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Inmates’ families share gruesome testimonies of Alabama prison conditions

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In 2022, a total of 266 people died while incarcerated in Alabama prisons, the highest death count in the state in more than 20 years, and among the highest inmate mortality rates in the country at five times greater than the national average.

On Wednesday, inmates’ family members spoke out against the violent conditions in Alabama prisons during a hearing of the Prison Oversight Committee and called for the state’s criminal justice and parole systems to be reformed.

More than a dozen affected family members and advocates had signed up to speak during the committee’s hearing at the Alabama State House, and were first cautioned by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, the committee chair, to remain respectful during their testimonies.

“We are here to listen, we’re here to learn, and hopefully make things better; we cannot do that if emotion turns into aggression,” he said.

One of those speakers was Cindy Hamilton, who through tears, recounted her son’s last four years of incarceration, during which she said he’s been assaulted, tortured and extorted for money. Hamilton also spoke out against the newly passed Deputy Brad Johnson Act, which severely reduced the amount of early release time inmates could accrue for good behavior.

“My son has been mentally and physically tortured for four years, and in January of this year, corrupt officers were given the authority to punish and take good time away,” she said. “My son has no violent charges, and he was going to (be released) in April, which is just four months away. All of his good time was taken, and now the state says (he’ll be released in) February of 2035.”

Committee members Sen. Clyde Chambliss (left) and Rep. Jim Hill, R–Odenville (right) listen to affected family members’ testimonies.

Hamilton said that due to her son being written up for assault, which she said was merely an instance of him defending himself from an attacker, the Alabama Department of Corrections revoked nearly all of his accrued early release time, and under the new formula for early release time, had his prison stay extended by more than ten years.

“What the state is allowing to happen is animalistic, and this is my son, and it’s not just him,” she continued. “Where’s the rehabilitation? It needs to be fixed like right now, today, like right now, yesterday. They’re killing them, they’re torturing them, it’s not okay!”

Patrick Austin Hall, the former inmate who shot and killed Bibb County Deputy Johnson in 2022, was released for good behavior that same year, something supporters of reducing inmates’ good behavior incentives often point to as justification. Others, however, have argued that the good behavior incentives were never the issue, as Hall had led police on a chase in a stolen vehicle in 2019 after escaping from prison, something that should have excluded him from an early release.

Many in law enforcement had scrutinized Hall’s release as a failure of ADOC, not the state’s good behavior incentives. Christina Horvat, whose husband is incarcerated in the Limestone Correctional Facility, shared her agreement with that assessment with committee members.

“He escaped work release, therefore that person should have been taken off of the list for any incentive good time, but instead, you canceled the whole state’s incentive good time,” she said.

Others, like Georgia resident Kevin Hyatt, spoke to how ADOC houses inmates based on their risk-assessments, calling it a failure.

“Two months ago, my nephew, Louis Christopher Latham, was beat to death in Ventress (Correctional Facility),” he said. 

“The inmate who did it, he was classified as a level 5 security, he was in an open dormitory, he has a release day of 09/09/99. The classification system that ADOC uses, I don’t know if they got it from a box of Cracker Jacks because they’re just sticking inmates wherever there’s an open bed.”

Hyatt said that his nephew was two years away from completing a 20-year sentence for robbery when he was killed, and that he wasn’t notified until four days after the assault. By the time Hyatt and other family members were actually able to see Latham, they were told he was in a vegetative state, and ultimately decided to take him off life support.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state and ADOC, saying that failing to prevent violence in men’s prisons violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of inmates. That lawsuit is ongoing. Meanwhile, the department has struggled to properly staff its prison. A recent report to lawmakers shows 1,763 security staff members in September, a decrease of 47 staff from the year prior.

That understaffing, along with an inmate population that’s estimated to be 7,000 over capacity, has led to increasing instances of violence within Alabama’s prisons, with prison assaults having increased by more than 41% in 2023 alone. At the hearing, assault victims’ families continued to share their testimonies.

Pam Moser, a nurse in Birmingham, said her incarcerated son died on Oct. 4 after a brutal assault, and that she was not allowed to see him during the last week of his life. MaKayla Mount, still a student in high school, said her father was murdered in prison by his cellmate for snoring too loudly, and her family wasn’t notified for two days.

Members of the Joint Prison Oversight Committee hear testimonies from family members of incarcerated Alabamians.

