Legal Fellow” in the subject line. We are seeking to fill this position quickly so interested applicants should apply as soon as possible.

The injustices that we are fighting in Alabama today are directly connected to long histories of inequality and oppression in this state. As we build our team to fight for a better Alabama, we know that people who have historically been overlooked need to lead. For this reason, we welcome and strongly encourage applications from people of color, women, people with criminal histories, people from working class backgrounds, veterans and LGBTQ people.

Alabama Appleseed values an inclusive culture and diverse workforce. Alabama Appleseed encourages applications from all qualified individuals without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, marital status, citizenship, disability, and record of arrest or conviction.

We are thrilled to announce the release of another client, Joe Bennett, today – his first free world birthday in 24 years. Once sentenced to die in prison, Mr. Bennett walked out of Donaldson Correctional Facility on September 21, 2021, after a Jefferson County judge granted Appleseed’s motion for post-conviction relief and resentencing. 

Staff Attorneys, Alex and Carla pose for a picture with the newly released Joe Bennett outside the entrance of Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Staff attorney Alex LaGanke and Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen have been working in tandem with Joe and have come together to share his story.

Alex will open the blog with background on Joe’s case. Ronald, former Appleseed client and inaugural Reentry Coordinator, will share his reflections aiding his first client through reentry. 

Two Years Versus a Lifetime
By Alex LaGanke

In 1997, Joe was given two life-without-parole (“LWOP”) sentences for two counts of robbery stemming from a single incident at a barbecue restaurant in Birmingham’s Eastlake neighborhood. Joe is one of the many people in Alabama who have been condemned to die in prison for an offense without physical injury, enhanced by minor prior offenses under the Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA).

Due to changes in that law in the 1990s and sentencing reforms in 2015, three of the four prior offenses used to enhance Joe’s sentence under the HFOA could not be used for enhancement purposes today. His prior offenses included low-level felonies that are now classified as misdemeanors, including two purse snatching cases, and possession of a controlled substance.  If sentenced today, Joe would be ineligible for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole; rather, he likely would receive a split sentence with two years prison time and seven years on probation: two years versus a lifetime. 

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr recognized the unfairness of this sentence and did not oppose our post-conviction motion for resentencing, and Circuit Judge Shanta Owens signed the order granting immediate release.

Joe Bennett on the day of his release.

At 27-years-old, Joe’s LWOP sentence meant leaving behind two small children, who are now grown adults with children of their own; forfeiting the chance at a career; and missing over two decades of significant societal changes, making adjustment to today’s world increasingly challenging. But it is also true that Joe’s prison sentence provided discovery of a wide-ranging musical talent, cultivation of a lifelong support network, and even drug rehabilitation. Remarkably, Joe managed to avoid receiving a single disciplinary infraction during his 22 years in prison. If you know anything about Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”), where you can get a write-up for having an extra pack of ketchup, you know this to be a miraculous feat. 

At Appleseed, we see our clients’ remarkable institutional records as a testament to the human capacity to evolve, mature, and realize unearthed potential. We have the highest regard for our clients – who are artists, Scrabble champions, ministers, musicians, and paralegals – because they corrected themselves in a corrections system that encourages anything but correction, improvement, or rehabilitation. To be clear, Joe Bennett did not just survive a corrections system that necessitates violence for protection, fuels drug trafficking, and maintains inhumane living conditions declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Department of Justice; he thrived. He was a leader, an honor dorm resident, and musician at the prison chapel.

In fact, Joe is so phenomenal that at 52-years-old (53 today!), he has been working day in and day out as a tree groundsman. But before I get too carried away with all the impressive things Joe has done since he’s been out, I’ll let Ronald take it from here to discuss, rather poetically, Joe’s reentry process.

“Who better to assist them than a person like me?”
By Ronald McKeithen

It’s difficult to describe the emotions that overwhelmed me as I waited for Joe to walk through those prison gates, the same gates I exited nine months prior after serving 37 years. Being back at Donaldson Correctional Facility that Friday in September, I found myself reliving that same burst of joy that exploded within me once I laid eyes on the people that saved my life and wondered if Joe will be able to restrain from dropping to his knees with tears of joy shamelessly flowing down his cheeks. 

As I stood there, I also couldn’t help but think about the difficulties he will face as he struggles to rebuild his life in a world he hasn’t seen in over two decades. You see, my reason for being at Donaldson wasn’t just to greet a friend on the happiest day of his life, but also to ensure that his transition has as few hurdles as possible. Which is why Alabama Appleseed hired me. 

