By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director | Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

PICKENS COUNTY — Sean and Eboni Worsley’s nightmare began with music a police officer found too loud for his liking.

It was August 2016, and the Worsleys were on their way east, heading from a visit with Eboni’s folks in Mississippi to surprise Sean’s family in North Carolina. Sean’s grandmother had been displaced by a hurricane and he was hoping to help rebuild her house. The couple had some venison in the trunk of their car, a gift from Eboni’s dad, a hunter, that they planned to share with Sean’s family. 

Army veteran Sean Worsley earned a Purple Heart in Iraq

Sean, now 33, is a disabled veteran with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his deployment in Iraq. He uses medical marijuana to calm his nightmares and soothe his back pain. His medical marijuana was in the back seat. He got the prescription in Arizona, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2011.

Sean was walking into the gas station when Officer Carl Abramo of the Gordo, Ala. police department approached the car. He told the Worsleys their music was too loud. He asked to search the vehicle. 

The Worsleys assented. Sean’s marijuana was legally prescribed. They thought they had nothing to hide. 

They were wrong. And now Sean has been sentenced to five years in Alabama’s violent, drug-filled, corrupt prison system because of it.

Playing Air Guitar while Black

On August 15, 2016, at 11:08 PM, Officer Carl Abramo was stationed across from the Jet Pep on Highway 82, a major east-west thoroughfare that runs from New Mexico to Georgia. According to an arrest report filed five days after the incident, he heard loud music coming from a vehicle and “observed a Black male get out of the passenger side vehicle. They were pulled up at a pump and the Black male began playing air guitar, dancing, and shaking his head. He was laughing and joking around and looking at the driver while doing all this.”

The couple was Sean and Eboni Worsley, who had stopped a few miles from the Pickens County border to refuel their car. Abramo told them their music was so loud it violated the town’s noise ordinance. They turned it down. According to the arrest report, he smelled marijuana and asked the couple about it. Sean told him he was a disabled veteran and tried to give him his medical marijuana card.

“I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in hand cuffs,” the report reads. 

Abramo called for backup and three more officers arrived. Eboni explained that they were unaware that medical marijuana was prohibited in Alabama. According to the arrest report, she told Abramo the marijuana was in the back seat. 

Abramo searched the car. He found the marijuana and the rolling papers and pipe Sean used to smoke it, along with a six-pack of beer, a bottle of vodka, and some pain pills Eboni had a prescription for. He arrested them for all of it. Pickens is one of Alabama’s 23 partially dry counties, so it is technically illegal to possess most alcohol there — though in practice, the rule is only enforced against violators who are profiting from its sale. He arrested them for that, and for violating the noise ordinance and for illegal possession of marijuana and paraphernalia. Eboni’s pills weren’t in the original bottle, which Abramo claimed constituted a felony. He put the handcuffs on her himself. 

Sean Worsley, and his wife Eboni, in happier days

In 2016, the year the Worsleys were arrested, Black people were more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana in Alabama.

The Worsleys spent six days in jail. Their lives would never be the same.

Marijuana is a Schedule One Controlled Substance, meaning that the federal government views it as illegal in all instances. Alabama hews to much the same line: except for extremely narrow exemptions involving CBD, possession of any amount can be a felony. First-time possession is charged as a misdemeanor if the arresting officer thinks it was for personal use; all subsequent instances of possession are felonies. If the arresting officer believes the marijuana is for “other than personal use,” then possession of any amount can be charged as a felony even if it’s an individual’s first time being arrested for possession.

That’s what happened to the Worsleys. Even though Sean’s marijuana was legally obtained via a prescription and packaged in a prescription bottle, Abramo booked him in for possession for other than personal use, a Class C felony. Eboni received the same charge, though it was later dropped.

Abramo, who no longer works for the Gordo Police Department and could not be reached for comment, takes a dim view of those he deems to be criminals. His Facebook page is a mishmash of pro-law enforcement videos and memes that demean Muslims, Mexicans, and Democrats. Nearly all the pro-law enforcement posts feature Black people taking up for the police, a common tactic among conservatives seeking to demonstrate that they are not racist. Many of the rest of his Facebook posts promote racist birther conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama and villainize non-white people and ethnic or religious minorities. One meme, shared in July 2019, states, “Homeless Veterans Should Be Taken Care Of BEFORE Muslim ‘Refugees.’”

“We watched people die. We watched helicopters shoot people down.”

Things would have gone differently if the Worsleys had been traveling through most other states. Recreational use of marijuana is legal in 14 states; medical marijuana is legal in 33. It is commonly used by veterans and others to manage the symptoms of a wide range of ailments, including PTSD and pain. Sean suffered from both as a result of his military service, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart.

In fact, when Sean was 28, the VA determined that he was “totally and permanently disabled due solely to [his] service-connected disabilities,” according to a February 2015 benefits summary letter included in his Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) records. He suffered from a traumatic brain injury that seriously impaired his short-term memory, as well as PTSD, depression, nightmares, and back and shoulder pain. In 2015, Sean’s impulsivity, cognitive difficulties, sleep disturbances and depression were so debilitating that the VHA determined he required a caregiver. Eboni, then 30, took on that role. Sean’s “dependence level” was high, requiring “maximal assistance” with planning and organizing, safety risks, sleep regulation, and recent memory, and “total assistance” with self-regulation. He responded poorly to the various antidepressants, antipsychotics, and pain medications doctors prescribed. 

