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Weekend Read: Amid Alabama’s prison crisis, the voices of the people living through it should be heard

For years, Alabama’s prison system has been under a microscope. Harsh sentencing laws coupled with chronic underfunding have led to horrific conditions for people behind bars. 

As a result, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is facing multiple federal lawsuits, including a class action filed by the SPLC. A federal judge in the SPLC’s broader case over the lack of adequate health care and aid for people with disabilities has ruled that mental health care in the system is “horrendously inadequate.” Now, the state faces a trial set for 2020 on whether the lack of health care for prisoners amounts to deliberate indifference for their welfare. 

Dozens of people have died in homicides, suicides, overdoses and use-of-force killings this year alone. A blistering report from the Department of Justice, released earlier this year, concluded that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons likely violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The state’s proposed solution to overcrowding and under-staffing is to build three new prisons for men – prisons that would actually be built by private companies and leased to the state. Each would hold 3,000 to 3,500 people — about twice as many as Alabama’s largest existing prison. Officials continue to make spurious claims that the project will save the state money, despite the plan’s $900 million price tag. 

Gov. Kay Ivey convened a group of legislators and state officials to meet over the past several months to hear presentations and proposals by various experts, state officials and the public hoping to address the crisis. Yet, the plan to build new prisons remains the likely course of action for the governor and legislature.

Beyond the scathing reports by the Montgomery Advertiser, the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families were largely missing from the media narrative around Alabama’s prison crisis in the first half of 2019.

The Southern Poverty Law Center joined several organizations and individuals to form the Alabama Coalition for Fair Justice to elevate those voices and advocate for policy changes, such as a repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act and a re-defining of “violent crime.” 

As a part of this initiative, the SPLC introduced a series of profiles — Beyond Bars: Life Before and After Incarceration in Alabama — that elevates the voices of people directly affected by the criminal justice system.

The profiles

Sonia Turley-Landers is a Native American poet and artist who told the SPLC about the creative writing class that helped her survive in prison, the abuse and terror she experienced at the hands of a partner, and losing her father while she was incarcerated. “When you’re in the darkness, and a little light comes to you, you follow that light,” she said of the creative writing class.

Frances Everson spent 20 years in and out of Alabama’s prison system, a journey that began with simple theft crimes. She experienced trauma — the deaths of her brother and sister — at a young age that led her to develop a substance-use habit and an urge to compulsively take items from department stores. Instead of providing her options for rehabilitation, Alabama’s criminal justice system wrote her off as someone who could never change her behavior. “It is my opinion that keeping Ms. Everson in jail is the only way to keep her from stealing someone else’s property,” a prosecutor from one of her cases once wrote. In 2004, France was released from prison for the last time and has since reconnected with her mother, daughters and grandchildren. She has devoted her life to helping others through Faith in Action Alabama.

Archie Hamlett was released from prison after serving nearly 23 years of a life-without-parole sentence. After years of fighting, he finally won a sentence reduction in 2017. But, he said, in the free world he soon found another obstacle to his freedom: more than $34,000 in court debt. “It’s predatory in nature, what they’re doing to us,” Archie said of the fees. “It keeps a noose around our neck. I know that might seem heavy, but that’s what it feels like to me.”

Chris “Champ” Napier grew up in Prichard, Alabama’s poorest city. He witnessed his father get shot and killed when he was 3 and experienced violence and racism throughout his childhood and adolescence in the 1970s and ‘80s. After getting caught up in a drug deal gone wrong, Champ was sentenced to life in prison for murder when he was 18. He spoke to at-risk youth about corruption and violence behind bars before he knew he would ever be free from prison. After 14 years, he was paroled but had a difficult time finding employment and housing due to the many collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated individuals tend to face. Champ was pardoned completely of his crime in 2015 and was able to vote for the first time in the 2016 election at age 45. It was powerful. “Our vote is our voice,” he said.

The SPLC’s series will continue to run bi-weekly until the Alabama Legislature convenes for its 2020 regular session on Feb. 4.