ThinkProgress

‘This isn’t rehabilitation’: Alabama inmates speak out against state’s soaring prison homicide rate

A prisoner at a maximum security prison in Alabama. (Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

On November 19, 2018, James Lewis Kennedy was fatally stabbed at Elmore Correctional Facility in Alabama.

Kennedy had served 14 years of a life sentence with parole, following a 2004 conviction of burglary and attempted murder. His release was set for November 26, 2018, one week after he was killed, his sister Teresa told ThinkProgress.

“He wouldn’t have risked anything, he wanted to get out,” Teresa said of her brother, who was an auto-mechanic with five children. One of his sons would call him at prison several times a week and they’d talk for hours. Another is due to graduate from high school this year, a ceremony Kennedy was looking forward to.

A prisoner at a maximum security prison in Alabama. (Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Kennedy’s case isn’t unique in Alabama, where the prison homicide rate is the highest in the nation at more than 34 per 100,000 prisoners. The level of violence has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, as prisons in the state come under fire for “horrendously inadequate” care that violate the U.S. constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Holman Penitentiary in Escambia County, Alabama is one of the state’s worst offenders. Over the course of nine days last month, from December 2 to December 11, there were at least four separate stabbing incidents at Holman alone.

In response to the slew of stabbings, the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), a campaign of incarcerated individuals organizing through non-violent direct action for the end of prison slavery, called for an emergency response task force to lead a fact-finding mission at Holman, seeking to bring clarity and public scrutiny to the situation.

While an investigation has not yet been initiated, other prisoner advocates have taken it upon themselves to raise awareness of the crisis. Following the murder of Vaquerro Kinjuan, a 29-year-old with a 22-year sentence for first degree robbery, who died in the first series of stabbings at Holman in December, Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based non-profit committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment, published a report showing that the homicide rate in Alabama prisons is more than 600 percent higher than the national average.

Prisoners like Derrick, who has served 20 years of a 22-year sentence at Holman and wishes to withhold his last name for safety reasons, claim that corrections officers knowingly “put certain people close to each other that have a history of violence toward one another, which leads to more blood spilled. If they wanted the violence to stop, they wouldn’t keep doing this.”

The reason, according to Derrick and prison justice groups, is that the state, pointing to overcrowding and minimal staffing, wants to justify building more maximum security prisons, a move that would only exacerbate the current crisis.

“If they wanted the violence to stop, they wouldn’t keep doing this.”

Homicides aren’t the only threat in Alabama penitentiaries. For decades, prisoners at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama have been raped and forced to engage in oral sex by corrections officers. Incidents of officers watching women in the shower, groping them, organizing strip shows, and refusing to give women clean uniforms unless they partook in sexual acts were reported by the Department of Justice in 2014. Those who report the abuse are often locked in solitary confinement.

Such instances of exploitation and negligence were also raised by Teresa Kennedy after her brother’s death at Elmore.

“This is a prison, guards are watching cameras. Why didn’t they try to save my brother when they saw it on camera?” she asked. When she saw his body, she noticed that there were stabs on both sides. She concluded he wasn’t killed alone.  

Fostering and turning a blind eye to violence

Derrick said he wakes up every morning fearing for his life.

“This isn’t rehabilitation,” he told ThinkProgress.   

Following a stabbing, it’s standard procedure for corrections officers to lock prisoners inside of their open dorm hall at Holman, he said. The result is hundreds of prisoners contained in one place without any officers in sight.

“They basically let prisoners kill each other. There aren’t police around, period,” Derrick said. “This promotes more violence after the initial episode.”

An Alabama prisoner interviewed by The Intercept described a similar situation at Holman in March 2016. Following mass riots at the prison, officers locked the dorm’s front door and maced the prisoners, triggering yet another revolt. (Officials at Holman Penitentiary did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.)

Derrick said that the next procedural phase following a stabbing involves the Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT), a squad of officers who respond to riotous incidents at correctional facilities. Subsequent to a stabbing on December 9 for example, the CERT swarmed the prison dorms and “started jumping on people who weren’t involved,” Derrick said. They “busted someone’s head until he needed stitches, and broke an elderly’s prisoner’s ribs.” The CERT also reportedly took prisoners’ property and money during their raid.