At times, that meant Eboni couldn’t work, leaving the couple dependent on Sean’s check from the VA. When he could, he supplemented that with part-time work as a roofer and gigs as a recording engineer. Eboni went with him to doctor’s appointments. She helped him keep track of his schoolwork when he sought a business degree to transform his freelance work as a recording engineer into a business. 

The VA does not prescribe or fill prescriptions for medical marijuana, nor may VA clinicians recommend its use. However, in light of marijuana’s efficacy in treating ailments common among veterans such as pain and PTSD, the VA is tolerant of veterans who use legally prescribed marijuana. In its official policy document regarding medical marijuana, the VA encourages clinicians and pharmacists to “discuss marijuana use with any Veterans requesting information about marijuana.” A social worker at the VA in Arizona where Sean received care said medical marijuana use is common among her clients and that she has seen how helpful it can be for people suffering PTSD.

Ellis English was Sean’s first-line supervisor while they were deployed together in Iraq in 2006-07. Like Sean, he suffers from PTSD as a result of his deployment. Unlike Sean, he has been unable to use medical marijuana. 

English retired from the Army in 2018. He now lives in Honolulu, where medical marijuana has been legal for two decades. He reports that most of his fellow Army veterans there treat their symptoms with medical marijuana. English wishes he could do the same. But because he works for the federal government, he cannot use marijuana without risking his job. 

He tried it once anyway when he was overwhelmed by a PTSD flare-up following his retirement. “It was really good. For once I felt relaxed. I didn’t have any pain. No headaches,” he said. “I felt almost normal.”

English remembers what Sean was like before the traumatic brain injury and the PTSD. He also remembers the incidents that caused them. Sean was English’s driver in Iraq, taking him and other troops on dangerous missions to look for and dismantle improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Often, those devices exploded while the troops were there.

It was dangerous, terrifying work. “We were constantly going. We watched people die. We watched helicopters shoot people down. Had to go pick up the bodies,” English said.

English was with Sean when he received the traumatic brain injury that led to Sean being awarded a Purple Heart. Sean was knocked unconscious and had to be pulled out of the driver’s seat. One soldier lost his hearing on the mission. 

Sean changed after that, English said. The young soldier who used to work hard and get things done quickly became unreliable. He zoned out in the middle of work. He stopped taking care of himself. His personal hygiene declined. 

One night, he showed up in English’s room weeping and clutching his rifle. English was afraid he was going to kill himself and referred him to mental health. He no longer felt safe having Sean drive him. 

“I got him into mental health, he was off the mission for a while,” English said. “Finally, he came back but he wasn’t the same.”

Altogether, Sean spent five years in the military. His deployment to Iraq spanned 14 months, and he was honorably discharged September 22, 2008. Even after his injuries, he served in the Army Reserve until late 2010.  

Neither his service, nor his Purple Heart, nor his prescription mattered in Pickens County, Alabama.

What happened next

After six days in jail, the Worsleys were released on bond. It wasn’t cheap: On top of fees to the bail bondsman, they had to pay $400 to get their car out of impound. The meat in the trunk had gone bad after six days locked in a car in Alabama’s brutal summer heat, so the car needed to be professionally cleaned. But at least they were free.

That freedom was short-lived. For a state so eager to honor veterans, Alabama’s justice system produces some confounding results. This system’s determination to punish Sean set off a spiral of job loss, homelessness, additional criminal charges, and eventually incarceration in the country’s most violent prison system — all for a substance that’s legal in states where half of Americans live. 

But first, Sean and Eboni drove back home to Arizona. They found the charges made it difficult for them to maintain housing and stability, so they moved to Nevada, where they acquired a home and lived peacefully while their case progressed.  

Almost a year later, the bail bondsman called. He told the Worsleys that the judge was revoking bonds on all the cases he managed. He said they had to rush back or he would lose the money he had put up for their bond and they would be charged with failing to appear in court. 

They felt the bondsman had been kind to them when they were in Pickens County, so they borrowed money to make the trip and hit the road. They were due in court the next day. 

When they got to court, the Worsleys were taken to separate rooms. Eboni was horrified. She explained that Sean was disabled with serious cognitive issues, that he had PTSD, that he needed a guardian to help him understand the process and ensure he made an informed decision. If a legal guardian couldn’t be appointed, she offered to serve as his advocate in court as she served as his caregiver at home.

“They said no, and they literally locked me in a room separate from him. And his conversation with me is that they told him that if he didn’t sign the plea agreement that we would have to stay incarcerated until December and that they would charge me with the same charges as they charged him,” Eboni said. “He said because of that, he just signed it.”

Sean’s plea agreement included 60 months of probation, plus drug treatment and thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and court costs. Because the Worsleys had lived in Arizona at the time of their arrest, his probation was transferred to Arizona, instead of Nevada, where they lived. Transferring it again would mean another lengthy delay and more jail time while the paperwork was sorted out, they were told. 

