In a letter dated Sept. 24, 2013, Ben asked his parents to contact ADOC and tell them he needed to be transferred in order to comply with the judge’s order.
“I’m trying to get transferred to a camp that has Crime Bill. I have been ordered to Crime Bill by a judge. The camp I’m at does not offer Crime Bill, and this camp won’t put me in for transfer until February. I want to be put in for transfer now,” he wrote. He said he hoped to be transferred to Limestone, Bullock, or Ventress prisons and asked his parents to Google each to ensure that Crime Bill was offered there.
Ben was doing his part to earn parole or transfer to Community Corrections, but if he failed to complete this required treatment, those requests would most likely be denied.
“I am grateful for the raising you guys have given me,” he wrote to his parents. “There are so many people here who don’t have any kind of raising and I’m glad I’m not one of them. I can handle this and I don’t want you to worry about me. You have plenty else to worry about besides me. I’m fine.”
The did have other things to worry about. Ben’s older sister Faith, their only other child, was dying. In Aug. 2013, the medical director for the hospice where Faith was receiving care wrote a letter to a judge saying that Faith “has requested that her brother be nearby in case of her probable impending death. She has a terminal diagnosis of Cirrhosis and is in the end stages of the disease process. According to Medicare/Medicaid guidelines for Hospice criteria, the patient has approximately six months or less of life expectancy.”
Faith died two days after Christmas in 2013 at the age of 35. By then, Ben was at Limestone Correctional Facility and on track to complete Crime Bill. Faith visited him about two weeks before she died.
Grieving for his sister, Ben remained committed to recovery. Treatment seemed to be back on track – until suddenly, it wasn’t. He participated in Crime Bill at Limestone for all of four weeks before the program was shut down, he recalled.
ADOC transferred him to Bibb Correctional Facility, notorious for being more violent than Limestone. “It was a mess. Blood everywhere, people stabbed left and right,” Ben told Appleseed.
He was in the Crime Bill dorm, but drugs were abundant. “I’ve seen people in class under the table injecting drugs in the prison in the drug treatment class.”
That wasn’t all. Ben has seen men’s faces melted from a concoction of depilation cream and baby oil their enemies microwaved and put on their skin. He has seen men overdose. He saw a man with a syringe stuck in the roof of his mouth. “At Elmore, I saw a guy get his throat cut coming out of the chow hall … over $3 he owes.”
Indeed, in many ways what is remarkable about Ben’s experience is just how unremarkable it is in the context of Alabama prisons. Illicit drug use in ADOC facilities is at crisis levels. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is suing the Alabama Department of Corrections for operating unconstitutionally cruel and dangerous prisons, put it this way: “The failure to prevent the introduction of illegal contraband leads to prisoner-on-prisoner violence. For example, the use of illicit substances, including methamphetamines or Fentanyl and synthetic cannabinoids, is prevalent in Alabama’s Prisons for Men. Prisoners using illicit substances often harm others or become indebted to other prisoners. The inability to pay drug debts leads to beatings, kidnappings, stabbings, sexual abuse, and homicides.”
In its Amended Complaint filed in May 2021, DOJ further alleged that “ADOC does not accurately identity or classify every death caused by overdoses.” It observed that even during the pandemic when visitors were disallowed, “prisoners continue to have easy access to drugs and other illegal contraband.”
The results of ADOC’s failures, DOJ contended, are overdoses, deaths, and violence pursuant to drug debts. In one horrific instance in April 2017, “a Bibb prisoner was stabbed multiple times by another prisoner while sleeping. His attacker stated that the victim owed him a drug debt, so he ‘got it in blood.’”
Despite all this, Ben avoided drug use during his stays at Elmore, Limestone and Bibb. He completed the programming to which he had been sentenced, stayed out of trouble, and in 2018, he was granted parole. He moved to a new town, got a job, and started dating. But he had no support, no community to help him stay sober. Then he got a corneal infection at work which kept him home for months.
Being stuck inside his own head, sick, with nothing to do, was poisonous for Ben. It triggered anxiety and depression, his old demons. “I had feelings. I needed them to go away,” he said. So he started using drugs again.
In 2019, Ben was arrested with Xanax and Klonopin. He was charged with two felonies and pled guilty.
Seven years surrounded by violence and drug use in prison did not heal Ben. Prison did not vanquish his disease. And less than a year after his release, following offenses that harmed no one but himself, he was sent back to the same system, although this time in the wake of specific findings by the federal government that ADOC leaders fail repeatedly to prevent illicit substances from entering their facilities.
“It’s really hard on drug addicts to do nothing and be surrounded by temptation. It’s cruel.”
The court sentenced him to 104 months in prison for his two new felonies. ADOC sent him to minimum-security prison that sends people who are incarcerated out into the community to work but keeps them in dorms at night.
At least the work release facility is less violent than other prisons he has been housed in. Before the pandemic started, he participated in as many classes and programs as possible, trying to keep himself busy, clean, and focused. The pandemic shut everything down. To keep them occupied, the incarcerated men were given access to tablets loaded with podcasts and movies. The morning Appleseed met with him in July 2021, Ben had been watching “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
“Being bored, nothing to do. Spinning my wheels. I feel like I just wasted a whole year of my life, resisting temptation, and it’s cruel,” Ben told Appleseed in July 2021. “It’s just a cruel set up.”
He gave into temptation during the dark, terrifying 14 months of lockdown, accumulating his first-ever disciplinary infraction. He failed a drug test after taking illegal drugs that had been smuggled into the prison.
In the courtyard at the work release center, someone set up a Havahart rodent trap. The trap was sitting in the corner of the courtyard when Alabama Appleseed visited on July 1, 2021. Presumably, whoever set the trap hopes that the raccoon or whatever unsuspecting creature found itself stuck in the prison courtyard will wander into the trap so it can be taken to a safer environment and set free in a place where it will thrive.
With Covid again bearing down on the state, Ben remains trapped inside with no classes, no programs, and a disease that thrives in idleness.
Ben is eligible for parole in Jan. 2022. Despite his disciplinary infraction, he is a good candidate for release, though Alabama’s parole board is granting releases at an historically low rate.
Asked what it would take for him to succeed outside prison walls, Ben said that whatever else he does, he desperately wants to work – any job that would give him a sense of purpose, no matter how menial. The closest he’s been to happy in the past several decades was when he was working, he told Appleseed. “I was going to work and I was staying clean and I was working at a chicken plant – which is a bottom of the barrel job, but I was clean. I was accomplishing something.”
He wants to live near his family. He wants to be safe from the violence that has been a constant threat in ADOC facilities. He wants to participate in a recovery community that will keep him away from the drugs that are readily available to him in prison.
“Prison is a dangerous place,” he told Appleseed. “You come in here with a drug problem – and you might get killed.”