COVID BEHIND BARS, PART 3: ARE PRISONERS PROPERLY PROTECTED?

Part 3

The Alabama Department of Corrections and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey are moving forward on improving the state’s prisons.

This comes as the agency says dozens of inmates and prison staffers have tested positive for coronavirus.

WVUA 23 News is part of a joint COVID-19 team with Alabama Public Radio and the University of Alabama’s Center for Public Television. As part of that effort, we examined whether the right actions are being taken to protect prisoners during the pandemic.


By Alabama Public Radio Reporter Baillee Majors

Woke Vote co-founder DeJuanna Thompson said there’s a big problem with how Alabama treats its prisoners.

“I think that if there is a value of their lives, there would be a movement around how to mitigate the impact of COVID on these inmates,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s organization mobilizes and activates people of color across the South by organizing their political and social power. One of the group’s passions is working to change how many people of color are incarcerated in Alabama.

“If I may be frank, I don’t think there’s a need for two additional men’s facilities in the state,” Thompson said. “There’s more money put into jailing people than there is dealing with the root causes that ultimately lead to people being in those facilities.”

As the state deals with the deadly coronavirus outbreak, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections have announced they’re looking at two proposals to build two new men’s facilities.

That’s something Thompson doesn’t agree with. She said there’s a lot that needs to change with Alabama’s detention centers, including taking steps to care for inmates currently in lockup before adding additional buildings to the prison system.

“When you don’t necessarily value the lives that you’ve thrown into these facilities, it’s easy for one to believe that they’re aren’t making an effort because they don’t value the lives,” Thompson said.

The proposal for the new buildings comes during the COVID-19 pandemic while prison activists raise worry about significant overcrowding and poor sanitation. But the coronavirus isn’t necessarily what’s leading state lawmakers and detention leaders to make a change.

“It’s clearly in response to the (Department of Justice) report that expressed some concerns about overcrowding and the antiquated facilities at ADOC right now,” said University of Alabama Professor of Law Jenny Carroll.

Carroll is a professor of law at the University of Alabama. She’s referring to the 2019 report from the Department of Justice that found the state routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners. The study says Alabama is failing to protect them from rampant violence and sexual abuse. The letter makes clear state prison officials have not taken adequate measures to protect incarcerated men.

“One of the complaints in the DOJ report is that Alabama did not provide medical care for inmates, and this is particularly concerning in light of the current public health crisis because we know individuals over the age of 65 are particularly susceptible, and we know that Alabama has a large population in ADOC who are over the age of 65,” Carroll said.

Carroll is part of a group pushing for elderly and vulnerable inmates to be considered for alternative detention like house arrest with ankle monitoring.

Meanwhile, Woke Vote is working with the organization Masks for the People to help get free COVID-19 testing for inmates in Jefferson County Jails and Birmingham City Jails. Their work also ensures free masks and hand sanitizer for prisoners.

Thompson said this activism can’t happen without detention leaders being on board. She praises Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway for paving a path to get resources to inmates in a great time of need.

“Sheriff Pettway, I think he’s one of the leaders in law enforcement in the state of Alabama who’s really open to how to best show up for those inmates as it relates to COVID,” Thompson said.

WVUA 23 and APR reached out to ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn for comment, and were told “the commissioner’s priorities are mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the prison system.” We did not get a response when asking if anyone else from the department could speak to us in his place.

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