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Alabama prisons hold more than 1,100 older people at greater COVID-19 risk

More than 1,100 people age 65 or older are locked away in Alabama prisons, putting a group already highly susceptible to the deadly COVID-19 virus at an even greater risk, according to an SPLC analysis of the state’s prison system.

The findings underscore a deadly situation facing prison systems across a nation in the throes of a global pandemic.

Overall, 942 people age 65 and older are housed in Alabama’s close- and medium-security facilities, all but one of which were far over their design capacity in January 2020. The Hamilton Aged and Infirm facility, which houses elderly incarcerated people, holds 95 people age 65 and older. The facility is operating at more than twice its capacity. Among this older population in the state’s prisons, 334 people are classified as minimum security – meaning they are “not seen as a risk to themselves or others,” according to ADOC’s Male Inmate Handbook – despite 308 of them having violent offenses on their records.

The findings beg the question of why so many of these incarcerated people, many of whom have already served decades behind bars, remain there when the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), paroles bureau or Gov. Kay Ivey could consider this population for humanitarian release. Instead, they remain incarcerated within a prison system which even before the pandemic saw people in its custody die due to overcrowding and the failure to provide adequate health care.

Elderly incarcerated people may develop severe cases of COVID-19 at rates that could inundate nearby health facilities and lead to deaths, according to Jody Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University and co-founder and director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights in Providence, Rhode Island.

“We have been handing down harsher and harsher sentences in the last several decades,” Rich said. “Now [prisons] are full of elderly, aging and infirm people. Half of people in prisons and jails have at least one chronic disease. So this is exactly the population that is at high risk for developing severe complications from coronavirus and will need to be transported out.”

ADOC’s preventative measures to slow the spread of the virus so far include a suspension of visitation, transfers between facilities and all work release and work center programs. The department also reported it will screen all employees by taking their temperature as they start each shift. On March 19, ADOC reported that one of its administrative employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile organizations like the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association have called for the release of people most at risk. Earlier this week, a group of law enforcement officers and law professors urged the governor to release older incarcerated people at heightened risk of the virus to avoid a “public-health catastrophe.” Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of which SPLC is a convening member, that advocates for the rights of people incarcerated in the state, have also laid out recommendations.

But there is no indication that releases of incarcerated people are planned. In fact, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has cancelled 382 parole hearings scheduled for mid-March through early April. These proceedings, however, are not attended by incarcerated people but are often attended by family members and victims’ advocates⁠.

“Their No. 1 job is public safety,” Rich said of the paroles bureau. “And they are now threatening public safety. Each of those [hundreds of] people could potentially occupy an ICU bed and a ventilator that is going to maybe be needed by somebody else to save their life.”

In places like Texas, Maine and Chicago, officials have begun to release people charged with low-level offenses from large county jails to mitigate the spread of the virus in their facilities.

But in some facilities it may be too late to keep the virus out. At least 167 incarcerated people and 137 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in New York City’s jails, including at Rikers Island. Similarly, the Georgia Department of Corrections has reported at least three people incarcerated in Lee State Prison tested positive, seven employees in Florida’s corrections facilities have tested positive and at least two people held in a federal prison in Oakdale, La. have died from the virus.

Behind bars at age 65+

To get a fuller picture of incarcerated people who are 65 and older in Alabama prisons, the SPLC collected data and reviewed records, identifying more than 1,100 people in ADOC custody who are 65 or older. The analysis provided the following findings:

  • There are 107 people age 65 or older who have never been convicted of a violent offense, and 42 of those are currently incarcerated for a single nonviolent offense.
  • There are 112 people with less than one quarter of their total term left to serve.
  • A plurality of the people (133) are currently incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility, one of ADOC’s most dangerous prisons. Hundreds more remain in medium custody, which allows for placement in the general population and dormitories.
  • There are 201 people over 65 with a sentence of life with the possibility of parole who have been in custody for more than 30 years.
  • Finally, among this group of older people in ADOC custody, Black people are almost twice as likely as white people to have life sentences without the possibility of parole.

These findings show a group that, based on their history, would perhaps face the least resistance for release. But more people need to be released to stave off a crisis – action that requires the prison system to take a different perspective, advocates say.

“It’s like a roll of the dice to say, ‘We'll chance that a lot of them won’t get [COVID-19] and they'll survive,’ when all the evidence points that they'll get it and they will die,” said Jose Saldana, the director of Release Aging People in Prison, a New York-based advocacy group calling for mass clemency from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “To me that's just immoral to make that decision. We're talking about a humanitarian crisis of epic proportion. And we cannot address such a humanitarian crisis from the lens of the criminal legal system. We have to address it from a humanitarian perspective.”

Among the more than 100 people age 65 and older in ADOC custody for a nonviolent offense, nearly half are classified as medium custody and are held in facilities like Easterling Correctional Facility, Limestone Correctional Facility and Hamilton Aged and Infirm. This means they are eligible for placement in the general population and dormitories, according to the ADOC Male Inmate Handbook. Such living arrangements keep them in close quarters with many other prisoners and at greater risk for COVID-19.

