(Author’s note: Incarcerated sources are kept confidential to protect their safety and privacy. Each prisoner is identified by a randomly chosen letter.)
“When Obama was President, there was still some people put in place” to handle research and preparedness for pandemics, says a prisoner identified as “G,” who has been incarcerated in Alabama for nearly four straight decades.
“But when Trump was made President, he fired all them. So, that’s why [coronavirus] got a chance to spread like it did, because we didn’t have nobody to really stop it,” says G.
Interviewing with HTR in the beginning of April, G (currently in Ventress Prison) discusses living conditions and overcrowding, and the newly dangerous implications of these problems during the pandemic.
G observes that there are “more youngsters in prison now than when I first came,” referring mainly to prisoners in their 20’s and late teens. “When I first came down here, you didn’t have that many youngsters in prison.”
He notes that the rising number of young people in prison throughout his sentence has been part of a larger, consistent trend over the decades: a steadily increasing prison population overall, prisoners of all ages, pushing Ventess and many other prisons in Alabama and throughout the country well over their designed capacity.
G suspects that increased punishment for nonviolent drug offenses in the 1980’s and 90’s, continuing still, also explains the overcrowding of American and Alabama prisons, and the rise in the number of younger prisoners.
The prison population has “always been large” since G got to prison in the early 80’s, but it’s much larger now, “and it’s going to keep on getting larger as long as they don’t let nobody out,” he predicts.
“One of the biggest problems is that they’ve got a lot of older guys that [are] still in prison, and should’ve been let out of prison, and they won’t let them out, because of the public … They’re scared to let a lot of older guys out that’s been locked up a long time, because – I guess – people are scared they’ll mess up and come back. But – you know – you can’t tell a man how to live his life once he gets out,” says G.
“Again, like, a lot of these young guys – you know – they got three or four life sentences, and stuff like that. So, they’re going to be here for a while,” he notes. “So, why not let us old cats out? You know? Let us come on out there and live our life?” he asks.
“But,” he reiterates, “like I said, they’re trying to please the public, man. But see, the public needs to be more involved in what’s going inside the prison system, too. The public needs people like you, that’s already out there, to get more involved. Ya’ll need to put this stuff on Facebook, and let these folks know: Man, once the coronavirus – if that stuff comes through here, it’ll kill all of us. You know?” (Pause)
“What about us?” he asks. “You know what I’m saying? What about us? We deserve to get out, too. We deserve to be free.”
G elaborates on how coronavirus hitting the prison could impact him directly. “Like me, I’m a diabetic. I just found out,” he says.
“It’d come down on me as quick as, or quicker, than anybody,” he explains. “So, I’m just hoping I got a strong enough immune system to fight it off. But there’s diabetics, people with heart disease, high blood pressure, stuff like that. You know? You got a lot of inmates in here that need to be let out, man, because they ain’t going to be able to – their bodies ain’t going to be able to withstand it. A lot of these guys, man, are 70 years old, got canes and wheelchairs and stuff. They deserve to be let out, man.”
As of this writing in July, Alabama has not been releasing and has no clear plan to release Alabama Prisoners for reasons related to coronavirus, not even older people or people incarcerated on nonviolent charges.
“I done seen so many guys die in [prison] since I been locked up,” he says. “I’ve seen influenzas, cirrhosis of the liver, seen them die from heart attacks, seen them die from … just … all different kinds of things. Their health goes bad on them.”
G also notes a more psychological problem with the living conditions that he believes negatively impacts social dynamics in Ventress, both between prisoners and officers and prisoners and each other, which is that “these [prisoners] have got nothing to do. That’s really what’s, kind of, so messed up … You know? They … need more to do.”
He adds, for example, “They need some computers. They need a GED program, and other things these guys can do something with to work themselves back into society. You know what I’m saying?”
As of this discussion with G in April, for a long time before, and still as of this writing in July, most prisoners have “nothing [to do] throughout the day but sit around and watch TV. And that TV ain’t nothing, man, nothing but a big trick, a big joke.”
At the end of our April interview, G explains a little of his background, and broadly describes how he got to prison.
“I didn’t really have nobody to help me, man, didn’t have my momma with me, my folks, no guardian. You know? They railroaded me. They gave me a life-sentence, and I – just – like I say, I just didn’t have no help, man. I got convicted for something that I did not do, and … being young, and having no experience with the law, they railroaded me. So, I was 16 when I came to [State] prison … and didn’t have no help. So, they just did me like they wanted to do me: hold me in prison,” he says, where he remains in middle age.
“I don’t have no sisters or brothers. I’m an only child. So, I’ve just been, basically, still, just on my own, you know?”
