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AFJ calls for release of Alabama prisoners following news report that widespread infection and deaths are expected

Montgomery, Alabama -- Once again, Alabama is confronted with a life-threatening crisis in its prison system. And once again – according to recent reporting – the state has prioritized warehousing thousands of our community members over taking steps to ensure their health and safety. Despite calls for action, the State of Alabama has failed to act.

Over the weekend, AL.com reported on a 263-page Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) plan that outlined dire measures in response to an outbreak of COVID-19 - calling in the National Guard, forcing incarcerated people to manufacture protective equipment, and preparing for mass deaths. Faced with a choice between releasing the people most at-risk of contracting COVID-19 or keeping them warehoused, ADOC plans to order 312 body bags.

It is not too late for state leaders to take action to mitigate this crisis. The dramatic steps outlined in the 263-page response plan need not be taken if our State follows the advice of law enforcement officersAlabama faith leaders and community memberslegal expertshealth professionals, and incarcerated activists: reduce overcrowding and enable social distancing by releasing people from custody. 

There are more than 1,100 people aged 65 or older incarcerated in ADOC - people who, according to the CDC, are at higher risk for severe illness. More incarcerated people - people like Mr. Brooker, for instance - have underlying illnesses like asthma, heart disease, diabetes, or others that also make them especially vulnerable. As of 2016, ADOC identified at least 6,000 people who have a serious medical need requiring treatment. The inadequate provision of medical treatment is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit. As ADOC’s own plan acknowledges, the department is not equipped to provide the care necessary to respond to this crisis. Its own datashow it has tested just one tenth of one percent of the incarcerated population - 21 individuals - including zero people at Hamilton, the facility designed for people who are older and have increased health needs. 

With two confirmed cases of ADOC staff contracting the virus and new information showing transmission can also occur from asymptomatic individuals, it is imperative that ADOC act now. These confirmed cases have already had the potential to spread the virus to others in custody and to other staff members. This jeopardizes not only those on the inside with no choice to practice “social distancing,” but also continues to put our communities in jeopardy as staff return home, to grocery stores, and to other essential service facilities. ADOC's inability to respond to this crisis and mitigate the spread of the disease, as outlined in this report, is not only a failure to secure the health and well-being of every person inside our prisons but further endangers the well-being of the public. 

This is a matter of life and death. In light of this report and increasing risk to incarcerated people, ADOC staff, their families, and our communities, ADOC and The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) should immediately:

1. Publicly release the 2020 Pandemic Continuity of Operations Plan.

2. Abide by all CDC and ADOC guidelines for COVID-19 safety in prison facilities.

3. Provide hygiene supplies and PPEs to all incarcerated people. This includes soap, hand sanitizer, and cleansers necessary to maintain one’s living spaces while incarcerated. AFJ is working with ADOC to provide these products to incarcerated people.

4. Release every person fitting the following criteria:

  • Those outlined in the AFJ recommendations delivered to State leadership on March 18, 2020, including older adults; people under the age of 18; people with chronic illnesses, complex medical needs, compromised immune systems, or disabilities; and pregnant people
  • People within twelve months of the end of their sentence
  • People who have served 20 consecutive years or more in prison for a non-capital offense, not involving a child, and not a sexual offense
  • People already deemed parole-eligible
  • People currently under deferral after being denied parole over the past 5 years, but who were otherwise eligible for parole pending completion of further programming
  • People currently serving a split-sentence, where the split sentence is for five years or less
  • People who qualify for mandatory parole pursuant to Title 15-22-26.2, Code of Alabama 1975, but who have not yet been released ​

5. Work with re-entry organizations and released individuals to ensure that they have safe housing and a plan for re-entry, similar to those for people being released on parole.

Moreover, it is unacceptable that BPP has halted hearings. As paroles have slowed for more than a year, Alabama’s prison population is already expected to balloon in the coming year by about 3700 prisoners. We call upon the Bureau to immediately resume hearings, prioritizing those people eligible for medical and mandatory parole. 

One year ago last week, the federal government decried ADOC’s complete failure to protect the safety of its incarcerated population. They urged Alabama’s elected officials  to take action, warning that inaction would result in more violence and death.

The past year of unprecedented violence has tragically confirmed that fear. Now is the time for our state leaders to choose another path, and follow the advice of experts and advocates by releasing people from its unhygienic, overcrowded prisons. As the Free Alabama Movement wrote in their recent article, “to continue to employ or incarcerate the above people while the deadly virus spreads through the system would effectively be sentencing too many to death.”