Here’s me super psyched about Joe’s release, taking an awkward pic on the side of the road at a convenient store after we got kicked off Donaldson prison campus for celebrating Joe’s release.

Freeing their clients is only the first step. Ensuring their clients’ success in becoming productive members of society has become a priority as well. And who better to assist them than a person like me who has endured the same pain and has faced the fear and uncertainty that this new world brings?

Not long ago, the State of Alabama believed that a person needed only $10 and a one-way bus ticket to start a new life after prison, regardless of how many years they served. The State has been so kind to increase it to $10 for every five years you’ve served, which is still not enough for a meal, room, and board. And for those of us who’ve served decades, we are unlikely to have the proper documents needed to get a job. Getting copies of birth certificates, social security cards, non-driver’s license, driver’s license, and medication, for starters, is a long process that will require resources, far more than the amount awarded upon release. 

Here at Appleseed, we lessen our returning clients’ fears by not only standing beside them as they maneuver through this reentry maze, but also assisting them, if needed, in paying the fees of each document, finding housing, taking them on an initial trip to the store for all the necessary things returning citizens’ don’t have. And that just scratches the surface. 

I have put in hundreds of miles, alongside my amazing mentor and fearless, all-knowing supervisor Alex (wow, Alex), to secure Joe a valid state ID, birth certificate, and bank account; taking him to and from a job-readiness course at Salvation Army to his tree cutting job at sites all across Birmingham; and sharing with him everything I’ve learned about this city and world that has changed so much since we were kids here. 

I asked Joe to share some words about his transition thus far, and this is what he had to say: “I’m enjoying life by God’s grace through the way of the wonderful organization of Alabama Appleseed – I thank you all so much. I’m just learning, experiencing. And just knowing that I’m being a productive citizen feels wonderful and great.  I’m just elated. I can’t thank Appleseed enough.”

I even had the opportunity to talk to a long-time supporter of Joe’s and current employer, Robert Reid of Greenbriar Tree Service, LLC, who has been instrumental in Joe’s release and reentry. Mr. Reed said this about Joe: “Joe has become one of my greatest employees at Greenbriar Tree Service. He is faithful, has integrity, and does anything you ask him to. He is learning so fast and has done such a great job.” Mr. Reid met Joe at Donaldson prison through a prison ministry years ago and continues to support him by providing this job and many other supports. 

Joe and Robert pose for a picture at Cracker Barrel after Joe’s release. He wanted breakfast for his first free world meal!

I am so elated to have the opportunity and responsibility of assisting Joe Bennett as he takes necessary steps to building a life he could only dream of just a few short months ago. And I can’t wait to see what freedom has in store for him! 

Appleseed’s local clients gather for a picture with Joe at Shepherd’s Fold the day after his release. L to R: Alonzo Hurth (70 y/o, 27 years in DOC); Joe Bennett (53 y/o, 22 years in DOC); Ronald McKeithen (59 y/o, 37 years in DOC); Michael Schumacher (61 y/o, 36 years in DOC).

We cannot do this work alone

Over the last year, Appleseed has worked with incredible partners – individuals and organizations who care deeply about returning citizens and help provide the necessary supports. We would be remiss in giving thanks where it is undoubtedly due, to our amazing community partners whose resources, services, and kindness to the most vulnerable make acclimation for our clients possible: 

  • Shepherd’s Fold
  • Christ Health Center
  • Greater Birmingham Ministries, Voting Restoration Program
  • Community on the Rise
  • Salvation Army, Ready to Work Program
  • UAB Eye Care 

Ronald and Alex are signing off, but stay tuned for more updates on Joe’s amazing progress and Ron’s job with Appleseed! 

By Leah Nelson
Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

It’s been 367 days since Sean Worsley walked out of Staton Correctional Facility and into the arms of his wife, Eboni. This Veteran’s Day, Alabama Appleseed is celebrating with Sean and Eboni as they look back on a year of freedom, healing, and some heartbreak – and forward to what lies ahead.

Sean and Eboni Worsley are celebrating a year of being reunited after Sean was incarcerated for medical marijuana.

Sean is a Black, Purple Heart-decorated Iraq War veteran. In 2017, he was sentenced to five years in prison for bringing his legally prescribed medical cannabis from Arizona into Alabama. His release two days before Veteran’s Day 2020 was something of a miracle in light of the unprecedentedly low rate at which the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted parole in recent years. It was brought about by collaborative and individual advocacy by reform groups, elected officials from both sides of the aisle, veterans’ groups, cannabis industry insiders, and others. Thousands of people, inside Alabama and out, were rooting for Sean and Eboni to succeed.

