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! 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Motis Wright, who was originally sentenced to die in prison under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act for a 1994 robbery conviction, was released on time served after being represented by Alabama Appleseed.

Mr. Wright walked free in May, greeted by his son, Chris Burton, whom he had not seen in 15 years. They climbed into Mr. Burton’s gleaming black pickup truck and traveled through the night to Columbus, Ohio, where Mr. Wright reunited with his extended family. He has begun a re-entry program run by the Columbus Urban League and, at age 58, is enrolled in robotics classes.

Greeted by his son, Motis Wright leaves Staton prison after 27 years of incarceration.

Mr. Wright’s case is yet another example of an older person in Alabama sentenced more harshly for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences today. Because a series of sentencing reforms passed by the Legislature are not retroactive, Alabama punishes our elders with extreme sentences; the state’s unconstitutional prisons are crowded with men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Many, like Motis Wright, live in honor dorms and have long aged out of criminality.

During his 27 years of incarceration, Mr. Wright developed an exceptional record of service and leadership. He aided in the establishment of the first honor dorm offered through the Alabama Department of Corrections and was instrumental in bringing the nationally recognized Long Distance Dads prison program to the state of Alabama.  Hundreds of incarcerated people have access to productive and rehabilitative programming because of Mr. Wright’s leadership.  Teachers, chaplains, and correctional officers all recommended Mr. Wright for release.

Mr. Wright’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole was originally reduced to life with parole in March of 2019. In his order, Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Ray Martin concluded that Mr. Wright “has taken advantage of his time as best he can, has accepted the consequences of his actions, and returned to the Court as a humble, changed man.”

With a life sentence, Mr. Wright became eligible for parole last year. Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne alerted Appleseed about the case.

Appleseed lawyers submitted a comprehensive parole packet including character references from ADOC staff, documentation of Mr. Wright’s participation in numerous classes and programs, a re-entry plan at a certified re-entry facility, support from 17 family members, and the 2019 court order declaring that Mr. Wright deserved another chance.  There was no victim opposition to his release.

Motis Wright emerged from Staton Correctional Facility and was greeted by his sister, niece, and son, who are just a few members of his large extended family.

Nevertheless, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole denied parole and set off his next consideration date five years, the longest possible set off. It appeared that Mr. Wright’s well-earned opportunity for a new life with his family would have to wait, at least until he was 63.

Beginning in fiscal year 2019, the Parole Board reduced the number of parole hearings to a 30-year low. That same year, then-Director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Charlie Graddick indicated that individuals with violent convictions would not be granted parole because of the nature of their convictions, despite parole eligibility for such offenses per Alabama law. “Just because they’re eligible doesn’t mean they’re going to get out,” the Director stated, adding “[W]e don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. [We] just don’t.”

Fortunately, the Parole Board did not have the last word.

Alabama Appleseed lawyers filed a post-conviction petition on behalf of Mr. Wright, arguing that for the Court’s 2019 order “to have meaningful impact and for Mr. Wright to be able to secure employment and support himself before old age becomes an impediment, resentencing to time-served is appropriate.”

Judge Martin agreed, noting in his order: “The Court is well aware of the accomplishments of the Petitioner during his years of incarceration. The Court is also aware that his sentence would have been much different under the current Sentencing Guidelines.”

Motis Wright and Appleseed Staff Attorney Alex LaGanke stop for ice cream at Peach Park following his release from Staton.

Mr. Wright now lives with his 82-year-old mother and one of his sisters in Columbus, Ohio. He is eager to obtain employment, to use his agile mind and positive energy to contribute to society, and has been slowed only by the obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face in obtaining identification. “The biggest thing I noticed that I had to get used to was not having somebody watching me, or having to ask permission to ask or move. It was hard to get used to that,” he told us. “I had to get used to that feeling of being at home.”

This 58-year-old father and grandfather can now spend unlimited time with his sons and grandchildren.

He helped start the prison system’s “Long Distance Dad” program. He stayed connected with his sons during 27 grueling years in Alabama’s prison system. And now he’s creating a bond with his granddaughters. The first time they met, he recalled, they wanted to tell him all of their talents and what they like to do. One of his granddaughters even played the piano for him.

 

By Alabama Appleseed Staff

The 2021 Alabama Regular Session will begin on February 2, 2021.

Below is a summary of key human rights and criminal justice issues we anticipate will be under active, serious deliberation by the legislature in 2021.

To make our communities safer, reduce the burden on taxpayers, and begin to address the staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system, the Alabama legislature should:

Repeal or reform the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA or “three strikes” law)

HB107 and HB24

Legislation will be introduced to repeal Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Act which ensnares hundreds of older individuals for life or life without parole sentences for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences under today’s laws.

We support reform or repeal of the current HFOA law for the following reasons:

  • Hundreds of people in Alabama are serving life without parole sentences for crimes that resulted in no physical injury
  • The 1980s-era law has been applied with staggering racial bias as 75% of people sentenced to die in prison under the HFOA are Black
  • This group of prisoners is disproportionately older (50 and above), including many with strong records of rehabilitation, thus low risk for recidivism. It is counterproductive to research and evidence to keep them incarcerated
  • Alabama taxpayers continue to spend exhaustive amounts of money on housing incarcerated individuals who have been rehabilitated for decades

Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture

We expect legislation to be introduced that would end civil asset forfeiture (replacing it with the criminal forfeiture process in all instances), require transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process, and prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from the federal civil asset forfeiture programs. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because civil asset forfeiture:

  • Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable;
  • Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice;
  • Turns the presumption of innocence on its head by forcing property owners to defend their property’s “innocence.”
  • Builds on the 2019 bill we passed creating a public database on forfeiture cases.

