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.”

 

My name is Alex LaGanke, and I am thrilled to be joining Alabama Appleseed as a Legal Fellow. Appleseed is bringing me on to grow our presence in criminal and municipal courts where low-income people lack legal representation. My contribution to Appleseed’s mission will encompass the direct assistance of clients by organizing projects for pro bono attorneys and law school clinics to assist clients who otherwise would have no access to justice.

Appleseed Legal Fellow Alex LaGanke

Growing up in an Alabama farm town with a reputation for racism, drug addiction, and neglect of the poor, I understand the desperate needs many impoverished communities face in this state. However, until beginning college in Birmingham, the poor condition of the sidewalks and bus stops I had observed in my few short weeks of living here seemed the epitome of injustice. Then, in my first undergraduate course, I learned about one of the most horrific crimes against humanity: human trafficking. As an 18-year-old, I was completely oblivious to the widespread enslavement of humans on a global scale. But I was even more unaware of the many injustices in my own backyard. My minuscule perspective expanded as I began to get proximate to those in need, jarring me awake to the extent of injustice across this country. As I moved closer to injustice, it wasn’t too long before I decided to commit my life to serve the poor.

 

After college, I continued connecting with amazing organizations that serve the underserved, such as CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) of Jefferson County, and eventually landed a job in community development. I worked intimately with the urban poor of Jefferson County as program coordinator of an Adult Basic Education center for nearly two years before attending law school. I enrolled over 170 individuals into GED and literacy classes and had the distinct honor of hearing the testimonies of former substance abusers, domestic violence victims, and justice-involved people. My adult students, who became dear friends, opened my eyes to the void of justice and opportunity for the poor and marginalized.

 

During law school, I had the incredible opportunity to work as a Pro Bono Fellow for Baker Donelson. While there, I researched the deplorable state of prisons in Alabama and attended a review hearing in an ongoing suit against the Alabama Department of Corrections concerning Eighth Amendment violations against prisoners with severe mental illnesses. This sparked an interest in prison reform that opened the door to an internship with Alabama Appleseed, where I compiled a review of the condemning 2019 United States Department of Justice report on Alabama prisons. At that time, I also began clerking for a federal district court judge who conducted weekly mediations pertaining to the prison crisis in Alabama, where I gained an even greater awareness of the flawed criminal justice system.

 

While utilizing my trial practice card at a local district attorney’s office last summer, I worked on a bail reform project in an effort to modify the bail system and mass incarceration issue that is largely a result of excessive fines and fees as well as tough law enforcement on petty crimes. This project fueled my commitment to criminal justice reform as I realized that the system is more flawed than I could have ever imagined.

 

Moreover, enrollment in a JD/MPA joint degree program provided experience in public policymaking and access to several public administration internships working with and learning from the poorest among us. I gained firsthand knowledge of the homelessness crisis and even worked with local volunteer lawyer programs to develop homelessness clinics. I also worked alongside a local legal organization’s rural economic improvement project, which involved traveling to the Black Belt and hearing firsthand the impact that disparities of legal services have on the most remote communities. This experience revealed the overwhelming legal needs of Alabama residents, especially in comparison to the rest of the country.

 

From my involvement in local community development, I have come to strongly believe that justice is only possible through an intimate awareness and knowledge of the disparities that harm lower-income communities. My exposure to the injustice faced by tens of thousands in Birmingham and cities statewide has informed my work to confront injustice in Alabama, and I am ecstatic to do just that in my role at Alabama Appleseed.

Alabama Appleseed is proud to be a member of the Appleseed network of 18 centers across the United States and Mexico. Collectively our network stands in solidarity with Black voices and Black-led movements mobilizing for change and releases the following statement:

America is hurting. The unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have sparked a national movement to hold our leaders accountable for the insidious racial inequality that penetrates both consciously and unconsciously throughout American society. People across the nation are fighting to overcome generations of pain caused by white supremacy, racial injustice, police brutality, and a broken criminal justice system that penalizes Black citizens at disproportionate rates. This is increasingly obvious as we are suffering through a global pandemic that is impacting communities of color at far higher rates than white communities due to the inequities these communities are forced to endure. We continue to see the over-policing of Black communities and the unjust use of force against Black citizens. Segregated schools and segregated educational opportunities reproduce inequality and racial disparities. These societal issues entrench racial injustice in our schools, neighborhoods, and jobs, which ultimately lead to the violence perpetrated against innocent people such as George Floyd.

Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with Black voices and Black-led movements across the country who are organizing and mobilizing citizens to fight for justice for all.  We share a common belief that change is necessary. In addition to calling out injustice, Appleseed actively works to find local solutions to national issues and make change happen at the state and local level through our 16 Centers across the country. Our Centers work tirelessly to fight racial injustice and transform our system into one that eliminates structural inequality in our society. We work to integrate schools, improve prison conditions, reduce jail populations, expand social safety net programs, increase access to basic services regardless of one’s country of origin, equalize access to healthcare, increase affordable housing, afford all people the training and education they need to compete for better jobs, fight unfair policing, and change unfair laws.

For example, here are some of the projects our Centers are working on to improve the lives of people in historically marginalized communities:

This is only a small selection of the broad array of projects our Network works on every day. Please see below for a list of our affiliate Appleseed Centers with links to their websites, social media, and their latest work, press statements, or publications.

Additionally, we support those who are exercising their right to protest against racism and we strongly condemn the use of needless force by law enforcement against peaceful protesters. We encourage our supporters to check out the following resources on anti-racism shared by our Appleseed Centers:

Alabama Appleseed – Twitter: @AlaAppleseed | Facebook: @AlaAppleseed

Chicago Appleseed – Twitter: @ChiAppleseed | Facebook: @ChicagoAppleseed

DC Appleseed – Twitter: @DC_Appleseed | Facebook: @DCAppleseed

Georgia Appleseed – Twitter: @GaAppleseed | Facebook: @GeorgiaAppleseed

Hawai’i Appleseed – Twitter: @HIAppleseed | Facebook: @Hawaii.Appleseed

Kansas Appleseed – Twitter: @KansasApple | Facebook: @KansasAppleseed

Louisiana Appleseed – Twitter: @La_Appleseed | Facebook: @ LouisianaAppleseed

Massachusetts Appleseed – Twitter: @MassAppleseed | Facebook: @MassAppleseed

Mexico Appleseed – Twitter: @AppleseedMexico | Facebook: @mexicoappleseed

Missouri Appleseed – Twitter: @MissouriApples1 | Facebook: Missouri Appleseed

Nebraska Appleseed – Twitter:  @neappleseed | Facebook: @neappleseed

New Jersey Appleseed – Twitter: @NJ_Appleseed | Facebook: NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center

New Mexico Appleseed – Twitter: @NMAppleseed | Facebook: @new.appleseed

New York Appleseed – Twitter: @AppleseedNY | Facebook: @NYAppleseed

South Carolina Appleseed – Twitter: @AppleseedSC | Facebook: @AppleseedSC

Texas Appleseed – Twitter: @TexasAppleseed | Facebook: @TexasAppleseed

 

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 Akiesha Anderson, Appleseed Policy Director

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

What factors motivated the decision to send this letter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to Ponder

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

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

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My name is Akiesha Anderson and I am thrilled to join Appleseed! As Policy Director, my role will primarily focus on policy development, legislative advocacy, coalition building, engaging with public officials and assisting with legal projects.

Appleseed Policy Director Akiesha Anderson

As a Montgomery-native, I grew up very aware of the existence of both past and present social inequality and stratification. I received my bachelor’s degree from Alabama State University, where I chose to major in sociology because of my desire to better understand and analyze social problems. This area fascinated me and helped me recognized the continued power of social movements as well as the ways in which policies and laws can create, perpetuate, or dismantle modern-day caste systems. Studying sociology also helped me better understand many of the systemic barriers to social mobility that members of low-income and marginalized communities encounter. I later received a Master’s in Public Administration from AUM and my law degree (along with a Certificate in Government Affairs) from The University of Alabama.

Over the years, my passion for social justice, public service, and working towards effectuating meaningful societal change has taken me to some really amazing places! I’ve worked in Central America, Washington, D.C., and most recently—Los Angeles, CA. I’ve also had the honor of working with some really amazing civil rights organizations, elected officials, a university, and a think tank: the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Human Rights Campaign (HRC), U.S. Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (Al-07), the Montgomery County Commission, UCLA School of Law, and the Williams Institute. In addition, I am a member of several service-oriented organizations including the Blackburn Institute and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

As I join Appleseed, I look forward to having the opportunity to build upon the legacy of the civil rights heroes and soldiers who came before me, and working towards making Alabama a more just and equitable state for all!

