(Author’s Note: Prisoners were interviewed confidentially for this article. They are each identified by a randomly chosen letter to protect their privacy and safety.)
PART 1: “You Will Find Out On The Way.”
American prisoners are incarcerated for years, often decades, often a majority of his or her life.
Many prisoners serving more than a couple years are transferred from one prison to another, often multiple times, throughout their sentences. Alabama prisoners speak with HTR about the experience of getting transferred to another prison mid-sentence, and waking up to learn their friends have been transferred.
Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Communications Director, Linda Mays, writes in an email response to inquiries from HTR regarding this article, that there are “numerous specific reasons that inmates are transferred” from one prison to another mid-sentence, but “It is impossible to explore every scenario” in which transfers occur.
“Typical reasons,” Mays adds, “can be broadly categorized under two buckets: healthcare and security.” For example, “[A]n inmate may develop a medical condition” that “requires a higher level of care, up to chronic or hospice care. Our facilities’ infirmaries are equipped differently, and … an inmate may be transferred to a different facility in order for the Department to best provide for his or her individual healthcare needs.”
Transfers may take place for security reasons, Mays continues, for example, “if a crime is perpetrated by one inmate against another, the perpetrator may be validated as an enemy of his or her victim following an investigation,” and transferred “once classified as validated enemies.” (Some are also transferred to minimum security prisons if their security status is lowered, Mays notes.)
Alabama prisoners describe the reasoning behind their transfers, and the experience of being transferred mid-sentence, differently than the ADOC.
One source, identified as “T,” has been imprisoned for around a decade in Alabama, transferred mid-sentence a few times. He interviews in June about the experience of being transferred from one prison to another.
The process is “different at different prisons,” he begins.
“Basically,” he continues, “they shake you down. The task force puts you in a van. Then, when you get to a prison, they take you in, search all your properties, and make you strip naked. It’s a horrible thing. They make you hold your butt cheeks open and cough, all these unnecessary procedures. It’s uncalled for.”
In T’s experience, prisoners sometimes have jobs involved in processing newly arriving prisoners, “So, they can take whatever it is you got, and sell it to other inmates,” he explains.
Asked how and when one is informed he will be transferred to another prison if that becomes his fate, T answers, “They don’t [inform you] until the day of the move,” because “they don’t want you to come back into the dorm to anybody else, saying you’re leaving to another prison.”
He continues: “So, they don’t tell you. They just wake you up at about four in the morning, tell you to pack it up, any given day they decide they just don’t want you in their prison anymore.”
The first time T was transferred, he says, “It was really frightening. I didn’t know what was going on. Officers come in yelling at you, ‘Pack it up. Pack it. Dress up. You’re outta here.’ And you be like, ‘What?’ They’re like, ‘You’re done, that’s what’s up.’ You be like, ‘Alright.’” T says “most” officers handle the transfers with this type of aggression, “depending on the reputation they have.”
He elaborates: “It’s frightening the first time, if you don’t have no firsthand [experience] in prison. I didn’t know anything about prison. You never know what’s going to happen.”
During one transfer, T recalls, “when they called me, while they were shaking me down, I asked an officer, ‘Could I use the restroom?’ I had to go real bad. One officer said, ‘Sure, yeah. Man’s got to relieve himself.’ Then the other officer was like, ‘No.’ I was like, ‘What?’ And that became a big issue.”
Asked how it is decided whether prisoners being transferred are allowed bathroom breaks throughout the process, in the ADOC’s email, Linda Mays answers that there “are far too many possible scenarios for [ADOC] to provide an answer,” adding that “situational factors and individual circumstances surrounding transfers are vast and cannot possibly all be specified here.”
Asked whether prison laborers participate in any part transferring other prisoners in or out, Mays writes that prison laborers “do not have a direct role.” But an “ancillary job assignment” to a prisoner “may indirectly be connected to the transfer process,” she adds, citing “cleaning duties at the intake area” as one example, stipulating that this “does not mean that the inmate performing cleaning duties is involved in the process” of transfers and intake.
Asked to describe, in as much detail as possible, how prisoners are transferred mid-sentence, from the beginning to the end of the transfer process, Mays says the “ADOC does not disclose the details of our transfer process,” because “this information greatly compromises our ability to securely move inmates.”
She adds: “We can confirm, however, that the transfer process varies and is subject to numerous situational factors including the inmate’s custody level and circumstances leading up to his or her transfer.”
In his interview, T describes the challenges to readjusting to a new prison once a prisoner’s transfer is complete.
“It’s hard to adjust,” he explains. “Like I’ve said: In prison, there’s all different types… You’ve got inmates that are HIV positive living with inmates that are not; You’ve got a lot of other things … to deal with, like mental health; You can’t put your hands on [the officers], but they can put their hands on you.”