Report: Forfeiting Your Rights: How Alabama’s Profit-Driven Civil Asset Forfeiture Scheme Undercuts Due Process and Property Rights

End Needless Drivers License Suspensions

HB 129

Legislation will be introduced that would stop the practice of driver’s license suspensions for things unrelated to dangerous driving – namely unpaid fines and fees, and failure to appear in court. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because our research has found that this practice:

  • Hurts families by making breadwinners forego basic necessities or take out high-interest payday loans to pay what they owe
  • Slows the economy by keeping people out of work
  • Leads people to commit crimes to pay off their tickets, such as theft or sale of drugs

Report: Stalled: How Alabama’s Destructive Practice of Suspending Drivers Licenses for Unpaid Traffic Debt Hurts People and Slows Economic Progress

Create Diversion Program Study Commission

HB 71

Legislation will be introduced that creates a commission to study the use and effectiveness of diversion programs throughout the state. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation for all of the following reasons:

  • Alabama’s tangle of overlapping, unaccountable, and expensive diversion programs are not equally available to people who most need them
  • Structural obstacles force participants to make unconscionable choices in order to succeed
  • Costs, requirements, and access vary widely among counties and programs, providing opportunities for success only to those with greater resources
  • Without accessibility, transparency, and reforms that account for the lived reality of people across Alabama, diversion will remain one more element of Alabama’s two-tiered system of punishment

Report: In Trouble: How the Promise of Diversion Clashes with the Reality of Poverty, Addiction, and Structural Racism in Alabama’s Justice System

 

By Ronald McKeithen, Appleseed guest blogger

Birmingham, AL — Doubts of ever leaving prison had been embedded deep within me. I couldn’t shake them. At least not completely. Even after everything that I’d prayed for and dreamed of for decades had finally been granted: a dedicated legal team and a mountain of supporters that had worked tirelessly to bring my plight to the attention of the world. Yet that fearful, nasty taste of doubt still lingered in the back of my throat. Even after being told that I might leave the following morning.

And what’s more disturbing, I wasn’t ready to leave. There was too much I had to complete, guys to give that last encouraging talk to, and so much to distribute to guys that didn’t have much. I needed more time. At least two more days. Which is the most crazy thing that’s entered my mind since the day I refused the 15 year plea deal the District Attorney offered me in a robbery case. Especially after having served 37 years on a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. I should have been running towards the front entrance as shameless tears fell from my eyes. But I’d been shackled down too long in the insane asylum that is Alabama prison that it shouldn’t surprise anyone if I’d gone a little mad myself.

Regardless of the doubt, hope wouldn’t allow me sleep. I found myself rushing to complete greeting cards I’d started for friends, while contemplating the possibility of actually leaving this place in a matter of hours. Then exhaustion won. I couldn’t stay awake any longer. And if I dreamed of freedom, I wasn’t given a chance to recall it. Because I was awakened from a deep sleep by an officer yelling my name. Telling me to pack my belongings. That I had five minutes. I was confused, disoriented, not fully understanding where I was or what those words actually meant. Wondering why I was hearing applause. I realized that nearly the whole dorm was on their feet, smiling and clapping. Then it hit me. I was going home. If I were alone, I would’ve cried like a baby, but my masculinity wouldn’t allow it.

No hugs in the time of Covid, as Carla Crowder greets Ronald McKeithen on his first day of freedom.

By Gus Troncale

It was just a few weeks ago that I found myself fighting back tears while sitting in that very spot. After numerous conversations with my lawyers and mailing every document that I possessed that would reveal my activities since my incarceration, and why I’ve spent nearly 40 years of my life in prison, the petition that would be filed to the court had finally arrived. It was the most astounding document I’d ever laid my eyes upon. It may as well have been the Holy Grail. I had made several attempts to the courts pleading my case. Copying other guy’s petitions then rearranging them to fit my case, not fully knowing what I was doing, but knowing I had to do something. Feeling like a mute that didn’t know sign language, straining my throat to be understood, and having to endure the hurt of knowing that they clearly understood yet choose to ignore me. But this petition. It was the first one I’d seen in decades with my name and wasn’t done by me or some jailhouse lawyer. I had to look away several times before reading half of it. And I had to practically run away from it twice to keep my bunkie from seeing tears hanging from my eyelids.

The morning of my release, as the applause died down, I became even more confused. I didn’t have any idea of what to do next. What to pack, what to leave, or where to go. I’ve been ordered to gather all my belongings hundreds of times, to move from one cell, block, dorm or one prison to another prison. But never this. Freedom. And as guys began to surround my bed, each trying to shake my hand or pat my back to congratulate me, I realized that gathering things I should take was useless. That I needed to get out of there. Men began asking me to leave them something, which is expected in such circumstances. So I gave everything away.