On this Veteran’s Day, the good news is that things are looking up for the Worsleys – and for Alabama. Despite a challenging year, the couple has made great strides. They’ve moved to California, where Sean is now on unsupervised probation. They’ve built a community of allies and friends. Their experience was lifted up on PBS Nova as an object-lesson in why cannabis policy must evolve. It also helped prompt reflection and change within Alabama, where lawmakers in May overwhelmingly supported a law that made Alabama the 36th state to legalize medical cannabis.

“It’s like going under the ocean. You have to come up slowly.”
In the early days after Sean came home from prison, Sean and Eboni focused on healing. Moving forward after what they went through, Eboni said, is “like decompressing. It’s like going under the ocean. You have to come up slowly. You can’t come straight to the top and just be OK.”

Support from friends and well-wishers helped. The couple used funds raised online to settle into a house in Shelby County. A local employer had who had read about Sean had a job waiting for him when he was released. An Alabama family who was moved by their story gave the couple a car. And a licensed professional counselor offered free services to help Sean readjust to life outside prison walls after nearly a year being retraumatized by incarceration in some of America’s most dangerous and neglected prisons.

Sean and Eboni visit with Appleseed’s Leah Nelson, who first shared the story of Sean’s incarceration and continued to advocate for his release until he was freed Nov. 9, 2020. Photo by Jill Friedman

There were challenges and heartbreaks. Sean and Eboni had hoped to spend time with Sean’s two teenaged children from previous relationships, but their mothers were afraid to let them visit him in Alabama after Sean’s experience being arrested and incarcerated here. A brush with police who trailed Sean at a store near his home, claiming over the objections of employees that he resembled a suspect in a recent shoplifting case, terrified them. Most crushingly, in June, they lost a son after a much-welcomed but complicated pregnancy ended with his stillbirth at 24 weeks’ gestation.

But the Worsleys, who moved to California in May, are in a much better place than they were a year ago and they are optimistic about what comes next. California law enforcement downgraded Sean’s supervision from parole, which in Alabama included in-person check-ins with an officer several times a month, to unsupervised probation, which meant a monthly phone call with a probation officer. And on Christmas Day 2021, Sean’s term on probation will end completely. For the first time in four years, they will be free to travel as they please and live where they choose.

As they look ahead, both Sean and Eboni said what they want more than anything is to take ownership of their lives again.
“I appreciate everything that everybody has done to help. The donations and all of that, the messages, the emails. It is overwhelming, the amount of messages,” Sean said. “I also want people to understand, I most definitely am the type of person – I would rather have my stability back than anything. I’m the type of person, I’m going to work. I’m going to do what I need to do to support my family. I wasn’t a slouch or somebody that didn’t work before this and I won’t start now.”

“There’s still a lot more work to do.”
Despite the injustice of the Worsleys’ experience in Alabama, there are signs that this state, rarely quick to embrace big change , took some lessons from Sean and Eboni Worsley. In May, Alabama lawmakers passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana for a range of illnesses. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle invoked Sean’s story in committee discussions and on the House floor in defending their decision to vote in favor of the controversial bill.

Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-Birmingham), a Marine Corps veteran who was instrumental in marshaling support for Sean’s parole in 2020, said Sean’s experience says much about how far Alabama still has to go.

While he was pleased to see the medical cannabis law pass, Rafferty also said it did not go far enough. Specifically, he noted that the law would not have offered protection to Sean even if it had been in place in 2016 because Sean’s marijuana was brought in from another state and was not in a form the new law makes legal, Rafferty said. The new law “still puts people that can’t afford access to care or whatever the case may be in a precarious situation with the criminal justice system,” he said. “There’s still a lot more work to do when it comes to cannabis reform,” he said. “It’s still the intersection of these three issues that we still haven’t fully addressed. … Over-policing, a misunderstanding of veterans’ issues, and of cannabis.”

Indeed, Alabama has much work to do. But the fact that Sean and Eboni Worsley will celebrate this Veteran’s Day together in California and not separated by prison walls in Alabama is a sign that progress can happen when people who care about justice come together.

Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder delivered the following remarks to the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee on September 28, 2021 in opposition to the HB 4, a bill to spend $1.2 billion dollars on two new 4,000-bed prisons.