The following report is part of Appleseed’s collaboration with the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program and also appears on the Aspen Institute blog.


For many individuals and households, a $200 traffic ticket can devastate savings and finances. The Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households finds that 40% of Americans wouldn’t be able to pull together $400 in cash without borrowing money or selling possessions, highlighting the impact fines and fees can have on financial security.

Faced with the need to raise revenue, state and municipal criminal justice systems are increasingly turning to government fines and fees to make up budget shortfalls. The practice of imposing fines, fees, court costs, and other debts onto residents has created a “two-tiered justice system” that disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color – specifically African-American communities. Studies show that cities and communities with large African-American populations receive significantly more revenue from fines and exhibit harsher collection tactics than those without similar demographics.

In Alabama, thousands are trying to balance the costs of fines with other expenses and needs. A survey by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that for those with outstanding court debts:

  • More than 80% cut back on basic needs like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support just to pay down their debt
  • Almost 40% committed a crime to pay off their debt
  • 44% used payday or title loans to pay off their debt
  • Almost 50% shared that they thought they would never be able to pay off their debt

The penalties of an offense vary dramatically from location to location. In some jurisdictions, the consequence of not being able to pay a court fine or fee can be additional late fees – in other jurisdictions, jail time.

Appleseed and the Aspen Institute convened advocates, the legal community, government leaders, law enforcement, and directly impacted people for a convening on solutions to the fines and fees debt trap.

UAB Professor Emeritus Foster Cook and Jefferson County Circuit Judge Teresa Pulliam shared strategies for addressing the harm of fines and fees on low-income Alabamians during an event in October.

What is unfolding in Alabama is not unique to the state. Fines and fees are distressing the financial lives of families across the country. In North Carolina, over one million people have suspended drivers licenses for either a failure to pay traffic fines and fees or failure to appear in court. Forty-three states use driver’s licenses suspensions as punishment for failure to pay.

Suspending a driver’s license can further exacerbate people’s inability to pay.  In rural communities, driving might be the only means to get to work and generate the income required to repay debts.  When faced with the choice of driving on a suspended license or losing one’s job, how do we blame those who do drive? Often, a suspended driver’s license may not deter people from driving due to the importance of work to family income. However, driving without a license puts many at risk for further punishment. In NC, for example, driving without a license is a Class 3 misdemeanor.

recent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found that the conditions of men’s prisons in Alabama is in violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, which protects people from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishment. The investigation has created state-wide urgency around the need to develop systemic solutions to instigate comprehensive criminal justice reform. Local stakeholders – government officials, employers, community leaders – are starting to pay attention and designing solutions to end this negative cycle. Restructuring court fines and fees is a necessary first step.

In October 2019, Alabama Appleseed, in partnership with the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program (Aspen FSP), convened a cross-sector group of local leaders to discuss and identify practical, promising solutions. Experts representing workforce development, district attorney’s offices, municipal and state government, the bar, and the judiciary, workshopped strategies for implementing local and state-wide solutions centered on three main goals: curtailing driver’s license suspensions, streamlining municipal court practices and policies, and strengthening data collection.

Alabama Appleseed and Aspen FSP have compiled a list of key recommendations to reduce the negative impacts of fines and fees on households and communities across the country.

  • Reimagine state funding

In Alabama, fines and fees serve as a hidden tax disproportionately borne by poor people and people of color to supplement the state’s low tax rates. The money collected is largely funneled into the state’s General Fund, government agencies, county and municipal funds, and used to finance pet projects. States should identify more equitable ways to fund essential functions and stop forcing the courts to serve as revenue collectors.

  • Share data between jurisdictions

Many Alabamians owe fines and fees in multiple jurisdictions, but when judges are assessing ability to pay and setting payment plans, they typically only know what the individual owes in their own court. As a result, some people are on payment plans of $25 or $50 in multiple jurisdictions. Better data collection and information-sharing between jurisdictions could prevent this type of unintentional burden and help judges more realistically assess the circumstances of the people who come before them. People are more likely to keep up with payment plans when those plans are reasonable, so better coordination may improve compliance as well.