Sean could not bear to stay. The Worsleys got a two-week pass from the probation officer in Alabama, drove home, broke their lease, and packed their things. When they arrived in Arizona, the only housing they could find on short notice was a costly month-to-month rental. Their funds were depleted, but at least they had a place to stay. 

The Worsleys were ready to start rebuilding their lives. But when they checked in with the Arizona probation officer, she told them that their month-to-month rental did not constitute a permanent address. She would not approve it for purposes of supervision and told them to contact probation in Alabama. They did, and the Alabama probation officer told them they would have to return to Pickens County to sign paperwork to redo the transfer. They didn’t have the money to do that, so they asked their Alabama lawyer if it could be done by proxy and proceeded with attempting to comply with the other terms of Sean’s probation.

Among those was drug treatment. Had he been an Alabama resident, Sean would have participated in mandatory programming through Alabama’s Court Referral, one of several diversion programs operating across the state. The terms of his probation required him to seek similar services where he lived, so in February 2018, Sean went to the VA to take an assessment for placement in drug treatment. 

The VA rejected him. A letter from VA Mental Health Integrated Specialty Services reads in part, “Mr. Worsley reports smoking Cannabis for medical purposes and has legal documentation to support his use and therefore does not meet criteria for a substance use disorder or meet need for substance abuse treatment.”

The Worsleys maintained contact with their Alabama lawyer and probation officer as best they could, but things were difficult. Eboni, a certified nursing assistant who works with traumatized children, had a job offer rescinded due to the felony charge in Alabama. She also lost her clearance to work with sensitive information to which she needed access to do her job. For a while, the Worsleys slept in their car or lived with family.

In January 2019, they again found themselves homeless. They requested assistance from a program that helps homeless veterans. Just as they completed the six-month program, the VA notified Sean that his benefits would be stopped because Alabama had issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest. Unknown to Sean, he had missed a February court date in Pickens County and the Pickens County Supervision Program had terminated his supervision, citing “failure to attend” and “failure to pay court-ordered moneys.” The case was referred to the district attorney’s office in March 2019.

The Worsleys were in a terrible situation. Eboni needed heart surgery, and Sean had to stop taking on extra gigs so he could help her recover. Rent was expensive, anywhere from $1,200-$1,500 a month, and they had a car loan as well. To cover costs, the couple took out a title loan, but they were unable to keep up with it. They lost Eboni’s truck. They lost their home and again had to move into a temporary rental, paying $400 a week to live in a suburb about an hour from the hospital where Eboni still had frequent appointments.

Sean was able to get his check started up again around August 2019, but the financial hole they were in was so deep that he didn’t have the $250 to renew his medical marijuana card. It expired.

In early 2020, Sean was pulled over on his way to Eboni’s sister’s home, where he was going to help with a minor repair. He had some marijuana with him. The officers who pulled him over noticed he was terrified. They asked him why. According to Eboni, he told them everything: about this PTSD, his traumatic brain injury, the expired card, the outstanding warrant from Alabama. The officers told him not to worry; Alabama would never extradite him over a little marijuana. It would be OK.

But when they called to make sure, Alabama said it wanted to bring Sean back to Pickens County. When the Arizona police told him, he ran. He fell. He was taken to jail, and eventually, he was transported to Pickens County at a cost to the state of Alabama of $4,345. The state moved to make Sean pay that money himself, on top of the $3,833.40 he already owed in fines, fees, and court costs.

“I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for.”

Sean has been in the Pickens County jail since early 2020. On April 28, the judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to 60 months in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Over the last three years, there have been robust efforts in the Alabama legislature to modify the state’s marijuana laws. A bill legalizing medical marijuana under controlled conditions passed the full Senate this year before the session ended due to Covid-19. A bill reclassifying possession of two ounces or less as a civil offense passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019. Reforms that could have created a vastly different outcome for Sean Worsley are on the horizon.

At the same time, lawmakers who support changes to the law undermine their urgency by insisting that marijuana possession does not land people in prison. Sen. Cam Ward, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told a reporter in 2018, “The only people in state prisons on possession of any kind of marijuana are those trafficking the truckloads of it.”  

Them, and disabled Black veterans playing air guitar at the wrong time while passing through Alabama.

Sean’s mother hired an attorney to appeal the case, and that process has begun. But sometime in the next several weeks, Sean will almost certainly go to prison. His transport there will be delayed due to Covid-19, which has sickened prisoners at several facilities and killed at least five. He’ll be quarantined for a couple of weeks at Draper Correctional Facility, which was condemned as unsafe and unsanitary for occupation, then refurbished for Covid-19 quarantines this year. Assuming he’s well, Sean will then be released to whichever prison has space for him. 

Alabama’s entire prison system for men was found by the U.S. Department of Justice to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. A U.S. District Judge has deemed its mental health services “horrendously inadequate.” It is almost certain Sean’s mental health will decline further in prison. The Alabama Department of Corrections, which has the highest homicide rate in the country, cannot keep him safe. 