Another speaker, Kelly Helton, spoke to the committee on behalf of Rebecca Crafton – who Helton said was too emotionally distraught to speak – after her son, Klifton Bond, was brutally beaten in the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison.

“We found out through not the prison, we found out through a fellow inmate that he was taken out of the prison by ambulance,” Helton said. 

“For 24 agonizing hours, every 15 minutes we were calling someone with no word on whether he was alive or dead,” Helton said. “When the warden finally decided to return a phone call, it was almost 24 hours later, and the answer that was given was ‘well, he’s alive;’ nothing else, nothing more.”

Helton said that she and Crafton learned that Bond had undergone brain surgery for his injuries, and were told by a doctor that he would require intensive rehabilitation. Instead, Helton said, he was placed back in the same prison.

“The first time Crafton got to talk to her son, it was like talking to a 2 year old, and she still has no answers as of today,” Helton continued. “Crafton was his emergency contact, there’s no reason that she should have not been notified of the condition of her son.”

In a final plea, Helton begged committee members to consider supporting some kind of prison reform legislation in the upcoming legislative session, and asked them to imagine if it was their own family members that were in constant danger of being assaulted in the same vein as Crafton’s son.

“Your hands are not tied like ours are; hear us, hear what we’re saying, heed it,” she said. “If you doubt it, just look, it’s everywhere, it’s not hidden anymore, yet it’s getting ignored. Our family members are not safe, not even close, and we’re treating them worse than we treat the animals that are in the Human Society in the state of Alabama, and that is wrong.”

Department officials did not attend the meeting. The state is currently building a more than $1 billion prison in Elmore County and another is planned in Escambia County. Officials have said the new sites won’t end prison crowding, but new technologies will make them safer for inmates and staff.

While criticisms of Alabama’s prisons took up the bulk of public comments, the state’s ever-shrinking parole grant rate – which dropped from more than 50% in 2018 to less than 8% this year – was also spoken out against, particularly by Birmingham Attorney Lauren Farino.

Farino, who assisted plaintiffs in filing a recent class action lawsuit against the state over its inmate labor system, alleged that the reason the parole board has granted parole to a shrinking number of eligible inmates was to provide cheap labor to public and private entities – including fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King – as a form of “modern day slavery.”

“For individuals who are in the prison system, if they either refuse to work or need to take time away from work, even for an illness, they are threatened with punishment, losing their good time and being put back behind the wall if they’re at a work release center,” Farino said.

“Parole applicants who are low risk are less likely to be paroled than medium-risk applicants. Why? One has to wonder if it’s because those low-risk individuals are driving Alabama’s economy.”

Data compiled by in the class action lawsuit shows inmates with lower risk assessments were less likely to be granted parole.

Farino went on to note that Black inmates were twice as likely to be denied parole when compared to their white counterparts, and that since 2018, the state had benefited by more than $450 million from prison labor, used by 575 private employers and 100 public entities.

Defenders of the parole board, including Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, have said it’s hard to parole people when 83% of the prison population is violent offenders. Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, a member of both the Prison Oversight Committee and the House Judicial Committee, has also defended the state’s shrinking parole rate given that the “overwhelming majority of people in prison are there for serious offenses.”

That 83% figure of Alabama’s prison population being violent offenders, which comes from the Alabama Sentencing Commission’s 2022 report, however, has been in dispute, with ADOC’s own 2022 report showing the prison population to instead comprise of 67.5% of violent offenders.

After the meeting’s conclusion, all committee members – save for Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro – left the meeting room and did not speak with affected family members or members of the press.

Singleton told Alabama Daily News that he wasn’t surprised by the testimonies he heard, and that despite the continued overcrowding and increased violence in Alabama’s prisons, his colleagues have largely continued to exacerbate the problem.

“Every year we come in here, we’re passing more and more laws that are incarcerating more and more people versus trying to do something about where we are,” Singleton told ADN. 

“This is not an overnight solution, this is something that we’ve got to work through, and if we as legislators are serious about it from both sides of the aisle, we’ve got to have a real conversation about this.”

England has already filed a number of bills aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system, many of which were identical to bills he sponsored during the previous legislative session that ultimately failed to become law. To reach the State House and Senate floors, those bills would first need to pass through the Judicial Committee, though some of those bill’s past opponents, told ADN they do not anticipate voting any differently than they did previously.

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