By: Akiesha Anderson, Policy Director

This legislative session, Alabama Appleseed had four main legislative priorities: (1) Repeal or reform the Habitual Felony Offender Act; (2) Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture; (3) End Needless Driver’s License Suspensions; and (4) Create a Diversion Program Study Commission. Below is a summary of these priority issues that were deliberated by the 2021 Legislature. 

The Habitual Felony Offender Act

Report: Condemned
Bills we supported: HB 107, HB 24 

Legislation to repeal Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Act (“HFOA”) is desperately needed. The HFOA currently ensnares hundreds of older people with life or life without parole sentences for offenses that would result in much shorter sentences under today’s laws. That is why we supported HB 107, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, designed to repeal the HFOA. This bill successfully made it out of the House Judiciary Committee with strong bi-partisan support, though it never reached the full chamber of the House of Origin for a vote. Appleseed thanks the 150+ Alabama judges, law professors, former prosecutors, and lawyers who signed on in support of a Dear Lawmaker letter and the countless constituents that sent emails or made phone calls urging legislators to support this important piece of legislation.  

In addition to supporting a full repeal of the HFOA, Appleseed supported HB 24, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, that was designed to reform the HFOA. If passed, this legislation would have allowed people who were sentenced under the HFOA for committing nonviolent offenses to petition the court for a review of their case and potentially be resentenced under current sentencing guidelines. We also supported an amendment to HB 24 that was offered by Sen. Arthur Orr that was designed to expand the class of people eligible for relief to include people who had “strikes” that led to an enhanced sentence arising from offenses that are now considered Class D felonies yet were Class C felonies at the time of initial sentencing. Although HB 24 came very close to passing out of both chambers, on the last day of session it failed to make it to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture

Report: Forfeiting Your Rights: How Alabama’s Profit-Driven Civil Asset Forfeiture Scheme Undercuts Due Process and Property Rights
Bills we supported: SB 210 (passed), HB 394

For too long, civil asset forfeiture has been improperly used as a revenue generator for law enforcement entities throughout the state. As currently structured, civil asset forfeiture empowers police to seize cash or other assets based on probable cause that they are connected in some way to certain criminal activity, even if no one is ever charged with a crime. We believe that this violates a host of due process rights and that civil asset forfeiture ought to be replaced with a system that ensures due process protections. 

That is why, this session Alabama Appleseed supported SB 210 and HB 394, companion bills by Sen. Arthur Orr and Rep. Andrew Sorrell, that were designed to replace civil asset forfeiture with criminal asset forfeiture. We believe that as originally written, these bills would have been good for the State of Alabama due to them: (1) requiring transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process; and (2) prohibiting Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from individuals who have not been convicted of a crime. 

Although SB 210 did ultimately pass, the substitute version that made it out of the State House was significantly diluted in comparison to the original version of the bill. While the bill that passed adds some minimal due process protections to existing civil asset forfeiture laws, Appleseed hopes that in the future, civil asset forfeiture is replaced altogether with criminal asset forfeiture. 

Driver’s License Suspensions

Report: Stalled: How Alabama’s Destructive Practice of Suspending Drivers Licenses for Unpaid Traffic Debt Hurts People and Slows Economic Progress
Bills we supported: HJR 31 (passed), HB 129

At the beginning of this year, nearly 100,000 Alabamians had a suspended license for things unrelated to unsafe driving – namely failure to appear in court, failure to pay a traffic ticket, or an alcohol or drug offense (excluding DUIs). Suspending driver’s licenses for things unrelated to road safety hurts families by making breadwinners forego necessities; slows the economy by keeping people out of work; and leads people to commit crimes to pay off their tickets. That is why Alabama Appleseed worked closely on HJR 31 and HB 129, legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Pringle and designed to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for frivolous reasons. Although HB 129 ultimately did not come up for a vote to pass out of the House Judiciary committee this session, HJR 31 which provides the mechanism for the State to opt out of requiring license suspensions for petty drug offenses successfully made it out of the Legislature and to the Governor’s desk.