“They basically let prisoners kill each other.”

Toward the end of his phone interview with ThinkProgress, Derrick said that CERT had returned, and hung up abruptly.  

Swift Justice, a self-described slavery abolitionist who is currently incarcerated in Alabama, and who has managed to be in contact with prisoners throughout the state, verified Derrick’s claims. “This isn’t just going on at Holman. It’s at all facilities in Alabama,” he told ThinkProgress.  

Swift’s blog, “Unheard Voices O.T.C.J,” documents corruption inside the Alabama facilities, including a report of a corrections officer who was terminated for allegedly forcing two prisoners to assault one another.

In 2016, FAM claimed that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) used a “swap out” transfer program tactic to manufacture violent conditions. Officers would send away older, more mature prisoners in return for younger prisoners who would be more likely to incite violence, they said.

FAM coined the ADOCs’ deliberate negligence and incitement as the “Holman Project.” In 2016, they alleged that prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn, former Assistant Commissioner Grant Culliver, former Commissioner Gwendolyn Mosley, Institutional Coordinator Cheryl Price, and former Warden Terry Raybon have “intentionally and deliberately” manufactured violent conditions inside Holman in order to secure funding for former Gov. Robert Bentley’s (R) $800 million “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative” to build four new mega-prisons. Bentley was ultimately unsuccessful in his plan, as the House let the bill die on the floor over concerns of state debt. (The ADOC Public Information Office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions about  the Holman Project.)

Robert Widell, an associate professor of recent United States, African American, and civil rights history at the University of Rhode Island, and author of Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle, has also, through his own research, encountered charges by prisoners that officers and wardens have “kill lists” that identify prisoners to be targeted by correctional officers and wardens.

“Charges of fostering and/or turning a blind eye to violence in Alabama’s prisons are by no means new in the present moment,” Widell said via email. “Inhumane conditions that led to Alabama’s prison system being declared cruel and unusual’ and therefore unconstitutional — including insufficient and rotting food and extreme heat/cold — should be considered violence.”

Gladiator days

The United States reports a national prison homicide rate of approximately 6 deaths per 100,000 in federal prisons and 5 deaths per 100,000 in state prisons, based on Department of Justice statistics from 2001 to 2014. While there are no national statistics on the problem of manufacturing violence at U.S. prisons, the practice has been reported previously.

Corcoran, a maximum-security prison built in California in 1988, ostensibly to address overcrowding and violence in the prison system, provides perhaps the most stark historical example of manipulative tactics utilized by prison guards.

Corcoran State Prison inmates spend time in the caged SHU prison yard in Corcoran, Ca., Oct. 01, 2013. (Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“At Corcoran, guards staged fights between prisoners, calling it ‘gladiator days,’” said Dan Berger, an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at University of Washington Bothell who teaches, researches, and writes about the history of racism, prisons, and social movements in the United States.

For example, as The Independent reported, in 1994, Tate, a 25-year-old black gang member from South Central Los Angeles was moved into a cell next to known adversaries, two Latino gang members. After a fight ensued, the officers opened fired to break it up, shooting Tate in the head and killing him.

Another prisoner at Corcoran, Dimas de Leon, who was a skilled boxer stated in a 1996 affidavit, “I was made aware by officers that there was money riding on me to win [fights].” He was “even thanked by officers for making them a bit richer,” he wrote.  

All the while, the California Department of Corrections referenced the high rates of violence at Corcoran in funding requests to build new prisons — a plan Alabama apparently shares.

Constructing more crisis

The rampant abuse at Alabama prisons is reflective of the state prison systems’ repressive origins. According to Widell, the system grew through convict leasing and resistance to emancipation subsequent to the Civil War. Throughout the 1860s, the Alabama legislature passed “Black Codes” — laws only applicable to black individuals — in order to increase their likelihood of criminal prosecution. Once imprisoned, black individuals were leased to steel and mining companies for cheap labor.