In late March and early April, around the same time as the discussion with G, a prisoner identified as “Z” does multiple interviews with HTR and Alabama Political Reporter about various topics related to living conditions and overcrowding in Ventress, mainly in the context of coronavirus rapidly spreading through the country.
In the months before the lockdowns and delays in response to coronavirus, Z is under the impression, and says he was told by a classification officer, that he would be eligible for work-release. A hearing for late March was scheduled to decide the matter. At the time the hearing was scheduled, Z did not anticipate any reason that he would not be allowed out on work-release by late March.
Early to mid March, the State starts announcing the dangers of coronavirus in places like schools, taking precautions, and shutting down industries and institutions, but does not publicly acknowledge the threats posed by the virus hitting Alabama prisons until weeks after these initial coronavirus announcements (See here, and here).
Once precautions are announced regarding Alabama prisons in late March, releasing prisoners is notably missing from the list of measures, and, as of this writing, still has not been added.
Instead, cases and hearings have been delayed for many prisoners, and others continue to be transferred into Ventress and around the State during the pandemic.
The coronavirus measures are still in place for prisons in Alabama as of July, even though the rest of the State has ended its lockdown. One of these measures is that prisoners are not allowed visits from people in the free world.
Alabama prisoners feel the State made its pandemic lockdown and re-opening process clear early: let the free world work, shop, and gather like times are normal, and pack the prisoners in even tighter, lock them up even longer.
Delays to court dates and hearings started around the same time these measures were implemented in March, around a week before Z’s work-release hearing, and the hearing still hasn’t happened. He is incarcerated on nonviolent charges.
“So, that’s why I’m trying to get up out of here,” he explains in an interview at the end of March, because “now I’m stuck in here, with the coronavirus going on.”
In one of his early April interviews, Z predicts the problems that could be caused for the State if and when coronavirus spreads through its prisons:
“The Alabama prisons down here are already 180 percent overcapacity. And that’s a fact … Okay, so now, if the coronavirus gets up in here, they’re going to have to spend money on healthcare for inmates, and to send them to the hospital, and the hospitals are already crowded right now. So, there’s a problem in the United States already, the economy is already down, as it is right now. So, you’ve got to take care of inmates, and while you’re taking care of inmates, you’re sending them to a hospital that’s overcrowded, and that’s gonna put extra pressure on the nurses and doctors at the hospital. And that’s money coming from the government.”
Z continues: “But then, on top of all that, if people die that’s already in here, now you’re facing lawsuits at the same time [as the pandemic unfolds], from the families. Now, on top of that, it’s like a double lawsuit, because you’re facing a lawsuit about the prison being overcrowded, and [about] the … people that die in prison from the coronavirus, because they ain’t even supposed to be in the prison if the prison is overcrowded like it is.”
Z repeats the figure. “180 percentThat’s way overcapacity, man. Not 10 %, not 15 %, not 50 %, but 180 %. That’s ridiculous, for real.”
Z believes that most prisoners in Ventress, and in general, are incarcerated on nonviolent charges, often drug related.
“Usually, they either violated [probation or parole] for dirty urine. Or, like I said, they’re drug addicts or drug dealers,” he says.
“But, at the end of the day, in my opinion, this is just modern day slavery, for real,” says Z.
“They just get free money, and free labor,” he elaborates. “They lock everybody up for petty crimes, and off them petty crimes, they get free labor, and that’s how they make a lot of money without paying.”
In interviews later the same week and throughout the next week in April, other Ventress prisoners further discuss living conditions and overcrowding, which are severe problems that have always existed and are now more dangerous and complicated during the coronavirus.
All Ventress prisoners interviewed in April for HTR, and an article in APR, say the ADOC is not educating prisoners about coronavirus.
Also in the first week of April, Z claims that medical staff, classification officers, and possibly other workers in Ventress were just given two weeks off, beginning the same week the ADOC purported to implement coronavirus response measures, which included dropping certain medical fees.
Beginning in late March, Z and other prisoners start describing many problems with Ventress’s phones. He says three out of the four phones in one dorm are broken. The demand on the use of the sole working phone has increased due to the ADOC’s suspension of visitations.
Another Ventress prisoner, identified as “Y,” also interviewing in the first weeks of April, says he, too, hasn’t seen the ADOC educating prisoners about coronavirus, adding that he and other prisoners have only the prison’s TV with which to stay updated on the pandemic, and the prison’s TV has “no Alabama local news,” he says, rendering it difficult to follow the spread of the pandemic near them.