To adjust to life in prison, no matter when or how you get there, or which prison takes you, says T, “You have to rehabilitate yourself. Therefore, you have to have knowledge, literature that you can read, and make your mind up to … do right. I’ve reprogrammed – you know – to adjust my way of thinking.”
The worst prison T has lived in, he says, is Ventress, “the one I’m at now.”
One of the worst parts of prison is the unpaid work, he says, which “seems like slavery to me.”
A prisoner identified as “B,” also in Ventress, has been incarcerated over half a decade and transferred about a half-dozen times during his sentence.
“No camp tells you … when you’re going to be moved. You will find out on the way” to the next prison, says B, “if the officials [handling transportation] are not dirty.”
B says he didn’t know what was happening until it was already happening the first time he was transferred, that he didn’t know which prison he was going to until after arriving there, and “nothing” was going through his mind on the way, except “getting to my next camp, so I could sit down. They wake you up [to] get ready.”
B says that “sometimes” when being transferred, “you can get lucky and get a hall-runner to tell you, but that’s it.” In his experience, nobody else will tell you what happens until they come to transfer you, or until you’re on your way to the next prison.
Getting from one prison to the next took about “four hours” during his first transfer. Upon arriving at the next prison, “processing” the prisoner can take another “few hours,” says B, adding, “that’s any camp.”
He notes: “All of the transfers are the same, unless it’s a special one.”
During one of B’s transfers, he recalls, “When they [transferred] me for no reason,” an officer took all of his belongings, “being smart, telling me I couldn’t come back.”
By the end of the interaction, “I was just glad to leave,” B says.
B says the officer even took his Bible, took “everything,” and the Bible was “in my other stuff,” along with “letters and pictures I can’t ever get back, and legal documents.”
After the officer took away his belongings during the transfer, B “sent for” his legal documents “from the courts and the Parole Board,” he says.
“It took a while to get them, like two years,” he says.
Asked if Alabama Corrections employees are allowed to take all of a prisoner’s belongings, including things like legal papers and his copy of the Bible, and if ADOC is aware of occurrences of this happening, Mays answers in the ADOC’s email that “officers” and “any ADOC staff participating in the transfer process, are not allowed to ‘take’ inmates’ belongings. As part of the transfer process, all inmate belongings are inventoried and stored, and … returned once the inmate arrives and is processed through intake at his or her receiving facility.”
She notes that, “of course,” it “is possible that some inmates’ belongings are lost or misplaced during the transfer process. Our system is large, and human error occurs.” A prisoner who loses belongings in the process, Mays says, “has the ability to file a Board of Adjustment claim and will receive appropriate compensation […] if the claim is verified and approved.”
In early June, B tells HTR that multiple prisoners were just transferred into Ventress, which strikes him as unsafe and frightening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s like they’re trying to kill us,” he says.
Asked whether there were indeed transfers into Ventress at that time, Mays answers in the ADOC’s email, “Movement between our facilities has been limited with few exceptions as a result of COVID-19; however, security and healthcare exemptions are granted as needed, including at Ventress Correctional Facility,” and will not comment on “when, where, or how many transfers occur between our facilities,” for “security” reasons.
Further, Mays also confirms that prisoners “are not provided advance notice” before they are transferred mid-sentence, and acknowledges that, depending on the situation, “of course” it is “possible that an inmate may be woken up if he or she is sleeping at the time of his or her transfer.”
Prisoners are not informed that they will be transferred until after the transfer is already underway, because informing them beforehand, the ADOC believes, “would pose an unacceptable risk to both our staff and inmates, and would greatly compromise our ability to securely move inmates,” writes Mays in the email.
Back in Ventress, B describes having other prisoners transferred away from you, people you lived with every day and night for years, consider friends and family, what it is like to be a prisoner who wakes up one morning to learn his friend, comrade, neighbor, or brother, is gone, not even because he’s freed, just starting all over in another prison:
“It feels like a family member has been removed from around you, because that’s a brother you done shared some real stuff with, far as family stuff, shit about your kids, and yourself.”
PART 2 – Growing Up in Alabama Prisons
G has lived in all but a couple of Alabama’s adult male prisons throughout his single sentence, which started when he was 15 years old, for a crime he claims he did not commit.
With no parents, no legal guardian, no money, no formal education, no meaningful legal advocacy, and “no help” or resources in general, he tells HTR, he was tried and convicted as an adult when he turned 16 in the early 1980’s, and has lived in Alabama’s adult prisons ever since. He is currently in Ventress.
In G’s experience, “They don’t transfer no more like they used to. They used to just send you from prison to prison” randomly and frequently, through most of the time he’s been incarcerated.
“They’ve kind of slowed that down now,” he continues. “Only ways to get transferred now are, basically, you get into something – you know – catch a stabbing case, or have some type of … issue.”
Over the decades, G has observed that the constant, random transfers “slowed down once [the prisons] got overcrowded.”