Diversion Programs

Report: In Trouble: How the Promise of Diversion Clashes with the Reality of Poverty, Addiction, and Structural Racism in Alabama’s Justice System
Bills we supported: HB 71, HB 73

A goal of Alabama Appleseed is to increase access to alternatives to incarceration, and beyond-the-prison-walls public safety solutions. It is no secret that Alabama’s men’s prison system is currently in crisis. Our history of tough on crime laws have led to us having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the highest prison homicide rate in the nation, and a men’s prison system that is dangerously overcrowded. We are also in the process of being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice, as a lawsuit that was filed under the Trump Administration has argued that our prisons violate the constitutional rights of all men housed in them. Appleseed believes that it is time for State leaders to seriously invest in alternatives to incarceration such as pre-trial diversion and Community Corrections programs, as one of many solutions to the human rights crisis in state prisons.

Although diversion programs currently exist throughout most of the state, not all Alabamians have access to them. That is why we supported HB 73, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, that would have required every judicial circuit to establish a Community Corrections program. Although this bill made it out of the House of Origin and Senate Judiciary committee, it never made it to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote.  

Despite the existence of diversion programs and drug courts throughout most of the State, they are all participant-funded. This means that the budget to run and operate these programs is derived from the pockets of the people who utilize the programs. So this year we also supported HB 71, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, because we believe in establishing universal eligibility and completion requirements to safeguard against the existing practice of the completion of diversion programs being determined by whether all fees have been paid. If passed, HB 71 would have created an Accountability Court Commission tasked with overseeing, studying, and creating uniformity amongst all existing diversion programs. Although this bill made it out of both the House Judiciary Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, it never made it to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. 

Other Legislation 

In addition to the aforementioned central areas of focus, we also monitored, worked on, or supported several other key pieces of criminal justice reform legislation this session. Below is a summary of some of those other key pieces of legislation.

Criminal Justice – Prison Reform

Report: Death Traps
Bills we supported: HB 92, HB 106 (passed), HB 361

This session we also supported several pieces of legislation that we believed could have provided meaningful relief to Alabama’s current prison crisis. We were strongly in favor of bills such as HB 92, by Rep. Jim Hill, designed to create a second parole board; HB 106, by Rep. Chris England, designed to require the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) submit to more legislative oversight; and HB 361, by Rep. David Faulkner, designed to require ADOC to assist people with getting a non-driver’s license identification card prior to release from prison. 

While HB 92 made it out of the House Judiciary committee, it stalled when re-assigned to the House Ways and Means committee. Similarly, although HB 361 made it out of the House of Origin, it never made it on the agenda in the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund committee. In contrast, HB 106 successfully made it out of both chambers and was sent to the Governor’s office for her signature. 

Fines & Fees

Report: Under Pressure
Bills we supported: HB 499, SB 177

Stopping the State’s overreliance on court costs, fines, and fees was another area of legislative interest this session. That is why we supported companion bills HB 499, sponsored by Rep. Chris England and SB 177, sponsored by Sen. Roger Smitherman. If passed, these bills would have created an Alabama Court Cost Commission designed to review existing court costs to determine if they are reasonably related to the cost of running a court system. Unfortunately, although both bills made it out of the Judiciary committee in their respective House of Origin, neither of these bills received a vote by their full chamber. Thus, neither bill passed this session.

Criminal Justice – Drug Policy

Report: Alabama’s War on Marijuana
Bills we supported: SB 59 (passed), SB 149

It is time for Alabama to pass smart alternatives to criminalizing marijuana possession and use. That is why this session we supported SB 59, by Sen. Tim Melson that was designed to legalize medical marijuana. We also supported SB 149, by Sen. Bobby Singleton that was designed to decriminalize marijuana use and possession. Ultimately, SB 59 passed out of both chambers and was sent the Governor; and SB 149 passed out of the Senate Judiciary committee yet never made it to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. 

