By Eddie Burkhalter


An Alabama correctional officer, caught on video beating an incarcerated man on a prison rooftop last week, has been placed on mandatory leave.  

The violence caught on camera and shared widely on social media is a visible example of the often unseen violence that regularly takes place in Alabama prisons.

Jimmy Norman, 44, climbed on top of a building at the Elmore Correctional Facility on Sept. 14, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed for Alabama Appleseed on Monday. 

Officer Ell White can be seen in the video approaching Mr. Norman, who was seated at the peak of the building with his legs dangling off the edge, and upon pulling Mr. Norman from the edge proceeded to hit him with a closed right fist at least five times. The camera moved off of the men for a moment. Five other officers can be seen on the ground watching the incident. 

“Once the ADOC became aware of the following incident at Elmore Correctional Facility, the department immediately placed Officer Ell White on mandatory leave pending investigation,” an Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson responded to Appleseed in a message.

Appleseed asked the department about the assault and any response from the officers who witnessed it. The spokesperson wrote that the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division is investigating this incident “and the response by the staff involved.” 

Mr. Norman was sentenced to 15 years in December 2020 on a probation revocation connected to previous convictions of breaking and entering vehicles. His previous convictions, all non-violent, were for breaking and entering vehicles, one conviction of illegal possession of a credit or debit card and one conviction of fraudulent use of a credit or debit card. 

After the assault, Mr. Norman was moved to the infirmary at Kilby Correctional Facility. The extent of his injuries was not immediately clear, or why he was in the prison’s infirmary. ADOC on Monday declined to discuss Mr. Norman’s medical condition.

Last week’s assault wasn’t the first time Officer White has been connected to prison violence. As a rookie officer in 2017, Officer White was present for portions of an incident that resulted in the death of Billy Smith, 33, who was incarcerated at Elmore prison. 

An autopsy that Mr. Smith died of blunt force trauma, and initially, both another incarcerated man and a correctional officer, Jeremy Singleton, were both charged in Mr. Smith’s death, with prosecutors saying both men had beaten Mr. Smith in separate instances the day of the attack. 

Officer White told investigators that after he was ordered to take an injured Mr. Smith to nearby Staton Correctional Facility, Mr. Smith collapsed when they tried to get him to stand up. 

Mr. Smith became unresponsive, so Officer White “rapped him lightly on the back of his neck” to wake him, according to a report from Injustice Watch. White declined to take a polygraph about the incident, the watchdog journalism nonprofit reported. 

Officer White told investigators he poured an ice chest of water onto Mr. Smith, who was unresponsive on the floor of his cell. According to an ADOC report, nurses later discovered the sound of water in Mr. Smith’s lungs, Injustice Watch reported. Mr. Smith died 26 days after the attack. 

Elmore County Circuit Court Judge Ben Fuller in September 2020 dropped manslaughter charges against both Officer Singleton and the other incarcerated man, after attorneys for both asked the court to drop the charges because the state was attempting to charge two separate people for the death. Officer White was never charged in connection with Smith’s death. 

The violence caught on camera last week at Elmore Correctional Facility gives a glimpse into what incarcerated people and their loved ones explain to Appleseed is ADOC officers’ routine use of violence, and indifference to violence between incarcerated people. 

A 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama found systemic problems of unreported or underreported excessive use of force incidents, a failure to properly investigate them and attempts by correctional officers and their supervisors to cover them up. 

“Specifically, the department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that prisoners are subjected to excessive force at the hands of prison staff,” the Justice Department said in a press release. 

Severe overcrowding and understaffing contribute to the “patterns or practices of uses of excessive force,” the report states.

Elmore Correctional Facility was at 193 percent capacity in June, the latest month for which ADOC has made monthly statistical reports available. 

“In addition, inadequate supervision and the failure to hold officers accountable for their behavior contribute to an increase in the incidence of excessive force,” according to the DOJ report. 

“These uses of excessive force—which include the use of batons, chemical spray, and physical altercations such as kicking—often result in serious injuries and, sometimes, death,” the report continues. 

The DOJ in that report also notes concerns over how ADOC’s  Law Enforcement Services Division investigates use of force incidents. 

The investigative arm of ADOC “requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt in order to refer a use of excessive force for prosecution,” which has come under criticism by federal investigators. 