 

My name is Carla Crowder. I am a lifelong Alabamian and executive director at Alabama Appleseed, a non profit dedicated to justice and equity for all Alabamians.

Appleseed supports safer prisons. We support leaky roofs being fixed. Working plumbing and sewers.  Space for mental health care, drug treatment and educational programs.  Safe places for the 25,000 Alabamians in state custody to live without fear for their lives.  We are not against all new construction and I want to be clear about that.

As a lawyer, I have visited most of the prisons that are the subject of the DOJ lawsuit and I know they are wretched.

I have also read the lawsuit. And the 2 comprehensive DOJ reports issued before the lawsuit was filed.

Those documents are primarily concerned with unabated violence, including homicides, sexual assaults, excessive force by guards and the introduction of contraband – by staff – that propels this violence.

In the exact words of the United States Department of Justice:

“While new facilities might cure some of these physical plant issues, it is important to note that new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse. And new facilities would quickly fall into a state of disrepair if prisoners are unsupervised and largely left to their own devises, as is currently the case.”

The Department of Corrections has had 2 and half years to address this litany of deficiencies – understaffing, culture, corruption, training, and conditions have only gotten worse.

This year alone there were 34 deaths inside ADOC this year due to homicide, suicide or drugs, the highest death count in recent memory. It’s gotten worse since DOJ began investigating, that’s why they sued.

Buildings are not killing people.

Appleseed’s concern with this bill is not about fighting new prison construction. Its because this bill promises an Elmore facility with enhanced medical and mental health care, education and rehabilitation services, humane treatment for elderly people. But it provides no funding for these things.

Our concern with this bill is that Alabama has never built 4,000 bed prisons. We can’t staff 1,000 bed prisons. This bill does nothing to address the staffing crisis that has been unmet even with a federal court order in the Braggs mental health case.

The Department of Corrections now swallows 25% of the General Fund. Y’all know that. Money that’s not going all the other state needs like mental health, drug treatment, public safety, public health.

This plan provides even more money to this dysfunctional agency. We keep reading about $1 billion in deferred maintenance on the current prisons. Why was the maintenance deferred? Why wasn’t it just done?

The crucial things envisioned by this construction bill – specifically the Elmore facility services, could easily go unfunded and undone – just like this deferred maintenance.

We would request – that if these new facilities promise actual treatment and rehabilitation, that we get answers as to how those necessities will be funded. And how they will be staffed.

This current plan – which relies on one-time federal COVID dollars – to barely pull enough money together for buildings alone provides no confidence that what is actually needed will ever be funded.

Finally, from the DOJ lawsuit – notice that new facilities are one of six things on the list of constitutional concerns.

“Since the United States notified the State of its findings, Alabama’s Prisons for Men have remained extremely overcrowded, prisoner-on-prisoner homicides have increased, prisoner-on-prisoner violence including sexual abuse has continued unabated, the physical facilities have remained inadequate, use of excessive force by security staff has remained common, and staffing rates have remained critically and dangerously low. In the two years following the United States’ original notification to the State of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama’s Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a substantial risk of serious harm, including death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners.”

Before passing a bill that addresses  one of six issues here – at a cost of $1.2 billion – we would ask this committee to set aside  funding for some of the other five problems. Or at least for the treatment promised by this construction bill.

 

 

 

By Idrissa N. Snider

Tameca Cole’s “Locked in a Dark Calm”

On September 17th, the Abroms-Engle Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) premiered its opening of the “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” exhibition. The installation showcases work by incarcerated and non-incarcerated artists “concerned with state repression, erasure, and imprisonment.” 

As guests perused various drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other mixed-media artifacts – all reflecting the dismal state of the nation’s prison system – looming over the night’s events was the upcoming special legislative session scheduled for Monday, September 27th to address Alabama’s prison crisis.

Idrissa Snider with artist George Anthony Morton and his work “Mars”

The exhibit is a physical and symbolic embodiment of what is occurring in our state, where prison conditions are so catastrophically bad that the U.S. Department of Justice is suing the Alabama Department of Corrections for subjecting its prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment. “Marking Time” recognizes talent from people who are often stereotyped as fully criminal to the exclusion of any other identity. It is also a sobering and daunting reminder of the systemic challenges facing the women and men who are incarcerated. 

The argument against reform boils down to the notion that people who are incarcerated in Alabama need to stay in our deadly prisons for long periods, maybe even until they die, because they are irredeemable. One key strategy to tackle this problem is to reduce incarceration while investing in people and programming outside the prison walls. 

