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. 

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director

A few weeks ago, a search dog working for Alabama’s Department of Corrections sadly died after exposure to contraband narcotics.  ADOC leadership, including Commissioner Jefferson Dunn, gathered for his funeral complete with 21-gun salute, an American flag presentation, and media coverage. His name was Jake.  

Over the last two years, at least 22 people in state prisons have also died from narcotics overdoses, primarily synthetic cannabinoid, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report, which suggests ADOC staff who are not screened before entry are likely responsible.  Prison incident reports list these deaths as “natural.”

We don’t know their names.

Why? Because Alabama’s 45-year history of incarcerating vast numbers of people cheaply has produced disastrous results. 

We failed in 1975 when U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson found “massive constitutional infirmities which plague Alabama’s prisons.”  And we are failing now with violence, homicide, and drug overdoses so pervasive that the ADOC cannot keep track of who dies in its custody, as the U.S. Justice Department documented in April after its two-year investigation again found our prisons unconstitutional.   A raft of federal cases and investigations in between reached the same conclusion.

All along, Alabama incarceration rates have remained the fifth-highest in the country, prison spending the lowest, yet our violent crime rates are higher than most every other southeastern state.  Our tough-on-crime ideology is not making us safer. And spending too little is costing us too much: in death, in degradation, and in suffering.

Any other public policy that produced such dismal outcomes would surely be scrapped. 

Instead, the state is talking about doubling down.   Its main plan to address this crisis involves continuing to incarcerate vast numbers of people on the cheap. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership that relies on private corporations to build and own three new megaprisons with the state leasing approximately 9,000 beds. This can be done with no tax increases, state leaders insist, which means Alabama can keep doing what it has always done.

“I am confident that the development of these facilities will be a major step forward,” Governor Ivey said in an announcement June 27 that the state has begun the procurement process for new prisons. 

This proposal is deeply troubling to those of us who have watched the for-profit prison industry overpromise to states and cities for 25 years, create nightmare prisons from Idaho to Mississippi, then rebrand itself as a real estate business. 

As recently as 2012, Federal District Judge Carleton Reeves wrote that the GEO Group-managed Walnut Grove Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi was “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world” and “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.”  Will this company be welcomed into Alabama?

In its new role as landlord, CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, failed to repair rusted doors, replace damaged windows, seal cracks in the walls and floors, and patch leaks in the roof, even though maintaining the Hernando County Jail near Tampa, Florida was a requirement in its contract with the county.  The County took over and was hit with $1 million in deferred maintenance costs. Will we lease our largest prisons from them?  

Private construction of just one massive high-tech prison in Pennsylvania, SCI Phoenix, ran nearly three years behind schedule, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.. The state was forced to move prisoners into the facility, touted as a creative public-private partnership, before construction was complete.  Lawsuits abound. 

Already, the State of Alabama has proven its inability to house people humanely.  Adding private companies with abysmal human rights records and a mandate to turn a profit into the mix does not bode well.

It is also deeply troubling when contrasted with the smarter approach of other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina, which are closing prisons and increasing rehabilitative community options without sacrificing public safety.  In fact, since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of more than 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million, primarily in favor of rehabilative options. according to Governing Magazine. 

Alabama has not yet locked down the details of building itself out of this crisis. If we can find the political will, there is a better way.  

The court system touts drug courts, pre-trial diversion, and similar community-based options as alternatives to incarceration, as second chances.  But these programs are an inconsistent patchwork at best, and more importantly, they are not well funded. Instead, poor people are expected to pay thousands in fees — administrative fees, drug-testing fees, treatment fees, evaluation fees, and so on — and spend hours away from work for court appearances.  If they can’t keep up, they don’t graduate, then they become poor people with felony convictions, and usually no drivers licenses. 

Instead of pouring nearly a billion dollars into new prisons, Alabama could shore up these kinds of community alternatives rather than expecting indigent people to pay for them.  Along the way, the State must confront the fact that our bare bones spending on mental health and substance abuse services — 50th in the country — contributes to incarceration.  

Also, we must improve re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated. People usually leave prison with no identification, no job, and thousands of dollars in court fines and fees.  Churches and nonprofits — many ably run by formerly incarcerated people who know the obstacles and solutions better than anyone else — are struggling mightily to bridge the gaps. Again, a fraction of the new-prison money invested into re-entry services would change outcomes.     

Finally, anyone touting new prisons should closely read the Department of Justice report which unsparing makes clear that “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse. And new facilities would quickly fall into a state of disrepair if prisoners are unsupervised and largely left to their own devices, as is currently the case.” 

