Alabama Appleseed’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session are narrowly focused on sensible reforms and investments. Our priorities reinforce what so many Alabamians are beginning to understand: as a state, we pour too much money into prisons and punishment and fail to invest in policies and services that will make us all safer and more prosperous.

This session, help us pass the following three priorities: 

End drivers license suspensions for low-wealth Alabamians

Right now, nearly 170,000 Alabamians have their driver’s licenses suspended because they failed to pay traffic tickets or failed to appear in court. That’s 170,000 people who can’t easily hold down jobs, take care of themselves or their families, or otherwise go about their lives – not because they’re dangerous drivers, but because they owe the state money. At the same time, Alabama is facing a staggering labor shortage, with more than two jobs for every jobseeker. Something’s got to change.

This session, Appleseed will support bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) and Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) that would sever the connection between unpaid traffic debt and driver’s license suspensions while ensuring accountability for individuals who receive traffic tickets and maintaining protections against dangerous drivers. Specifically, the legislation will end suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets and failure to appear at compliance hearings about payment plans, while also making plain that drivers who simply ignore tickets can have their licenses suspended and leaving in place the points system that governs suspensions for habitually reckless drivers.

Reform is urgently needed. Businesses are suffering for lack of workers, and Alabamians who lost their licenses due to debt are making desperate choices in the meantime. Our 2018 survey of Alabama drivers whose licenses were suspended due to unpaid traffic debt found that 89% had to choose between basic needs like food, utilities, or medicine and paying what they owed; 73% had to request charitable assistance they would not have otherwise needed; 48% took out high-interest payday loans; and 30% admitted to committing crimes like selling drugs or stealing to pay off their tickets.

Alabama drivers need licenses so they can get decent jobs and do what they need to do to care for themselves and their families. This bill aims to help them get back on the road.

Invest federal COVID-relief funds into prison re-entry and diversion programs

In Alabama, individuals transitioning back into society after serving time for a criminal offense face a blockade and there is virtually no reasonable pathway for re-entry without family support. Individuals who have served their time and are trying to make a life change, but have no financial resources, need basic necessities to have any chance for safety and stability.

The State of Alabama currently provides no re-entry housing support for the vast majority of people exiting from the Alabama Department of Corrections’ custody. In fiscal 2021, that number was 4,122.  Appleseed’s proposal seeks to provide bare minimum support to this population in order to provide stability during their first months outside of prison and increase public safety. 

The Legislature should approve $10 million in American Rescue Act (ARPA) funding for licensed, private, nonprofit providers of housing and re-entry services throughout the State. Housing could be provided using two models: the group home/halfway house setting and the community-based transitional home model.  For $10 million annually, approximately 2,000 returning individuals could be safety housed as they get back on their feet. Models in Georgia, Texas, and Michigan have been enormously successful.

Already lawmakers have devoted $400 million in ARPA funds to help build two, new mega prisons, a controversial decision that has been widely criticized. Lawmakers must decide this session how to spend another $580 million. A small fraction for re-entry housing would help address the desperation and homelessness that thousands of people who leave prison every year face.

On the front end, lawmakers should use this rare federal funding opportunity to improve and support programs such as drug courts and diversion that treat people arrested for minor, nonviolent drug crimes in communities rather than sending them to Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons.

As Appleseed found in our 2020 report, In Trouble, these programs can cost thousands of dollars, which makes them inaccessible for low-income people.  More than eight in 10 participants we surveyed gave up a necessity like food, rent, or medicine to pay for a diversion program. One in five had been turned down for a diversion program because they could not afford it. 

Provide a grace period for individuals returning from prison to pay fines and fees

Finally, Appleseed is working to provide greater opportunities for success to formerly incarcerated people through legislation that would grant people a six month “grace period” following release before they must begin paying back court fines and fees. 

People often leave prison with little more than a few dollars and a change of clothes. They have no identification, they have a felony conviction, plus housing challenges. It is hardly a formula for success. On top of these challenges, most justice-involved people have accumulated thousands of dollars in court fines and fees – sometimes for decades-old traffic tickets. They must begin paying immediately or face re-arrest. It’s an endless cycle that costs all Alabamians and makes no one safer. 

Representative Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) will sponsor legislation that will grant justice-involved people a six-month “grace period” before they have to begin paying back fines and fees after being released from prison. It just makes sense.