  • Evaluate the broad impact on community

Individuals are not the only ones to suffer from burdensome court debt: the state pays too. When people lose their driver’s licenses, they can’t work. In an era of record low unemployment and a tight labor market, that means jobs cannot be filled despite the existence of eager workers. Everyone benefits from common-sense reforms like ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid debt, and employers, as much as anyone, should be part of the conversation about how debt reduction can improve prosperity.

  • Include law enforcement in policy conversations

No aspiring police officer dreams of taking someone into custody because the person fell behind on their traffic tickets. People become law enforcement agents because they care about their communities and want to keep them safe—and since they are the ones in communities, inviting law enforcement into conversations about policy reform can improve public safety outcomes for everyone.

  • Learn about what’s worked in other states
    Innovation is happening. In North Carolina, the Administrative Office of Courts has been at the forefront of efforts to end the practice of forcing judges to be debt collectors. In California, the city of San Francisco eliminated local “user” fees that charged individuals for being processed through the justice system. Although not every policy can be adopted without considering local differences, smart solutions come from everywhere.

Alabama Appleseed and Aspen FSP are committed to learning more about how to best develop and implement solutions that address the harmful impacts of fines and fees. As our organizations engage in this effort, we will continue to broadcast the best and intend to continue to share our findings. Solving this issue requires cross-sector collaboration and learning.  We hope the takeaways outlined above provide a roadmap for those beginning to do this work and look forward to engaging with all dedicated to ensuring the lives of individuals and families are not derailed by government fines and fees.

 

 

 

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Phillip Ensler, Appleseed Policy Counsel

CAMDEN, ALABAMA — In 1965,  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Wilcox County to encourage black residents to register to vote. He told them, “You are somebody.” Yet in my visits to Camden over the past few months, I learned about and witnessed the cruel effects of black families being treated as less than “somebody” for decades following Dr. King’s appearance. 

I went to Camden to conduct a civil legal needs assessment of several Black Black Belt counties. I saw first hand the substandard housing conditions that still plague black families there today as a result of years of inferior treatment.

According to residents of Camden, registering to vote and voting for one’s candidate of choice could be dangerous for a black person in Camden in 1965. Black sharecroppers risked retaliation if they did not follow their landowner’s orders – which included not registering to vote or voting only for the candidate the owner dictated them to. Black farmers and their families were already subject to harsh living conditions, including lack of indoor plumbing, and they did not want to do anything that would cause the landowner to inflict further pain. 

Starting in the late 1960’s, the federal government offered black residents—especially sharecroppers—some relief from the tyranny they were living under. The federal government contracted with a private company to develop single-family, affordable homes for black and white residents in Camden. Families could either buy the homes outright from the federal government or they could take out a federal housing loan.

 Some homes were to be built in “black” parts town and some on the “white” side. According to one Camden resident, “we were just happy to get somewhere with indoor plumbing.” These houses offered more than just better conditions: they offered a sense of dignity and freedom. They gave black families the opportunity to rid themselves of a white landowner’s rule and a greater ability to answer Dr. King’s call to exercise their freedom. 

Hattie Bridges was a teenager when the houses became available for purchase. Up until then, her family, the Smiths, lived in Miller’s Ferry, where her father was a sharecropper. Her parents supported the Civil Rights Movement, but prohibited Hattie and her siblings from participating in any protests, including Dr. King’s visit, because they feared retaliation from the white landowner on whose property they lived and farmed. Hattie’s father eventually took out a loan from the Federal Housing Administration to purchase one of the homes built by the government. Hattie was happy to have somewhere to stay and glad to get in a house with a bathroom. 

That happiness was short-lived. Structural deficiencies made for a difficult living situation. The house was made entirely of wood. Rainwater would leak through the roof, eventually getting so bad that they needed a new one. They visited the local United States Department of Agriculture and Federal Housing Administration office in downtown Camden to seek assistance. The government told them there was nothing they could do. Without the money or options to live elsewhere, the Smith’s scraped together what money they could to eventually put a tin roof on the house. 

But that was just the first of endless struggles. The government promised to install a furnace in the home for the cold winter months. It never happened. The Smiths endured year after year in that house, paying for the constant repairs to keep it habitable. Hattie now lives around the corner from her 93 year-old mother, Dollie, who still lives in the same home. The family took out loans and spent what they had to make the home more comfortable for Ms. Smith as she lives out her years hooked up to an oxygen tank. 