Artist and Appleseed client Ron McKeithen with his work “Black Lives Matter” and Idrissa Snider

“Marking Time” is a shining example of what can occur when we put funding into rehabilitation and programming. Among others, it features work by Appleseed client and staff member Ronald McKeithen, who served 37 years in prison for a convenience store robbery. McKeithen’s “Black Lives Matter” (2020) print is placed in the center of a collage of sketches by other Alabama artists before you enter the exhibit. The pain of resistance is present in his piece and in works like Tameca Cole’s “Open Wounds: Feel Mary Turner” (2021) paper-mache sculpture advocating against violence targeted towards women of color. 

Yet the beauty of these artworks also resonates. George Anthony Morton’s “Mars” (2016) graphite and chalk rendering captures the elegant splendor of Black beauty and femininity. Just as Dean Gillispie’s “Spiz’s Dinette” (1998) sculpture made of tablet backs, stick pins, popsicle sticks, and cigarette foil repurposes menial everyday objects into something of value. 

Creating such stunning pieces of art, while enduring the hardships of prison life with little to no resources is reminiscent of the tradition of enslaved Black women seamstresses who made elaborate quilts out of scraps of tattered and discarded fabric to tell their stories. Art gives voice and agency to the oppressed and marginalized. “Marking Time” brings an often-forgotten population of people into the high society of the art world, and it is reflexive of the many issues facing Alabama’s prison system.

Dean Gillispie’s “Spiz’s Dinette”

In the face of a federal lawsuit over the state’s horrific prison conditions, overcrowding, and overall safety of inmates, the debate over roughly $1.2 billion in funding for new prisons is taking place in one of the nation’s poorest states. In the same way “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” displays the tension between justice and systemic barriers within our prison system, Alabama sits at the intersection of perpetuating age-old practices of mass incarceration and fundamental prison reform.

Appleseed staff with Joi Brown, Jefferson County Memorial Project

“Marking Time” is organized by Nicole R. Fleetwood, Ph.D., James Weldon Johnson Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, and reflects her decade-long commitment to research and programming on the visual art and culture of mass incarceration. The exhibition will show through December 11th at UAB’s AEIVA center and will feature a talk with Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director, Carla Crowder, and artist Ronald McKeithen on October 12 , 2021. To register for this free event, click here for the online presentation and here to attend in person. To learn more about the exhibition, click here

 

A judge with a troubling history is again taking extreme measure to hold people accountable for decades-old government debt

By Leah Nelson
Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

An Alabama judge with a history of using drastic measures to prompt debtors to pay outstanding fines and fees appears to be at it again. According to the Bibb County Circuit Clerk’s office, Hon. Marvin Wiggins has directed the clerk to mail notices to all individuals who owe fines, fees, court costs, or restitution directing them to pay, come to court, or potentially face a warrant for their arrest.

Bibb County Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wiggins has been repeatedly censured, including for ordering debtors to pay fines or give blood, instead.

Wiggins, the presiding judge of Alabama’s 4th Judicial Circuit (covering Bibb, Hale, Perry, Dallas, and Wilcox Counties), made national news in 2015 when he was censured by the Court of the Judiciary of Alabama for telling individuals in his Perry County courtroom that they could either pay, donate blood in a blood drive being held in the courthouse parking lot, or go to jail. 

“[I]f you do not have any money, and you don’t want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money,” Wiggins told defendants in 2015. 

Dozens of people, unable to pay and fearful of going to jail, obliged. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary later found him in violation of multiple Canons of Judicial Ethics, and Wiggins acknowledged wrongdoing. And the organization that ran the blood drive discarded 41 units of blood because it was unable to verify that donors gave them voluntarily.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted financially insecure Alabamians, the judge is again pressuring debtors to pay what they owe or face jail time. According to the clerk’s office, the court sent notices to people whose debt stems from cases as distant as 1992.

Who keeps records on a 20-year-old traffic ticket?

One such notice was mailed to the last known address of Quanetta McNeal, who was told she owes more than $400 for a traffic ticket she received in 2000 in Brent, Ala. 

U.S. Air Force Veteran Quanetta McNeal received a notice about a 20-year-old traffic case. She believed she had completed all requirements and paid her debt, but has no records to prove it.

“[S]hould the defendant fail to appear or make an arrangement with the circuit clerk to pay the balance, a warrant maybe [sic] issued for the defendant’s arrest,” the notice reads.