“While using this heightened burden of proof is appropriate for criminal prosecutions, it should not be employed by a prison system making a criminal referral as it interferes with prosecutors’ evaluation of a case and decision on whether to prosecute,” the DOJ report states. “In other words, by requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt to refer a matter for prosecution, I&I limits the number of uses of force that are reviewed by outside prosecutors.”

By Carla Crowder, Executive Director 


Leaning on his walker, Robert Cheeks shuffled out of Donaldson Correctional Facility and took his first breaths as a free man in 37 years. He was 79 years old.

The state of Alabama meant for him to die in prison. In 1985, Mr. Cheeks received a mandatory sentence of life without parole after being convicted of robbery. He never pulled out a gun, a knife, or a fist. 

No one was physically harmed. In fact, the victim’s response was to chase Mr. Cheeks down the street. His priors – non-violent offenses including 3 forgeries that occurred in 1969 – meant the judge had no choice but to impose a death-in-prison sentence pursuant to Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, one of the harshest “three strikes” laws in the nation.

He spent the better part of three decades reporting for work in the kitchen before prostate cancer and rheumatoid arthritis sidelined him. No longer useful in the kitchen, he was left to die in the infirmary at Donaldson Correctional Facility, alongside younger men recovering from stab wounds and assaults from pervasive violence in the chaotic prison.

“I would tell myself, ‘don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out under any circumstances.’ That was my motto,” he said. But “I never thought I would get out. I thought I would be deceased at Donaldson, but the Lord spared me and here I am.”

“I used to program myself to be without bitterness”

Mr. Cheeks is finally free, and turning 80 years old. As Appleseed celebrates his birthday with him this week, our joy comes with the knowledge that this gentle, hardworking man should not have been trapped in prison nearly four decades.

He spent his last two years of incarceration housed in Donaldson Correctional Facility’s infirmary. Too old and frail to be safely housed in the general population, he was largely confined to the grim, cramped infirmary away from sunlight or fresh air. He so rarely moved about that he did not have proper shoes when he finally walked, ever so slowly, out of Donaldson’s gates on July 22. 

Appleseed’s Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen assists Mr. Cheeks as he exits Donaldson prison.

Despite sharp pain throughout his body, the worst in his hands, he has been charming everyone he meets with his gentlemanly manners and constant attempts to stay upbeat. “I attribute that to the way I used to program myself to be without bitterness,” he said.

Mr. Cheeks acknowledges the role drugs and alcohol played in his crimes. His father was sent to prison when he was a young boy. Raised by an impoverished, single mother, he fell into alcoholism and drug use and stole to support his addiction. 

Once incarcerated, even with no hope for release, Mr. Cheeks set about a course of self-improvement. He chose to expand his education by earning his GED. He took classes in accounting, typing, and automotive repair. He realized he loved poetry and devoured the writings of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson. 

For 30 years, he worked – without pay – in Donaldson’s kitchen. He served as the cook for diabetic meals, a sandwich maker, and worked on the serving line.  “I was up at the crack of dawn almost every day,” he said. “And I would volunteer to stay in there and clean up to stay away from what was happening in the dorms.”

Mr. Cheeks stopped working in the kitchen only due to deteriorating health. In June 2020, he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. His struggles with prostate cancer caused him to be hospitalized at Brookwood Baptist hospital for three months. That same year, Mr. Cheeks was diagnosed with debilitating joint and skeletal pain and inflammation which confines him to the walker and forces him to walk with a slow, unsteady gait.  His condition prevents him from stretching his fingers and causes shooting pain throughout his body and feelings of electrical shock in his mid-section. He is unable to stand without aid. Twice while housed in the general prison population, he fell in the shower. 

Once situated in the prison infirmary, he became a favorite of medical staff, an affable gentleman known for imploring the young men surrounding him be courteous to one another, to stop all the fussing that so quickly escalates into violent conflicts.

Elderly people like Mr. Cheeks are the fastest growing group of prisoners

Mr. Cheeks’ case exemplifies the unintended consequences of Alabama’s overreliance on life imprisonment. Alabama has the nation’s fourth highest number of individuals sentenced to life and life without parole. The costs are enormous, draining state resources and impacting the ability of the Alabama Department of Corrections to effectively manage prisons.

Mr. Cheeks at his new residence.

The sheer increase in the numbers of older, incarcerated people is stunning: In 1972, there were 181 individuals over the age of 50 in Alabama’s prisons. That number now exceeds 6,750. Since 2000, the population of prisoners aged 60 and above grew from 85 to 2,393. Older prisoners have quickly shifted from a small group on the fringes to nearly a quarter of Alabama’s entire prison population. Entire prison dorms have been turned into crowded, often dilapidated nursing facilities, and infirmaries have been converted into long-term housing for the most frail, people like Robert Cheeks, in order to protect them from rampant violence in the general population.