Still in early April, a Ventress prisoner identified as “C” also speaks to HTR and APR, and he, too, says Ventress staff and administrators aren’t educating or updating prisoners about coronavirus, and describes the same problems with the prison phones as Z and others.
Each Ventress prisoner interviewed during April describes an increase in violence in the prison throughout March and April.
C also says prisoners with flu-like and COVID-like symptoms are being moved to the prison’s gymnasium.
Gregory Anderson, Jr. is released from Ventress on March 25, a week after the ADOC announces its coronavirus response measures. He was incarcerated in Ventress for two and a half years.
April 13, Anderson discusses the living conditions in Ventress as of his March 25 release with APR. He echoes other prisoners’ concerns about broken phones.
“If you’re lucky,” he says, out of four or more, “maybe two phones in each dorm work,” which “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.”
Anderson says that since so many people complained about the broken phones, the ADOC claims 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 says in April.
According to AL.com, the ADOC’s plan to provide tablets to prisoners first appeared in a pilot program at Tutwiler in 2015, and continued in 2019.
But all prisoners interviewed for these stories say they have not been given tablets. Asked whether the ADOC has told prisoners when they will get tablets, C says “it’s in progress … They say about a month” from the interview in April, which he says he and other prisoners learned from the employees who came to install wi-fi. As of July, the prisoners still do not have the tablets.
Asked what causes the phones throughout the prison to constantly break, “It’s really just the quality of the phones. I mean, the material is cheap,” says Anderson on April 13.
“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 got to do. You got to hold the chord 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 remembers the last time he stayed in a Ventress dorm in which all four phones worked, Anderson laughs.
“What?! I’m sorry. Wow. Never, never, ever, ever … in the whole two and a half years,” he says. “There were never more than two phones working in a dorm” out of four.
Anderson comments on whether he saw any efforts by staff or administrators to educate prisoners about coronavirus, particularly after the ADOC’s March 10 announcement that the department is taking “proactive steps to protect the health and wellbeing of inmates and staff, including the distribution of educational information on prevention and intervention.”
“No, man, they hadn’t” distributed this educational information to prisoners between March 10 and March 25.
“Those people [the ADOC] 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, to the phones, to the excessive force, a lot of things,” says Anderson.
Anderson describes the same absence of medical staff and other Ventress employees in his last weeks in Ventress that Z noted above.
“They shut the medical down” during Anderson’s last week or so in Ventress, he says.
“The officers were telling us you couldn’t go down there. And you could look down there, and see [that] there was nobody there,” Anderson says.
He adds: “It was like when they first said coronavirus was getting bad, and that’s when they [first seemed to be absent]. But I know they didn’t have medical staff there.”
Anderson also confirms that the classification officers were gone, and that the prison does not have access to Alabama news, meaning “you’re not going to be informed” locally.
He says the lack of information is causing panic amongst prisoners, from what he saw in his last week or so, because they need more information about the spread of the virus in Alabama.
“When I was last there, it was a high stress level,” Anderson recalls, “because on everybody’s mind, man, is: ‘If the virus comes in here, it’s gonna knock us over like dominos.’ … ‘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?’”
Anderson discusses other problems ADOC has had with outbreaks of illnesses, and dangers caused by the unsanitary prison conditions
“We’ve had TB [Tuberculosis] outbreaks, meningitis outbreaks, a lot of different things before coronavirus,” Anderson says. “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 says. “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 other prisoners’ claims that those with flu-like and coronavirus-like symptoms were being moved into the prison’s gym, Anderson interrupts the reporter midway through the question, and says, “held in the gym?”
He continues: “Yeah, they hold them in the gym … I’ve been in Ventress, and I’ve seen it,” Anderson says. “They put you in the gym, and just leave you in there.”
Anderson says there is no medical equipment in the gym to his knowledge, 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 responds by email in early May to a request for comment on the concerns Ventress prisoners expressed throughout April.
Rose declines to address questions about inmates being taken to the gym at Ventress, citing security purposes, adding 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.” .
Addressing questions about broken phones, Rose says the ADOC was made aware of this issue as a result of “recent inmate reports.”
She continues: “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.”
But as late as May 6, after Rose’s email claiming “the issue was resolved,” Z tells APR that while some phones were fixed weeks after the early April interviews, there are still broken phones throughout the prison, including the only one that worked previously in the dorm with three broken, which stopped working the same day the other three were repaired. Prisoners are not aware of any phones having been fixed aside from those three.
Rose says 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 prisoners have also been provided with face masks, along with instructions on how to use them, Rose says. State prisoners in the first week of April began making cloth face masks, ADOC announces at the time. Before that, however, Ventress prisoners went without masks or cut up their prison issued clothing to make their own.