McNeal, an Air Force veteran, former teacher, and business owner, called the clerk as soon as her mother, who received the first notice in June, told her she was expected in court. For McNeal, the conversation dredged up memories of her 2000 encounter with a police officer in Brent, Ala. who pulled her over at a stop sign and claimed she had been speeding. McNeal, who lived in Birmingham at the time, contested the ticket. She recalls making the two-hour round-trip drive from Birmingham to Brent three times before the officer finally showed up in court, where it was her word against his. 

As she remembers it, the judge (who was not Judge Wiggins) agreed to dismiss the charges as long as McNeal attended a four-hour driving school in Hoover and paid court costs. “I attended that class, paid the necessary fees to the court in Brent, and I was under the impression that that matter was closed,” she said. As a veteran, McNeal took her responsibilities seriously and prided herself in keeping her affairs in order.

Under Pressure: Alabama’s unhealthy reliance on fines and fees 

Though Judge Wiggins’ debt-collection methods are extreme, what is happening in Bibb County is just a symptom of a much larger problem. Alabama’s unhealthy dependance on legal financial obligations including fines, fees, and court costs, to fund basic state services has driven the price of even minor traffic infractions sky-high and put pressure on courts to collect money from debtors at any cost. 

Asked if they see a lot of people actually coming in to take care of those old court debts, the clerk in Bibb County paused and said, “Not really.” The judge directed her to send the notices anyway, she said. 

“If you owe money,” the clerk said, “it doesn’t go away.”

Judge Wiggins did not respond to a request for comment.

Records show that McNeal’s bill for her 2000 ticket totals $423.80: a $138.00 for a municipal traffic offense fee; a $158.00 traffic infraction docketing fee, a $30.00 “criminal history fee”; and an additional $97.80 fee tacked by the district attorney’s office. This last fee, which accrues against any debtor who is in arrears more than 90 days, is set aside to pay the district attorney’s “Restitution Recovery Unit,” which is tasked with getting money from debtors who fall behind on legal financial obligations and permitted to tack an additional 30 percent on to the total owed for its trouble. 

Despite this fee, it is unclear whether district attorney’s restitution recovery unit played any role in seeking to collect payments from McNeal during the 21 years during which the court claims she was in arrears.

The restitution recovery fee, if collected, is customarily split between the clerk’s office and the district attorney. The rest of the money is remitted to the Administrative Office of Courts, which duly disburses it to a wide range of non-court related entities including the State General Fund, the Police Officer’s Annuity Fund, and the American Village at Montevallo, an educational facility and event venue which receives a $1.00 cut from a wide range of court fees.

A job awaits, but so does an arrest warrant

McNeal, who maintains that she completed driving school and settled her debt to the state back in 2001, has long since moved on with her life. For a while, she taught school in Hoover and Homewood. She completed her service with the U.S. Air Force in 2005, and in 2011, she moved to Jamaica, where she opened a restaurant. She visited Alabama often and maintained her driver’s license and a mailing address at her mother’s house.

Recently, McNeal made the difficult decision to close her restaurant in Jamaica and move back to Alabama. The pandemic has hit the island nation hard, and between lockdowns and lost income, the restaurant doesn’t get the traffic necessary to keep its doors open. 

Quanetta McNeal, recently, in her restaurant in Jamaica. Covid has heavily impacted the island nation’s economy and she wants to return to the U.S. for work, but fears arrest over decades-old court debt.

McNeal has a phone job interview with an employer who is based in the United States in early September, but she is now afraid she will not be able to come home because of the arrest warrant Wiggins threatened.

She is absolutely certain she settled her debt long ago, but she does not have records two decades old. And now, because of the judge’s sudden decision to hold her accountable for decades-old debt she cannot prove she paid off, she feels she must choose between staying in Jamaica and coming home and facing possible arrest. 

On Tuesday, McNeal emailed a motion to the court describing her situation and asking the judge to dismiss the case against her. “Over twenty (20) years have passed since the defendant last appeared before the court and acted timely and in good faith to honor obligations to the court as agreed 20 years ago,” she wrote.

She will face a cruel set of choices if Wiggins denies her motion. Like millions of small business owners whose lives were turned upside down by the pandemic, she could not come up with money to pay even if she were ordered her to. She has $571.12 in her checking account and $11.04 in her savings account. 

“The court,” she wrote in a text to Appleseed, “cannot wipe out what I have left.”