The prison infirmary was no place for Mr. Cheeks. Alabama’s prisons aren’t safe for anyone, let alone a frail, elderly man. Mindful of the danger he faced on a daily basis, in July, Appleseed lawyers filed an unopposed petition for post-conviction relief in Jefferson County, where District Attorney Danny Carr recognized the excessiveness of this sentence and joined our efforts to right a wrong. Circuit Judge Shanta Owens immediately granted the motion and ordered the release to be expedited.

Appleseed attorneys determined that under current Alabama law, he would have been eligible for parole in 1994. Given this fact, along with his age and medical condition, we were successful in getting him re-sentenced to time served and released. 

Prison staff cheered as Mr. Cheeks departed their custody. As we whisked him away, a corrections officer yelled at us from the guard tower, shouting a name – someone else serving life without parole who does not need to be there. 

Starting over at age 79

Appleseed staff and friends celebrate his 80th birthday.

Appleseed learned about Mr. Cheeks in 2020 from investigative journalist Beth Shelburne, who has developed a database of people serving life without parole under the HFOA. “In one of his first letters to me, he told me his mother and his pen pal of 30 years had both died earlier that year, and it broke my heart. I couldn’t imagine experiencing that kind of grief in prison, alone,” she said. “He was always so positive and hopeful. The only place that can come from is incredible grace.”

A prolific letter writer, Mr. Cheeks sent Appleseed occasional cards and letters. We knew he deserved his freedom, but given his medical needs, we were not sure where he could safely live.  

Appleseed lawyers visited Mr. Cheeks at Donaldson this Spring. They reviewed his medical records, realized he was mentally sharp and eager to help us plan for his life after incarceration. And they measured his feet for shoes, after learning that he had been getting around with only shower slides for 3 years.

Brenita Softly, former Appleseed intern. She currently works at the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, LA.

“When I met Mr. Cheeks, my initial thought was that this man looks nothing like how people who are sentenced to life without parole are perceived. He came into the prison visiting room tiptoeing on a walker, and when he spoke you could feel the warmth in his personality,” said Brenita Softly, an Appleseed Legal Intern and then a third-year law student at the University of Alabama School of Law. “He reminded me of my grandfather since they both speak with a chuckle in their voice that instantly causes you to smile.”

Brenita is using her experience gained in Alabama to represent incarcerated individuals in Louisiana.
“When I heard that Mr. Cheeks was getting released, I immediately fell to the floor thanking God. This man went from being condemned to die in prison to finding out that he gets to spend his 80th birthday as a free man,” she said.

Appleseed Social Worker Catherine Alexander-Wright researched how to secure Social Security and Medicaid as quickly as possible, should Mr. Cheeks get released. A quirk in the law prevents advocates from filing those applications while a client is incarcerated, which means we could not line up skilled nursing care in advance of his release. But once we had that court order, Catherine hit the phones and applications began flying.

Release Day

On Release Day, Appleseed Attorney Alex LaGanke, along with Legal Intern McKenzie Driskell and Reentry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen, who served decades in Donaldson alongside Mr. Cheeks, picked the newly freed septuagenarian from the prison, which has been experiencing record homicides and drug overdose deaths. We couldn’t get him out of there fast enough. 

Mr. Cheeks celebrates his release day with a milkshake!

We welcomed Mr. Cheeks into his new life of freedom with cheeseburgers and milkshakes. His longtime friends, Ruth and Van Johnson – who faithfully visited him at Donaldson once they realized he had no biological family – drove up from Montgomery to join the celebration.

Thankfully, Shepherd’s Fold reentry ministry agreed to temporarily provide housing to Mr. Cheeks, while we awaited Medicaid approval. Appleseed client Alonzo Hurth, then a resident at Shepherd’s Fold, helped out, sharing a room with Mr. Cheeks and making sure he got his meals and got around safely. Within a few weeks, the Appleseed team was able to find a skilled nursing facility for Mr. Cheeks, where he currently resides.

Over the last few weeks, we have tried to provide some of what was lost during his excessive incarceration: comfortable clothes, encouraging conversations, assurances that he is free and cared for.  “It’s the least we can do for someone who has suffered so much,” said Appleseed attorney Scott Fuqua, who’s tracked down everything from poetry books to an electric razor to a recliner for our elderly client.