“The prison system in Alabama was designed to preserve and protect white supremacy. It may have served other functions at the same time — including actual public safety concerns — but the maintenance of white supremacy has been a constant,” Widell said.

As of 2015, the “Cotton State” ranked as the lowest spender in the country with respect to annual per prisoner costs ($14,780), more than 50 percent less than the nation’s average of $33,274. Costs are cut by failing to provide prisoners with adequate (if any) rehabilitation programs, by enforcing slave labor (prisoners are not paid for non-industrial labor, and up to $.75 cents per hour for industrial), and by understaffing facilities. As of fiscal year 2017, such figures allowed the state to maintain a net-profit of $1,736,361.75 from Alabama Corrections Industries (ACI), a division of Alabama Correctional Industries. In the end, however, the taxpayer pays: ADOC’s total annual expenditures in 2017 was $460 million.

In 2016, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn cited the doubling of violence in Alabama prisons over the span of five years as a justification for Bentley’s mega-prison plan.

“Our inmates are becoming bolder because they understand that we’re challenged with respect to our security apparatus,” Dunn said during a legislative panel. “They understand that there are not as many boots on the ground.”

While Alabama’s prisons are indeed over capacity and grossly understaffed, many incarcerated individuals, activists, and academics claim that constructing additional prisons isn’t a solution to violent conditions, it’s an exacerbation. Often, when officials claim older prisons will be replaced with new ones — as is the case in Alabama — the older prisons never actually close.  

“It is not possible to build your way out of a crisis that is caused by the institution itself.”

“New prisons become full prisons, it’s as simple as that. It is not possible to build your way out of a crisis that is caused by the institution itself,” Berger said.

For years, Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward (R) has spearheaded prison reform efforts across the state, and sponsored Gov. Bentley’s failed $800 million mega-prison bill, followed by a less ambitious $350 million bill in 2017. The reformed bill aimed to outsource some costs to local communities that sought prisons and associated jobs, but was indefinitely postponed after the House killed the bill.

Ward justifies prison construction with humanitarian explanations: “People aren’t animals. They have a soul and they have worth,” he said in June 2018. (Neither Dunn nor Ward responded to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.)

But Berger remains skeptical of any politician who offers more prisons as a solution. “If politicians decide to build new prisons it is because they have determined it to be politically expedient — to please prison guard unions and to placate conservative demands for vengeance against working class communities of color,” he said.

In 2013, Ward also advocated for and helped pass sentencing reform legislation for “non-violent” offenders to decrease the prison population, but the ADOC only expects the prison population to taper off around 20,000 from approximately 28,000 in prisons that have a maximum capacity of over 13,000. (It’s important to note that, in Alabama, drug-trafficking and, in some cases, burglary are considered “violent” offenses.)

Following Bentley’s failures to secure public funding, incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey (R) has been contemplating leasing with private prison companies. In 2017, GEO Group, the second largest private prison corporation, purchased its first functional facility in Alabama, and plans to sell one of its empty facilities to the state for about $5 million.

More recently, the ADOC has been planning to to pay a company to design three new prisons. But Alabama legislators temporarily halted the project last month, citing concerns over job loss associated with the closure of older correctional facilities. Gov. Ivey’s office told the Montgomery Advertiser that a plan addressing legislators’ concerns “would be released in the coming weeks.” The construction plan, spearheaded by Commissioner Dunn, is estimated to cost about $1 billion.

“The Department’s intention is not to build new prisons to house more people,” Bob Horton, the ADOC Public Information Manager told ThinkProgress. Instead, he claimed new facilities were necessary to revitalize the prison’s infrastructure to provide a safer environment.  

But, like many prison justice advocates, Berger believes this is a devastating approach.

“You can’t solve violence in prison by building more prisons,” he said. “You solve violence by reducing the reliance on prison, by having fewer people in prison, and by creating structures to meaningfully participate in improving their lives — in and out of prison.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly reported James Kennedy’s release date. The correct date is November 26, 2018.