By Idrissa N. Snider

Tameca Cole’s “Locked in a Dark Calm”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean Gillispie’s “Spiz’s Dinette”

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

Appleseed staff with Joi Brown, Jefferson County Memorial Project

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

 

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

By Leah Nelson
Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Wiggins did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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

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

A job awaits, but so does an arrest warrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alex LaGanke, Appleseed Staff Attorney

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Akiesha Anderson, Policy Director

This legislative session, Alabama Appleseed had four main legislative priorities: (1) Repeal or reform the Habitual Felony Offender Act; (2) Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture; (3) End Needless Driver’s License Suspensions; and (4) Create a Diversion Program Study Commission. Below is a summary of these priority issues that were deliberated by the 2021 Legislature. 

The Habitual Felony Offender Act

Report: Condemned
Bills we supported: HB 107, HB 24 

Legislation to repeal Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Act (“HFOA”) is desperately needed. The HFOA currently ensnares hundreds of older people with life or life without parole sentences for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences under today’s laws. That is why we supported HB 107, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, designed to repeal the HFOA. This bill successfully made it out of the House Judiciary Committee with strong bi-partisan support, though it never reached the full chamber of the House of Origin for a vote. Appleseed thanks the 150+ Alabama judges, law professors, former prosecutors, and lawyers who signed on in support of a Dear Lawmaker letter and the countless constituents that sent emails or made phone calls urging legislators to support this important piece of legislation.  

In addition to supporting a full repeal of the HFOA, Appleseed supported HB 24, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, that was designed to reform the HFOA. If passed, this legislation would have allowed people who were sentenced under the HFOA for committing nonviolent offenses to petition the court for a review of their case and potentially be resentenced under current sentencing guidelines. We also supported an amendment to HB 24 that was offered by Sen. Arthur Orr that was designed to expand the class of people eligible for relief to include people who had “strikes” that led to an enhanced sentence arising from offenses that are now considered Class D felonies yet were Class C felonies at the time of initial sentencing. Although HB 24 came very close to passing out of both chambers, on the last day of session it failed to make it to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Report: Forfeiting Your Rights: How Alabama’s Profit-Driven Civil Asset Forfeiture Scheme Undercuts Due Process and Property Rights
Bills we supported: SB 210 (passed), HB 394

For too long, civil asset forfeiture has been improperly used as a revenue generator for law enforcement entities throughout the state. As currently structured, civil asset forfeiture empowers police to seize cash or other assets based on probable cause that they are connected in some way to certain criminal activity, even if no one is ever charged with a crime. We believe that this violates a host of due process rights and that civil asset forfeiture ought to be replaced with a system that ensures due process protections. 

That is why, this session Alabama Appleseed supported SB 210 and HB 394, companion bills by Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Andrew Sorrell, that were designed to replace civil asset forfeiture with criminal asset forfeiture. We believe that as originally written, these bills would have been good for the State of Alabama due to them: (1) requiring transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process; and (2) prohibiting Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from individuals who have not been convicted of a crime. 

Although SB 210 did ultimately pass, the substitute version that made it out of the State House was significantly diluted in comparison to the original version of the bill. While the bill that passed adds some minimal due process protections to existing civil asset forfeiture laws, Appleseed hopes that in the future, civil asset forfeiture is replaced altogether with criminal asset forfeiture. 

Driver’s License Suspensions

Report: Stalled: How Alabama’s Destructive Practice of Suspending Drivers Licenses for Unpaid Traffic Debt Hurts People and Slows Economic Progress
Bills we supported: HJR 31 (passed), HB 129

At the beginning of this year, nearly 100,000 Alabamians had a suspended license for things unrelated to unsafe driving – namely failure to appear in court, failure to pay a traffic ticket, or an alcohol or drug offense (excluding DUIs). Suspending driver’s licenses for things unrelated to road safety hurts families by making breadwinners forego necessities; slows the economy by keeping people out of work; and leads people to commit crimes to pay off their tickets. That is why Alabama Appleseed worked closely on HJR 31 and HB 129, legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Pringle and designed to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for frivolous reasons. Although HB 129 ultimately did not come up for a vote to pass out of the House Judiciary committee this session, HJR 31 which provides the mechanism for the State to opt out of requiring license suspensions for petty drug offenses successfully made it out of the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk.

