By Renuka Srivastava

Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdown was enforced, more rent strikes occurred in this country than ever before. Families are forced to choose between food on their tables or a roof over their heads. This difficult decision is mainly due to reduced hours or unemployment.

I first noticed the direct impact of the housing crisis was when I saw three little kids playing on the sidewalk of a 15-room motel. Combined with the mishandling of this healthcare crisis, I realized that this might be bigger than one family in one motel. That is when the reality of the pandemic became evident – the rent with the pandemic prolonging.

I took it upon myself to better understand the housing crisis by studying customer trends at motels from the beginning of this year to mid-June. Thanks to the support from Alabama Appleseed, I was able to tap into my Desi community to gain rare, critical insight on the realities of the impact from COVID-19 on housing.

An overwhelming majority of the Desi community in Meridian, Mississippi are small motel owners. The relationship that they build with their customers is truly unique; without being academically taught, they understand the problems of over-policing and, therefore, have taken it upon themselves to patrol their properties and be invested in the lives of their customers. In fact, as first-generation immigrants, the motel owners understand the importance of all work without judgment or discrimination and being fairly compensated regardless of the legal status of the work occupants are pursuing in the State. However, this untapped market of personal stories is something that these motel owners carry with them without finding an outlet to share first-hand experiences of seeing local individuals facing job insecurity, food insecurity, and in many instances, homelessness daily.

After speaking to over a dozen motel owners, each owner associated the impact of this pandemic to a natural disaster. “The last time we saw local people impacted in this way was during Katrina or the BP oil spill,” they would share. Usually, these motel owners would see a mix of tourists stopping by for a night and locals spending just a week or two while getting back on their feet. However, immediately after the lockdown, every owner reported a trend of empty rooms and limited business. The increase in activity occurred as soon as the stimulus checks began going out. Although these individuals were finally able to afford a form of housing, they were still, overwhelmingly, paying for their rooms in increments of five to ten dollars as the occupants were able to attain cash. If occupants found themselves unable to pay for a room for a few days, they would sleep in their car or public spaces until they gathered enough funds to come back for another night. Dozens of occupants across the motels would even ask the owners for employment opportunities. However, each motel significantly differed in the types of customers they were seeing based on several variables.

Each motel’s location served a prominent role as the stimulus checks were distributed. Motels near low-income housing saw an increase in individuals engaging in what is considered non-legalized income opportunities by the government. In contrast, motels near malls and fast-food restaurants saw an increase in customers facing homelessness and families with children. Another key indicator of customer trend was whether or not the motel was franchised. Franchised motels had a steady rate of almost no customers staying nights at the motel while privately owned motels were fully occupied every night.

However, the primary concern of each occupant was attaining a form of housing with the stimulus check. Those facing homelessness were found to be splitting a motel room amongst at least seven to eight other individuals. Many motels faced multiple break-ins in motel rooms per night primarily by those seeking a form of housing for the night. In two motels, these rooms had to be completely remodeled due to the extensive damage.

Families staying at motels had their children very rarely leave the motel room. And if children did leave the motel room, they were most likely unsupervised. Because the families occupied these rooms for over two weeks and in many cases for many months, many motel owners reported their children becoming friends with the occupant’s children. There were instances of negligence reported by motel owners ranging from children consistently nearly drowning in the motel’s pool to children interacting with strangers who were providing access to drugs. Motel owners were stepping in to protect these children while simultaneously understanding the dangers of involving the police. It was as if police were called for assistance as an absolute last resort.

The harsh reality of a broken housing system is not independent in itself. It intersects with race, socioeconomic status, redlining, environmental racism, unfair and discriminatory employment practices, and gender identity, to name a few. The harsh reality that countless locals used their stimulus checks to fund a motel room as their primary housing comes to light when one studies the customer trends at motels. As a fundamental human right, a fellow civilian should not have to make the difficult decision to pay an average of $35 per night for using a motel room as housing with a one-time $1,200 check.

Renuka Srivastava, a 2020 graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, spent the summer of 2020 as an intern at Alabama Appleseed.

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 Carla Crowder, Executive Director

Carla.Crowder@alabamaappleseed.org

One year ago, Alvin Kennard stood in a Bessemer courtroom nervous and uncertain. Striped jailhouse scrubs swallowed his rail-thin, shivering frame. After 36 years in a sweltering, unairconditioned prison, the chilled air of Judge David Carpenter’s courtroom was a shock to his system.