Eboni in the hospital for heart surgery

He’ll leave behind two children from a prior relationship, ages 12 and 14, who according to Eboni have already struggled with his absence. He’ll leave behind Eboni, who is due to have another major surgery without her husband and best friend by her side. 

In a letter to Alabama Appleseed from the Pickens County jail, Sean expressed despair at being away from his children and from Eboni. He feels humiliated at having to call them from jail, crushed that he is, as he put it, “letting them down” over an arrest stemming from efforts he was making to keep himself healthy. “I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” he wrote. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”

Ellis English, Sean’s friend and former supervisor — another Black veteran who has himself been pulled over more times than he can count — feels the same way. “You go over there. You come home messed up. Then you still get targeted” by police, English said. “That’s what hurts the most.”

 

Our team at Alabama Appleseed is pleased to be working with several terrific students this summer. Through remote internships, these students are advancing the cause for justice in Alabama and helping us with research, writing, data collection, policy analysis, and more. The passion, dedication, and skill of these students brightens the future.

We are proud to welcome these students who are working with us to build a better Alabama:

Adelaide Beckman (The University of Alabama School of Law)

Adelaide Beckman is a second year student at the University of Alabama School of Law. Born into a military family, she has lived in eight states and two countries. In 2015, she graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a degree in Communication Studies. Afterwards, she joined Teach For America and worked as a public school teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, for two years. In 2019, she joined the UA Law School Class of 2022 as a Dean’s Scholar.​

Nefsa’Hyatt Brown (Alabama State University)

Nefsa’Hyatt Brown is a rising senior at Alabama State University majoring in Political Science with a minor in International Relations, Foreign Policy, and Global Studies. She is from Mobile, and as a native of Alabama, she have witnessed how various institutions within the American governmental system disenfranchise certain populations, specifically people of color and those who are impoverished, which has led to her interest in a career in the public sector. Upon graduation, Nefsa’Hyatt plans on going to graduate school to pursue her master’s degree and eventually become a foreign service officer for the United States.

Corryn Carter (Alabama State University)

Corryn Carter is a rising junior Communications major with a minor in Political Science at Alabama State University. She currently serves as the Alabama Youth and College NAACP Juvenile Justice chair and was the 2019-2020 Juvenile Justice Chair for her university chapter of NAACP.

Isabel Coleman (Yale University)

Isabel Coleman grew up in Birmingham Alabama. She studies philosophy and competes on the debate team at Yale University. Ultimately, she hopes to move back to the South and pursue a career in legal advocacy. She is most passion about prison reform and other efforts to address structural inequality.

Alli Koszyk (The University of Alabama School of Law)

Allison Koszyk is a Chicago-Area native who came down South in 2015 for undergrad and never left. She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Hospitality Management from the University of Alabama, and will begin her second year of law school in Tuscaloosa, this fall. Allison is on the Advisory Board for the Blackburn Institute, serves as Senator for the law school in the Student Government association. She is the Secretary for Outlaw, and the Director of Communications for the UA Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. She has adopted y’all, and considers herself a Southerner by choice. Allison strives to fight injustice in all its forms and wants the rest of the world to start recognizing the good work that is being done here in the name of equality and justice.

Hannah Krawczyk (Auburn University)

Hannah Krawczyk is a junior working on a degree in the accelerated Bachelors and Masters of Public Administration program at Auburn University. She is on the board of the League of Women Voters of East Alabama, and works on the Auburn Justice Coalition leadership team. Her interests in advocacy and research began after arriving in Alabama for university, and engaging with friends on-campus in advocacy and education projects.
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Imani Richardson (Yale University)
Imani Richardson is from Birmingham, Alabama. She is a rising senior at a Yale University, where she majors in African Studies and Political Science. On campus, she is involved with a number of cultural, advocacy, and service organizations, including Urban Improvement Corps and Yale Black Women’s Coalition, and after graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in public policy and advocacy. This summer, Imani is interning at Alabama Appleseed because she is committed to challenging the forces and narratives that have driven mass incarceration, economic oppression, and racial injustice more broadly by advocating for justice and change at the legal, legislative, and grassroots levels. She believes that in working alongside and demanding better for our society’s most vulnerable and discriminated against, we create a more just, more equitable society for all of us.

Renuka Srivastava (The University of Alabama at Birmingham)

A native of Meridian, Mississippi, Renuka has always held a special place for the South in her heart. Renuka’s passion for the progression of social justice issues in the South has allowed her to bring significant changes on in her community ranging from registering thousands of voters to working on sensory inclusion on an international level. Renuka first started working on campaigns in the 7th grade and strongly believes in policy-based solutions. Renuka looks forward to attending law school this fall and work in the South following law school to litigate for disadvantaged individual and advocate against unjust public policy.

Eli Tylicki (The University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Eli Tylicki is an upcoming senior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham studying economics and philosophy. He loves learning, and he gets my fulfillment from helping others. Eli plans to finish at UAB and attend law school so that he may pursue a career in human rights law.

