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Phone problems, lack of information on COVID-19 worry inmates at Ventress prison

This article first appeared in The Alabama Political Reporter in May, 2020.

Gregory Anderson, Jr. was released from Ventress Correctional Facility on March 25, carrying legal papers and the only items the prison provides — $10 “on a card,” a pair of clothes and a bus ticket. Ventress gives these three items to everyone released, nothing more.

Gregory, too, got a bus ticket, even though the bus station was closed because of COVID-19. 

Luckily, his family was able to come get him. It was a good day, spent with cousins and other loved ones. Anderson’s father was so happy his son was home that he took work off the next day and spent most of the night awake with Anderson, just talking, catching up.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” Anderson recalls about the day he was released.  “And I was about to cry just seeing how things changed in three years. Like cars and changes to my city, and people who died.”

In interviews over the phone, inmates have discussed their concerns about non-working phones throughout the prison, the existing and potentially increasing violence, lack of education and information about coronavirus to inmates, and other issues.

Anderson discussed these and additional topics with me in early April, a couple of weeks after his release. ADOC on Wednesday responded to questions about many of the inmate’s concerns in this article. 

Speaking about leaving prison, Anderson said, “It’s like PTSD. I mean a lot of guys get out, man, and to me, it’s like the equivalent. I mean, without the guns, it’s like the equivalent of coming from overseas in a warzone.” 

“It’s not only officers you have to worry about. It’s other inmates too. I mean, [prison staff] don’t actually protect you,” he said. 

“If you got into a situation, I mean, you would just have to pray for the best. You go and bang on the cube, bang on the door, you have to try to get their attention, or they’re just not on their post. You know what I’m saying? So, people are getting stabbed to death … you know, there’s a lotta crazy stuff going on at Ventress,” Anderson said. 

Former Ventress inmate Josha David willingham, 29, was stabbed in the eye by another inmate and died on Sept. 13, 2019. At least 29 inmates died in Alabama prisons as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide in 2019. 

Anderson was in Ventress for two and a half years. 

“Ventress is like the worst experience. I mean I have a lot of scarring from that, mentally, and physical damage as well,” he said. 

Anderson’s March 25 release was six days after the Alabama Department of Corrections first announced a series of precautionary measures throughout the state’s prisons in response to coronavirus, after one of the department’s employees tested positive for coronavirus. Interviews with inmate sources for this series on Ventress have been ongoing since weeks before March 19. 

Due to the increasingly urgent, dangerous context of the pandemic, some problems and fears inmates have recently described about prison life are new or worse than they’ve been in the past. Many other problems and fears have always existed in prisons in Alabama and across the country, but are now problematic in new ways as COVID-19 threatens the lives of inmates and prison staff alike. 

Throughout late March and early April, sources in Ventress interviewed reported problems with the prison’s phones. The identities of these inmates are being kept private so as to prevent retaliation against them for them speaking out. 

An inmate referred to as “Z” in this, previous, and forthcoming stories claims he and other inmates are not receiving free, weekly 15-minute phone calls that ADOC said would be provided to prisoners in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Z first brings this up in a late March interview for an earlier article.

All sources interviewed also said ADOC isn’t educating inmates about coronavirus. Z, like the other sources, says there’s no process in Ventress for informing inmates about how to prevent oneself from getting or spreading the deadly virus. 

Z also claims that medical staff, classification officers, and possibly other workers in Ventress had two weeks off work, during the same week the ADOC purported to implement the coronavirus response measures, including waving certain fees and payments for inmates’ medical care. (A correctional facility’s classification officer job involves “plac[ing] prison inmates in the appropriate level of custody based on intake interviews and evaluation,” to “maintain the safety of inmates and staff at correctional facilities and detention centers,” among other responsibilities.)

In an early April interview for Part One and Two of this series Z said that he still hadn’t received a free 15-minute call, and there was still no process of educating inmates about coronavirus.

Z then described the many problems with Ventress’s phones, and said at least three of four phones in one dorm are broken, and over a hundred inmates each day use the one phone that still worked. The demand on the use of the one phone is even greater due to ADOC’s suspension of prison visitations, and inmates’ needs to connect with loved ones. 

Another source, referred to as “Y” in this series, said in an early April interview that he also hasn’t received a free 15-minute call or information about how to access one. 

Y also said he hasn’t seen ADOC educating inmates about coronavirus, adding that he and most other inmates have only the prison’s TV to educate and update themselves on the pandemic, and the prison’s TV has “no Alabama local news,” he said, making it difficult to know what’s happening in their home counties. 

Another inmate referred to as “C” also said Ventress staff and administrators aren’t educating prisoners about coronavirus. He also described the same phone problems as Z. 

Each inmate interviewed during April described an increase in violence through the month, and fear worsening violence going forward. C also said that inmates with flu-like symptoms and COVID-like symptoms were being moved to the prison’s gymnasium.