What came next was a shock to the justice system.  In 1983, Mr. Kennard had been sentenced to life without parole for a $50 robbery at a bakery. Judge Carpenter scrapped that and resentenced him to time served. A courtroom filled with Mr. Kennard’s friends and family erupted in hallelujahs. The television cameras started rolling.  As his attorney, and a worrier by nature, I immediately started thinking about next steps: This 58-year-old man had been incarcerated nearly two-thirds of his life. How on earth was he going to adjust to the outside world?

Extremely well, it turned out. Alvin Kennard filed a tax return this year. He tithes at church. He hasn’t even been affected by Covid-19, other than limits on the family gatherings he loves.

Alvin Kennard outside his home in Bessemer. August 28 marks the year anniversary of his freedom from a sentence of Life Without Parole for a $50 robbery. By Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard’s large, supportive family was critical to his successful re-entry. A room was ready in his brother’s home. A niece, who is a Bessemer businessowner, helped with transportation. Church connections helped him secure employment within six weeks at Town and Country Ford, where he works in the body shop buffing cars. Every so often, he calls me on his lunch break and lets me know things are still going just fine.  During the holidays, he texted me photos of him at the staff holiday party, standing next to a huge inflatable polar bear. Imagine returning from Alabama’s hellish prisons to a world where holidays are filled with enormous glowing inflatables. Mr. Kennard embraces it all – with joy.

“It’s almost a year I’ve had my job,” he remarked recently. “It’s been a blessing, it’s been wonderful. It’s not about how much money I’m making, it’s about what God allowed me to do.”

He loves listening to the birds chatter in the mornings, wandering down to the creek of his childhood and watching turtles and snakes. He’s got a favorite meat-and-three restaurant, Kayla’s, that’s helped him put on much-needed weight.

Mr. Kennard at work over the holidays. He’s employed in the body shop at a Ford dealership in Bessemer.

 

All conversations with Alvin Kennard eventually lead toward God. No matter how hard I try to give him credit for how hard he worked, how much he suffered, how he deserves a good life, he invokes God and the conversation becomes a prayer.

I wish more Alabama legislators, judges, and prosecutors could pray with Mr. Kennard.

Until last year, he was labeled a “violent felon” based on his robbery conviction at age 22.  Because of three minor non-violent convictions stemming from the same arrest at age 18, he was labeled a habitual offender.  Based on the calls and mail that poured into Alabama Appleseed’s office following news of Mr. Kennard’s freedom, there is a world out there that does not see him as a violent felon.  “A few month ago, I heard about you. My father was from Alabama, Bessemer, too,” wrote Elizabeth, from Spokane, Washington, who mailed him a little cash – “a gift, so that your days moving forward are hopeful, full of love and belonging.”

Elizabeth acknowledged something else about Mr. Kennard’s story: “I’m learning more about how horrible the police and jail systems are (& the laws, too). It’s not new … but the depth of the corrupt mission is being seen.”

At Appleseed, we’ve also gotten mail from those still stranded in prison honor dorms. Men in their 60s, 70s, one who is 86, sentenced to die in prison for the sins of their youth under Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Law. They tell us about their kidney problems, their high blood pressure, their crack-cocaine addictions from the 1980s that led to convenience-store hold ups and courthouse decisions that they were forever beyond redemption. Except now, they are the prisons’ hospice workers, GED teachers, barbers, launderers, preachers, peacemakers, and clean-up crew.  “The [whole] time I’ve been in, I’ve worked as a hall runner, shift office runner, infirmary runner and have seen so much brutal violence and had to clean up so much blood out of cells, off of walls and hallways and had to help pick up dead inmates or seem dead and get them to the infirmary,” wrote one man whose conviction dates back to the first Bush Presidency. “I’ve had so much prison blood on my hands, I see it in my sleep.”

Due to the limitations and complexities of Alabama criminal procedure, there is currently no clear vehicle for second chances for these old men in the honor dorms.  Mr. Kennard is free only through extraordinary mercy and grace from Judge Carpenter and the Bessemer Cutoff District Attorney’s Office led by Lynneice Washington.

Mr. Kennard in court on the day he was resentenced.

Mr. Kennard turns 60 this year. He will celebrate a full year of employment and get a week’s paid vacation. Most likely he’ll purchase a new suit or two. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Mr. Kennard this year – beyond his faith and his work ethic – is that he is a sharp dresser, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the cameras were rolling on him while he wore faded jailhouse scrubs.

He is much more himself in his Sunday best.

Alvin Kennard rarely speaks of his freedom without acknowledging his faith in God. By Bernard Troncale

 

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!