Diversion Programs

Report: In Trouble: How the Promise of Diversion Clashes with the Reality of Poverty, Addiction, and Structural Racism in Alabama’s Justice System
Bills we supported: HB 71, HB 73

A goal of Alabama Appleseed is to increase access to alternatives to incarceration, and beyond-the-prison-walls public safety solutions. It is no secret that Alabama’s men’s prison system is currently in crisis. Our history of tough on crime laws have led to us having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the highest prison homicide rate in the nation, and a men’s prison system that is dangerously overcrowded. We are also in the process of being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice, as a lawsuit that was filed under the Trump Administration has argued that our prisons violate the constitutional rights of all men housed in them. Appleseed believes that it is time for State leaders to seriously invest in alternatives to incarceration such as pre-trial diversion and Community Corrections programs, as one of many solutions to the human rights crisis in state prisons.

Although diversion programs currently exist throughout most of the state, not all Alabamians have access to them. That is why we supported HB 73, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, that would have required every judicial circuit to establish a Community Corrections program. Although this bill made it out of the House of Origin and Senate Judiciary committee, it never made it to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote.  

Despite the existence of diversion programs and drug courts throughout most of the State, they are all participant-funded. This means that the budget to run and operate these programs is derived from the pockets of the people who utilize the programs. So this year we also supported HB 71, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, because we believe in establishing universal eligibility and completion requirements to safeguard against the existing practice of the completion of diversion programs being determined by whether all fees have been paid. If passed, HB 71 would have created an Accountability Court Commission tasked with overseeing, studying, and creating uniformity amongst all existing diversion programs. Although this bill made it out of both the House Judiciary Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, it never made it to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. 

Other Legislation 

In addition to the aforementioned central areas of focus, we also monitored, worked on, or supported several other key pieces of criminal justice reform legislation this session. Below is a summary of some of those other key pieces of legislation.

Criminal Justice – Prison Reform

Report: Death Traps
Bills we supported: HB 92, HB 106 (passed), HB 361

This session we also supported several pieces of legislation that we believed could have provided meaningful relief to Alabama’s current prison crisis. We were strongly in favor of bills such as HB 92, by Rep. Jim Hill, designed to create a second parole board; HB 106, by Rep. Chris England, designed to require the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) submit to more legislative oversight; and HB 361, by Rep. David Faulkner, designed to require ADOC to assist people with getting a non-driver’s license identification card prior to release from prison. 

While HB 92 made it out of the House Judiciary committee, it stalled when re-assigned to the House Ways and Means committee. Similarly, although HB 361 made it out of the House of Origin, it never made it on the agenda in the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund committee. In contrast, HB 106 successfully made it out of both chambers and was sent to the Governor’s office for her signature. 

Fines & Fees

Report: Under Pressure
Bills we supported: HB 499, SB 177

Stopping the State’s overreliance on court costs, fines, and fees was another area of legislative interest this session. That is why we supported companion bills HB 499, sponsored by Rep. Chris England and SB 177, sponsored by Sen. Roger Smitherman. If passed, these bills would have created an Alabama Court Cost Commission designed to review existing court costs to determine if they are reasonably related to the cost of running a court system. Unfortunately, although both bills made it out of the Judiciary committee in their respective House of Origin, neither of these bills received a vote by their full chamber. Thus, neither bill passed this session.

Criminal Justice – Drug Policy

Report: Alabama’s War on Marijuana
Bills we supported: SB 59 (passed), SB 149

It is time for Alabama to pass smart alternatives to criminalizing marijuana possession and use. That is why this session we supported SB 59, by Sen. Tim Melson that was designed to legalize medical marijuana. We also supported SB 149, by Sen. Bobby Singleton that was designed to decriminalize marijuana use and possession. Ultimately, SB 59 passed out of both chambers and was sent the Governor; and SB 149 passed out of the Senate Judiciary committee yet never made it to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. 

State Transparency

Bills we supported: HB 392 (passed), SB 165, SB 290 

Alabama Appleseed strongly supports bills designed to strengthen government transparency in all regards. That is why this session we closely watched HB 392, sponsored by Rep. Mike Jones; SB 165, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr; and SB 290, sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton. SB 165 was designed to strengthen Alabama’s existing open records law and both HB 392 and SB 290 were designed to increase checks-and-balance between the legislative and executive branch by requiring the executive branch to run multi-million dollar contracts and agreements past the legislature for legislative approval before such contracts could be finalized. 

This session, SB 165 and SB 290 made it out of the Senate committees they were assigned to yet not to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. In contrast, HB 392 made it out of both the House and Senate to the Governor’s desk. Unfortunately, however, the final version of HB 392 was significantly watered down before leaving the State House. The version of this bill sent to the Governor does not require legislative approval for the state to enter into large multi-million dollar contracts (as was the initial intent); rather, it simply requires legislative review of large contracts. 