State Transparency

Bills we supported: HB 392 (passed), SB 165, SB 290 

Alabama Appleseed strongly supports bills designed to strengthen government transparency in all regards. That is why this session we closely watched HB 392, sponsored by Rep. Mike Jones; SB 165, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr; and SB 290, sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton. SB 165 was designed to strengthen Alabama’s existing open records law and both HB 392 and SB 290 were designed to increase checks-and-balance between the legislative and executive branch by requiring the executive branch to run multi-million dollar contracts and agreements past the legislature for legislative approval before such contracts could be finalized. 

This session, SB 165 and SB 290 made it out of the Senate committees they were assigned to yet not to the floor of the House of Origin for a full chamber vote. In contrast, HB 392 made it out of both the House and Senate to the Governor’s desk. Unfortunately, however, the final version of HB 392 was significantly watered down before leaving the State House. The version of this bill sent to the Governor does not require legislative approval for the state to enter into large multi-million dollar contracts (as was the initial intent); rather, it simply requires legislative review of large contracts. 

Juvenile Justice

Report: Hall Monitors with Handcuffs
Bills we supported: SB 203

Alabama’s public K-12 school children deserve due-process rights and protections against suspensions and expulsions. That is why we strongly supported SB 203, sponsored by Sen. Roger Smitherman and designed to create such due process protections. Although this bill made it out of the Senate Education committee and House or Origin, it failed to pass out of the House Education committee. 

Hello! I’m Megan Cheek, and I’m beyond thrilled to be joining Alabama Appleseed as the Communications and Development Associate. I’ve long admired Appleseed’s commitment to justice and equity, and I jumped at the opportunity to join such an amazing team striving to move the needle in our state.

Appleseed’s Communication and Development Associate Megan Cheek

To tell my story, I need to introduce you to my late Aunt Sheila. She lived in South Carolina where she fought tirelessly for a better South. For more years than not, she served as president of the state’s teachers union, was heavily involved in statewide politics (ran for office twice!), and was a constant presence at the South Carolina State House. She joined hands with those who did not think, look, or act like her to make progress for her neighbors. Aunt Sheila’s strength and determination were something to behold, and she believed in fighting for change even in the face of (repeated!) defeat.

 

Aunt Sheila was a force and inspired me to work in the nonprofit sector with organizations striving to build opportunities for improvement. After graduating from the University of Georgia and working on campus, my husband and I moved to Washington, D.C., where we lived for 13 years. While in D.C., I had the honor of working for the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop—a community art school—in various roles including Program Director and Deputy Director for Marketing and Communications. (I’ve continued to work for the Arts Workshop for the better part of 18 years, most recently as a marketing consultant.) I also served as the Executive Director for the Washington Youth Choir, an organization that utilizes arts education and music as a vehicle to impart core values and promote higher education for D.C. youth. These experiences underlined the importance to me of investing in our communities to bring about positive and lifelong change.

 

Our decision to move to Alabama in 2014 to be closer to family was a catalyst for even more personal growth. Alabama’s dismal position at the bottom of almost every quality of life metric motivated me to work towards creating a more equitable state where I am raising my children. Because of this desire, I co-founded H.IV.E. Alabama in early 2017, an organization focused on educating our community on elections, candidates, and pertinent issues to our state including environmental, educational, human rights, and more. I also began consulting with local organizations in marketing, policies, procedures, and fundraising. And I became involved in Alabama politics, assisting candidates and supporting platforms that advocate for all citizens.

 

Progress happens when engaged citizens work together to push for the policy changes that our state so desperately needs. With all of our state’s considerable challenges, I am continuously inspired by the dedicated people committed to making it better and have hope in a brighter future. Alabama Appleseed is at the forefront of addressing critical issues and promoting systemic solutions to make a better Alabama. I’m so excited to be a part of this team and look forward to working towards equity and justice for all of our neighbors.

 

By Ronald McKeithen, Appleseed guest blogger

Birmingham, AL — Doubts of ever leaving prison had been embedded deep within me. I couldn’t shake them. At least not completely. Even after everything that I’d prayed for and dreamed of for decades had finally been granted: a dedicated legal team and a mountain of supporters that had worked tirelessly to bring my plight to the attention of the world. Yet that fearful, nasty taste of doubt still lingered in the back of my throat. Even after being told that I might leave the following morning.