Furthermore, a prisoner at Holman Correctional Facility, on May 6, the day after ADOC’s response to questions about this article, tells APR that he has not yet received a newsletter with information from prison staff about coronavirus.
Further, Rose confirms that “inmates are not entitled to watch local Alabama news programs on television while incarcerated.”
Addressing a lack of staff at Ventress for a period after the COVID-19 crisis began, Rose says that, as a result of the virus, “ADOC predictably has experienced an uptick in staff absenteeism.”
She elaborates: “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,” but claims that “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 … All inmates continue to be provided with critical health, mental health, and rehabilitative services.”
As of this writing in July, no sources interviewed for any of these articles feel they have access to adequate critical health, mental health, and rehabilitative services in Alabama prison.
In an early May interview with HTR about family and other topics, a Ventress prisoner identified as “T” also comments on living conditions and overcrowding.
“It’s hardest on the inmates, because of how crowded it is,” T explains. “We are all right on top of each other, all the time. You know? You don’t get to breathe, really … It’s a miracle that we ain’t caught something … We’re jammed in here like bunnies in a pen.”
Asked what these conditions have been like during the pandemic, “People are frustrated and scared,” T answers. “Most of them don’t know what to expect, and just hear all these different rumors. That can make an impact on a lot of people, the rumors every day.”
He continues: “We are so close together. Guys don’t take precautions. You know. When they cough, sneeze, they don’t cover their mouth or nothing. It’ll get right on you. That causes problems.”
(In an email response to HTR for another article on work and food, the ADOC confirms that safe social distancing is impossible in any Alabama prison.)
T, like many others, feels that Governor Kay Ivey should release nonviolent prisoners early, because if coronavirus “did make it in here, like, it’ll be catastrophic.”
He explains: “They dehumanize people in prison. Okay, so [prisoners] made a mistake. People outside of [prison] don’t make mistakes?”
In prison, T elaborates, “They treat us like animals. You know. I feel like a lot of guys act the way they do because of the way they are treated. Treat a person like a human being, talk to him like a human being, and then they act like one. But when you treat them like a dog or something, then they act like a dog.”
T pauses, then adds, “You’ll hear this from a lot of people in prison: Dogs live better than we do.”
Life in prison reminds T of a war movie he saw many years ago about a “POW camp overseas in the Korean War … This is sort of like living in one,” he says.
Toward the end of the early May interview, T says he believes it is wrong that 45 to 65-year-old prisoners are expected to sleep on top bunks in Ventress.
Older prisoners “got no business climbing up and down the top rack, and then there’s 30-year-olds on the bottom rack. I think that’s backwards,” says T.
But prisoners are ignored or ridiculed, he explains, if they “say something to [staff] about, ‘Well, I can’t climb up and down. I’m tired of jumping off, hurting my knees and my legs. And I’ve seen youngsters walking around with broken bones, and it seems like every one of them got a top rack.”
T says he knows a 19 year old in perfect health who sleeps on a bottom rack, “and I’m an elder, and on a top rack. That’s disrespect. So, they don’t care nothing for my well-being. They don’t care about wrong and right.”
In a mid-June article on unpaid labor and food quality in Ventress and elsewhere, more prisoners discuss living conditions.
A prisoner identified as “J,” who does unpaid work in Ventress’s kitchen, reports rat and bug problems throughout Ventress’s kitchen and cafeteria, or “chow hall.” A prisoner identified as “B” says there are “rats in the lights.” The ADOC assures HTR and Red Crow News in an email response that, while “some level” of rodent and bug problems “should be expected” in the prison, the problem is “highly exaggerated.”
B also reports that prisoners have to clean up the blood and other remains in the aftermath of violent altercations in the prison, such as assaults by officers of prisoners, fights between prisoners with one another, stabbings, and more. The ADOC confirms in their June email that prisoners are indeed assigned and carry out such cleaning work.
In the first days of June, B tells HTR that multiple prisoners have just been transferred into Ventress. To his knowledge, they are primarily transfers from other prisons. He finds this dangerous in the context of the pandemic, especially given that more people are not being released.
“It’s like they’re trying to kill us,” he says.
Almost exactly one month after reporting that prisoners were transferred into Ventress in June, B tells HTR in early July that a handful of prisoners who tested positive for coronavirus were transferred from Easterling Prison into Ventress, to be held in Ventress’s gymnasium. “We saw them come in bro, wearing full protection gear, and [an] official said it.”
In an early July email regarding prison to prison transfers, ADOC Communications Director Linda Mays tells HTR, “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,” but will not comment on “when, where, or how many transfers occur between our facilities,” for “security” reasons.