Join Appleseed’s Action Network to keep updated on our priority issues and more this session. Thank you for standing with us to build a better Alabama! 

My name is Brenita Softley, and I am deeply honored to join Alabama Appleseed as a part-time extern. I am in awe of this organization’s mission to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians— which are reasons that I decided to attend law school.

My interest in the legal realm sparked with the death of Trayvon Martin. I knew that our system was unfair, but this realization hit differently when I noticed the criminal legal system telling someone that looked like me and was the same age as me that their life did not matter. I noticed that even when Black people were killed, they were always treated as the aggressor. Realizing this, I wanted to advocate for the most marginalized in society. Throughout my law school journey, I realized that criminal defense was the best way for me to do this. 

The summer following my first year of law school was historical for two reasons: our nation was fighting two pandemics at the same time—COVID 19 and racial injustice. Don’t get me wrong, racial injustice has always been a problem in our country…especially since the original sin of our country was slavery. However, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a more modern nationwide movement. Inspired by their deaths, my classmate and I started a podcast entitled “Welcome to My America” where we discussed racial injustice and how to combat it. That summer, I expounded on this mission when I interned at the Tuscaloosa County Public Defenders’ Office. In my work there, I realized how our criminal legal system oppresses the poor. A lot of our clients were homeless or barely had enough income to sustain themselves. Yet, they were required to pay hundreds of dollars in court costs and fines. I also realized that many of our clients often resorted to crime out of necessity due to being impoverished. However, the law did not care. I made a vow to make sure that would change.

During my second year of law school, I interned with the Children’s Rights Clinic where I saw the school to prison pipeline play out. As an intern in the clinic, my job was to draft individualized education plans, ensure that my clients received appropriate educational services, and highlight mitigating arguments to the court. It was in my internship with The Southern Center for Human Rights that I realized just how important mitigation is. During my internship, I was assigned to two capital cases. Many of our clients had committed their crimes for  reasons such as PTSD, poverty, or the inability to understand right from wrong. What was most heartbreaking was that one of our clients was innocent. When I visited him in prison, I was amazed at how much we had in common. I didn’t expect us to have family from the same small town of Florence, Alabama. I didn’t expect him to have a daughter that was in the same sorority as me or who went to the same school that I did. I didn’t expect him to have the same smile and glow as my dad as he was telling me about his daughter’s accomplishments. I also didn’t expect him to tell me that his source of hope was waking up each day and seeing 14 bars since this reminds him that he woke up to see another day. This client was sent to death row because of systemic injustice and racial bias that permeates the criminal legal system in Alabama. These are issues that Alabama Appleseed confronts in its work. 

Each of these experiences gave me insight into the issues that plague our criminal legal system. During my final year of law school, I was able to use these various experiences in acting as a student attorney in the University of Alabama School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic. In the clinic, my classmates and I represented Tuscaloosa residents accused of crimes under the supervision of our professor.  I was able to participate in various plea negotiations, draft motions, and make oral arguments to the court. Fighting zealously for my clients solidified my interest in criminal justice reform since I realized just how imbalanced our criminal legal system is—in the words of Paul Butler, it is designed for poor people and minorities to lose.

As a lifelong resident of Alabama, I want our state to improve and have a just criminal legal system. A criminal legal system that does not perpetuate racial disparities in arrests or sentencing. One that does not hinder the rights of the accused. One that does not cause minorities to question whether police are there to kill them or protect and serve. And one that does not punish people for simply being poor. This is something that Alabama Appleseed fights for each day by examining laws and policies through a lens of poverty and racial injustice. I am honored to use my experiences to help them in this fight.

My name is Ronald McKeithen, and I am overwhelmed with joy and gratitude to be joining the staff of Alabama Appleseed as a Re-entry Coordinator and Advocate. Alabama Appleseed has added a new component to their mission: to save the lives of people who’ve been incarcerated for decades under the Habitual Offender Act are serving a slow, agonizing death sentence of life without the possibility of parole. My contribution to Appleseed’s mission is to make our clients’ transition back into society as graceful as the whole staff at Appleseed has made mine.

One year ago today, I walked out of Donaldson prison after being locked away for 37 years for a conviction received when I was a teenager. I was given a mandatory life without parole sentence in 1984. The criminal justice system in Alabama decided I was not worthy of ever living outside the prison walls. The system got it wrong, and every day I am living proof of that fact. 