Juvenile Justice

Report: Hall Monitors with Handcuffs
Bills we supported: SB 203

Alabama’s public K-12 school children deserve due-process rights and protections against suspensions and expulsions. That is why we strongly supported SB 203, sponsored by Sen. Roger Smitherman and designed to create such due process protections. Although this bill made it out of the Senate Education committee and House or Origin, it failed to pass out of the House Education committee. 

Hello! I’m Megan Cheek, and I’m beyond thrilled to be joining Alabama Appleseed as the Communications and Development Associate. I’ve long admired Appleseed’s commitment to justice and equity, and I jumped at the opportunity to join such an amazing team striving to move the needle in our state.

Appleseed’s Communication and Development Associate Megan Cheek

To tell my story, I need to introduce you to my late Aunt Sheila. She lived in South Carolina where she fought tirelessly for a better South. For more years than not, she served as president of the state’s teachers union, was heavily involved in statewide politics (ran for office twice!), and was a constant presence at the South Carolina State House. She joined hands with those who did not think, look, or act like her to make progress for her neighbors. Aunt Sheila’s strength and determination were something to behold, and she believed in fighting for change even in the face of (repeated!) defeat.

 

Aunt Sheila was a force and inspired me to work in the nonprofit sector with organizations striving to build opportunities for improvement. After graduating from the University of Georgia and working on campus, my husband and I moved to Washington, D.C., where we lived for 13 years. While in D.C., I had the honor of working for the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop—a community art school—in various roles including Program Director and Deputy Director for Marketing and Communications. (I’ve continued to work for the Arts Workshop for the better part of 18 years, most recently as a marketing consultant.) I also served as the Executive Director for the Washington Youth Choir, an organization that utilizes arts education and music as a vehicle to impart core values and promote higher education for D.C. youth. These experiences underlined the importance to me of investing in our communities to bring about positive and lifelong change.

 

Our decision to move to Alabama in 2014 to be closer to family was a catalyst for even more personal growth. Alabama’s dismal position at the bottom of almost every quality of life metric motivated me to work towards creating a more equitable state where I am raising my children. Because of this desire, I co-founded H.IV.E. Alabama in early 2017, an organization focused on educating our community on elections, candidates, and pertinent issues to our state including environmental, educational, human rights, and more. I also began consulting with local organizations in marketing, policies, procedures, and fundraising. And I became involved in Alabama politics, assisting candidates and supporting platforms that advocate for all citizens.

 

Progress happens when engaged citizens work together to push for the policy changes that our state so desperately needs. With all of our state’s considerable challenges, I am continuously inspired by the dedicated people committed to making it better and have hope in a brighter future. Alabama Appleseed is at the forefront of addressing critical issues and promoting systemic solutions to make a better Alabama. I’m so excited to be a part of this team and look forward to working towards equity and justice for all of our neighbors.

 

The former high school football star used marijuana to manage pain from a catastrophic accident. Did Alabama law enforcement charge him as a drug kingpin so the state could keep his car, cash, and other valuables?

By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

PHENIX CITY, ALA. – Quandarius Holt must have thought that the worst things that could happen as a result of being struck by an 18-wheeler in 2018 were already behind him. The 23-year-old former high school football star had already lost his left leg above the knee and endured multiple surgeries, resulting from a tractor trailer crashing into him as he helped a motorist move her disabled car off the road.

Quan Holt picked up wheelchair basketball after losing his left leg.

 

Remarkably, after less than a year, Holt was moving forward. With money from the significant settlement he received as a result of the accident, he and his wife purchased a house in a nice neighborhood and a new car. He joined a wheelchair basketball league and was being recruited for several college teams. After discovering the opioids and other medications he was sent home from the hospital with did little to lessen the excruciating pain from his injuries, he turned instead to the aid of marijuana.

 

That was a mistake. In Alabama, it is illegal to possess any amount of marijuana for any reason. But Holt, desperate for relief, didn’t ask the right questions or think through the potential risks when he obtained medical marijuana cards from Georgia and California. He learned the hard way when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) arrested him at his Phenix City, Ala. house on July 16, 2020. By the time he got out of jail, ALEA had taken his car, his cash, his cell phone, and other belongings, using a process known as civil asset forfeiture which allows law enforcement to seize and even keep property they believe is connected to criminal activity. Despite Holt’s own admission that he used marijuana to manage pain, law enforcement charged him like a drug kingpin – a decision his attorney believes was made to strengthen the state’s case for keeping his property, not because of any evidence that Holt is a drug dealer.