Each time I had previously imagined walking out that gate; I either kissed the ground, stepped into a waiting limousine, or turned around and gave whoever was in the tower a finger from both hands. But the only thing that was on my mind was seeing my lawyer and friends. It hurt not being able to hug any of them. Covid wouldn’t allow it. But the hugs may have been too much to bear, since it’s something I’ve long to do to each of them but never could. I’ve never in my life seen so many people so happy to see me. And it touched me to the core. Their smiles felt like rays from the sun as raindrops fell from a gray sky onto my bald head. I’d given all my caps away. But those raindrops felt so good.

By Bernard Troncale

They were all wearing masks, yet the first person I recognized was Beth Shelburne, the woman that started my path to freedom. Through some kind of luck, I was chosen to be interviewed by her for a Fox 6 news story called “Prison Professors” about the UAB Lecture Series that I’d participated in for several years. Retired UAB Professor Connie Kohler was also there. I recognized her from the amount of time I’d spent in our Body & Health class, creating podcasts and newsletters. And there was Pat Vander Meer, the instructor of my book club, who also oversaw the prisons newsletters. I was overjoyed to see her. And there was this tall, elegant lady that I had never seen, yet appeared to be more pleased to see me than the others. She was Carla Crowder of Alabama Appleseed, my attorney, whom I’d only spoken with by phone. God knows how badly I wanted to hug her. There was also Connie’s husband, John. As well as Cedric, who I later learned is the brother of Dena Dickerson, the director of the Offender Alumni Association, who was prepared to help with my re-entry.

I didn’t know what to say. What can you say to people who have saved your life? “Thank you,” or “I owe you one?” None of these responses came close to describing the gratitude that was screaming within. There was so much I needed to say but couldn’t begin to express. To be incarcerated at the age 21, too young and naive to comprehend how willingly I was destroying my life, viewing every arrest as an occupational hazard, whether it be juvenile detention, the city or county jail, or prison. And having to endure decades before the realization that I will die in prison hit home, regardless of how many work reports, classes I complete or certificates I earned, that my life will fade away behind these walls as thousands of others have. And then a miracle happened. Someone noticed me. Then others. And the next thing I knew, people were supporting me. And some of them were standing before me.

I’d never had a good experience with a District Attorney. The one at my trial said in his closing argument that he wished I was dead, as if I’d done something so despicable, so loathsome, that it required death. Another DA placed in his response to one of my petitions that I had a rape case, which wasn’t true. But this time God blessed me with a fair and just DA to review the post-conviction petition. Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr took the time to look at my case and realized that I didn’t deserve to die in prison.

I hadn’t seen the outside of Donaldson Correctional Facility in over 16 years. The sky even looked different. During the drive from the prison, I wanted to ask Cedric to slow down, especially on the curves. I’ve never been on a roller coaster, but this must be how it felt. The constant swerving made me nauseous, and the pictures flashing past my window were making me queasy, but it was the best ride of my life. So much has changed. Unlike the kid that kept repeating ” Are we there yet?” I kept repeating “Where are we?”

I’m still doing it. Birmingham has become a whole new world, and I’m finding everything fascinating and so new. I would notice a squirrel or a small sparrow and become amazed. I’m struggling to stay calm, trying my best to control the googly-eyed expression that just won’t go away. The City of Birmingham may as well have been New York. It was hard to believe that I was gone long enough for all of those buildings to be built. Yet my old neighborhood, Titusville, hadn’t changed, which was very disappointing. The houses that had not rotted away appeared to have nearly 40 years of dust covering them. Yet the Birmingham City Jail looks brand new. I can’t understand how such neglect could occur when so much growth surrounds it.

Friends gathered for a socially distanced dinner in Ron’s honor the night he was released.

My transition back into society would have been a struggle without my support team; I would have been lost. One of my biggest fans is James Sokol, a retired businessman who believes in me and expects great things from me. The two people that have also played a major role in life since being out is Dena Dickerson, of the Offenders Alumni Association (OAA), and Alex LaGanke, Appleseed’s legal fellow. Dena, a formerly incarcerated person herself, is well aware of what I had endured, and what I would face upon my release – things one can’t learn in a classroom. She and her organization have made my transition beautiful. And Alex has been so instrumental in getting my much-needed documents in order and helping me grasp technological advancements. She’s such a store of knowledge and a delight to be around. I become a student when I’m with either of them.

To say that I’ve settled in and found my balance after six weeks would be a lie, even though I feel that I have. But to be honest, I doubt if I ever will. I spent too much time there. Each day was a constant battle to not give in to that prison mentality and become just another lost soul that fades into nothing. If I hadn’t kept my mind active from classes, I might have lost my mind. I did not have the luxury of being unproductive in prison, nor do I have that luxury out here. I’m experiencing a rebirth, a second chance at life, and every day has been a blessing. I fall asleep in anticipation of the next.

By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

ELMORE, ALA. (Nov. 9, 2020) – Sean Worsley finally walked through the gates of Staton Correctional Facility this morning and into the arms of his wife Eboni. It was a moment nearly 11 months in the making.