And what’s more disturbing, I wasn’t ready to leave. There was too much I had to complete, guys to give that last encouraging talk to, and so much to distribute to guys that didn’t have much. I needed more time. At least two more days. Which is the most crazy thing that’s entered my mind since the day I refused the 15 year plea deal the District Attorney offered me in a robbery case. Especially after having served 37 years on a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. I should have been running towards the front entrance as shameless tears fell from my eyes. But I’d been shackled down too long in the insane asylum that is Alabama prison that it shouldn’t surprise anyone if I’d gone a little mad myself.

Regardless of the doubt, hope wouldn’t allow me sleep. I found myself rushing to complete greeting cards I’d started for friends, while contemplating the possibility of actually leaving this place in a matter of hours. Then exhaustion won. I couldn’t stay awake any longer. And if I dreamed of freedom, I wasn’t given a chance to recall it. Because I was awakened from a deep sleep by an officer yelling my name. Telling me to pack my belongings. That I had five minutes. I was confused, disoriented, not fully understanding where I was or what those words actually meant. Wondering why I was hearing applause. I realized that nearly the whole dorm was on their feet, smiling and clapping. Then it hit me. I was going home. If I were alone, I would’ve cried like a baby, but my masculinity wouldn’t allow it.

No hugs in the time of Covid, as Carla Crowder greets Ronald McKeithen on his first day of freedom.

By Gus Troncale

It was just a few weeks ago that I found myself fighting back tears while sitting in that very spot. After numerous conversations with my lawyers and mailing every document that I possessed that would reveal my activities since my incarceration, and why I’ve spent nearly 40 years of my life in prison, the petition that would be filed to the court had finally arrived. It was the most astounding document I’d ever laid my eyes upon. It may as well have been the Holy Grail. I had made several attempts to the courts pleading my case. Copying other guy’s petitions then rearranging them to fit my case, not fully knowing what I was doing, but knowing I had to do something. Feeling like a mute that didn’t know sign language, straining my throat to be understood, and having to endure the hurt of knowing that they clearly understood yet choose to ignore me. But this petition. It was the first one I’d seen in decades with my name and wasn’t done by me or some jailhouse lawyer. I had to look away several times before reading half of it. And I had to practically run away from it twice to keep my bunkie from seeing tears hanging from my eyelids.

The morning of my release, as the applause died down, I became even more confused. I didn’t have any idea of what to do next. What to pack, what to leave, or where to go. I’ve been ordered to gather all my belongings hundreds of times, to move from one cell, block, dorm or one prison to another prison. But never this. Freedom. And as guys began to surround my bed, each trying to shake my hand or pat my back to congratulate me, I realized that gathering things I should take was useless. That I needed to get out of there. Men began asking me to leave them something, which is expected in such circumstances. So I gave everything away.

Each time I had previously imagined walking out that gate; I either kissed the ground, stepped into a waiting limousine, or turned around and gave whoever was in the tower a finger from both hands. But the only thing that was on my mind was seeing my lawyer and friends. It hurt not being able to hug any of them. Covid wouldn’t allow it. But the hugs may have been too much to bear, since it’s something I’ve long to do to each of them but never could. I’ve never in my life seen so many people so happy to see me. And it touched me to the core. Their smiles felt like rays from the sun as raindrops fell from a gray sky onto my bald head. I’d given all my caps away. But those raindrops felt so good.

By Bernard Troncale

They were all wearing masks, yet the first person I recognized was Beth Shelburne, the woman that started my path to freedom. Through some kind of luck, I was chosen to be interviewed by her for a Fox 6 news story called “Prison Professors” about the UAB Lecture Series that I’d participated in for several years. Retired UAB Professor Connie Kohler was also there. I recognized her from the amount of time I’d spent in our Body & Health class, creating podcasts and newsletters. And there was Pat Vander Meer, the instructor of my book club, who also oversaw the prisons newsletters. I was overjoyed to see her. And there was this tall, elegant lady that I had never seen, yet appeared to be more pleased to see me than the others. She was Carla Crowder of Alabama Appleseed, my attorney, whom I’d only spoken with by phone. God knows how badly I wanted to hug her. There was also Connie’s husband, John. As well as Cedric, who I later learned is the brother of Dena Dickerson, the director of the Offender Alumni Association, who was prepared to help with my re-entry.