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

As Alabama struggles to contain Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus that has gripped the world’s attention since January, law enforcement officials and judges across the state have taken bold steps to prioritize public health over punishment by slowing arrests for low-level offenses and releasing from jails individuals who are not a danger to the community.

The results have been extraordinary. Between January and late April, at least 13 counties shrank their jail populations by more than a quarter, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Baldwin and Houston counties, both notorious for their tough-on-crime conservatism, each reduced their jail population by about a third. Alabama’s largest county, Jefferson, with a jail capacity of 1,200, dropped its population below 650.

These counties’ decisive action has likely saved lives. Nationally, prisons and jails have been hotspots for the virus’ spread. That’s certainly true in Tuscaloosa, which on May 21 acknowledged that 21 inmates and one employee at its jail had tested positive for the virus, even as the city overall saw a 35% increase in the number of cases.

Yet instead of responding by releasing low-level offenders from what could easily become a literal death trap, Tuscaloosa’s police chief has announced plans to round up and jail more people.              Though crime is down in the city, Chief Brent Blankley – who since his appointment in February has overseen roundups of low-level offenders including 116 misdemeanor arrests – announced  this week about a plan to “take our streets back.”

Among other things, he plans to increase traffic stops by buying tint meters. In Tuscaloosa, the crime of “Improper Window Tint” carries a penalty of $182. It also gives police an excuse to pull people over, often leading to additional financial penalties, vehicle searches, arrest, and incarceration for things such as unpaid traffic tickets or marijuana possession.

Blankley’s plan, dubbed “Operation Safe Streets,” is being rolled out as Tuscaloosa’s streets are stalked by a silent, invisible killer that has disproportionately haunted black lives in Alabama and across the country. Although Alabama’s population is about 27% black, 42% of confirmed cases of Covid-19 are within the black population, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“Operation Safe Streets” also rolls out amid breathtaking reminders that black lives are also disproportionately taken by police and vigilante violence. Tuscaloosa has a history of racially biased  police practices. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, black residents were 4.1 times as likely as white residents to be arrested for possession of marijuana. This, in a college town; this, amid robust and longstanding evidence that white and black people use marijuana, and therefore possess it, at roughly the same rates.

In an America on edge – and in some places on fire – in response to the death in police custody of a Minneapolis man named George Floyd who told the police officer whose knee rested on his neck, “I can’t breathe,” Tuscaloosa’s police chief has decided the best use of public resources is tint meters that will in all likelihood be used to pull over, cite, arrest, and incarcerate black bodies in a jail that is riddled with a disease that has disproportionately sickened and killed them.

      Tuscaloosa should think hard about what kind of city it wants to be. Right now, it is the kind of city that brags of a plan to funnel residents with windows it deems too dark into a jail unable to protect them from a deadly pathogen. This plan endangers the lives of the people who are arrested, the police who take them into custody, jail employees, and the families and communities they return to.

Operation Safe Streets will put the people of Tuscaloosa in harm’s way. At a time when safe jails are out of reach, it is unconscionable.

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.

By Akiesha Anderson, Appleseed Policy Director

On March 30th, Alabama Appleseed sent a letter to Dr. Scott Harris—Director of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), and Brian Hastings—Director of the Alabama Department of Emergency Management (ADEM), urging their agencies to share with Appleseed and the general public their plans to ensure that COVID-19 testing sites would be set up in every county throughout the Black Belt.

What factors motivated the decision to send this letter?

The answer for this is simple, I care about the plights and difficulties that affect us, as a community and society.

It is very well understood that we are all navigating the struggles associated with combating COVID-19  as a society. In the recent weeks, there have been national, state, and local conversations about the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on Black communities with the understanding that this is tied into inequality in our health care system. Although these conversations about how racism and bias negatively impact how Black people in America receive access to healthcare are not new, they remain essential. It is also essential that as we have these conversations, we delve exploring the intersectionality of race, poverty, gender, and geography.

A farmer hauls hay in Lowndes County, one of the poorest counties in the nation. Photo Bernard Troncale

At the time the letter was sent, there were a total of 831 confirmed COVID-19 cases throughout the state, and the first case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Alabama only 10 days prior. While it was admirable to see that within 10 days the state was able to test nearly 1000 Alabamians, it was concerning to know that although 13% of all tests had resulted in a positive case, less than 1% of those positive cases were found in the Black Belt.

According to 2019 Census data, residents of the Black Belt counties make up 11% of Alabama’s population. Census data also reveals that the Black Belt has a higher percentage of both Black and poor residents that the statewide average. Given reports of testing shortages generally, the limited information gleaned from ADPH data, historical context, and the demographics of the Black Belt, it seemed unlikely at the time, that the state was disseminating the same resources to the Black Belt as they were other communities.

What did we learn in the weeks immediately after sending the letter?

Within just a few hours of receiving our letter, Director Hastings shared that it was his belief that plans were in place to expand testing throughout the Black Belt. This sentiment was repeated by elected officials and leaders throughout the coming weeks, as I continued to inquire about when testing sites would expand throughout the region. In lieu of permanent testing sites, many Black Belt counties have relied on mobile testing sites in an effort to increase testing. Over the past weeks, several Black Belt counties set-up these mobile sites at the County Health Departments.