Sean Worsley reunites with his wife Eboni Worsley after being released from Draper prison. Photo by Jill Friedman

Worsley is a disabled Black veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart in connection with his service disabling roadside bombs in Iraq. He was arrested in 2016 in Gordo, Ala., for the mistake of bringing his legally prescribed medical marijuana from his home state of Arizona into Alabama, where possession of any amount of marijuana for any reason can be a felony. He pleaded guilty in 2017 and was sentenced to probation, and allowed to serve that sentence in Arizona.

Homelessness, financial instability, and the differences between Arizona and Alabama drug laws thwarted his efforts to comply with the terms of his probation. He was arrested in January; then a Pickens County judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to five years in prison.

His bid for parole was granted last month.

Worsley emerged this morning into a world turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, a dramatic presidential election, and months of civil unrest over police violence against Black Americans.  His journey since his Jan. 11 arrest in Arizona has been an object lesson in how government resources were squandered on over-punishing a Black man. Worsley spent two months in jail in Maricopa County, Ariz. awaiting transport to Alabama. In March, he endured 10 days in a prison transport van that made multiple stops in far-flung locations before depositing him in the Pickens County Jail in Carrollton, Ala. He would stay there all spring and summer because the pandemic slowed inmate transfers from county jails to Department of Corrections prisons.

Sean Worsley, a Purple Heart veteran incarcerated by the State of Alabama for medical marijuana, finally has something to smile about. He is free. Photo by Jill Friedman

 

The jail was vile. According to Worsley, the bathroom was full of mold and the dorm was infested with spiders, cockroaches, and other vermin. Worsley said there was no doctor on staff, and the nurses were reluctant to refer even serious complaints of medical distress to a doctor. Many of the men, including Worsley, suffered from mental health conditions exacerbated by the wretched environment and lack of anything productive to do.

Prisoners without family or friends to help them could not afford to supplement the inadequate prison meals with food from the commissary, so they went hungry. They also lacked regular access to sufficient soap and other personal hygiene items, even as the pandemic made those things more essential than ever. Corrections officers forced one inmate Worsley was jailed with into a shower to retaliate for the inmate’s complaints about bedding that smelled of urine. Sometimes, Worsley’s mail was kept from him without explanation. “I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” he wrote Appleseed in a June letter from jail.  Worsley saw terrified men crying, coughing, and begging for medical attention. To pass the time, he slept as much as he could.

In late September, Worsley was at last transported to Draper Correctional Facility, a previously decommissioned prison that was reopened during the pandemic so newly arriving prisoners could quarantine for 14 days before moving along to their next destination. Though his religious beliefs forbid him to cut his hair, corrections officials shaved his head before admitting him to Draper, likely a violation of his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects prisoners from needless incursions on their right to practice their faiths.

Sean rejoins his wife, Eboni, who has advocated for him through his 11-month incarceration for bringing legally prescribed medical marijuana in Alabama. Behind them is Draper prison, one of Alabama’s notoriously horrific state prison, where this disabled veteran was housed. Photo by Jill Friedman

When Worsley finally completed quarantine, he was assigned to Staton Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Elmore, Ala. Other incarcerated men stole his lock and other essential belongings almost as soon as he arrived.

Worsley witnessed a fight and guards taking a huge knife from another prisoner. Knives were routine and his own life was threatened. He was forced to find a different place to sleep after it emerged that the bunk he had been assigned was directly below an area inmates used to store contraband, including cell phones. Some of his fellow prisoners availed themselves of the illegal contraband drugs that are routinely smuggled into Alabama prisons. Worsley witnessed their violent reactions to K2, a synthetic compound that can cause anxiety, paranoia, aggression, seizures, and death. He saw the horrific consequences when inmates snuck illicit drugs into the tobacco smoked by another prisoner they hated, and watched the victim melt down and bang his head on the floor as he suffered hallucinations. The guards, Worsley said, were aware of most of the illegal, dangerous activity that was going on but were powerless or unwilling to stop it.

None of this is surprising. Alabama’s jails, which are run by its counties, are notoriously disorganized and under-resourced. Corruption is not uncommon. Last year in Pickens County, where Worsley was held from March through September, a former sheriff was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after he stole $400,000 money from the food allowance intended to feed inmates. To feed the inmates in his care, he defrauded a local food bank and his own church, taking almost half a million pounds of food at extremely low cost to himself.

Alabama’s prisons are even worse. Put simply, they are dangerous, corrupt, violent, and infested with contraband including drugs, weapons, and cell phones. Twice in as many years, the U.S. Department of Justice has deemed Alabama’s men’s prison system in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

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. Photo by Jill Friedman

 

Veterans comprise nearly 10 percent of Alabama’s state population according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They are well represented in its prisons, yet but for one dorm at Bibb Correctional Facility, there is precious little programming for them despite the relatively high rate of PTSD and other ailments that combat can result in. As for mental health treatment for the prison population overall, a federal judge in 2017 deemed it “horrendously inadequate” and ordered the Department of Corrections to take immediate action to improve conditions. In 2020, that same judge found that DOC had been “unable or unwilling to take necessary steps to monitor its own practices” regarding mental health care.

Sean Worsley served in the U.S. Army, earning a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in Iraq.