In an April 13 interview, Anderson discussed the living conditions in Ventress prior to his release in March. He also echoed the other inmates’ concerns about broken phones. 

“And if you’re lucky, there’s maybe two phones in each dorm that works out of four or more,” Anderson said. “There’s only one or two working, and then that causes issues, you know, causes people to get stabbed. Fights. And it’s not even the inmates’ fault. I mean [safely providing phones] is something the prison should do to accommodate the inmates. But they don’t care. You can talk to the warden, anybody in the chain of command, and nothing is done about it.”

Anderson said that after more people complained about the phones ADOC claimed to have taken steps to address the issues. 

“Like, they started a new system supposedly where they’re supposed to give all the inmates tablets, and they were saying it was supposed to take place this month,” Anderson said in April. 

According to AL.com, ADOC’s plan to provide tablets to inmates first appeared in a pilot program at Tutwiler Prison for Women in 2015 and continued in 2019.

None of the inmates interviewed said they were given tablets, however. Asked whether ADOC has told inmates when they’ll get the tablets, the inmate referred to as “C” said “It’s in progress…They say about a month.”

C said the workers who put in Wi-Fi routers in the prison told inmates that the tablets would arrive in about a month. 

“It’s really just the quality of the phones. I mean, the material is cheap,” Anderson said. “If you move them around too much they start going out. They short out easily. You have to hold it a certain way and like bang on it, all sorts of stuff, anything you can do to actually get the phone to work.”

“So I mean, it’s frustrating. I’ve been through that — where the phone’s not working and your family can’t hear you, and it’s cutting out, you know, it’s crazy … If you could see people actually using the phones, you would see it’s not a regular procedure. It’s like some crazy stuff you’ve got to do. You got to hold the cord a certain way, like fold it, or like – I don’t know – like, kind of bend it behind the phone, something like that. They’re really, really raggedy phones.”

Asked if he recalls the last time he stayed in a Ventress dorm in which all four phones worked, Anderson laughed. 

“What?! I’m sorry. Wow. Never, never, ever, ever once in the whole two and a half years,” he said. “There were never more than two phones working. I mean at least there’s maybe two usually. But there were never more than two phones working in a dorm.”

Anderson also discussed whether he saw any efforts by staff or administrators to educate inmates about coronavirus in the weeks before his release – particularly any time following the ADOC’s March 10th announcement that the department was taking “‘proactive steps to protect the health and well-being of inmates and staff, including the distribution of educational information on prevention and intervention.” 

“No, man. No. They hadn’t,” Anderson said, speaking of distributing educational material on COVID-19 prevention and intervention between March 10 and his release weeks later. 

“Those people will say anything to the public to hush people or get people off their back, but they are not really going to comply with anything for real. Like I said, from the way they feed you, from the phones, to excessive force. A lot of things,” Anderson said. 

Anderson also described the absence of medical and some other Ventress staff in the last weeks of March.

“They were gone. There was nobody there. I mean, like, you were probably going to die if something happened to you. They shut the medical down…The officers were telling us you couldn’t even go down there. And you could look down there and see [that] there was nobody there,” Anderson said. 

Asked about the duration of the medical staff’s absence, Anderson said they were gone for about two weeks. 

“It was like when they first said that coronavirus was getting bad, and that’s when they [first seemed to be absent]. And so I guess either the medical staff refused to be there or they made them leave. But I know they didn’t have medical staff there. Like if it was an emergency enough, you probably would’ve just had to go to the hospital,” he said. 

Asked if medical staff were still absent by his release on March 25th, Anderson said perhaps some staff were there at that time, but he wasn’t certain. 

“To tell you the truth, I really don’t think that they were there. If they were it was really, really short-staffed,” Anderson said. “I don’t think – I guess there could’ve been somebody down there at some point – but it wasn’t like it’s supposed to be or …like it usually is. And I think they were either scared or they had an order not to be there.” 

And like Z, Anderson said he noticed the absence of classification officers in his last week before being released. 

Anderson also discussed the lack of access to local information about coronavirus. 

“They get Georgia news [on Ventress’s Television],” Anderson said. “Pretty much all you’re going to see is Georgia news. You’re not going to be informed on Alabama news.” 

Anderson said that lack of information was causing panic among inmates, hungry for news about the virus. 

“When I was last there it was a high stress-level,” Anderson said. “Because on everybody’s mind, man, is ‘If the virus comes in here it’s gonna knock us over like some dominos.’ That’s what everybody says, like, ‘Damn, I don’t wanna catch that stuck in prison.‘ ‘Are they gonna let some of us go? What are they going to do about it?’ And you’re left in the dark, you know, so it’s really stressful. You don’t know if you’re gonna live or die. You don’t know if you’re going to make it out.”

Anderson also talked about other problems ADOC has had with outbreaks of illnesses and the dangers caused by the unsanitary prison. 