I didn’t know what to say. What can you say to people who have saved your life? “Thank you,” or “I owe you one?” None of these responses came close to describing the gratitude that was screaming within. There was so much I needed to say but couldn’t begin to express. To be incarcerated at the age 21, too young and naive to comprehend how willingly I was destroying my life, viewing every arrest as an occupational hazard, whether it be juvenile detention, the city or county jail, or prison. And having to endure decades before the realization that I will die in prison hit home, regardless of how many work reports, classes I complete or certificates I earned, that my life will fade away behind these walls as thousands of others have. And then a miracle happened. Someone noticed me. Then others. And the next thing I knew, people were supporting me. And some of them were standing before me.

I’d never had a good experience with a District Attorney. The one at my trial said in his closing argument that he wished I was dead, as if I’d done something so despicable, so loathsome, that it required death. Another DA placed in his response to one of my petitions that I had a rape case, which wasn’t true. But this time God blessed me with a fair and just DA to review the post-conviction petition. Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr took the time to look at my case and realized that I didn’t deserve to die in prison.

I hadn’t seen the outside of Donaldson Correctional Facility in over 16 years. The sky even looked different. During the drive from the prison, I wanted to ask Cedric to slow down, especially on the curves. I’ve never been on a roller coaster, but this must be how it felt. The constant swerving made me nauseous, and the pictures flashing past my window were making me queasy, but it was the best ride of my life. So much has changed. Unlike the kid that kept repeating ” Are we there yet?” I kept repeating “Where are we?”

I’m still doing it. Birmingham has become a whole new world, and I’m finding everything fascinating and so new. I would notice a squirrel or a small sparrow and become amazed. I’m struggling to stay calm, trying my best to control the googly-eyed expression that just won’t go away. The City of Birmingham may as well have been New York. It was hard to believe that I was gone long enough for all of those buildings to be built. Yet my old neighborhood, Titusville, hadn’t changed, which was very disappointing. The houses that had not rotted away appeared to have nearly 40 years of dust covering them. Yet the Birmingham City Jail looks brand new. I can’t understand how such neglect could occur when so much growth surrounds it.

Friends gathered for a socially distanced dinner in Ron’s honor the night he was released.

My transition back into society would have been a struggle without my support team; I would have been lost. One of my biggest fans is James Sokol, a retired businessman who believes in me and expects great things from me. The two people that have also played a major role in life since being out is Dena Dickerson, of the Offenders Alumni Association (OAA), and Alex LaGanke, Appleseed’s legal fellow. Dena, a formerly incarcerated person herself, is well aware of what I had endured, and what I would face upon my release – things one can’t learn in a classroom. She and her organization have made my transition beautiful. And Alex has been so instrumental in getting my much-needed documents in order and helping me grasp technological advancements. She’s such a store of knowledge and a delight to be around. I become a student when I’m with either of them.

To say that I’ve settled in and found my balance after six weeks would be a lie, even though I feel that I have. But to be honest, I doubt if I ever will. I spent too much time there. Each day was a constant battle to not give in to that prison mentality and become just another lost soul that fades into nothing. If I hadn’t kept my mind active from classes, I might have lost my mind. I did not have the luxury of being unproductive in prison, nor do I have that luxury out here. I’m experiencing a rebirth, a second chance at life, and every day has been a blessing. I fall asleep in anticipation of the next.

By Allen Slater

My name is Allen Slater, and I am honored to join Alabama Appleseed as a full-time extern. I admire this organization’s mission, methodology, and compassion, and I am thrilled to contribute to the team. I am also eternally grateful to all of the kind, intelligent people who have supported and encouraged me along my journey to this position.