Worsley already suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his service in Iraq when he was thrown into Alabama’s war zone of a corrections system. Now that he is out, he will have a great deal of adjusting to do. But a cross-sector of supporters from right here in Alabama, has emerged to help, all of whom recognized the inanity of incarcerating a disabled war hero for medical marijuana. He will soon start job training through the Dannon Project, a re-entry program that serves nonviolent offenders in Jefferson and Shelby Counties, and he has a job offer waiting for him at BLOX, a construction firm in Bessemer. He also has the support of a skilled therapist, a loving wife, and the community that has come together to support him since the story of his incarceration for marijuana possession was first published on June 30.

Even so, this man who sacrificed his youth and health to serve America will need time to heal. As Alabama observes an unusually subdued Veterans Day, let us contemplate the treatment Sean Worsley endured in the name of “law and order.” Let us be inspired by his story as we promise to take the urgent steps to change drug policy and enact long-overdue criminal justice reforms. Let us do things differently in his name.

 

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

Carla.Crowder@alabamaappleseed.org

One year ago, Alvin Kennard stood in a Bessemer courtroom nervous and uncertain. Striped jailhouse scrubs swallowed his rail-thin, shivering frame. After 36 years in a sweltering, unairconditioned prison, the chilled air of Judge David Carpenter’s courtroom was a shock to his system.

What came next was a shock to the justice system.  In 1983, Mr. Kennard had been sentenced to life without parole for a $50 robbery at a bakery. Judge Carpenter scrapped that and resentenced him to time served. A courtroom filled with Mr. Kennard’s friends and family erupted in hallelujahs. The television cameras started rolling.  As his attorney, and a worrier by nature, I immediately started thinking about next steps: This 58-year-old man had been incarcerated nearly two-thirds of his life. How on earth was he going to adjust to the outside world?

Extremely well, it turned out. Alvin Kennard filed a tax return this year. He tithes at church. He hasn’t even been affected by Covid-19, other than limits on the family gatherings he loves.

Alvin Kennard outside his home in Bessemer. August 28 marks the year anniversary of his freedom from a sentence of Life Without Parole for a $50 robbery. By Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard’s large, supportive family was critical to his successful re-entry. A room was ready in his brother’s home. A niece, who is a Bessemer businessowner, helped with transportation. Church connections helped him secure employment within six weeks at Town and Country Ford, where he works in the body shop buffing cars. Every so often, he calls me on his lunch break and lets me know things are still going just fine.  During the holidays, he texted me photos of him at the staff holiday party, standing next to a huge inflatable polar bear. Imagine returning from Alabama’s hellish prisons to a world where holidays are filled with enormous glowing inflatables. Mr. Kennard embraces it all – with joy.

“It’s almost a year I’ve had my job,” he remarked recently. “It’s been a blessing, it’s been wonderful. It’s not about how much money I’m making, it’s about what God allowed me to do.”

He loves listening to the birds chatter in the mornings, wandering down to the creek of his childhood and watching turtles and snakes. He’s got a favorite meat-and-three restaurant, Kayla’s, that’s helped him put on much-needed weight.

Mr. Kennard at work over the holidays. He’s employed in the body shop at a Ford dealership in Bessemer.

 

All conversations with Alvin Kennard eventually lead toward God. No matter how hard I try to give him credit for how hard he worked, how much he suffered, how he deserves a good life, he invokes God and the conversation becomes a prayer.

I wish more Alabama legislators, judges, and prosecutors could pray with Mr. Kennard.

Until last year, he was labeled a “violent felon” based on his robbery conviction at age 22.  Because of three minor non-violent convictions stemming from the same arrest at age 18, he was labeled a habitual offender.  Based on the calls and mail that poured into Alabama Appleseed’s office following news of Mr. Kennard’s freedom, there is a world out there that does not see him as a violent felon.  “A few month ago, I heard about you. My father was from Alabama, Bessemer, too,” wrote Elizabeth, from Spokane, Washington, who mailed him a little cash – “a gift, so that your days moving forward are hopeful, full of love and belonging.”

Elizabeth acknowledged something else about Mr. Kennard’s story: “I’m learning more about how horrible the police and jail systems are (& the laws, too). It’s not new … but the depth of the corrupt mission is being seen.”

At Appleseed, we’ve also gotten mail from those still stranded in prison honor dorms. Men in their 60s, 70s, one who is 86, sentenced to die in prison for the sins of their youth under Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Law. They tell us about their kidney problems, their high blood pressure, their crack-cocaine addictions from the 1980s that led to convenience-store hold ups and courthouse decisions that they were forever beyond redemption. Except now, they are the prisons’ hospice workers, GED teachers, barbers, launderers, preachers, peacemakers, and clean-up crew.  “The [whole] time I’ve been in, I’ve worked as a hall runner, shift office runner, infirmary runner and have seen so much brutal violence and had to clean up so much blood out of cells, off of walls and hallways and had to help pick up dead inmates or seem dead and get them to the infirmary,” wrote one man whose conviction dates back to the first Bush Presidency. “I’ve had so much prison blood on my hands, I see it in my sleep.”

Due to the limitations and complexities of Alabama criminal procedure, there is currently no clear vehicle for second chances for these old men in the honor dorms.  Mr. Kennard is free only through extraordinary mercy and grace from Judge Carpenter and the Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney’s Office led by Lynneice Washington.