“We’ve had TB outbreaks, meningitis outbreaks, a lot of different things before coronavirus,” Anderson said, referring to Tuberculosis. “We’ve had scabies outbreaks. So, I mean it’s messed up. It’s really not sanitary. If you don’t take precautions to be clean yourself, you’re going to be really exposed to a lot of — I mean, there’s no telling what – diseases and viruses.” 

“The cafeteria is not sanitary. I’ve found rat droppings in my food,” he said. “I mean, you might find bugs in your food. In the morning there’ll be bugs in your oatmeal. Like especially when it’s warm out, I guess, like, bugs get into where they store everything. And they don’t care.”

Asked about the statements from other inmates that those with flu-like and coronavirus-like symptoms were being moved inside the prison, Anderson stopped the reporter before he could finish the question and said, “held in the gym?” 

“Yeah, they hold them in the gym…because I’ve been in Ventress and I’ve seen it,” Anderson said. “They put you in the gym and just leave you in there.”

Anderson said there was no medical equipment in the gym, and that he knows one inmate who spent about a week in the gym. 

“There’s nothing,” he said. “You’re just locked in there and you’re stuck. It’s really weird, man, I’m telling you. It’s like – wow – I’m pretty sure that’s scary. I’m glad I’ve never been in that situation.”

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose responded by email Tuesday to a request for comment on the inmates’ concerns in this article. 

Rose declined to address questions about inmates being taken to the gym at Ventress, citing security purposes, and said that “ADOC will not disclose areas within its facilities or on its grounds that will be used to quarantine inmates who may be symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19. Disclosing this information compromises our ability to safely move inmates within our facilities.” 

Rose said that as a result of the disruptions caused by COVID-19, ADOC began providing all inmates with one free 15-minute phone call per week and extended hours of availability. 

“This benefit has been and continues to be provided to every inmate in all ADOC facilities, including Ventress Correctional Facility (Ventress). No inmates are denied this benefit for any reason,” Rose said. 

Rose said that every Monday, 15 free minutes of call time are added to each inmate’s account, and that any unused free minutes expire at the end of the week.

“To-date, our statistics show that nearly 90,000 free phone calls have been placed by inmates across our correctional system, with more than 6,700 of them placed by inmates at Ventress,” Rose said. 

Rose said inmates who may be having problems with their free calls  “bear personal responsibility to report issues like these to their wardens or to facility staff” who will investigate the matter. 

Addressing questions about broken phones, Rose said that ADOC was made aware of this issue as a result of “recent inmate reports.”

“Repairs were made to the malfunctioning phones, and the issue was resolved. As with any utility service, from time to time maintenance issues inevitably arise,” Rose said. 

But as late as Wednesday afternoon, May 6, Z told APR that while some phones were recently fixed, there are still broken phones throughout the prison, including one phone in the same dorm referenced earlier in this article, where three out of four phones had been broken for months, the inmate said. 

Rose said that in addition to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) flyers being posted in every facility, the ADOC’s Office of Health Services gave out educational packets to all facilities for inmate newsletters that outline COVID-19 preventative measures and CDC- and ADPH-recommended hygiene protocols.

Staff and inmates have also been provided with face masks, along with instructions on how to use them, Rose said. State inmates in the first week of April began making cloth face masks, ADOC announced at the time. 

An inmate at the Holman Correctional Facility on May 6, the day after ADOC’s response to questions about this article, said that he had not yet received a newsletter with information from prison staff about coronavirus. 

Speaking to inmate’s concerns about a lack of access to Alabama news on prison TV, Rose said that “inmates are provided access to cable or satellite television through which they have ample opportunities to obtain current news and information about COVID-19.” 

“While the ADOC continues to meet its obligation to keep inmates informed, as is evidenced by the aforementioned COVID-19 educational efforts [in] our entire system, inmates are not entitled to watch local Alabama news programs on television while incarcerated for the crime(s) for which they were convicted,” Rose said. 

Addressing a lack of staff at Ventress for a period after the COVID-19 crisis began, Rose said that as a result of the virus “ADOC predictably has experienced an uptick in staff absenteeism.”

“This is due to a variety of challenges outside of self-reported positive cases of COVID-19 among our staff including but not limited to: other illnesses, childcare disruptions, caring for someone who may have COVID-19, and self-quarantining after direct, prolonged exposure to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19,” Rose said. 

“However, staff absenteeism as a result of COVID-19 has not resulted in an inability to staff key medical or security posts within our facilities, including Ventress,” Rose said. “All inmates continue to be provided with critical health, mental health, and rehabilitative services.” 

As of Wednesday afternoon seven state inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and one inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, 66-year-old Dave Thomas, died after testing positive for the virus. 

Five of Alabama’s 16 prison staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19 work at Ventress prison, according to ADOC. As of Wednesday, 94 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates had been tested for the virus.

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