In early April, ADPH employees revealed that there was no clear plan with regard to how often any of the mobile sites would return to each county. In Wilcox County, for example, an employee at the County Health Department shared with me that they were unsure whether the mobile testing sites would be returning every week or on a case-by-case basis. However, the employee feared it would be the latter.

In addition to barriers to testing created by such infrequencies, testing within these counties was seemingly somewhat inaccessible to Black Belt residents for several other reasons. For example, due to the limited amount of tests distributed throughout the state, health departments within the Black Belt indicated that they were using specific and narrow criteria to pre-screen patients beforehand to determine who could receive testing. Specifically, the county health departments reportedly were only testing people that BOTH (a) had a doctor’s referral and (b) met the following criteria: (1) were symptomatic with a fever, cough, shortness of breath AND were either (1) 65 or older, (2) a health care worker, or (3) someone with an underlying health condition that makes them immunocompromised/at higher risk.

These criteria were troubling for numerous reasons. While this criteria might have seemed normal and like an appropriate way to determine how to prioritize the allocation of limited resources/tests, such criteria essentially meant that many Black Belt residents would be considered ineligible for testing at the State Department of Health sites. Worth noting first, this criteria was stricter than the criteria outlined on the ADPH website. That suggests that as a matter of unofficial policy implementation, Black Belt residents might have had a harder time accessing tests than members of other communities throughout the state.  Secondly, as previously discussed, there are a number of characteristics unique to rural, Black Belt, and poor communities that likely made these criteria more harmful than helpful. For example, considering the historic disinvestment in rural and Black Belt counties it is possible that Black Belt residents are less likely to have access to a doctor that is able to give them a referral. Also, for those who  do have access to a doctor, research has long shown how racism and bias plays out in the healthcare system, so minority and poor people are also at the mercy of whether or not a doctor even believes them or finds them credible or worthy enough of receiving an exam. Similarly, due to healthcare shortages and vulnerabilities that have existed long before COVID, it is also likely that members of Black Belt communities may have undiagnosed health  conditions that they are unaware of simply because they don’t have the same access to healthcare professionals as members of other communities do.

Has testing in the Black Belt improved in the past month?

Although the Black Belt still lacks permanent testing sites within eight of its ten counties, in the month since Appleseed wrote to Dr. Harris, testing capacity and rates have risen. Within the last two weeks for example, testing of Black Belt residents has nearly doubled—as tests administered to Black Belt residents rose from a total of 4645 on April 21st to a total of 8362 on May 1st. Despite the fact that testing throughout the state of Alabama remains low—less than 2% of the state’s population has been tested— testing amongst Black Belt residents is beginning to reach parity with State-wide rates, have gotten closer to reaching parity with statewide rates. As of May 1st, approximately 1.5% of the Black Belt has been tested for COVID-19. However, as Black Belt testing increases, we are beginning to witness the opposite problem of what was seen weeks ago, when Black Belt residents seemed to be underrepresented when assessing positive test results. In contrast, as testing increases, we are beginning to witness Black Belt residents are becoming overrepresented with regard to positive test results. Although Black Belt residents make up 11% of Alabama’s population, they now make up 16% of the COVID-19 positive test results.

What does this increase in positive COVID-19 cases within the Black Belt reveal?

It is no secret that there have been numerous challenges that the state Department of Health and other state leaders have had to navigate since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Alabama. However, the recent rate at which new cases have been confirmed within the Black Belt suggests that the previously low number of confirmed cases likely resulted from simply a lack of testing rather than a lack of occurrences. Given this possibility along with the State’s decision to slowly reopen the state by rolling back both social distancing and business restrictions; it is possible that the state may not be able to increase testing in enough time to detect and prevent spread of existing COVID-19 cases in the area.

A 71-year-old farmer in Perry County, Alabama waiting on parts to fix a broke tractor. Photo Bernard Troncale

Something to Ponder

Every policy, action or inaction by a public official or governmental institutions is ultimately a decision that tells us something about what people, communities, and beneficiaries said actors both prioritize and deprioritize. Which communities get allocated resources, how quickly, and how many resources has long been deeply inequitable and oft-times exclusionary process. As leaders continue to make decisions about the allocation of resources during this epidemic, we should be vigilant to fight against the inequities that race, class, and nepotism can create. Because policy makers and public officials routinely sacrifice some people for the perceived “greater good” of others, we must continue to challenge who we allow decisionmakers to  deem as “disposable”.

Alabama Appleseed’s mission of justice and equity for all Alabamians compels us to do so. Given what’s at stake with this pandemic, this mission is more urgent that ever.

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When police pulled Reunca Lewis over near downtown Montgomery on April 17, the 23-year-old Montgomery resident was baffled. Lewis’s car had been stolen and then involved in a hit-and-run, and she had spent most of the day with police downtown, dealing with the aftermath. Now, the police officer who pulled her over was asking why her new vehicle didn’t have tags.

She showed him her registration and proof of insurance and explained she couldn’t get tags because the office that issues them is closed due to Covid-19. The officer issued a warning, then excused himself and called dispatch.