Mr. Kennard in court on the day he was resentenced.

Mr. Kennard turns 60 this year. He will celebrate a full year of employment and get a week’s paid vacation. Most likely he’ll purchase a new suit or two. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Mr. Kennard this year – beyond his faith and his work ethic – is that he is a sharp dresser, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the cameras were rolling on him while he wore faded jailhouse scrubs.

He is much more himself in his Sunday best.

Alvin Kennard rarely speaks of his freedom without acknowledging his faith in God. By Bernard Troncale

 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Birmingham, Ala. — A little more justice slowly made its way into Alabama this week.

Roberto Cruz, a 71-year-old man who had been sentenced to die in prison for a case involving marijuana – that’s right, only marijuana – was resentenced to time served and will soon be released from Donaldson prison.

Mr. Cruz’s odyssey through the Alabama court system contains so many remarkable elements it’s hard to know where to start. In 2003, he was charged with drug trafficking when the vehicle he was a passenger in was pulled over in Warrior and police found 25 pounds of marijuana in the trunk.  The driver received a 3-year split sentence and was deported.  Mr. Cruz was sentenced to Life Without Parole.

Roberto Cruz was ensnared in a system that has some of the country’s harshest sentences and lowest weight thresholds for marijuana offenses, Jefferson County Judge Stephen Wallace found, when he resentenced Mr. Cruz to time served.

The State’s primary evidence, according to Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace’s order: “[C]ircumstantial evidence suggesting that since the defendant was a passenger in the vehicle and marijuana has a strong odor, then he must have known about the drugs.”

At trial in 2005, Mr. Cruz’s attorney offered no mitigating evidence nor objection to the State’s use of prior convictions from 1985 to enhance his sentence under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. It took almost 16 years for the Alabama justice system to correct this error. Turns out, the State was not permitted to use those old convictions, all of which were drug crimes stemming from a single incident in Georgia.  Well-established Alabama case law excludes drug convictions prior to 1987 for use in HFOA sentencing because drug crimes had their own recidivist statute until then. But no one in Judge Gloria Bahakel’s Jefferson County courtroom 15 years ago could be bothered to point that out.

The story of how this error got corrected speaks volumes about the frailties in Alabama’s justice system and the harm done to defendants without access to money. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.  Incarcerated and without the benefit of counsel, Mr. Cruz filed post-conviction petitions that went nowhere. Then investigators with the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered his case while researching marijuana trafficking cases. They put Mr. Cruz’s plight on the radar of Jefferson County Public Defender Adam Danneman, who vigorously took on the case.

Judge Wallace’s order, most importantly, provides immediate release to a 71-year-old man who has no business at Donaldson prison. But it goes further in pointing out the “disturbing” reality that Alabama is still sending people to prison forever for marijuana, a substance legal in 11 states, and decriminalized in 16 more. “Commercial distribution of cannabis is allowed in all jurisdictions where it has been legalized, except for Vermont and the District of Columbia,” he wrote.  Even in the surrounding southern states of Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee, Alabama’s weight threshold for a trafficking conviction – greater than 2.2 pounds – is way out of line.

“Judge Wallace’s order hits the nail on the head. We have the lowest thresholds and the harshest punishments in the country for marijuana in this state,” Mr. Danneman told me. “Regardless of how you feel about the legalization/decriminalization of weed, 15 plus years in prison is a shockingly harsh punishment. I’m glad we were able to do something about it.”

Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on Alabama’s harsh marijuana laws in our report, Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Accessing the Fiscal and Human Toll of Criminalization. We found that marijuana enforcement costs Alabama taxpayers $22 million per year, a cost worth examining given the enormous state budget shortfalls anticipated by the COVID-related economic downturn and court closures.

The human costs are much worse.

In leaving prison as an older person once sentenced to die there, Mr. Cruz is in good company.  Within the last year, 72-year-old Geneva Cooley and 58-year-old Alvin Kennard have walked free, in large part because of Jefferson County judges and prosecutors who were unafraid to take a second look at how the mistakes of our past are wasting lives and hurting people.  Like Mr. Cruz, Ms. Cooley’s LWOP sentence was for drug trafficking.

Mr. Kennard at his Bessemer home a few months after his release from prison. Photo by Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard was my client and I still see him on a regular basis. Within 6 weeks of release, he secured a job at a car dealership. He talks about going to work like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Work, family, and church are his priorities.  In fact, Mr. Kennard and Bessemer District Attorney Lynniece Washington attend the same church. And she is fine with that, she once told me. After all, she saw no purpose in opposing Mr. Kennard’s resentencing. He had served 36 years for a $50 robbery.

But there are so many more like them. According to data from the Alabama Sentencing Commission that Judge Wallace included in his order, 22 people in Alabama are serving sentences of Life Without Parole for drug convictions, 255 for robbery – all crimes that require no physical injury for a conviction.  But under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, that does not matter.

More than 100 of these people are over 60 years old. As COVID-19 spreads through the Alabama Department of Corrections, with now 25 confirmed cases among staff and incarcerated people, the potential consequences of these sentencing decisions become more fraught.

We celebrate with Roberto Cruz. And still we search for the ways Alabama’s criminal punishment system will somehow provide justice to the many others like him.