We cannot build our way out of this problem. Instead, we need to invest in community-based solutions and mental health services that help prevent people from ending up in prisons to begin with, and support them after they come out. Smart investment in criminal justice reform would improve public safety, increase our workforce – something the Governor says is a top priority – and make Alabama more prosperous. Penny-wise, dollar foolish investments like the plan to keep on doing what we’ve always done – lock our neighbors up as cheaply as possible – will most likely result in more of the same horrific results. 

Photograph by Val Downes

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently solicited public comments related to their proposal to weaken protections for payday loan borrowers. An open letter submitted to the CFPB by Alabama Appleseed follows:    


Dear Director Kraninger,

For many years, The Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice (“Alabama Appleseed”) has been documenting the numerous and varied harms caused by high-cost lending in our communities. We have specific concern about the impact that payday loans have on more than 200,000 Alabama borrowers every year, and we were there in Birmingham when former Director Cordray kicked off the payday loan rulemaking process in 2012. That process, begun here in Alabama, produced essential consumer protections for payday loan borrowers after years of careful study. When your agency’s 2017 payday and vehicle title loan rule (“Rule”) was announced, we were particularly grateful for the introduction of ability-to-repay requirements. Today, we understand that those needed protections are potentially at risk of being eliminated, and that Alabama borrowers are thereby at risk as well. We write to you urgently counseling against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) nullifying the Rule.

Here in Alabama, more than 32,000 payday loans are made every single week. These loans often include annual percentage rates (“APRs”) as high as 456 percent, and under current state law, payday lenders may require borrowers to fully repay the loans in as few as ten days. When lenders are not required to make any determination of a borrower’s ability to repay loans — let alone loans with such short terms and such high APRs — it does not take much imagination to predict the fates of many borrowers. In our years of experience working with payday loan borrowers in Alabama, one thing has become abundantly clear: without any ability-to-repay requirements, payday loans are a greater source of long-term debt than short-term credit.

In 2019, Alabama Appleseed published a comprehensive report about the impact of payday lending in our state (“Broke: How Payday Lenders Crush Alabama Communities”). We spent six months driving to every corner of Alabama, from Huntsville to Dothan, from Tuscaloosa to Mobile, from Jasper to Anniston speaking directly with borrowers and charitable service providers. Across geography, race, gender, age, and reason for borrowing, the message we heard was consistent: payday loans hurt more than they helped, and vanishingly few borrowers were able to repay their loans according to the contractual terms. In other words, most borrowers were unable to use the loans as advertised, and without any ability-to-repay requirements on the part of lenders, supposedly short-term loans standardly became long-term debts.

The Alabamians who we interviewed took out their loans to meet necessary living expenses. We spoke to a mother of two disabled children in Dothan, Alabama, who took out a $300 payday loan to bury her father. She was ruined by the debt. Another mother of twin daughters in Dothan took out a $200 payday loan to purchase back-to-school supplies. She ended up having to close her bank account to protect rent and grocery money because payday lenders were making direct withdrawals to service the debt they had trapped her in. We spoke to a disabled veteran in Marshall County, Alabama, who took out payday loans to access medical appointments in Huntsville. The outstanding debt has prevented him from affording medical equipment necessary to his recovery, and it has also kept him from being able to financially support his elementary-aged son. We spoke to a tornado victim in Madison County, Alabama, whose home was completely destroyed in a tornado. She still suffers from the payday loan debt she accrued trying to survive in the aftermath.

Charitable direct service providers across the state regularly encounter similarly untenable debts. In Tuscaloosa, the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity shared the precipitous number of potential clients who cannot qualify for a Habitat Home because payday loan debt disqualifies them under the organization’s debt-to-income ratio standards. In Anniston, the director of a small direct assistance nonprofit shared that young mothers come through their doors all the time seeking help in the face of payday loan debt. In Jasper, the community action agency spoke of how residents of rural Walker County had lost their homes as a result of payday loan debt. In Huntsville, a legal services attorney explained that a large proportion of their clients come in the door with civil legal needs that, upon exploration, have payday loan debt as a root cause.

Alabamians deserve and need access to credit, but Alabamians do not need — and deserve better than — loans that are designed to fail and become sources of unworkable debt. Ability-to-repay requirements are a foundational business practice in virtually every other realm of consumer lending. It is a baseline, reasonable expectation. The CFPB’s introduction of this standard for payday and title lenders in the 2017 Rule was welcome, necessary, and overdue. The hurried elimination of this Rule being considered, after so long and deliberative a process, is ill-advised and not in keeping with the mission of the CFPB. Alabamians will be hurt if this rule is nullified, and we cannot be silent when our communities are at risk.