Hattie and her family were not the only ones to experience such shoddy conditions. In 1969, the Stallworths purchased one of the wooden homes constructed by the federal government. Weedie Stallworth, whose parents bought the house, recalls it taking only three days for the builders to construct the entire house.

The concrete foundation deteriorated over time, as the home was built on swamp land. The foundation decayed to the point of leaving cracks throughout the kitchen floor. Like Hattie’s family, the Stallworths were promised a furnace. There was a small closet built in the hallway where they were told it would be installed. Fifty years later, there is still no furnace. The Stallworths used layers of blankets and space heaters to try and stay warm.

The circuit breaker that came with the house did not have enough amperage to supply electricity for the entire home, and the building was filled with faulty wiring. This caused the breaker to blow many times, including one instance in which it caused a house fire that damaged the house and burned down a tree in the front yard. The wood ceiling easily leaked and eventually cracked from rainfall. The one shower in the house does not work, so Weedie and her family travel to a relative’s home to bathe. 

When Weedie washes the dishes in the kitchen sink, brown water occasionally comes up through the shower drain. Sometimes when they flush the toilet, water comes up in the kitchen sink. The pipes from all of the plumbing stick out into the backyard through the original holes in the wood that they were built in. The openings in the wood allow insects and drafts to slip into the house. 

Over the years, the federal government periodically sent contractors or plumbers to make repairs. But those band aid fixes always only lasted for so long. 

After pleading with the government and the power company to install a safer and more sustainable electrical system, Weedie gave up. The home is now without electricity. This means no air conditioning or fans during the brutal summer months. With their house unbearably hot, Weedie and her family stay away from their home during the daytime as long as they can, only coming back in the evening as the sun goes down. 

These issues were not unique to Hattie and Weedie. Black families living in dozens of the wooden government homes throughout Camden have endured similar horrific conditions. The government dug holes in the backyards for septic tanks that were never installed. The government never installed heat. Multiple homes have caught fire and burned down, likely due to the faulty wiring and overheating caused by inadequate circuit boxes. Termites ate away at the wood of many of the homes. 

In another home, the ceiling—weakened by rainfall—collapsed one night onto a mother and her two young children. Fortunately, they escaped without injury. That same home has a gaping crack running several feet long through the kitchen floor. The foundation around the back door of the house has deteriorated to the point that there is a gap of several inches between the bottom of the door and the base of the house. The owner stuffs clothing and towels in the gap to prevent rain water and rodents from entering the home. The bathroom sink completely stopped working some time ago, leaving them to use the kitchen sink for basic hygiene, such as brushing their teeth.

Several years ago, Camden City Councilman Gene Mack—who represents many of the neighborhoods in which black families purchased the government homes—started learning from many of his constituents about the conditions of their homes. He quickly realized a pattern: the homes in the “black” parts of town were all made of wood. They had been built in just a matter of days. They had many of the same, inadequate conditions. The owners had long track records of pleading with the federal government to make improvements, yet found little success. The residents had forked over thousands of their own dollars to make repairs when they could. 

Councilman Mack was determined to find some sort of relief for these families. He says he tried to contact the company who had contracted with the government to build the homes, only to find out that they were no longer in business and that their founder was incarcerated in another state for fraud. He looked into some documents from the homes and gathered information throughout town. He claims that black and white families paid the same prices for their homes. Yet there was one appalling distinction. The homes built for black families were all made of wood. The homes built for white families were made out of sturdier and more sustainable brick. 

The black homeowners assumed that the federal government would build the best possible houses. They assumed that the federal government would treat them equally. They did not know that there was a systematic pattern of substandard housing conditions. Most never contacted a lawyer because they never thought that they might have a legal issue. One resident who did ask a lawyer if there was a potential lawsuit, was told that the construction company was no longer operating and therefore there was no one to hold liable for the conditions. 

Councilman Mack has not been one to simply accept that answer and move on. He believes there is still justice to be found. He and the dozens of families are just not sure how to pursue it. Identifying and securing legal guidance or any avenues of relief has continued to be a challenge.

Appleseed is committed to working with Councilman Mack and the residents of Camden to seek justice. We will partner with them to explore and advocate for potential remedies that could improve the conditions of their homes. More than fifty years after Dr. King told black residents of Camden that they mattered, perhaps the homeowners there will be shown that they matter.