In the space of two years, Holt lost his leg, his mobility, and his ability to support his family. Confused by ill-considered guidance from doctors who suggested he try marijuana and so desperate to manage his pain he failed to seriously consider the consequences, he also lost $60,000 worth of property he’d purchased with proceeds from the civil settlement from his catastrophic accident.

Now awaiting trial in the case that could result in a prison sentence, Holt is broke, depressed, frightened, and in pain.

The Cannabis Conundrum

This was not the life Holt envisioned. In high school, he was a nationally ranked football player who left parties if there was any substance abuse, even drinking. “I grew up in the ghetto, in the projects. I knew football was my ticket out,” he told Alabama Appleseed.

He earned a scholarship and played at a private high school in Phenix City, then went to Lindenwood University in Illinois. He took a break after his freshman year and considered joining the Marines. It was during this break, the fall of what would have been his sophomore year in college, that the accident happened.

Quan’s football talents earned him a scholarship to a private high school and to college. Here, he is Number 29.

Just before dawn on Nov. 19, 2018, Holt and his girlfriend happened upon a 61-year-old woman who had gotten a flat tire on a busy road in Columbus, Georgia. He was helping her move the vehicle to safety when he was struck by an 18-wheeler. Army medics who happened upon the scene on their way to Fort Benning saved his life – but they could not save his left leg, which was amputated above the knee. His right femur was broken, his pelvis fractured, his bladder ruptured, his liver lacerated, and his spine injured.

Holt told Appleseed he was placed in a medically induced coma for about a month and prescribed morphine to manage the pain. By the time he went home, his 5’11” frame had plummeted from 225 to 125 pounds.

Records show the hospital sent him home with 11 medications, including Fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid that the CDC cites as a major driver of overdose deaths. Holt says none of them controlled his pain. Neither did multiple follow-up surgeries. His worst pains were so-called “phantom pains,” his brain confused by signals from the nerves that were damaged when surgeons amputated his leg. He told Appleseed that one of his doctors recommended medical cannabis and referred him to the Georgia Department of Public Health and BePainFreeGlobal, a marijuana retailer based in California.

These were dangerous, ill-informed recommendations. Under Georgia law, a physician may recommend their patient be permitted to register for a Low THC Card. If the recommendation is approved – and it appears Holt’s was – the Georgia Department of Public Health provides a registry card allowing the patient to legally possess up to 20 fluid ounces of “low THC oil.”

Georgia’s law does not allow people to purchase most marijuana products. More importantly for Holt, Georgia’s law only applies in Georgia. A Georgia Low THC Card is meaningless in Alabama, where he lives. Phenix City, Ala., where Holt lives, is tied so closely to the larger Columbus, Ga. just across the state line that it is Alabama’s only municipality to operate in the Eastern Time Zone. Residents move constantly across state lines for work and commerce. Holt’s doctors were in Georgia and covered by Georgia law – but he was not.

The medical marijuana card issued by California physicians via BePainFreeGlobal’s affiliated network is even more troubling. On Oct. 19, 2020, Alabama Appleseed called BePainFreeGlobal and asked about having marijuana shipped to Alabama. The customer service representative confirmed they ship to all 50 states as long as the customer has a California doctor’s recommendation. He referred Appleseed to several California-based telehealth providers, noting that one in particular was cheap, quick, and “they approve everyone.”

Appleseed told him that marijuana, medical or otherwise, is not legal in Alabama. “I definitely understand what you’re saying,” the customer service representative said. But his employers, he said, “feel that they’re under some kind of legal umbrella due to like constitutional law and the Bill of Rights.” The representative then transferred Appleseed to “somebody more on the up end” of the management chain. A voicemail and attempts to follow up via email received no response.

BePainFreeGlobal may or may not be protected by “some kind of legal umbrella” – it seems doubtful – but Holt is out in the storm. Until and unless marijuana laws are made more uniform nationwide, there will always be people ensnared by the jurisdictional traps that mean what is perfectly legal in one state is a felony in another.

After losing his leg, Quan remained committed to supporting his children.

Helping his toddler walk, while learning to walk all over again himself.