Suddenly, three more police vehicles swarmed up and parked behind her car. The officer re-approached, told her to exit the vehicle, and arrested her for having outstanding warrants because she had missed a March hearing regarding unpaid traffic tickets. Lewis’ sister-in-law, 20, who happened to be in the car with her, was arrested for the same reason. In the back of the car, Lewis’s six-year-old son wept in fear while Lewis’ mother rushed across town to pick up the car and take the child home. 

Lewis, who has three other children at home including medically fragile 11-month-old twins, wept too.

The officer took Lewis and her sister-in-law to Montgomery City Jail, where they spent three nights locked in a tiny cell with two other women, one of whom was coughing and begging for medical attention.

All of the women were terrified. One was there in connection with an altercation with a neighbor, but, said Lewis, the majority of them there in connection with unpaid traffic tickets.

On a normal Friday, that wouldn’t be surprising. Like all municipal jails in Alabama, Montgomery’s city jail holds people arrested for allegedly violating municipal ordinances or committing misdemeanors. Many people are held in jail after missing hearings in connection with unpaid traffic tickets – Lewis herself has spent time there twice before in connection with tickets she did not have money to pay. Most of the time, the city jail also holds a few dozen individuals awaiting trial in federal court, as well as a handful of people serving sentence of less than a year.

But Friday, April 17 was not a normal Friday. On that Friday, cases of Covid-19, the potentially fatal illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were spiking across the state of Alabama. With less than one percent of the population tested statewide, there were already 206 cases in Montgomery County alone, according to data published by the Alabama Department of Public Health. That same day, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced for the first time that Covid-19 was spreading through its inmate population, with three positive tests at two different facilities. And weeks earlier, the governor had granted municipalities like Montgomery permission to issue summonses instead of arresting people who, like Lewis and her sister-in-law, were accused of nonviolent offenses. According to the proclamation, the reason for this extraordinary action was “[b]ecause the conditions of jails inherently heighten the possibility of COVID-19 transmission.”

Despite these known risks, Lewis and her sister in law were taken to jail. There, she said, none of the women she was with had personal protective equipment like gloves or face masks. There was no hand sanitizer or hot water. The inmates who gave her her jumper, mat, and other supplies when she was booked were without supplies, as were the inmates who worked in the kitchen. She reports that officers checked inmates’ temperatures before booking them in, but that while she was there, a male inmate arrived with a fever and was booked in anyway. Corrections officers made some effort to separate new arrivals from inmates who had been in for a while, but took no meaningful steps to protect the new arrivals from each other, Lewis reported.

When Lewis finally got before a municipal judge on Monday via videoconference, he told her a new date would be set, but declined to provide her with a clearance letter to get her license back after it was suspended for failing to appear in court. Until it is returned to her, Lewis, who is at heightened risk of being pulled over until state offices reopen and she is able to get a tag for her vehicle, risks being ticketed again for driving with a suspended license.

As an African-American woman, she is also at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19: In Alabama, nearly 58 percent of cases have been women and nearly 38 percent have been African American, even though the population overall is about 50 percent female and 27 percent African American.

Lewis is aware of these risks, and she is terrified. “Are our lives or tickets more important to them? Like, this is a fatal virus,” she said. “People are dying. They had us in there for tickets.”

Update: This post was updated on April 30, 2020 to reflect new facts provided by the City of Montgomery regarding the date of the hearing Ms. Lewis missed.

 

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 Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder

As I wrap up a whirlwind first year as executive director of Alabama Appleseed, I could not be more excited about the work we have done and the places we are heading. This has been a banner year for Appleseed. We have confronted laws and policies that harm vulnerable Alabamians, celebrated key victories, and cemented our reputation as a leading advocacy organizations in Alabama. It has been my honor to advance the work of this storied institution, and I wanted to share some highlights with you as 2019 comes to a close. 

At the statehouse, we netted three big legislative wins:

  • Our investigation, litigation, and advocacy around sheriffs personally pocketing tax dollars meant to fund food for inmates in their custody, including one sheriff who purchased a $740,000 beach house with jail food funds, led to the passage of legislation that ends this Depression-era practice once and for all.
  • Our groundbreaking 2018 report on civil asset forfeiture abuses in Alabama, Forfeiting Your Rights, led to legislation that requires law enforcement to track and publicize how much money and property they seize from the people they police. We expect this new, comprehensive, public database to corroborate the widespread abuses we discovered during our investigations, and we will use its findings to lead the charge toward ending civil asset forfeiture altogether.                                                                                                   
  • We also changed laws related to filing fees for indigent people in civil courts. It used to be that a victim’s lawsuit could be thrown out if they could not pay hundreds of dollars in filing fees quickly enough. Not anymore. This year, we succeeded in changing the law so that all Alabamians have greater access to our civil courts regardless of whether they can afford to pay the filing fees. 

