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Inmate death reporting change raises concerns

The Alabama Department of Corrections’ recent decision to remove inmate death totals, including homicides and suicides, from its monthly statistical reports is being questioned by some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Legislation requiring more reporting may be needed, the legislators told Alabama Daily News.

The agency, as well as Gov. Kay Ivey’s office, defended on Thursday the decision to stop monthly reporting and instead rely on quarterly reports to a panel of lawmakers.

“The ADOC Research and Planning Division recently reviewed its posted statistical reports and decided to only post inmate death statistics on the quarterly reports because those numbers reflect the findings of closed investigations,” the agency said in a written response to ADN. “However, monthly statistics are still available through the public information office as requested.”

Until October, the monthly reports listed the number of deaths by prison and year-to-date totals. The September 2022 report showed a total of 225 deaths in the fiscal year. 

A footnote on the October 2022 report, the first of the new fiscal year, said “all death statistics for inmates in ADOC custody are reported, by month, to the Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee Quarterly Report on ADOC’s website.” Those reports are also available on ADOC’s website. The most recent quarterly report is from June 2022. It lists the total number of deaths by month, in April, May and June of last year and the year-to-date total, 104. It also lists causes of death on completed internal death investigations from previous months. Some autopsy results were listed as “natural” while some listed more specific causes, such as sepsis or chronic heart and lung disease and accidental drug overdose.

Montgomery Advertiser reporter Evan Mealins noted the change on social media earlier this week.

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Ivey, defended the decision.

“Commissioner John Hamm and the Alabama Department of Corrections are sharing all necessary information, but in a more accurate way,” Maiola told ADN. “They are not withholding information, and media should not misconstrue that here. Gov. Ivey committed to the people of Alabama her Administration would be open, honest and transparent, and she continues to make good on that promise.” 

But the change has drawn concerns from Reps. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and Matt Simpson, R-Daphne.

“Considering that in years past, we’ve found out what was going on in the department of corrections through the results of a federal investigation, I think it’s incumbent upon the department to be as transparent with the public as possible,” England said Thursday.

It’s been more than four years since the U.S. Department of Justice told the state that its male inmates were living in unconstitutional and deadly conditions. In its ongoing lawsuit against the state, the DOJ has said prisons are dangerously crowded and understaffed.

“So of all of all the agencies in the state of Alabama, I think it’s incumbent upon the department of corrections to be the most transparent,” England said.

In 2020, England successfully sponsored a bill requiring the quarterly reporting of information to the prison oversight committee, including prison population sizes and staffing levels and the number and manner of inmate deaths.

The oversight committee is a panel of six lawmakers, including England.

Now, England said additional reporting requirements may need to be legislated.

“If they’re not going to do it voluntarily, I don’t think we have a choice but to require more,” he said. “If you’re going to only do the bare minimum, it seems like the bare minimum should cover the information that we need to know in order to hold people accountable. Ultimately, that’s what transparency does, it helps hold people accountable.”

Simpson said he would be supportive of additional reporting rules.

Simpson praised last year’s hiring of Hamm as the ADOC’s commissioner and said he’s making good changes. Recent arrests of ADOC staff for bribery are good, Simpson said, because it shows changes are being made.

But more, timely information is always better than less, Simpson said.

“I don’t think (removing deaths from the monthly report) helps anybody,” Simpson said. “I don’t think that that sends the right message to the public. We’re still in that DOJ investigation and I don’t think it sends the right message for that either.”

Carla Crowder, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said more tracking and reporting of causes of death is needed.

“ A decade ago in 2012, there were 89 deaths of incarcerated people in Alabama,” she said. “In 2022, that number will surpass 250. That’s a small town’s worth of Alabamians dead in the custody of our state government. Who is investigating? How did they die? What changes need to be made to address the violence and neglect?

“The department of corrections is the largest law enforcement agency in the state. Yet hundreds of people die in its custody and no information is released about those deaths unless journalists find out from family members and make an inquiry.”

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