By Alex LaGanke, Appleseed Staff Attorney

In 1994, Alonzo Hurth was sentenced to life without parole for a robbery conviction without physical injury. On June 21, 2021, Mr. Hurth walked out of Donaldson Correctional Facility a free man after a Jefferson County judge ordered him released on time served.

If sentenced today, Mr. Hurth would be eligible for a 13-year sentence with 3 to 5 years to serve in prison. Yet, he served 27 years of a death-in-prison sentence from which he tirelessly sought relief without legal representation until now. 

Forgery convictions were used to enhance Mr. Hurth’s sentence: a Georgia forgery and two Alabama check forgeries, the latter arising from a single incident. Due to changes in the law in both states, those priors would be too minor to use for sentence enhancement today. Put another way, if sentenced today, Mr. Hurth’s conviction would not be eligible for the Habitual Felony Offender Act.

Alonzo Hurth walked free from Donaldson Correctional Facility after 27 years of incarceration for robbery.

 

I began corresponding with Mr. Hurth and investigating his case in the summer of 2020. We featured his case in our Condemned report highlighting the wrongs of Alabama’s merciless Habitual Felony Offender Act.

At Appleseed, we receive a lot of letters from incarcerated Alabamians. His were distinctive and always opened with this line: “May we first acknowledge our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in whom we move and breathe and have our being. (Amen.)” Like many of our clients, Mr. Hurth’s commitment to his faith unquestionably kept his hope alive despite his life without parole sentence. In fact, Mr. Hurth’s relationship to God was possibly the most meaningful relationship in his life when we met him at age 68. His adoptive parents had passed away, and relationships with his remaining friends and family had strained after 27 years of incarceration.  Still, Mr. Hurth displayed a gift we often observe in older, incarcerated clients, his ability to channel crippling isolation into something positive and productive in an environment rife with self-destructive coping mechanisms, like violence and substance abuse.

During the early 2000s, Mr. Hurth became a licensed minister after years of study and written assignments through an out-of-state mail-in certification program. Mr. Hurth spent most of his incarceration in the prison chapel. He would begin his days around 3 o’clock every morning. He’d open the day in prayer and study, share an “encouraging word” on a bulletin board in the honor dorm where he resided, and before retiring to the chapel, Mr. Hurth might draft a poem and add it to his book of poems. Even before learning that there was any hope of his release, he displayed profound optimism: “I believe that everything that happened to me has brought me closer to God. After more than 25 years, I see God working in my life. When we strive to sincerely follow Christ, great things happen!” 

Alonzo Hurth requested one thing for his first day of freedom: a salad.

To be clear, Mr. Hurth’s disposition toward his circumstances was not delusional. He was aware of the death trap  he lived in, witnessing traumatic events regularly.  Even after nearly 50 days in the free world, the stain of incarceration on Mr. Hurth’s life is palpable. But as an incredible testament to the human will, Mr. Hurth chose to make the most of the worst situation. Even at nearly 70 years of age and undergoing cancer treatment twice while in the Department of Corrections, Mr. Hurth chose to view every day, every moment rather, as a blessing and “testimony.” 

Tragically, violence and substance abuse were ubiquitous in Mr. Hurth’s life leading up to prison as well. As a child, Mr. Hurth suffered physical abuse and abandonment and was once sent to a foster home, where he and other black foster children were held back from school to pick cotton on a farm in Moulton. He battled substance abuse until his 40s, including the day he was charged with robbery after using crack cocaine. Mr. Hurth sat in jail for a year and a half awaiting trial, an eccentric trial at that, including  one truly golden nugget when the defense attorney called himself as a witness.

Mr. Hurth’s case obviously struck us at Alabama Appleseed. We were able to take on his case in part because a University of Alabama School of Law third-year student joined us for an internship, adding much-needed capacity to our small legal team. Allen Slater provided extraordinary legal research and writing skills. 

Appleseed Staff Attorney Alex LaGanke and Allen Slater, Appleseed’s Legal Extern and a third-year law student at University of Alabama School of Law, joined to draft Mr. Hurth’s petition. Here they are celebrating following the filing of the petition.

Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, after close review of the case file, agreed not to oppose re-sentencing, noting in his response, “Due to changes in the law since he was convicted and sentenced, Mr. Hurth could not be sentenced to life without parole under any available sentencing scheme; he would be eligible for a much shorter sentence today.”  Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Shanta Owens granted the petition.