My path to Alabama Appleseed was a long, winding one that began in Kansas, where I started my career in law enforcement. Over the course of two years, I served as a corrections officer and a rural sheriff’s deputy in the northeastern part of the state. The next part of my career took me to a mid-sized city in Tennessee, where I served as a municipal police officer for nearly three years. My service as a police officer was rewarding, but not without difficulties. I saw the realities and trauma of violence and poverty collide with race and gender issues constantly, and at times, my job felt like using my fingers to plug holes in a dam that was on the verge of collapse. I saw many of the same people for the same issues on a regular basis; I felt less like a guardian of the community than a cog in a large, unyielding machine. That feeling made me question the way that we deployed law enforcement resources, the structure and purpose of some of our laws, and why some communities received different kinds and qualities of policing than others.

Appleseed’s 2021 legal extern Allen Slater

The questions I wrestled came to a head in 2014 with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. Those deaths and their aftermath shook me — I knew that we needed serious, systemic changes to make policing fairer, safer, and more transparent, but didn’t know what I could do to help. After some soul searching, I asked myself what I later discovered was a very old question: who guards the guards? In other words, who polices the police? I realized that the best way that I could have a positive impact — to continue helping, protecting, and serving others — would be attending law school and becoming an attorney. As a lawyer, I could to use my previous professional knowledge and experience to advocate for necessary change in the criminal justice system. Attending the University of Alabama School of Law has allowed me to pursue that goal and more.

During law school, I have been fortunate to work with a variety of brilliant attorneys on civil rights, police transparency, and criminal justice reform issues.  During my first summer, I worked as an intern with the Office of the Federal Defender for the Northern District of Florida. There, I fought for the constitutional rights of clients on death row by providing legal research and investigative support for the office’s Capital Habeas Unit. I also was privileged to work as an intern and Student Legal Fellow for The Policing Project at NYU School of Law. In that position, I researched pre-arrest diversion alternatives for a state government that was searching for opportunities to increase public safety while lowering its prison population. Additionally, I conducted extensive research into the use of biometric technologies by law enforcement, which culminated in a series of blog posts.  I was also able to work with the Alabama ACLU on a variety of civil rights issues, ranging from law enforcement misconduct to First Amendment legal questions. Law school also gave me the opportunity to work behind the scenes of the courtroom as an extern for a federal judge in the Northern District of Alabama. I also had the privilege of working for the conviction integrity unit of a district attorney’s office, investigating potential wrongful convictions and providing legal research for law enforcement misconduct prosecutions. Additionally, I was able to publish an academic article proposing a new standard for evaluating police shootings in the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy. These experiences have broadened and enriched my perspective, giving me deeper insights into the systemic issues plaguing our justice system.

I took those insights with me to the University of Alabama School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic at the beginning of my final year of law school. In that program, I, in partnership with a fellow law student, represented clients accused of crimes in Tuscaloosa County under the supervision of our professor. My partner and I also engaged in post-conviction advocacy for a terminally ill client, securing his release from the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. My experience fighting for my clients fueled my commitment to criminal justice reform as I realized that the system — and the racial, gender, and class disparities that it aggravates — must be reshaped in order to serve all of us properly. We need a criminal justice system that delivers accountability hand-in-hand with mercy and rehabilitation.

Part of what drew me to Alabama Appleseed was the organization’s approach to criminal justice reform. Appleseed has pursued data driven, effective policies to enhance public safety, build public trust, and respect the inherent value of every person involved in the justice system. Whether advocating for marijuana law reforms or ensuring that sheriffs cannot enrich themselves by starving prisoners and pocketing taxpayer dollars, Appleseed has fought to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system in concrete ways.