It is a learning experience for the Appleseed team to figure out what he needs to make the rest of his life better, to help him feel truly free.

But we know what he did not need – to die an old man, alone and in pain, in America’s most violent and dangerous prisons.

Family members of incarcerated people struggle for answers as violence and death escalate in ADOC prisons

By Eddie Burkhalter, Appleseed Researcher


It was five days after Jason Freeman was found lying in the yard at Ventress Correctional Facility in August – two stab wounds  piercing his heart  – before his mother received a call from a prison official letting her know her son was in the hospital.

His open-heart surgery would take place in a matter of hours, a prison captain told her, and there wasn’t enough time for her to make arrangements to get to the Montgomery hospital from her home in Dalton, Georgia. 

“Even if I couldn’t have visited him while he was in the hospital, I’d have been there,” Freeman’s mother, Teresa Self said. Lack of information from the Alabama Department of Corrections about loved ones injured or killed in Alabama prisons is common. That same lack of transparency around violence is underscored in the U.S. Department of Justice litigation against the state and the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The 2020 lawsuit, which documents unconstitutional treatment of men in Alabama prisons, is ongoing, yet the death toll in those prisons continues to rise. Families of incarcerated Alabamians face constant worry over their loved ones’ safety and are rarely provided sufficient or accurate information from prison officials. 

 “He could have died. I would have been there,” Self said of the lack of knowledge that her son had received life-threatening wounds until hours before the surgery. 

Self said she got a call from a captain at the prison on Aug. 18 telling her about the pending surgery, but providing no explanation how her son suffered life-threatening injuries while incarcerated for a minor felony. 

An Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman in a statement said Freeman, who is serving a four-year sentence for drug possession, was found injured in the prison yard on Aug. 13 and was taken by helicopter to a Montgomery hospital.  

Self said she tried unsuccessfully for five days to reach the prison’s warden by phone to learn what happened to her son. She didn’t learn he’d been stabbed until a doctor from the hospital called the day of the surgery.  She worries for his safety now that he’s back at Ventress. When she finally was able to speak to the warden on August 24, he only told her several other incarcerated men were involved in her son’s attack.

Freeman has since returned to Ventress prison and placed in the prison’s health care unit. “I just hope he gets the right care,” his mother said. “I need to get him moved because if he goes back there they’ll kill him, because they almost did.” 

Self is one of many family members who struggle to get the most basic answers from ADOC at a time of near daily reports of homicides, suicides, and drug overdoses within the state’s chaotic prisons and frequent lockdowns due to insufficient staffing.  Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne, who tracks ADOC deaths, has documented 55 deaths, likely due to violence, drugs, or suicide thus far in 2022. Last year, there were 42 such deaths.

The family of a man serving at Limestone prison couldn’t get a response from the department about injuries the man sustained in an Aug. 7 attack. They had to learn the extent of his life-threatening injuries, which included a skull fracture, collapsed lung and loss of sight in one eye, by working through family friends, WAAY 31 news station reported. 

It wasn’t until after the news station contacted ADOC asking about the attack that the prison’s warden called the family with information, the station reported. WAAY 31 didn’t identify the inmate “due to fears of more targeted violence.”  

Carla Underwood Lewis in 2020 found out her 22-year-old son, Marquell Underwood, died at Easterling Correctional Facility from other incarcerated men, and despite attempts to learn how he died from prison officials, she only learned it was a suspected suicide after reading a news article. 

Underwood was found unresponsive in his cell on Feb. 23, 2020, but the family received no information from the prison about how he died. 

An ADOC spokeswoman told a reporter that it was a suspected suicide, and later said the department “was not made aware that, in this case, the apparent cause of death was not communicated to Marquell Underwood’s mother when the facility’s chaplain contacted her to share this unfortunate news on Sunday evening.” 

The U.S. Department of Justice in the federal government’s 2020 lawsuit over Alabama’s prisons for men wrote that the violence and death inside prisons is spurred by overpopulation and a “dangerously low level of security staffing” and ADOC isn’t transparent about that violence and death. 

“Defendants, through their acts and omissions, have engaged in a pattern of practice that obscures the level of harm from violence in Alabama’s prisons for men,” the complaint reads. 

Meanwhile, ADOC is hemorrhaging security staff. The agency’s most recent quarterly report listed 1879 security officers, less than half of the 3862 required to safely staff the mandatory and essential posts.