St. Clair Correctional Facility, the site of stunning violence in recent years, holds a plurality (133) of the older incarcerated population. Many others are held at other large prisons including Limestone Correctional Facility (130) and William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility (109), both of which were overcrowded even before the partial closure of Holman Prison earlier this year. All told, 942 people age 65 and older are housed in Alabama’s close- and medium-security facilities. All major facilities besides St. Clair were far over capacity in January 2020.

Institutions for the ill and elderly face an obvious risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hamilton Aged and Infirm facility is such a facility and was reported to be at 231% capacity in January, according to ADOC’s most recent statistical report. The Kilby Infirmary currently houses 12 people age 65 and up.

People classified as minimum custody in this group are also at risk. These are people “not seen as a risk to themselves or others” who are “conforming to ADOC rules and regulations,” according to ADOC’s Male Inmate Handbook. Many live at community work centers and work release facilities – smaller camps with an average of 172 and 141 beds, respectively – or in the community under supervision of community corrections. Among the population 65 and older, SPLC found 334 people classified as minimum custody, 308 of whom have violent offenses on their records.

Even minimum custody facilities can be overcrowded environments. ADOC’s five most overcrowded community work centers, for instance, ranged from 404% capacity to 1,089% capacity in January, according to ADOC’s statistical report. Each center had between 80 and 360 beds. The SPLC found that these five centers together housed 38 of the people 65 and older and classified as minimum custody.

As for Death Row, the SPLC’s analysis found nine people who are older than 65. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has the ability to commute their sentences to life in prison.

Sentencing: Another piece of the puzzle

A corrections department alone, however, cannot ward off a crisis, according to Mavis Nimoh, executive director of the Providence, Rhode Island-based Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights and a colleague of Rich, the professor.

“Throughout the country, jurisdictions are looking at what is feasible, and a lot of these decisions don't fully fall on the department of corrections … a lot of this either has to be suspended, lifted, taken away by the judiciary,” she said.

That means reviewing sentences.

A handful of the elderly population identified by the SPLC is nearly finished with their sentences. The SPLC identified 153 people who completed more than two-thirds of their sentence term, and 112 have less than one-quarter of their sentence remaining. Thirty-five people have less than 10% of their sentence left.

Many of the older people in ADOC custody have served decades. More than half of them (609) have been in custody for 20 years or more, while 393 people have been in custody for more than 30 years. Of those, 201 received life sentences with the possibility of parole.

Even if the state were not facing a pandemic, the SPLC’s data analysis suggests the need for policymakers and sentencing judges to take a comprehensive look at sentences such as life without parole.

For example, the data reveal a large racial disparity in so-called “life without” sentences. Of the 1,154 people in the elderly population identified by the SPLC, 53% are white while 47% are Black. Of the 252 people serving sentences of life without parole, 157 (62%) are Black and 94 (37%) are white. In other words, Black incarcerated people age 65 or older are nearly twice as likely as white incarcerated people 65 or older to have a life without parole sentence.

Black Alabamians, however, are just over a quarter of the state’s population.

What are the options?

Alabama has limited capacity to quickly release many of the thousands of people incarcerated over decades of harsh sentencing – a situation partly due to initiatives over the past year by the paroles bureau to significantly reduce the number of people granted parole.

The bureau has since canceled hearings due to the pandemic, a decision that is “wrong and dangerous,” Nimoh said.

The paroles bureau could resume hearings – even increase their number, as it was poised to do before the pandemic. This approach would open the door for the board to grant parole to a large number of eligible people.

What’s more, Alabama’s Medical Parole Act allows for the release of some incarcerated people who are terminally ill, permanently incapacitated or “geriatric,” meaning they are 60 years old or older, suffer from debilitating age-related diseases, need assistance with daily activities like walking or bathing and pose a low risk to the community.

Medical parole is granted or denied by the parole board, which has the authority to adopt rules for medical parole dockets. The program is extremely restrictive: Last year, ADOC referred 19 eligible incarcerated people. Medical parole was granted in just four cases.

There are other ways policymakers could encourage releases that do not require action by the paroles bureau. Family members, attorneys and advocates of incarcerated people may apply to ADOC on behalf of prisoners for medical furlough, a different kind of release for some people with life-threatening illnesses and the permanently incapacitated.

Applications for medical furlough include reports from doctors both inside and outside ADOC that are evaluated by the prison commissioner. The restrictions are narrow, and few people are currently released from prison through this measure: ADOC reported that just 12 people were out on medical furlough in January 2020.

Finally, it is possible to bypass both ADOC and the paroles bureau to release people. Judges, for example, in some particularized circumstances could review sentences under their jurisdiction and amend them.

“When we’re talking about this pandemic and the urgency of this moment, we really need the judiciary to be a partner at the table and help to expedite the process as much as possible,” Nimoh said.

With governments essentially at a standstill, however, families of incarcerated people in Alabama and beyond still fear the worst.

“We make it easier for the virus to kill us,” Saldana of Release Aging People in Prison said of prison conditions in the United States, particularly for elderly people. “That’s what it boils down to. We are already facing a health crisis every day of our lives, and we've been here for decades. These men and women have no chance to survive.”

For information about the methodology of this research, please click here.