We ask that you take the time to familiarize yourself with our comprehensive report, which is freely available online in scrollable PDF format at www.alabamaappleseed.org/broke. We ask that you maintain the ability-to-repay standards introduced in the 2017 Rule. We ask that you go further and expand upon its protections for payday and title loan borrowers.

Alabamians need protections against predatory lenders who make bad faith loans and make hard times even harder for our people. We fight for those protections at the state level every single in Alabama. We ask that you do your part to protect us at the federal level, too.

By Carla Crowder,  Alabama Appleseed Executive Director

Antonio was incarcerated at St. Clair prison a few years ago when another prisoner bit off part of his ear. They were housed in a dorm that supposedly offered rehabilitative services. For Antonio, permanent disfigurement was the outcome.  

Incarcerated people in Alabama are routinely subjected to violence and inhumane conditions in Alabama prisons, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

He did not seek revenge against the man who bit his ear. He redoubled his efforts to engage in what meager positive programming was available at ADOC. He earned his parole.  Supported by a devoted mother and sister, he is safely living back in the community.

Antonio was my client during the time I worked on prison conditions litigation at the Equal Justice Initiative before joining Appleseed. Only through the bravery of incarcerated people like him who share the truth of what’s happening inside with the outside world — often at great risk to their safety — can desperately needed change occur. 

His situation came to mind this week as I read through the U.S. Department of Justice’s 56-page report about its investigation into the Alabama Department of Corrections.  It documents horrific violence and a culture of corruption, mismanagement and indifference.  DOJ found an “enormous breadth of Eighth Amendment violations.” In plain terms, the State of Alabama is breaking the law, knows it’s breaking the law, and has been doing so for a long time.  

St. Clair Correctional Facility, where the Alabama Department of Corrections promised a federal court it would improve security, but did not make good on that promise.

Individuals who break the law hear a lot about reform, about accepting responsibility for their actions. They are told they must change their ways and not recidivate.  If they commit crimes over and over, the penalties increase under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Law.

Antonio understood that.

But the government that incarcerated him in conditions that resulted in permanent harm to his body has not stopped breaking the law, despite decades of harm imposed on the Alabamians in their custody.  The United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and all three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Alabama, working under a Justice Department led by former Alabama Attorney General and Senator Jeff Sessions for much of their investigation, concluded scathingly:  “ADOC has long been aware that conditions within its prisons present an objectively substantial risk to prisoners. Yet little has changed.”

The timeline stretches back to the Wallace era.  As early as 1975, a federal court stopped ADOC from accepting any new prisoners into four of its prisons until the population of each was reduced.  Again in 2002, a court order declared dangerous crowding and understaffing at Tutwiler Prison for Women to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In 2011, another federal court found ADOC facilities understaffed and overcrowded. In 2014, DOJ documented rampant sexual abuse by staff of women at Tutwiler. Later in 2014, EJI urged the state to investigate and address homicides at St. Clair prison and filed a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional violence and abuse there.

And now, as documented by a two-and-a-half year federal investigation, so many people die in state prison custody that the ADOC lost count and classified some homicides as natural deaths.  

“Alabama does not have a reliable system for tracking the deaths that occur within its custody,” the DOJ found.  Consider the grim irony of that fact. Our state punishes people who commit acts of violence — and many with convictions for drug use or property crime — through a prison system unable and unwilling to keep track of who dies there and how.

To people numbed to bad news by the steady flow of reports of murders, suicides, and strikes, and violence in our state prisons, this could seem like just another report about the persistent crisis plaguing the Department of Corrections. But it is not. The DOJ laid out five pages of corrective actions expected from the state with strict timelines for implementation.  The report is actually a notice to the state, as required by CRIPA (the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act), that the federal investigation found numerous constitutional violations and the ADOC has 49 days to begin addressing the problems or be sued by the federal government.

Alabama’s elected leaders have attempted to address this crisis before.  Multiple task forces have tweaked sentencing laws and parole policies, and “the violence has only increased,” the DOJ found.  Meanwhile, Alabama has maintained the country’s fifth-highest incarceration rate for decades. That also means we have the fifth highest incarceration rate in the world, if every U.S. state were a country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Alabama cannot build its way out of this problem, nor can it buy its way out. Our elected leaders must finally acknowledge that Alabama’s people are not worse and more deserving of incarceration than nearly every other population on the planet.  They must stop relying on the politics of fear, on pressure from the victims’ lobby, and on our entrenched system of policing for profit that places the acquisition of funding for law enforcement above evidence-based public safety.

