By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

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

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

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

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

His bid for parole was granted last month.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean and Eboni visit with Appleseed’s Leah Nelson, who first shared the story of Sean’s incarceration and continued to advocate for his release until he was freed Nov. 9. Photo by Jill Friedman

 

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

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

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

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

 

By Leah Nelson

leah.nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

In August 2016, a disabled Black veteran named Sean Worsley brought his legally prescribed medical marijuana with him on a road trip from Arizona to North Carolina. On his way through Alabama, Worsley, who earned a Purple Heart in connection with injuries sustained during his 15 months disabling bombs and retrieving the body parts of dead comrades as a Combat Engineer in Iraq, stopped for gas. He played air guitar and clowned around to entertain his wife while waiting for the tank to fill.

Sean Worsley served in the U.S. Army before becoming disabled with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.

Worsley’s playful behavior and the music the couple was playing caught the attention of a police officer who approached and asked to search the vehicle. The couple agreed, even volunteering that he would find Worsley’s medical marijuana and attempting to show him Worsley’s medical marijuana card.

The officer found roughly a third of an ounce of marijuana and arrested both of them. Convinced that the grinder and digital scale Worsley had with him to measure out his doses was evidence that he was a drug dealer, he charged Worsley with possession “for other than personal use,” a felony in Alabama. Worsley, who due to his combat injuries is considered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to be 100 percent disabled and in need of “maximal assistance” with basic day-to-day activities, pleaded guilty a year later. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and permitted to serve that sentence in Arizona, where he had lived at the time of the arrest.

But keeping up with probation requirements isn’t always easy, or even possible. Probation officers require their charges to have a stable address, but Worsley and his wife, Eboni, had become homeless in the turmoil that followed his conviction. Another Catch-22 stemmed from the Alabama court’s requirement that Worsley participate in substance abuse treatment as part of his sentence. Worsley tried to get into such a program, but the Phoenix Department of Veteran’s Affairs turned him away, citing the fact that he does not have a substance abuse issue and was only using marijuana as legally prescribed by a doctor. 

From Alabama’s point of view, Worsley’s inability to comply with the terms of his probation was unacceptable. Worsley had three prior felonies at the time of his 2016 arrest, connected with an incident involving a bad check and some marijuana that occurred a few months after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army Reserves. Alabama could have used those felonies to imprison him immediately after his guilty plea, but it didn’t. That was as generous as the state was willing to be. He incurred another felony in January 2020: His Arizona medical marijuana card expired and he did not have the $250 to renew it but kept medicating himself anyway. He was charged with felony possession in Arizona when police pulled him over for a routine traffic stop. 

In March 2020, Alabama extradited Worsley from Arizona and sentenced him to five years in prison. 

Since April of 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice has twice determined that conditions in Alabama’s prison system for men are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama’s prisons for men are the most deadly in the nation, suffer from corrupt staffing and management, and are flooded with drugs. In 2017, a federal judge found their mental health services to be “horrendously inadequate” and this week ordered federal monitoring because of the system’s inability to sustain improvements without oversight. 

Knowing this, Worsley’s wife and mother were terrified about what would happen to him behind bars. They marshalled a coalition of the unlikeliest of allies in an effort to get him out: A friend of Worsley’s from kindergarten who grew up to become a Republican operative; an Alabama legislator and his husband who are former U.S. Marines; a formerly incarcerated music producer turned advocate who is friendly with Snoop Dogg and Charles Koch; a retired federal magistrate judge; retired Alabama corrections officials; a battalion of veteran’s rights advocates and cannabis advocates. And human rights advocates, including the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, the Montgomery-based public policy organization where I work as research director. 

Everyone got to work. The veterans organized a rally outside the jail where Worsley was being held, holding signs that read “He’s my brother” and “We leave no one behind.” The advocates and lawyers found a statutory mechanism by which Worsley could be permitted to serve his sentence under supervision in the community rather than behind razor wire. We found him a full-time job and lined up pro bono counseling services with a therapist who specializes in treating traumatized veterans. 