About 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. Appleseed also represents older, incarcerated people in challenging extreme prison sentences and provides reentry services to clients released after decades of incarceration. 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: The social worker provides services to Appleseed clients re-entering society after incarceration. The social worker will also be part of a collaborative research project that will explore the overlapping health and mental health-related needs of communities that have been impacted both by violence and over-incarceration, and the resulting lack of health services because of the state’s overinvestment in carceral systems and law enforcement infrastructure. This position is full time, 40 hours per week, with flexibility for some remote work, some requirements for inoffice work, and occasional work outside normal business hours. The social worker reports directly to the Executive Director and works closely with Appleseed’s Staff Attorney, Re-entry Coordinator and Research Director. The position is based in Appleseed’s Birmingham office. The position involves moderate in-town travel and limited out-of-town travel. As part of a small nonprofit, the social worker will occasionally be called upon to assist with events and presentations that are critical to Appleseed’s work.

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Assist in developing re-entry plans for formerly incarcerated clients; connect clients to public benefits and services, such as food assistance, health care, Social Security.
  • Conduct mental health assessments of Appleseed clients, determine level of mental health services and/or counseling to best assist clients transitioning from incarceration to healthy lives in the community.
  • Provide individual counseling of Appleseed clients as soon as feasible following clients’ release from incarceration. Where indicated, provide referrals to more extensive services such as substance use disorder treatment. Client caseload is estimated to be no more than 10 at any given time.
  • Work closely with Appleseed Re-entry Coordinator to exchange information and share expertise on the challenges of returning to the community following decades in Alabama prisons.
  • Identify common themes, traits, and challenges, particularly as pertaining to trauma and mental health, experienced by long-term incarcerated clients.
  • Provide occasional transportation to clients to medical appointments, job training, grocery shopping, etc., until they are able to secure a drivers license.
  • Assist in implementation of Appleseed-led research project into overlap health-related needs of communities impacted by both violence and over-incarceration.
  • Work with multi-disciplinary team to ensure that the survey addresses confidentiality and informed consent, and intentionally captures the responses of individuals who have been directly affected by the issues and/or whose responses may have been historically underrepresented.
  • Meet regularly with Project Team, including Community Organizer, Project Manager, and Research Director to implement goals of the research project. May include assisting with focus groups and interviews.
  • Assist the Project Team and Appleseed in developing body of research around unique trauma and harm experienced by people incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons as a result of prison conditions.

Qualifications:

  • Demonstrated commitment to Alabama Appleseed’s mission, vision, and approach to advocacy;
  • Five or more years of experience in social work, preferably in non-profit work;
  • Masters of Social Work;
  • Strong initiative and ability to manage and complete projects with minimal supervision;
  • Excellent written communication skills;
  • Valid automobile driver’s license – this position will involve some travel and use of personal vehicle, with mileage reimbursement for travel outside the Birmingham MSA;
  • Willingness to use personal cell phone for work calls, in accordance with Appleseed’s Personnel Policies;
  • Ability to get along and work collaboratively with diverse personalities;
  • Experience with trauma-informed care and counseling.

Salary and Benefits: This position will provide a salary range of $45,000 – $50,000 annually, depending on experience. Additionally, Appleseed offers a competition benefits package including health insurance, generous paid time off, and 401(k) after one year of employment.

Interested applicants can email a resume and letter of interest to Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder at carla.crowder@alabamaappleseed.org.

A Record Number of Violent, Preventable Deaths in Alabama Prisons, but the Same Responses from the Alabama Department of Corrections

By Eddie Burkhalter


The rising death count inside Alabama’s prisons continues to claim the lives of young Alabamians and devastate families left behind. Last month alone, an estimated 15 incarcerated people died from homicide, suicide, or drug overdose, preventable deaths that federal authorities lift up as evidence of unconstitutionally dangerous conditions across state prisons. 

Sarah Burch knew her son, Chadrick Wade, was having a mental health crisis and she tried to get help for him at Fountain Correctional Facility. But no one took him seriously. On July 4, Chadrick was found unresponsive in his cell and pronounced dead. He was 30 years old and serving time for property offenses.

“They should have treated his mental illness. They should have treated his drug addiction. These things should not have been ignored,” said Burch, who lives in the small Mobile County community of Wilmer, told Appleseed. His death compounds her grief, as last year she lost another son to COVID. 