Holt does seem to have been a heavy user. He was arrested with about three ounces of marijuana and various products. But there is no evidence that he sold marijuana or intended to; no evidence that he used his vehicle to distribute marijuana; and significant reason to believe that he, like his wife, possessed it solely for personal use. There is no weight threshold distinguishing marijuana possession “for personal use” from “for other than personal use” in Alabama law; that determination is made solely by charging authorities. Yet the difference in terms of outcome is enormous. Possession for personal use is a misdemeanor on the first arrest and a Class D felony all subsequence arrests. Possession for other than personal use is a Class C felony, carrying serious consequences. This was Holt’s first arrest for possession.

 

Out in the storm

The complaint filed in the civil asset forfeiture case says that a neighbor who was in law enforcement alerted ALEA of marijuana in Holt’s house, going so far as to trespass on Holt’s property to photograph his two marijuana plants. Holt was not living there at the time because he and his wife had separated. She remained in the house with their son, while Holt moved to a nearby apartment. Their relationship was strained, and at one point he insisted she move out of the house.

Based on the neighbor’s report, an ALEA agent came to the house, where Holt’s wife was packing up her clothes. Holt’s wife told him that the marijuana plants did not belong to her and that she knew they were illegal. According to the complaint, she asked if she could call and ask Holt to come over. Law enforcement vacated the driveway and concealed themselves, waiting for Holt to arrive.

Holt told Appleseed he came quickly, thinking he and his wife would be continuing their ongoing conversation about custody arrangements for their one-year-old son. Instead, he was greeted by weapons and handcuffs. “My car isn’t completely in my driveway [when] three undercover agents come out of my house with their guns drawn at me, and a state trooper pulled in behind me to block me from leaving,” he said.

The two marijuana plants and paraphernalia were already wrapped and bagged as evidence when he got inside. According to the complaint, police also found 90 grams of marijuana in his car, along with THC gummies, five packs of THC vape cartridges, and a bottle of THC oil in his car. They found four grams of marijuana and a THC vape in his wife’s car.

The Lee County District Attorney Pro Tem told Appleseed that at this stage, charging decisions are based on recommendations from law enforcement. She said she is unable to comment on the case beyond what is in the record, and suggested we call ALEA. ALEA did not respond to Appleseed’s request for its valuation of the marijuana, and said pending litigation meant it could not comment on our request for assistance in understanding the assertion by the law enforcement agency that the marijuana was for other than personal use. Holt’s lawyer says there are documents showing Holt paid less than $400 for the THC products from BePainFreeGlobal, and that the two plants were too immature to have produced any cannabis that could be used or sold, and therefore essentially valueless at the time of his arrest.

Police arrested both Holt and his wife and booked them into jail. Holt was charged with First Degree Possession of Marijuana for Other than Personal Use, a Class C felony; Unlawful Manufacture of a Controlled Substance, which can be a Class A or B felony, and Possession/Receipt of a Controlled Substance, a Class D felony. Bond for the three cases came to $54,500.

Holt’s wife was charged with Second Degree Possession of Marijuana, a misdemeanor, and Possession/Receipt of a Controlled Substance, a Class D felony. Her bond totaled $2,500.

Holt and his wife both bonded out within a few hours. By then, police had taken more than $9,000 in cash that he and his wife had withdrawn from their shared account during an acrimonious low point in their dispute, as well as the 2019 Dodge Charger and everything inside of it – including his iPhone, clothes he had recently purchased for his baby boy (who has since outgrown them), a new lawnmower battery he needed to replace one that had died, and the licensed firearms he kept to protect himself after his injury limited his mobility.

He has not seen any of it since.

Policing for Profit

Holt purchased his car and other items seized not from drug activity, but from proceeds from the settlement he received after being crushed by an 18-wheeler. While he acknowledges being a heavy marijuana user to manage his pain, no one gets rich from buying drugs.

Holt retained a lawyer to challenge the state’s seizure of his belongings. The state argues in its complaint that the car, cash, and firearms were “used, or intended for use,” in unlawful activity. But the ostensible purpose of civil asset forfeiture laws is to separate individuals who might be beyond the reach of the law (for instance, drug kingpins residing outside the U.S.) from their ill-gotten riches.

Quan Holt cares for his young children, despite having his car, cash, and other valuables seized by law enforcement.