For a full account of Mr. Cruz’s case, please read Kathryn Casteel’s detailed report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On Dec. 4, 2019, the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Reform convened at the Alabama Statehouse to hear proposals from the public on how to address Alabama’s prison crisis. Appleseed Research Director Leah Nelson was among the 20 presenters, including families of the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, advocates, academics, lawyers, direct service providers, and faith leaders who shared proposals.  Below are Leah’s comments, based on Appleseed’s extensive research around prison diversion programs.  

Montgomery, Alabama — My name is Leah Nelson. I’m research director at Alabama Appleseed. I have spent 2 years surveying and interviewing hundreds of people in drug courts and diversion programs.

What I learned is that these programs are too expensive for people who lack wealth to participate in them without making outrageous sacrifices. And they are not designed to accommodate the everyday realities of folks who have jobs, children, or other obligations they must attend to.

Appleseed’s Leah Nelson shares her research on Alabama’s two-tiered justice system with the study group.

How many people in this room could drop everything several times a week to drive to another county to leave a urine sample? How many could get most of a day off once every couple of weeks to spend hours in a courtroom waiting for our chance to speak with a judge? Now imagine doing that if you were a single mom, if you worked at a job that paid by the hour and had an unpredictable schedule, or if you didn’t have a car.

I’d like to tell you a little about two people who cannot be here today.

The first person is a man named Ryan, who is in drug court in Shelby County right this minute and who will go to work after he’s through.

Ryan exemplifies the shortcomings of the system as it currently exists. In 2017, he was convicted of unauthorized possession of a controlled substance and put on probation in Chilton County. In early 2019, he reoffended in Shelby County and was accepted into Shelby’s drug court, widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest in the state.

 

Ryan excelled in rehab and got his life back together, but he didn’t understand he was supposed to still be checking in with his probation officer in Chilton. He thought his supervision had been consolidated in Shelby. When he learned there was a warrant out for his arrest, he turned himself in. He sat in jail for 3 months while much of the work he had done to rebuild his life disintegrated. He’s out now, but he’s struggling. He earns $400 a week to support himself and his young son. Between drug tests, supervision fees, drug court fees, and fines, he pays about $700 a month. That’s almost half of his income.

The second person I’d like to tell you about is a woman named Amber.

Amber was released from Tutwiler into Madison County Community Corrections this fall. She was so relieved be get home and get back to supporting and caring for her two teenaged sons. She received job training and multiple certifications while she was in Tutwiler. She couldn’t wait to get to work.

And she had to work, because Community Corrections requires her to pay $290/month for electronic monitoring plus another $20/week for drug tests. She had to bring them the first installment within 24 hours of her release or she’d be taken straight back to prison.

Amber has been offered multiple jobs, only to show up for the first day of work and be told they didn’t need her after all because of her felony. Right now, she brings home about $250 per week from unskilled labor she found through a staffing agency which takes part of her paycheck. About a third of her monthly income goes toward electronic monitoring and drug tests alone. That’s unsustainable.

 

A packed room gathered to hear public proposals at the December 4 meeting of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Reform.

 

 

She’s terrified of what going back to Tutwiler would mean for her family. When we spoke in late November, she wasn’t sure she’d still be home to spend Christmas with her boys.

Amber and Ryan are far from alone in struggling with the financial and operational obligations of diversion programs in Alabama. These programs have been described to the governor’s study group as unfunded, but that’s not accurate. The state doesn’t pay for them: instead, in most places, diversion programs are funded by the people who participate in them. And those payments are made at a terrible cost.

In 2018, Appleseed worked with partners to survey nearly 900 Alabamians about their experience with the courts. About 20% of the people we surveyed reported they were turned down for a diversion program like drug court because they could not afford it. About 15% had been kicked out of a diversion program because they were unable to keep up with payments.

In 2019, we followed up with a survey of a smaller group of people, all of whom had participated in some form of diversion program. Most of the people we surveyed were poor. 64% of them made less than $20K/year.

Most of them had been found indigent. Most of them had no idea how much the program would cost before they pled in. Yet they were still required to pay a median amount of $1500. Only one in 10 had ever had their payments reduced due to inability to pay.

Without that relief, two thirds gave up a basic necessity like food, rent, or car payments to keep up with their payments. More than a third took out a payday loan. And 30% admitted they had committed a crime to keep up with their payments.

Even so, 30% were forced to drop out because they couldn’t afford it or couldn’t keep up with the frequent drug tests and court appearances. The consequences were dire: One-fifth of people who were unable to complete their diversion program for structural or financial reasons found themselves incarcerated as a result. Our failure to make these programs workable for poor people is driving prison overcrowding.

Alabama can and must make diversion programs more accessible to poor people. To start with, judges should conduct individualized ability to pay determinations that take people’s financial realities into account.

Second, programs should be portable and easy to consolidate. As a rule, no one should be on more than one form of diversion or paying for supervision by multiple jurisdictions or entities. And folks should be able to serve their sentences where they live, not where they offended.

Finally, all diversion programs should track individuals’ progress and remain vigilant about how they can do better.  If these programs are to serve their purpose of giving Alabamians who have made mistakes a second chance and keeping families and communities healthy and strong, they must account for the everyday realities of the people who participate in them.