Adding to the suffering of families left behind is the lack of communication and lack of transparency at the Alabama Department of Corrections. ADOC doesn’t typically publicly release information on a death at the time of the death, and the agency’s reports do not identify the names of those who’ve died. It’s up to journalists and others to receive tips on deaths, speak with other incarcerated people and families and seek confirmation from the department.  

Investigative journalist Beth Shelburne began tracking ADOC deaths in 2018. She reported this week that the total number of deaths due to violence, suicide and drugs from 2018 to now is 151: 61 deaths after assaults, 32 suicides and 58 overdoses or other drug-related deaths. At least 40 of those occurred this year, according to Shelburne’s research.

Among all the deaths so far this year, at least 40 were likely suicides, homicides or drug-related deaths, according to Shelburne. 

The circumstances surrounding the death of Chadrick Wade show that the ADOC is unwilling, or unable to take the necessary steps to save lives. 

Sarah Burch said her son hadn’t been diagnosed with a mental health condition, but that he was showing signs of having a mental health crisis prior to his death, and had asked correctional officers for help.  

While in prison Wade also expressed a desire to kill himself, according to both his mother and another incarcerated man at Fountain, whose cell was near Wade’s cell. That other man showed videos taken by cell phone which he said shows a fire Wade had set just outside his cell in the days prior to his death.  

In another video taken by the man, two officers can be seen standing outside Wade’s cell, then walking away without providing aid to Wade. Wade’s mother said her son told her he’d been asking officers for help, but never got it.  

The other incarcerated man believes Wade may have intentionally overdosed on fentanyl, which he said Wade had been asking for prior to his death and indicating he wished to die by overdose. It’s not yet clear if Wade’s autopsy results have been completed. Attempts to reach the Escambia County coroner were unsuccessful.  

“He said that they didn’t take him seriously. He just said they didn’t do anything,” Burch said her son told her about the officers’ responses to him pleading for help. 

Wade had overdosed inside Fountain prison several times in the eight weeks he was there prior to his death, Burch said, but the family wasn’t notified by prison staff of those overdoses.  

The Alabama Department of Corrections declined to answer questions about Wade’s death, including whether he’d asked officers for help and threatened suicide.  

“ADOC can’t comment on ongoing investigations,” the department said in a response.  

Overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons, coupled with woefully inadequate staffing, is resulting in increased deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2020 lawsuit that alleges unconstitutional conditions in the state’s prisons for men.   

Less than half of Alabama’s correctional officer positions were filled in early 2021, according to the suit. And ADOC has reported a net decrease of 258 officers so far in fiscal 2022, according to the latest quarterly report.  

Fountain prison was at 149 percent capacity in June, the latest month for which ADOC has released a monthly report.  Wade is one of at least four people who have died there since April.

The federal government’s lawsuit followed DOJ reports released in April and July of 2019 that detailed systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons, and that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm.  

ADOC also hasn’t been able to control contraband, which is resulting in mounting overdose deaths, according to the complaint.  

 ADOC also fails to accurately report overdose deaths as such, sometimes referring to them as “natural causes” in reports, according to the federal government’s lawsuit. The drugs also continued entering prisons despite ADOC’s ban on visitations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

ADOC’s latest quarterly report lists the “incident type” as “Accidental/Overdose” of a June 15, 2021 death at Donaldson prison  with the final autopsy result as being “Fentanyl Toxicity” but lists the incident type of an Oct. 12, 2021, death as “Natural Death” yet the final autopsy result being “Fentanyl.”  

Two additional deaths at Staton Correctional Facility in September and November of last year list the incident types as “Natural Death” yet have autopsy reports that indicate drugs were the cause, according to ADOC’s report.  

ADOC’s inability to stem the flow of drugs, rampant violence, death and corruption come even while the department’s budget continues to grow. From 2010 to 2020, the Department of Corrections’ budget nearly doubled. For fiscal year 2022, it is $610 million, nearly a quarter of the State General Fund.   

Despite the systemic problems as described in the DOJ’s lawsuit and increased spending on Alabama’s prisons, the state is moving ahead with a plan to build two new prisons, calling the buildings necessary to address the federal government’s concerns. The new prisons won’t relieve overcrowding, however, as those plans also call for the closure of several existing prisons.  

The DOJ also makes clear in the federal government’s lawsuit that new buildings alone won’t solve Alabama’s prison crisis.  