He elaborates: “See, when I first came down [to prison] in the 80’s, it wasn’t as crowded as it is now. It’s so crowded now, we are stacked on top of each other, man, and it’s – just … They ain’t lettin nobody out, Parole Board ain’t letting nobody out – you know – and there’s a lot of guys, man, that have done a lot of time, and deserve to be out.”
G says mid-sentence transfers started decreasing “about 2007, 2008, 2009, somewhere along there.”
According to a Sentencing Project chart on the number of state and Federal prisoners from 1925 to 2017, the number of Americans indeed peaked, and stayed at its highest, just before, during, and after the years G cites here.
G explains that, by then, the prisons “had to slow down, because they got so many people to deal with, Classification [Officers] got so many people to see – you know – and so many people to try to move, till – you know – they just can’t move everybody at one time, so they started slowin down on them transfers … started moving two or three people at a time.”
G “got locked up” in the early 1980’s. “I was 15 years old when I first came to prison.”
He reflects on the first couple of times he was transferred from one prison to another mid-sentence as a child in adult prisons.
“I first came to Kilby,” still the “processing center” for all Alabama prisoners before the prison in which they’ll first do time, and when they go there, are decided.
At 16, G was transferred out of Kilby, and “They sent me to … a maximum security prison,” he recalls. “It was rough up there, because it was … my first time ever being in prison, first time ever going to a max camp, and – you know – it was kind of hard for me. You know?”
He elaborates: “I was real young, and I wasn’t used to being in prison, and I wasn’t used to being around those types of guys – you know – because you got all types of guys in a max camp.”
He pauses, then adds, “I was a kid. I was scared.”
He stayed at the first camp to which he was transferred from Kilby “for about six months,” at then was transferred yet again, “and my third transfer was … anywhere between four to six months” after the second, “because they would just move me around. You know?”
For the first decades of his sentences, most of his transfers from prison to prison took place in the “four to six month range.”
Asked what types of experiences were scariest to deal with as a child in adult prisons, G reflects, “Well – you know – they were raping people. Guys were gettin raped. Guys were gettin stabbed up and down. You know. It was just so much goin on.”
For the most part, these things didn’t happen directly to G as a child, he says, “because I just so happened to have some older guys pull me over to – you know – took me up under their wings, and raised me, and taught me the game. You know?”
But by ages 16 and 17, he’d already seen more than any man should.
As a child in adult prisons, the scariest experience, “Well,” he remembers, “it was seeing people get stabbed. I’d seen one guy get stabbed in the neck, [who] almost died, and I’d seen another guy got his – got his head almost cut off. So, I’d just get – it was just different stuff. You know what I’m sayin?”
He witnessed both of these events, and more, in adult prisons before turning 18.
Now, with the hindsight of middle age, G believes that “transferring from prison to prison was a good experience, because – you know – I got a chance to see a lot of different stuff, and experience a lot of stuff.”
While incarcerated in one of these prisons during the early years of his sentence, he got his G.E.D. For a brief time, he was “taking trade [classes] and working on a farm” in prison as well. Now, he frequently laments that many educational and other programs have been cut, and sees a widespread problem of boredom, restlessness, lack of hope, and lack of structure instead.
Taking classes at the prison and working on a farm outside, decades ago, he says, “learned me how to work – you know – how to be more responsible, and to have more responsibilities.”
G has been in Ventress Prison around a couple of years, and by now, he says, “I would like to be transferred to a different one, because this one is just too far gone, man. You know? The respect to disrespect [ratio] number is too messed up.”
In G’s experience, the process of a transfer goes as follows:
“They’ll wake you up early in the morning, bout three or four o’clock, take you through the ICS, then they wait on the transfer van to come get you, and transfer you to the next prison. Then, once you get to the next prison, you’ve got to – you know – wait until they process you in. Then they give you a bed, and then – you know – you just go from there.”
Asked how many times he’s been transferred from one prison to another, “Psshh,” G sighs, “I can’t even count em all, but I know it’s at least 20, 25 times.
“I don’t ever get comfortable” in a prison, says G, “because anything could happen, any given time. You know? They can just snatch you up at any time, and transfer you.”
When G wakes up to learn that a prisoner who he’s known a long time has been transferred, “It’s good,” he says. “I like to see prisoners get transferred out, especially if they’re going to Work-Release, or honors camps, or somewhere they can get out of prison. You know? But going from one prison to another, that ain’t good, because you ain’t getting out of prison. You know what I’m sayin?”
G has “had a few friends [who] didn’t want to leave the prison they was at” in the process of being transferred to another one, “but they didn’t have no choice, because they was on transfer, they’ve got to leave … just to go into another prison.”
G concludes: “I ain’t have no bad transfers. All my transfers are good – you know – because, just like I said, I ain’t doin nothin but going to another prison, because I just – I’ve got to go, whether I want to go or not.”