 Appleseed staff with Brewer Torbert honoree Bryan Stevenson

In 2019, we also continued our service as the preeminent, trusted source for trailblazing public policy research and game-changing reports that document the harms of bad laws in Alabama. We published two major reports in 2019: Broke: How Payday Lenders Crush Alabama Communities, and Hall Monitors with Handcuffs: How Alabama’s Unregulated, Unmonitored School Resource Officer Program Threatens the State’s Most Vulnerable Children. We simultaneously completed intensive, statewide research projects that will underpin forthcoming reports in 2020. These reports are the foundation of our approach to advocacy. Our investigative work quantifies, makes visible, and humanizes the issues; it sparks the data-informed, solution-oriented conversations that lead to new ways forward; it is the resource that we take to legislators and to communities across the state as we make the case for change.                                                                                       

And indeed, an essential part of our mission is ensuring that our research does not just live on a bookshelf. That’s why we have led public events, community forums, town halls, and stakeholder meetings all across Alabama in 2019, from Dothan to Florence, from Huntsville to Mobile, from Tuscaloosa to Phenix City, from Andalusia to Birmingham. You can be sure that in 2020, we will be inviting people into our work in a community near you, if not in your hometown. The issues we tackle are statewide in nature, and we are committed to a statewide strategy to win a better Alabama. We need all of us engaged in this work. 

Perhaps our most poignant victory  was our representation of Mr. Alvin Kennard, a remarkable gentleman who spent 36 years in an Alabama prison following a $50 robbery in 1983. Mr. Kennard is one of hundreds of people who were sentenced to life without parole under Alabama’s harsh “Three Strikes” law. Our success in charting a path out of prison for Mr. Kennard someone who poses no threat to society has raised hopes that others may soon return to their families.   

We are exploring options to scale this work up to help other people sentenced to die in prison for offenses with no serious injury. It is just one part of our work to confront Alabama’s dire prison crisis, which was documented this April by a Department of Justice report that declared Alabama’s prison system unconstitutional. Today, only a few months since his release, Mr. Kennard is living with family and gainfully employed at a car dealership.                                                                                                                                                         

We are proud of these accomplishments all the more so because we have achieved them with a small team on a small budget. Our team of four dedicated and inventive staff members at Alabama Appleseed stretches every dollar to tackle the toughest challenges in this state. We have cultivated a statewide network of supporters, allies, and advocates that we bring to bear at the legislature, and our work has garnered national attention and acclaim from voices as varied as The New York Times, NPR, FOX News, The Washington Post, Reason Magazine, the Brookings Institution, and the Aspen Institute.  

Alabama needs Appleseed more than ever, and we are ready. As we reflect on this year of hard-earned victories, I thank you for your financial support and I ask that you stay with us in the coming year. Justice and equity for all Alabamians cannot be won without you. 

I hope that you have a happy holiday season, and that you feel proud of the work you have made possible this year. At Appleseed, we believe in a better Alabama, and we’re fighting for it. We will see you in the new year. 

 

 

Appleseed Research Director Leah Nelson listens to expert panelists at our Fines and Fees event with the Aspen Institute.

 

 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

BESSEMER — Alvin Kennard is a free man, home surrounded by family and friends after 36 years in an Alabama prison for a $50 robbery in 1983.

He couldn’t stop smiling and thanking God for an opportunity too long coming. He says he’s grateful, overjoyed, and not mad.  Mr. Kennard has more patience than I will ever muster concerning Alabama’s draconian laws, excessive sentences for minor crimes, and permanent punishment of the poor.

Bessemer Judge David Carpenter appointed me to represent Mr. Kennard this spring.  Judge Carpenter knew about our work at Alabama Appleseed around poverty and the criminal justice system.  He noticed Mr. Kennard’s unusual sentence — life without parole for $50 from a bakery — through a routine pro se court filing that came across his desk.  With no attorney, Mr. Kennard was trying to get the judge’s attention. 

Turned out, Mr. Kennard lived in Donaldson’s faith dorm. He’d been in no trouble for 15 years.  He had family who still regularly visited him and put money into his prison account so he could have decent shoes. Had he been sentenced today, under Alabama’s Sentencing Guidelines, he would have been eligible for a maximum sentence of about 20 years.

Tuesday, I stood with Mr. Kennard as Judge Carpenter righted this wrong and resentenced this 58-year-old man to time served.  The courtroom erupted with joy from the crowd gathered to support a man who previously had been condemned to die in prison.

While this week’s events have been incredible for Alvin Kennard, there are hundreds more Alvins in Alabama’s prisons, men and women serving life without parole for offenses in which no one was injured.  There are thousands more serving life sentences who are at the whim of an increasingly politicized parole board.

Alabama’s embrace of permanent punishment has contributed to our prison crisis.  Alabama has the most overcrowded, corrupt, and violent prisons in the country, described as unconstitutional by the  U.S. Department of Justice. It extends to our communities, where people in poverty are jailed for inability to pay court fines and fees, and lose drivers licenses and jobs over traffic violations and minor misdemeanors.  It extends into our drug policy, where 1,000 Alabamians per year are saddled with felony convictions for possession of marijuana, a substance that’s legal in states where half of Americans live. 

So while today was for rejoicing with one of the kindest, gentlest clients I have ever had the pleasure to represent, tomorrow we have our work cut out for us here at Appleseed. 

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.