Alabama Appleseed provides care and support to individuals formerly sentenced to life without parole under the Habitual Felony Offender Act through its Second Chance Program. Our clients are between 50-80 years old and previously served 20-40 years for crimes that involved no physical injury. Of individuals who receive our services, all are living independently, either staying with family or paying rent for safe housing. They are contributing to their families, communities, and places of worship. Even those who qualify for government-funded assistance, such as Medicaid, are utilizing far less governmental resources than they would be if still housed within the state correctional system.

A key component of supportive case management is retaining a strong relationship with community partners. Alabama Appleseed is grateful for HUB Worldwide, a nonprofit organization in Birmingham. HUB is an acronym for “Health Under-resourced Biomedical.” Laura Gilmour founded HUB Worldwide in 2019 with the twin goals of “bringing surplus supplies to healthcare institutions with shortages, thereby increasing the range of care available, and of preventing more degradation of groundwater and the ground itself due to toxin/leachate filled decay of non-organic medical supplies in landfills.”

Because of HUB Worldwide, Alabama Appleseed was able to meet two individual needs for older, justice-involved individuals providing a second chance at life on the outside. These are the victories that we celebrate. We lift them up as examples of how community-based support is vital and thriving, as are our clients.

Pictured above are Laura Gilmour, President and CEO of HUB Worldwide; Ronald McKeithen, Reentry Coordinator for Alabama Appleseed; and Catherine Alexander-Wright, Social Worker for Alabama Appleseed

My name is Ella Cobbs, and I am so incredibly excited to be interning with Alabama Appleseed this summer! I am a rising senior at Sewanee: The University of the South pursuing an English major, minors in Politics and French, and a certificate in Civic and Global Leadership. 

I have lived in Birmingham, Alabama for the majority of my life, and as I have grown into adulthood as an Alabamian, I have experienced a complicated relationship with my state. As an Alabamian, I have witnessed how deeply certain inequalities are entrenched within our State. I have come to understand the history of violence against those most vulnerable in our State. I have also felt defeated by how difficult it seems to attain progress in our State. But as an Alabamian, I have been privileged to live in a place immersed in a deep history of social justice and civil rights victories. I have the opportunity to engage in the vast web of coalitions and organizations dedicated to pursuing progress for all Alabamians. And now I am incredibly grateful to work first-hand within these coalitions as an Alabama Appleseed Intern.

Because I love Alabama I want to see the state become more equitable for all its inhabitants. For me, this starts with addressing issues within the Alabama Criminal Justice System. Through my education at Sewanee and outside engagements, I have found my passion lies in improving the criminal justice system in Alabama and in America. I hope to attend law school after my college graduation, and for me, Alabama Appleseed is the perfect introduction to the legal and advocacy work required to make substantial changes. This summer I will be taking on the role of Community Organizing Intern. In this position I have the privilege of aiding in activism surrounding the prison and criminal justice crisis in the state. Alabama Appleseed is doing the exact work I want to be doing in the future, and I am very grateful that this internship has allowed me to join a team making real, tangible change for Alabamians.

My name is Eddie Burkhalter and I’m excited to join Alabama Appleseed as a researcher. I’ve long been an admirer of the work done here, and I’m humbled to be a part of this team.

I grew up in Georgia, and lived in the Kennesaw and Marietta area for most of my time there. I moved to Alabama in 2001 and started college later in life, graduating from Jacksonville State University with a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies.

While in college I took an interest in writing, and eventually landed a job at a local weekly newspaper. I quickly fell in love with journalism, and worked my way up to the company’s daily, The Anniston Star, where I spent almost a decade covering nearly every beat, from school boards and county commissions, to homicides, the trials that ensued and the deadly tornadoes that too often tear homes and lives apart. The job connected me to my community in ways that no other job had, and it also meant that I was responsible to that community.

Over the 13 years I spent reporting, later at Alabama Political Reporter, where I covered state politics, COVID-19 and Alabama’s criminal justice system, I strove to get the best information to the public so that people could make better choices. I always aimed to be transparent and accountable to my readers, and tried daily to hold the powerful to account.

It was during my time at Alabama Political Reporter that I took an interest in Alabama’s broken prisons, and what state officials were doing, and weren’t, to address them. I spoke to families who’d lost loved ones to violence and drugs inside our prisons. I poured over records and tried to bring transparency to a system that fought it. When state officials revived a plan to build new prisons, I worked to learn more than was being told.