Alabama Appleseed’s work also does something less concrete, but equally important: each legal and policy success builds a criminal justice system worthy of public trust in Alabama. My experiences, both as a police officer and as a budding attorney, have shown me that all criminal justice systems are an institutions dependent on public trust. History has shown us that Alabama’s criminal justice system — its police, courts, and prisons — have sometimes squandered that trust in the name of racism, greed, or neglect. To restore that lost trust, Alabama’s victims and defendants need the criminal justice system to show them agency, compassion, and dignity. They need a system that is fair, legitimate, and free of bias; one that protects and respects their humanity and their rights as a priority, rather than an afterthought. Building a better criminal justice system in Alabama requires many people working together in pursuit of a better tomorrow, and I am excited to play my part through my role at Alabama Appleseed.

 

Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed conducts integrated culture and policy change campaigns to confront laws and policies that harm the poor and to remedy the root causes of poverty and injustice. Its campaigns use policy analysis, research and documentation, legislative action, public education, community organizing, pro bono engagement, coalition building, and litigation. Alabama Appleseed is a vibrant, growing organization that prides itself on creating strategic, evidence-based solutions to some of the most pressing problems in Alabama, and allowing the ingenuity of our staff to lead the way. Our work sits at the intersection of poverty and the justice system.

Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 17 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

Position Summary:  Alabama Appleseed seeks a Communications and Development Associate to assist with sharing our work with partners, collaborators, donors, and everyday Alabamians who care about justice and equity for all. The Communications and Development Associate would contribute heavily to our website, social media, and other written communications. This team member would take the lead in organizing our largest annual fundraiser, the Brewer/Torbert Award Luncheon and assist with increasing Appleseed’s connections with individual, corporate, and foundation donors. This associate reports directly to the Executive Director and works closely with Appleseed’s Organizer. This is a fulltime position based in Appleseed’s Birmingham office, and will require occasional travel to Montgomery.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Update and improve Appleseed’s website
  • Create regular materials to communicate with donors and partners, including newsletters, one-pagers
  • Assist with grant writing and management
  • Maintain and update donor information
  • Manage and create content for Appleseed’s social media
  • Lead the planning and communication around Appleseed’s largest fundraiser, the Brewer/Torbert Award Luncheon, held every fall.
  • Help craft and design eye-catching materials about our research

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Two or more years of experience highly preferred, especially around nonprofit communications and/or development
  • Bachelor’s degree preferred;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license – this position will involve extensive travel throughout Alabama;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Ability to multi-task effectively and occasionally embrace administrative duties;
  • Skilled in Excel, Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Google Docs.

An Ideal Candidate Brings:

  • Expertise using WordPress, Twitter, and Excel
  • Ability to synthesize complex policies and issues in clear, concise talking points
  • Some graphic design skills
  • Ability to organize large amounts of data in Excel
  • Some experience with grant writing and management
  • Excellent writing skills
  • Willingness to take on administrative duties when necessary
  • Significant tech skills (Adobe, WordPress) a huge plus!

COVID-19 Note: Alabama Appleseed has offices in Birmingham and Montgomery. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team has had the option to work remotely as a health precaution. Most of our team has been working remotely and popping into the office only as needed, although our team occasionally convenes in person for staff meetings while wearing masks and practicing social distancing. For as long as this pandemic persists, we will remain mindful of health concerns and open to remote work.

Salary and Benefits: This position offers a competitive non-profit salary range of $35,000 – $45,000 depending on experience, along with a benefits package including health insurance, generous paid leave, and 401(k) after one year; reimbursement of travel-related expenses.

To Apply:  Send a cover letter, resume, writing OR design sample (can be website link if applicable), and three references to Alabama Appleseed’s Executive Director, Carla Crowder, at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis and accepted until the position is filled. Please write “Communications and Development Associate” in the subject line.

The injustices that we are fighting in Alabama today are directly connected to long histories of inequality and oppression in this state. As we build our team to fight for a better Alabama, we know that people who have historically been overlooked need to lead. For this reason, we welcome and strongly encourage applications from people of color, women, people with criminal histories, people from working class backgrounds, veterans and LGBTQ people.

Alabama Appleseed values an inclusive culture and diverse workforce. Alabama Appleseed encourages applications from all qualified individuals without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, marital status, citizenship, disability, and record of arrest or conviction.

By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

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

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

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

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

His bid for parole was granted last month.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

By 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.”