More than 2,000 people donated a total of nearly $100,000 dollars online. Some of that helped Eboni Worsley move to Alabama and rent a home in Birmingham, where the judge who oversees Veteran’s Treatment Court agreed to supervise Worsley if he were transferred to Community Corrections. Dozens of people came together across professions and political divides to assemble an airtight re-entry plan with extraordinary levels of support. Worsley paid Pickens County the $3,858.40 in fines, fees, and court costs that had been assessed against him. The Alabama Department of Corrections deemed him suitable for transfer. 

All that the plan required was for the judge to exercise his lawful discretion to accept Worsley’s transfer into this community-based supervision in light of what so many people recognized to be a clear injustice and a waste of state resources.

That is not what happened. In a Sept. 3 order that focused on Worsley’s history of low-level, nonviolent offenses and probation violations, the judge denied the Community Corrections transfer request:  “Because the Defendant has fled this jurisdiction both times he was released, failed to comply with any condition of bond or probation and has 5 felony convictions, including one he received while on probation from this Court’s sentence, this Court finds that the Defendant is not a suitable candidate for placement in the Community Corrections Program,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, the request is DENIED.”

Pickens County District Attorney Andy Hamlin has repeatedly said that he could have pushed for Mr. Worsley’s immediate incarceration from the start. “Remember, at the time of the plea, he was a four-time convicted felon. Given his circumstances and military service, I used discretion and asked the court to put him on probation. I must apply the law consistently and fairly with every case that comes through my office. Any special treatment to Mr. Worsley would have set a precedent that would have been unfair to others with similar histories and charges,” Mr. Hamlin wrote in an email to Appleseed.

“We find ourselves here not because of failed policies or any nefarious act by anyone that works in law  enforcement or the court system, but because Mr. Worsley failed to exercise any personal responsibility or agency,” Hamlin wrote.  

Any day now, a fragile, disabled man who sacrificed his health and youth to serve his country will be thrown into the most dangerous prisons in America – prisons that have been declared unconstitutional, and which do not have any semblance of functioning mental health services – because he made the mistake of bringing legally prescribed medication into a state where that medication is not legal, and because his homelessness, disability, and the differences between Alabama and Arizona drug laws prevented him from successfully complying with probation. 

Sean and Eboni Worsley

It’s tempting to describe what was done to Sean Worsley as a travesty of justice. But that would imply that what happened to him is a distortion of how our justice system is meant to work. In Worsley’s case, our state’s justice system operated exactly as we have designed it to. What was done to Worsley was the result of Alabama laws being followed to the letter.

Over the years, Alabama lawmakers have had before them an array of bills that could have radically changed the outcome of Worsley’s unintentional violation of Alabama law. They knew that Black people are more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama despite both races using marijuana at roughly the same rate, yet declined to decriminalize simple possession of even small amounts. They knew that disparities in how Black and white communities are policed mean that Black people are far more likely to have criminal histories, yet took few steps to reduce the weight prior convictions would carry in determining a person’s sentence. They knew probation was costly and that people who lack resources struggle to comply with its demands, yet they took no steps to fix it. They knew our prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded and deadly but have refused to act with urgency about the causes of the crisis. 

This is a summer of racial reckoning. On August 31, the white coach of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide led his mostly Black team in a Black Lives Matter march to the Tuscaloosa schoolhouse door that George Wallace once blocked. Four days later, in a courthouse just one county over, Alabama’s criminal punishment system shambled on, working exactly how it’s meant to – exactly as we let it work, despite knowing the terrible consequences. 

 

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

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

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

Army veteran Sean Worsley earned a Purple Heart in Iraq

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

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

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

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

Playing Air Guitar while Black

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

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

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

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

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

Sean Worsley, and his wife Eboni, in happier days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eboni in the hospital for heart surgery

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

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

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

 

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The human costs are much worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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