Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Sense of ‘hopelessness’ rises among Alabama prisoners as new rules, leadership changes, limit opportunities for parole

After a two-month moratorium, the state parole board reconvened last week, granting parole to 10 out of 87 people.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Alabama prisoners are feeling “fear and hopelessness” as they fight to win parole under new legislation that unfairly stigmatizes prisoners convicted of violent crimes, justice advocates say.

After a two-month moratorium due to administrative issues, the state parole board reconvened last week and has since granted parole to 10 out of 87 people. All but one of those prisoners were incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. 

The board, which is part of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, does not provide explanations for its decisions, but defense attorneys and prisoner advocates say it will be much more difficult for people convicted of violent offenses to win their freedom under legislation passed in the spring and the bureau’s new tough-on-crime leadership. 

“You’re not there to retry somebody’s crime, you’re there to look at what they’ve done since they’ve been incarcerated,” Carmone Owens, executive director of 2nd Chance Lifesavers, an organization that assists the state’s prisoners with re-entry, told The Appeal. “No man can win if you’re retrying his crime at parole board; he’s already been convicted. But the issue at hand is what has he done during his incarceration and is it reasonable that this man has a second chance?”

“There’s a lot of fear and hopelessness,” he added. 

Owens largely attributed these feelings to the bureau’s new executive director, Charles Graddick, who was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey to take over operations starting in September. In a Nov. 5 press conference, Graddick expressed doubts about whether people convicted of violent offenses have the ability to change while incarcerated.

“Most of those people have prior criminal histories, have been in and out of the prison system over and over again,” he said. “What makes any of us believe that they’ve all of a sudden decided they’re not going to do it again?”

As Alabama’s former attorney general, Graddick helped expand the state’s 1977 Habitual Offender Act, otherwise known as a “three-strikes law” that results in life prison sentences for people convicted of three felonies and has been blamed for the state’s crowded prisons.

In Alabama, where the majority of the state’s roughly 21,000 prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes, parole is a vital mechanism for release. But as the state has introduced new restrictions on the parole board over the last year, parole grants have dropped sharply. 

In the spring, Ivey signed legislation that placed previous guidelines on sentence lengths into law and gave her more power over the bureau. It also created new requirements for notifying victims before parole and pardon hearings. Additionally, the bill made it tougher for people to win an early parole hearing, introducing new criteria that attorneys and advocates say will be nearly impossible to meet. Among these, prisoners can not have any write-ups within a “prescribed period.” Under Alabama’s rules, this includes acts of self-defense. 

Aimee Cobb Smith, an attorney who regularly represents prisoners at parole hearings, told The Appeal that she was aware of just three people who qualified for a hearing for early parole, though none were granted one. “It’s definitely very frustrating,” she said. 

Further complicating matters for those seeking parole have been disruptions to the state’s parole hearing schedule this year. In September, bureau officials said the previous bureau administration had failed to comply with the notification requirements signed into law, prompting it to postpone 827 hearings. And in October, Ivey issued a moratorium on releasing prisoners before their parole eligibility date after a parolee was accused of killing three people, even though that parolee was not released early

Those disruptions, along with the new restrictions on the parole board, have resulted in a steep decline in the number of prisoners released on parole when compared year-over-year. Between October 2017 and August 2018, 3,614 people were granted parole, compared to 1,333 between October 2018 and August 2019, Alabama Department of Corrections statistics show.

Also under the bureau’s new administration, its communications team has started posting tweets about people convicted of violent offenses who were denied parole. 

The tweets are designed to inform the public and the news media of board decisions regarding parole of violent offenders,” bureau spokesperson Terry Abbott told The Appeal in an email. The bureau is also planning to issue press releases on parole decisions for violent and sex offenders, according to Abbott. 

“Parole should be for parole and not to blast people for what they’ve done,” LaTonya Tate, founder of the Alabama Justice Initiative, told The Appeal of the tweets. “It’s just not right. … At some stage or some point these are going to be your neighbors, they’re returning back to your community.” 

The sweeping changes to the state’s parole board come as it is facing scrutiny from the Department of Justice for operating severely overcrowded prisons beset with violence and sexual abuse. Graddick, however, said he’s “not here to help with the overcrowded conditions of the penitentiary system.”

“[The board’s members] know now that their job is not to create space in Alabama’s prison system, that’s not what they were brought in here to do,” he said. “Their job is to determine whether a person would be a huge risk to put on the street to offend again.”

Fiona Doherty, a professor at Yale Law School who studies parole, told The Appeal that it’s important that parole boards consider more than the category of crime someone has committed when deciding who should be released. 

“Parole release decisions are individualized decisions, so nobody’s considering parole in the aggregate,” Doherty said. “It’s not a place for broad pronouncements but rather for individual assessments.” 

In contrast to Alabama, states such as California and Mississippi have recently implemented reforms to increase parole grants. 

Owens, the prisoner advocate, said that the bureau’s fear of people who have committed violent crimes is misplaced. 

“I’ve seen men with murder cases who have reunited with their children, they’re holding down good jobs, they’ve bought their own vehicle, they’re productive members of society,” he said. “Many men choose to change and the ones who choose to change you never hear about. They’re working, they’re paying the bills. It’s the ones who do something catastrophically foolish, that’s who is front and center on the front page.”