One of the most important aspects of our direct representation work at Appleseed is ensuring that every client has the support for a successful transition back into society upon release. The reentry work required to undo decades of incarceration is extensive, and we are grateful to our partners who join us in this effort. One of those partners is Shepherd’s Fold, a re-entry center that opened its doors to Mr. Hurth. Shepherd’s Fold Executive Director Jack Hausen and Mr. Hurth became friends during Mr. Hurth’s stint in prison, and the pair were elated to be reunited again in the free world.   

Mr. Hurth prepares for his first church service outside of prison.

Already, Mr. Hurth is enrolled in a job readiness class at the Salvation Army. He jumped at the chance for employment just a few days following release. But we encouraged him to slow down, get some basic computer training, and secure identification before joining the workforce again. He turns 70 next month, but you wouldn’t know it! In his zest to recapture the years lost to prison, he keeps moving forward. And I can’t wait to see what he does next! 

Come join our growing team working for justice and equity for all Alabamians!

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

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

Position Summary:  Alabama Appleseed seeks a Project Manager and Liaison for Jefferson County to grow our efforts to confront the harm imposed on low-wealth residents through traffic fines and fees, criminal court debt, and other costs imposed on justice-involved individuals. For the past several years, Alabama Appleseed has been studying the extensive collateral consequences that these types of debt have on the lives of Alabamians (see: the Under Pressure report on our website). This position will focus on how local jurisdictions can work differently to remedy some of the harms that we have identified.

This team member would manage our innovative Project JEFF (Jefferson County Equitable Fines and Fees Project) a 3-year data-driven project aimed at identifying trends, geographies, and harms associated with court debt and creating remedies to remove the collateral consequences of unpaid debt in Alabama’s largest county. Using the data and strategies developed during the Project JEFF implementation, this team member would conduct additional outreach to stakeholders from local government and courts, industry, direct services, education, and workforce development in order to broaden the impact of this project and Appleseed’s advocacy to additional jurisdictions.

The Project Manager reports directly to Appleseed Research Director, Leah Nelson, who oversees Project JEFF. This is a 2-year grant-funded position based in Appleseed’s Birmingham office, and will require occasional travel to Montgomery. This position also offers flexibility as to full time work or 30 hours per week. 

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Three or more years of experience highly preferred in nonprofit or governmental project or program management;
  • Bachelor’s degree preferred;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Strong research and writing skills;
  • Track record in relationship-building and working well with diverse stakeholders;
  • Familiarity with public records requests and working with court records;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Ability to multi-task effectively and occasionally embrace administrative duties;
  • Skilled in Excel, Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Google Docs.

An Ideal Candidate Brings:

  • Authentic connection to Alabama, especially central Alabama;
  • Familiarity with local government and courts in municipal, county, and state systems;
  • Ability to navigate ambiguous situations with no clear right or wrong answer;
  • Experience with public records requests;
  • Ability to manage large amounts of data;
  • Enthusiasm about promoting evidence-based solutions to entrenched systemic problems.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Assist Appleseed Research Director in all aspects of Project JEFF implementation including:
    • Coordinating the exchange of information among Project JEFF’s many stakeholders;
    • Keeping partners informed on progress and developments;
    • Keeping funders informed on progress;
    • Tracking concerns and issues that could slow progress.
  • Outreach to multi-sector stakeholders across the county in order to:
    • Educate stakeholders as to implications and harm to economy, employment, and growth of region because of burdensome court debt;
    • Grow network of collaborators interested in addressing collateral consequences of court debt;
    • Identify new jurisdictions for our work;
    • Identify new strategies for addressing the harm of heavy court debt. 
  • Produce report on practices of selected municipal courts in the Jefferson County area
  • Organize occasional outreach events to promote the project 

Salary and Benefits: This position offers a competitive non-profit salary range of $40,000 – $48,000 depending on experience, along with a benefits package including health insurance, generous paid leave, and reimbursement of travel-related expenses. The position is grant funded for 2 years with the possibility of extended employment.

To Apply:  Send a cover letter, resume, writing sample, and three references to Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director, Carla Crowder, at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis and accepted until the position is filled. Please write “Jefferson County Project Manager” in the subject line.

The injustices that we are fighting in Alabama today are directly connected to long histories of inequality and oppression in this state. As we build our team to fight for a better Alabama, we know that people who have historically been overlooked need to lead. For this reason, we welcome and strongly encourage applications from people of color, women, people with criminal histories, people from working class backgrounds, veterans and LGBTQ people.

Alabama Appleseed values an inclusive culture and diverse workforce. Alabama Appleseed encourages applications from all qualified individuals without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, marital status, citizenship, disability, and record of arrest or conviction.