There is a lot of promise in diversion, but these programs are not accessible to people who lack wealth. If we don’t take steps to correct this, Alabama will continue to have one form of justice for the rich and a very different one for the poor.

In January, 2019, Appleseed will release its full report on the two-tiered justice system created by prison diversion programs funded on the backs of participants.

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

A few weeks ago, a search dog working for Alabama’s Department of Corrections sadly died after exposure to contraband narcotics.  ADOC leadership, including Commissioner Jefferson Dunn, gathered for his funeral complete with 21-gun salute, an American flag presentation, and media coverage. His name was Jake.  

Over the last two years, at least 22 people in state prisons have also died from narcotics overdoses, primarily synthetic cannabinoid, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report, which suggests ADOC staff who are not screened before entry are likely responsible.  Prison incident reports list these deaths as “natural.”

We don’t know their names.

Why? Because Alabama’s 45-year history of incarcerating vast numbers of people cheaply has produced disastrous results. 

We failed in 1975 when U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson found “massive constitutional infirmities which plague Alabama’s prisons.”  And we are failing now with violence, homicide, and drug overdoses so pervasive that the ADOC cannot keep track of who dies in its custody, as the U.S. Justice Department documented in April after its two-year investigation again found our prisons unconstitutional.   A raft of federal cases and investigations in between reached the same conclusion.

All along, Alabama incarceration rates have remained the fifth-highest in the country, prison spending the lowest, yet our violent crime rates are higher than most every other southeastern state.  Our tough-on-crime ideology is not making us safer. And spending too little is costing us too much: in death, in degradation, and in suffering.

Any other public policy that produced such dismal outcomes would surely be scrapped. 

Instead, the state is talking about doubling down.   Its main plan to address this crisis involves continuing to incarcerate vast numbers of people on the cheap. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership that relies on private corporations to build and own three new megaprisons with the state leasing approximately 9,000 beds. This can be done with no tax increases, state leaders insist, which means Alabama can keep doing what it has always done.

“I am confident that the development of these facilities will be a major step forward,” Governor Ivey said in an announcement June 27 that the state has begun the procurement process for new prisons. 

This proposal is deeply troubling to those of us who have watched the for-profit prison industry overpromise to states and cities for 25 years, create nightmare prisons from Idaho to Mississippi, then rebrand itself as a real estate business. 

As recently as 2012, Federal District Judge Carleton Reeves wrote that the GEO Group-managed Walnut Grove Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi was “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world” and “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.”  Will this company be welcomed into Alabama?

In its new role as landlord, CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, failed to repair rusted doors, replace damaged windows, seal cracks in the walls and floors, and patch leaks in the roof, even though maintaining the Hernando County Jail near Tampa, Florida was a requirement in its contract with the county.  The County took over and was hit with $1 million in deferred maintenance costs. Will we lease our largest prisons from them?  

Private construction of just one massive high-tech prison in Pennsylvania, SCI Phoenix, ran nearly three years behind schedule, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.. The state was forced to move prisoners into the facility, touted as a creative public-private partnership, before construction was complete.  Lawsuits abound. 

Already, the State of Alabama has proven its inability to house people humanely.  Adding private companies with abysmal human rights records and a mandate to turn a profit into the mix does not bode well.

It is also deeply troubling when contrasted with the smarter approach of other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina, which are closing prisons and increasing rehabilitative community options without sacrificing public safety.  In fact, since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of more than 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million, primarily in favor of rehabilative options. according to Governing Magazine. 

Alabama has not yet locked down the details of building itself out of this crisis. If we can find the political will, there is a better way.  

The court system touts drug courts, pre-trial diversion, and similar community-based options as alternatives to incarceration, as second chances.  But these programs are an inconsistent patchwork at best, and more importantly, they are not well funded. Instead, poor people are expected to pay thousands in fees — administrative fees, drug-testing fees, treatment fees, evaluation fees, and so on — and spend hours away from work for court appearances.  If they can’t keep up, they don’t graduate, then they become poor people with felony convictions, and usually no drivers licenses. 

Instead of pouring nearly a billion dollars into new prisons, Alabama could shore up these kinds of community alternatives rather than expecting indigent people to pay for them.  Along the way, the State must confront the fact that our bare bones spending on mental health and substance abuse services — 50th in the country — contributes to incarceration.  

Also, we must improve re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated. People usually leave prison with no identification, no job, and thousands of dollars in court fines and fees.  Churches and nonprofits — many ably run by formerly incarcerated people who know the obstacles and solutions better than anyone else — are struggling mightily to bridge the gaps. Again, a fraction of the new-prison money invested into re-entry services would change outcomes.     

Finally, anyone touting new prisons should closely read the Department of Justice report which unsparing makes clear 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 devices, as is currently the case.” 

We cannot build our way out of this problem. Instead, we need to invest in community-based solutions and mental health services that help prevent people from ending up in prisons to begin with, and support them after they come out. Smart investment in criminal justice reform would improve public safety, increase our workforce – something the Governor says is a top priority – and make Alabama more prosperous. Penny-wise, dollar foolish investments like the plan to keep on doing what we’ve always done – lock our neighbors up as cheaply as possible – will most likely result in more of the same horrific results.