And that is where Holt’s case becomes both interesting and terribly dismaying. Holt is decidedly not a drug kingpin. In an interview with Alabama Appleseed, the former high school football star admitted to spending tens of thousands of dollars on the products he needed to manage his pain from the 2018 accident. Much of that money went to BePainFreeGlobal.com, the California-based outfit that ships nationwide, seemingly with impunity, despite state and federal laws explicitly barring it from doing so. In fact, Holt’s attorney, Mike Segrest, told Appleseed he offered to share with ALEA receipts and other evidence of BePainFreeGlobal’s activity, which could potentially help law enforcement investigate the business. Segrest said ALEA responded to his offer by threatening to file federal charges against Holt for using the U.S. Postal Service to receive contraband.

The steep charges against Holt gave Alabama authorities leverage over more than his liberty. They also enabled law enforcement to seize his property under Alabama’s expansive civil asset forfeiture law, which allows the state to take and keep currency, vehicles, houses, land, weapons, and virtually any other item that is they believe is the proceeds of, or was used to facilitate, criminal activity.

Holt has not yet been indicted, so the outcome of the criminal charges against him is still unknown. Regardless, he is already suffering the consequences: he’s broke, he lost his car, and his untreated pain makes every moment agony.

He earns a little money from his job at the front desk of a doctor’s office, but between child support for his two children (a daughter from a prior relationship and a young son from the marriage that just ended), payments to his bail bondsman, and other expenses, it’s not enough. His doctor prescribed pain medication and a muscle relaxant, Holt said. But “my prescription has been sitting at the pharmacy for about a week because I do not have the funds to go and get it.”

But what of the other consequences? Should Holt lose his valuables because he was treating his pain with a type of medication that is legal in states where the overwhelming majority of Americans live?

Alabama says yes. In its complaint, the state says the items it seized: $9,306, the Dodge Challenger, and the firearms, were “used, or intended for use, in a transaction which would be in violation of the Alabama Controlled Substances Act or other laws of the State of Alabama concerning controlled substances and/or that said vehicle and weapon were used, or intended for use, to transport, or in any manner facilitate the transportation, manufacture, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment of a controlled substance or precursor to manufacture in violation of the Alabama Controlled Substances Act amended and/or is a traceable drug asset.”

Boiled down, that avalanche of law enforcement argot means the state is pretty sure all that stuff is somehow linked to a crime. According to Segrest, ALEA asserts that the mere fact that the Challenger had marijuana in it means the state is entitled to keep it.

Pursuant to that assertion, in its complaint, the state “respectfully request[s]” that, if the money is “condemned,” (that is, if a judge decides Holt should never get it back), 70 percent ($6,514.20) be given to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, 20 percent ($1,861.20) to the Lee County District Attorney’s Fund, and 10 percent ($930.60) to the Alabama Department of Forensic Science’s Auburn Lab.

It asks that the “monetary proceeds” of the Dodge Challenger – a sports car that cost Holt more than $40,000 off the lot – be divided the same way, and suggests the firearms be given to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for “general law enforcement purposes or destruction.”

Questionable Constitutionality

Quan Holt’s situation – police seizing property he acquired as a result of his kindness to a stranger nearly costing him his life – seems uniquely unjust.  But it is just the latest in a long line of examples of law enforcement profiting wildly from civil asset forfeiture where the public safety benefits are tenuous at best.

In 2017, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center undertook an extensive review of Alabama civil forfeiture cases. We examined 1,110 cases in 14 counties, representing 1,591 civil asset forfeiture cases filed in Alabama in 2015.

In 55 percent of cases we examined where criminal charges were filed, the charges were related to marijuana. In 18 percent of cases where criminal charges were filed, the charge was simple possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia – crimes that require the person to part with money or valuables in order to commit them.

Segrest, the lawyer who represents Holt in both the criminal and civil proceedings, is mounting a vigorous challenge to both. Among other things, he observes that Holt was not living at the residence when police served his wife with the search warrant – that in fact, he only came there because his wife messaged him and asked him to come and talk after law enforcement had already threatened her with arrest. The search and seizure of the car and its contents, he argues, was illegal.

Segrest makes another argument about the seizure’s constitutionality, one that goes to the heart of an evolving argument about limits of civil asset forfeiture and the use of financial penalties more broadly. Even if the search was legal, he says, the property seized cannot be forfeited because it is disproportionate to the crime committed.

Segrest’s argument is based on new constitutional law stemming from the 2013 case of Tyson Timbs, an Indiana resident who used life insurance money he received after his father died to buy a $42,000 Land Rover. Timbs, who was addicted to and occasionally sold opioids, also once used the Land Rover to travel to a location where he sold heroin to undercover officers. He was arrested on his way to another sale, and law enforcement seized the vehicle.