My background is different from most people who go to work for a legal nonprofit. I grew up with three siblings in Titusville, one of many impoverished communities in Birmingham, where thoughts of college careers were not seriously entertained over a dinner conversation. We were poor. We always lived in dilapidated housing. Sometimes I was hungry. The welfare checks and food stamps were never enough for a house of five. But like most young kids, I wasn’t aware of our struggles. Not fully, anyway. 

Despite a childhood in poverty, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father, I always loved to learn. I loved school. I dreamed of being a UAB student. As a child living on the southside of Birmingham, I watched as the university grew around us until we had to move. This is why I receive such a thrill these days when I’m asked to speak to a UAB class full of students or on a panel at AEIVA (Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts) or be a witness in a mock trial. I’ve also had the extreme pleasure of speaking at Samford University twice, as well as Homewood High School. I’ve met amazing kids who will no doubt change the world. 

I have always been curious about people, about life. As a child, my curiosity had me wandering all over Birmingham, roaming areas a Black child did not belong. But as an explorer, the risks were worth it. I will never forget the time I came across a hidden paradise that was right down the street. There were large crabs and crawfish, frogs with legs so large, sand that was too white to be in my ‘hood, and seashells that I’d only seen on Gilligan’s Island. To anyone else, it was a ditch. But to a seven-year-old me, it was a sanctuary. My beach. My coast. Wine bottles and all. And the most amazing thing that I learned about that ditch was how a heavy rain would create a flood of water that clears out the old and leaves new treasures. 

I was reminded of that ditch during a visit to Panama City Beach a few months ago. My first time ever seeing the ocean. I had never dug my toes into sand so deep, nor seen a body of water so vast. So blue. I felt as if I were standing before God. As a kid, playing in the ditch, my imagination could never have prepared me for such a sight. For such a marvelous wonder. For the real thing. Nor could 37 years of preparation, of planning, of imagining my freedom, of how it would feel, look or taste, come close to what my eyes have seen. 

I have been standing before that vast ocean in a daze since I stepped through those prison gates. I am in awe of the changes, the advancements. Birmingham has grown into a beautiful city. The opportunities before me seem endless. 

This is why I love my job at Alabama Appleseed. It is my responsibility to reveal these endless opportunities to our clients – men who have been denied the simple pleasures of life for decades, pleasures that so many take for granted. This new world can be frightening to some and very confusing for others. Operating a cell phone or an ATM could feel like disarming a time bomb. The mental and emotional adjustment from living in a cell for decades to all of a sudden witnessing a universe of wonder and so much change can be very overwhelming. Believe me. I know. Which is what makes this job so ideal and rewarding.

Prison convinced me that I didn’t have the luxury of being unproductive. That I couldn’t just sit around and wait for the laws to change. Nor allow the lawmakers in Montgomery to continuously build up my hopes with bills that never pass. So I paved my own way, educated myself, and tried the best I could to prepare myself for a life in a new, foreign world, just in case I ever got a second chance. Incredibly, I got that second chance. 

Despite the belief that an ex-convict who has lived in prison longer than in the free world could never make it as a free man, here I am one year later, thriving. No tickets. No criminal activity. Just a lot of making up for lost time, trying to remember what freedom was like from when I was 19-years-old. So much of everyday living has seemed like a first to me, from experiencing the sensation of rustling leaves to having my own bedroom, bathroom and TV. There also have been a lot of true firsts: I got a driver’s license, worked three jobs, paid rent, operated computers, caught the bus, bought a car, pumped gas (eventually got the hang of it); I was featured in art galleries, and I was the featured artist in art shows. I’ve been on the news and radio; spoken before legislators; featured on criminal justice panels; spoken professionally to non-profits, various committees, universities, and church groups; have been filmed by the NFL; and currently spend two days a week with at-risk kids in alternative school, reminding them that they are more than the worst things they’ve ever done.

There are no words strong enough to thank the many people who have stood beside me from day one. They have been pivotal in my obtaining the most incredible job and an opportunity to work with the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. If everyone released from prison were blessed to have a support team as mine, recidivism would become a non-issue. I’m also grateful that the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham believes in me enough to support my role at Appleseed.

I can only hope my actions speak louder than any conviction and sentence ever will.        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Years Versus a Lifetime
By Alex LaGanke

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

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

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

Joe Bennett on the day of his release.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We cannot do this work alone

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

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

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

By 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.