When COVID hit, it was clear that Alabama’s overpopulated prisons, where many people sleep in dorms an arm’s length from others, would get hit hard, and they were. I covered the death of Colony Wilson, who collapsed in a stairwell at the Birmingham Women’s Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and died while staff delayed giving her aid. She was never tested for COVID, despite having symptoms. 

I also looked closely at Alabama’s harsh sentencing laws, including the state’s Habitual Felony offender Act, which fills the state’s overpopulated prisons and falls hardest on people of color.

In covering prisons, I found the work being done at Alabama Appleseed, which successfully freed six men who would otherwise have died in prison, sentenced under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. Appleseed’s mission of fighting economic injustice, mass incarceration and its work to hold the government accountable are near to my heart, so when the chance came for me to join Appleseed as a researcher, I jumped at it.

I look forward to working with my new colleagues as we all work to positively impact the lives of people who are too often underserved and overlooked in our state. 

I’m Justin McCleskey and I’m excited to start my internship with Alabama Appleseed over the summer! I completed my bachelors degree in political science at the University of Alabama and am in my second year as a master’s student in public administration.

As a first generation college student, I have to admit I stumbled into academia rather naively. I knew that I wanted to use my education to help others, but my interests seemed extremely broad at the time. Among my values, economic and legal reform began to reach the forefront, but I was still discovering how I could meaningfully contribute through debate, student government, and other areas of campus involvement.

In my master’s classes, I developed an affinity for public budgeting and data analysis, seeing it as a route to create solid arguments for effective reform. Along the way, I began watching a new student group, Alabama Students Against Prisons (ASAP), from afar. I was drawn in by their protests urging Regions Bank to divest funding from CoreCivic’s three new prison initiatives, but their strategies resonated deeply with me.

Using economic and legal approaches, ASAP established common-sense arguments against the creation of new prisons while recognizing a need for rehabilitation and changing laws to address overpopulation. Their success in blocking funding revealed a major route to effective change in Alabama; rational policy approaches precede political messaging.

Learning how my skills and interests intersect with Alabama’s criminal justice struggles, I saw a route to make this state a home for everyone. I’ll be using my time at Alabama Appleseed to research the correlation between Alabama’s aging prison populations and growing expenditures to find a solution. I hope to learn from the communities I work with while gaining professional insight that I can use to make Alabama a more welcoming environment for all!

Ten years ago, I interviewed for a college scholarship in front of a large panel of interviewers. I intended to enter college with the goal of becoming a criminal defense attorney. One of the interviewers asked me, “How could you ever defend someone who was guilty?”

Reader, I wish I could tell you I had a perfectly prepared answer. Something rooted in the U.S. Constitution about due process and the right to counsel. Maybe something about how our legal system depends upon equitable representation and access to justice. But at the time, I stumbled. I let out a string of “um”s and “uh”s until I blurted out an answer of which I can’t remember the details but that I’m sure contained all the legal buzzwords 18-year-old me knew at the time: defendant, justice, law. Needless to say, I did not win the scholarship.

Now, a decade later, after changing my college major no fewer than four times, jumping from careers in editing, writing, and publishing to career services to theatre, moving from my born-and-raised home in Cullman, Alabama, to St. Louis, Missouri, to Chicago, Illinois, to Louisville, Kentucky to Tuscaloosa, I finally have an answer. And that answer is, that question asks the wrong question.

One of my mentors at Alabama Law, where I am currently a 3L, put it this way: We always ask, “How could you defend someone who is guilty?” and never “How could you prosecute someone who is innocent?” That is, the language we use is important, as the words we use—or don’t use—drive how the story is told.

That emphasis on storytelling, fueled by my aforementioned forays into writing, publishing, and theatre, drives me as a law student and legal advocate. The language we use and the questions we ask when we talk about the criminal legal system allow us to detach justice-involved individuals from the whole of their humanity—their personal narratives, who they are outside of what they’ve done. As such, I believe criminal justice reform requires us to change the way we talk about criminal justice. If we ask the same old questions, we find only the same old answers. Reforming our criminal legal system means asking new questions.

I am excited to spend my summer as a legal intern with Alabama Appleseed because they understand what it means to ask new questions and tell new stories. Appleseed’s focus on justice-involved individuals as the tellers of their own stories guides every aspect of their work. I am grateful to learn from Appleseed as they write a new chapter in Alabama’s criminal justice narrative.

Meghan McLeroy is a part of the Justice John Paul Stevens Foundation Public Interest Fellowship Program which provides grants to enable law students to work in public interest summer law positions.