Timbs eventually pleaded guilty to one count of dealing a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to commit theft. He fought the seizure of his vehicle, arguing that its value was more than four times the $10,000 maximum criminal fine available. The state of Indiana countered that the excessive fines clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to the states and also that civil asset forfeitures are not punitive, and that it was therefore entitled to keep the Land Rover.

Timbs v. Indiana made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous ruling, the justices ordered Indiana to reconsider the case. Timbs eventually got his Land Rover back.

Segrest argues persuasively that Holt’s case is similar to Timbs. The financial penalties associated with the crimes Holt is accused of are steep: The manufacturing charge alone could carry a fine of up to $60,000. Segrest argues that “[t]he arresting officers inflated the charges against Mr. Holt to felonies … in order to justify the unlawful taking of property with a value of approximately $60,000.”

In other words, his hunch is that law enforcement deliberately over-charged Holt to build a case for the eventual forfeiture of his valuables. If true, that would mean they decided it was worth exposing a medically compromised father of two to a lengthy prison term because they wanted to keep his flashy car and his cash.

Given Alabama law enforcement’s track record of using civil asset forfeiture laws to seize things like acres of peach-growing land a Chilton County sheriff hoped to repurpose as a shooting range, it is not a stretch of the imagination to be skeptical of state state’s motives. Certainly, the Lee County District Attorney’s office that is pursuing the forfeiture deserves extra scrutiny: In Nov. 2020, a special grand jury indicted District Attorney Brandon Hughes for eight felonies, including violating the state ethics act, conspiring to commit first-degree theft, and first-degree perjury. The indictment alleges a myriad of ways Hughes used his office for personal gain. Among other things, he is alleged to have conspired to steal a pickup truck from a Chambers County business and to have added three of his children to the office payroll. Hughes was District Attorney at the time Holt was charged.

“The cycle continues every day” – For Holt, and for law enforcement agencies who profit from unproven crimes

Litigation is not the only way to protect Holt and other Alabamians, including the many individuals whose seized property is less than the cost of the lawyer they would need to get it back. In 2021, a bipartisan group of Alabama lawmakers introduced a bill that would end civil asset forfeiture in case like Holt’s.

SB 210 would end civil asset forfeiture in criminal drug offenses and replace it with a unified criminal process. It would also require most criminal forfeitures happen after proof of conviction, making it much harder to law enforcement to keep otherwise lawful property that wasn’t clearly shown to be the fruits or instrumentality of criminal activity.

The state could still take and keep contraband such as controlled substances or gambling machines, but it would have to prove to a judge’s satisfaction that any otherwise lawful property like vehicles, cash, or other valuables seized had something to do with criminal activity before it could keep them.

If passed, SB 210 would also extend access to counsel in criminal cases to any related forfeiture proceedings, meaning that people would no longer have to pay for a lawyer to recover their own property even if they were found not guilty or never even charged with a crime. It would expand opportunities for people like Holt to get their valuables back prior to their criminal conviction, including if the valuables are “not reasonably required to be held for evidentiary reasons.” And it would create a proportionality hearing enabling people like Holt to argue that even if their property were incidentally used in the commission of a crime, the harm caused by its forfeiture would be excessive.

Quan Holt is facing a possible prison sentence for possession of marijuana, a substance legal in states where more than half of Americans live.

Nor is forfeiture reform the only law that, if passed, could protect people like Holt. This session, the Alabama legislature will consider two bills with the potential to put Alabama’s marijuana policy more in line with the rest of America’s. The first, filed by Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence), would legalize medical marijuana for treatment of about 20 conditions, including intractable pain. The second, filed by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) would reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana as a fine-only offense. In a state where Black people like Mr. Holt are four times as likely as their white peers to be arrested for possession of marijuana despite robust, longstanding evidence that the two groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate, marijuana policy reform of both types is a critical and long-overdue step.

For Holt – broke, depressed, in pain, still responsible for supporting himself and two children, and no longer in possession the vehicle he needs to get to and from work – all of these laws would have made a world of difference had they been passed prior to his neighbor’s decision to turn him in.

“It does feel like it’s overwhelming at times,” he said. “My mom comes and picks me up every morning to take me to work and she picks me up when I get off to bring me back to the house. And the cycle continues every day.”

 

By Allen Slater

My name is Allen Slater, and I am honored to join Alabama Appleseed as a full-time extern. I admire this organization’s mission, methodology, and compassion, and I am thrilled to contribute to the team. I am also eternally grateful to all of the kind, intelligent people who have supported and encouraged me along my journey to this position.