Antonio, even with his damaged body, turned his life around and changed his ways.  Now it’s time for the government that endangered him for a decade to do the same.

 

Across Alabama, residents lose their jobs, housing, drivers’ licenses, and spend long stretches in jail because they cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. This week, a unanimous United States Supreme Court reminded states that this is not supposed to happen anywhere in America.

The case, Timbs v. Indiana, concerns the questionable practice of civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement is permitted to seize property of people merely suspected of criminal activity. But the Court devotes the bulk of its opinion to providing states a refresher on the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment, reaching back to the Magna Carta and recalling Southern States’ Black Codes. Fines get special attention because they have been wrongly used to raise revenue, punish political enemies, and subjugate African Americans, in a way that conflicts with “the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

Alabama Appleseed has documented how thousands of Alabamians are trapped in cycles of debt, incarceration, and grinding poverty because they cannot afford to pay fines, fees, and court costs assessed against them or their families. A survey conducted last year found that court debt drove over 80% of survey takers to give up basic necessities, that over 50% had been jailed for being unable to pay what they owed, and that about 40% had committed crimes like stealing or selling drugs to pay court debt for non-felony offenses. The majority believed they’d never be able to pay everything they owed.

Terrence Truitt spent eight days in jail because he couldn’t afford to pay fines from fishing without permission, which he did to feed himself and his children. Terry Knowles lived in a tiny motel room with his extended family so he could be close enough to work to walk because he could not afford the fee to reinstate his license.

Callie Johnson missed payments on basic necessities because she was helping her children pay their court debt. Angela Dabney, a single mother, lost her driver’s license because she couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets – and because she lost her license, she lost her job.

If there was ever any doubt, this week’s unanimous opinion makes clear that the kind of suffering imposed on these Alabama families runs afoul of the Constitution and must stop. At a minimum, fines should “be proportioned to the wrong” and “not be so large as to deprive an offender (of his) livelihood,” the opinion states.

Also at issue in the Timbs case was civil forfeiture. Alabama law enforcement officials have claimed that state laws protect citizens from the kinds of abuses documented in Timbs.

Not necessarily. As Alabama Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center reported last year, Alabama’s abusive civil asset forfeiture scheme, which allows the state to take money and property from people without even accusing them of a crime, enriches law enforcement agencies and disproportionately harms people of color. Civil asset forfeiture is an unjust process that deprives people of property without due process, and it should be abolished.

In its ruling, the high court stated that the constitutional provision which forbids excessive fines applies to states in civil as well as criminal cases when the resulting forfeitures are at least partially punitive. In essence, it found that Indiana’s seizure of a man’s Range Rover was unconstitutional because $42,000 was a radically disproportionate fine for the sale of $400 worth of heroin.

Here in Alabama, police more often seize rent money, not Range Rovers. Our study found that the amount of cash seized in civil forfeiture cases involved $1,372 or less in half of all cases examined. The legal fees to get it back are usually more, so most property owners never attempt to get their property back — even where they were not convicted of wrongdoing in connection with the seized property. That should give us all pause.

The fines levied against Terrence Truitt, Angela Dabney, Terry Knowles, Callie Johnson, and the other individuals who took Appleseed’s survey were on average far lower than $42,000, but their consequences were no less devastating. Because they had no way of paying what the state demanded of them, people who took this survey gave up food, shelter, and medicine. They went to jail.

An orderly society requires that violations carry consequences, and it is not Appleseed’s contention that individuals who break the law be permitted to “get away with it” simply because they are poor. But excessive fines are in the eye of the beholder, and Appleseed’s research makes clear that fines that would be manageable for some are devastating for others.

No one should lose their driver’s license, and with it, their ability to work, because they cannot afford to pay a ticket, fees, and interest for a busted headlight. No one should be jailed, or homeless, or give up medicine, or feel forced to accept charity or commit a felony, because they were too poor to pay their court debt. Alabama can fix this, by ending the practice of revoking licenses for unpaid traffic debt, and by evaluating individuals’ financial circumstances and scaling fines to their ability to pay.

Excessive fines are alive and well in Alabama, and they are destroying lives. As nine Supreme Court justices agreed this week — It’s time for a change.

Read it on AL.com