My path to Alabama Appleseed was a long, winding one that began in Kansas, where I started my career in law enforcement. Over the course of two years, I served as a corrections officer and a rural sheriff’s deputy in the northeastern part of the state. The next part of my career took me to a mid-sized city in Tennessee, where I served as a municipal police officer for nearly three years. My service as a police officer was rewarding, but not without difficulties. I saw the realities and trauma of violence and poverty collide with race and gender issues constantly, and at times, my job felt like using my fingers to plug holes in a dam that was on the verge of collapse. I saw many of the same people for the same issues on a regular basis; I felt less like a guardian of the community than a cog in a large, unyielding machine. That feeling made me question the way that we deployed law enforcement resources, the structure and purpose of some of our laws, and why some communities received different kinds and qualities of policing than others.

Appleseed’s 2021 legal extern Allen Slater

The questions I wrestled came to a head in 2014 with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. Those deaths and their aftermath shook me — I knew that we needed serious, systemic changes to make policing fairer, safer, and more transparent, but didn’t know what I could do to help. After some soul searching, I asked myself what I later discovered was a very old question: who guards the guards? In other words, who polices the police? I realized that the best way that I could have a positive impact — to continue helping, protecting, and serving others — would be attending law school and becoming an attorney. As a lawyer, I could to use my previous professional knowledge and experience to advocate for necessary change in the criminal justice system. Attending the University of Alabama School of Law has allowed me to pursue that goal and more.

During law school, I have been fortunate to work with a variety of brilliant attorneys on civil rights, police transparency, and criminal justice reform issues.  During my first summer, I worked as an intern with the Office of the Federal Defender for the Northern District of Florida. There, I fought for the constitutional rights of clients on death row by providing legal research and investigative support for the office’s Capital Habeas Unit. I also was privileged to work as an intern and Student Legal Fellow for The Policing Project at NYU School of Law. In that position, I researched pre-arrest diversion alternatives for a state government that was searching for opportunities to increase public safety while lowering its prison population. Additionally, I conducted extensive research into the use of biometric technologies by law enforcement, which culminated in a series of blog posts.  I was also able to work with the Alabama ACLU on a variety of civil rights issues, ranging from law enforcement misconduct to First Amendment legal questions. Law school also gave me the opportunity to work behind the scenes of the courtroom as an extern for a federal judge in the Northern District of Alabama. I also had the privilege of working for the conviction integrity unit of a district attorney’s office, investigating potential wrongful convictions and providing legal research for law enforcement misconduct prosecutions. Additionally, I was able to publish an academic article proposing a new standard for evaluating police shootings in the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy. These experiences have broadened and enriched my perspective, giving me deeper insights into the systemic issues plaguing our justice system.

I took those insights with me to the University of Alabama School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic at the beginning of my final year of law school. In that program, I, in partnership with a fellow law student, represented clients accused of crimes in Tuscaloosa County under the supervision of our professor. My partner and I also engaged in post-conviction advocacy for a terminally ill client, securing his release from the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. My experience fighting for my clients fueled my commitment to criminal justice reform as I realized that the system — and the racial, gender, and class disparities that it aggravates — must be reshaped in order to serve all of us properly. We need a criminal justice system that delivers accountability hand-in-hand with mercy and rehabilitation.

Part of what drew me to Alabama Appleseed was the organization’s approach to criminal justice reform. Appleseed has pursued data driven, effective policies to enhance public safety, build public trust, and respect the inherent value of every person involved in the justice system. Whether advocating for marijuana law reforms or ensuring that sheriffs cannot enrich themselves by starving prisoners and pocketing taxpayer dollars, Appleseed has fought to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system in concrete ways.

Alabama Appleseed’s work also does something less concrete, but equally important: each legal and policy success builds a criminal justice system worthy of public trust in Alabama. My experiences, both as a police officer and as a budding attorney, have shown me that all criminal justice systems are an institutions dependent on public trust. History has shown us that Alabama’s criminal justice system — its police, courts, and prisons — have sometimes squandered that trust in the name of racism, greed, or neglect. To restore that lost trust, Alabama’s victims and defendants need the criminal justice system to show them agency, compassion, and dignity. They need a system that is fair, legitimate, and free of bias; one that protects and respects their humanity and their rights as a priority, rather than an afterthought. Building a better criminal justice system in Alabama requires many people working together in pursuit of a better tomorrow, and I am excited to play my part through my role at Alabama Appleseed.

 

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.