(Part 2) “The Only Thing You Can Do”: Overcrowding in Ventress Prison During Pandemic, March-July

In the first days of June, a prisoner identified as “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 later, B tells HTR that a handful of prisoners who tested positive for coronavirus were transferred from Easterling Prison into Ventress in early July, to be held in Ventress’s gymnasium. “We saw them come in bro, wearing full protection gear, and [an] official said it,” he explains.  

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.

In the first week of July, “Z” and “G” both interview again with HTR about living conditions and overcrowding, and the consequences of these problems during the pandemic. 

The overcrowding of the prison is a main cause of “fighting,” says Z. “I know that’s one thing. People get tired of being around a lot of people like that, packed in like sardines.” 

Overcrowding in Ventress also causes “bathroom issues,” he says, “as far as using the restroom … As far as the showers, and stuff like that, you got to wait for a while, and you got to wait for a while to sit on the toilet, take a leak, brush your teeth, got to stand in long lines to eat.” 

Asked if prisoners have privacy while using the toilet, “No, the toilets are open,” he answers. “You don’t get no privacy.”

“You can take a shower by yourself though,” he notes, which is “about the only privacy you get” at any time in Ventress. The open toilets in his dorm are “probably, like, seven feet from my bed.” 

Z says there “ain’t nothin but, like, bout five toilets, five sinks, for like two hundred people,” and those toilets and sinks are in open view, no stalls. Luckily, Z notes that the toilets are generally “like one of the main places” that prisoners “try to keep clean,” because they all have to use them.

Z discusses the impacts and potential impacts of coronavirus again in this early July interview. 

“It’s so compact in here, if one person get it, everybody’s gonna have it. Like the common cold – the Winter just passed, and everybody had the cold up in here … So, that’s why I’m trying to hurry up and get home, man, before the virus is – psh, we don’t even know if it’s in here or not, because it ain’t like they’ve been testing anybody,” says Z. 

June 15, The Montgomery Advertiser reports, “As coronavirus cases among Alabama prison correctional staff continue to increase, the Alabama Department of Corrections will not release data revealing how many prison staff are in self-quarantine or the number of people who have died in their custody since January,” and “Roughly 1% of the prison inmate population has been tested … only 37 people have been diagnosed, less than 0.2% of the entire prison population.” 

“Then, they’re saying … you might not even have symptoms” and still have the virus, Z points out in early July.

“So, how do people know if the virus is in here or not if they ain’t even testin people? And then, why would y’all not test prisoners?” he asks.   

“Ya’ll got them in a State – it’s, actually, we’re like State property. So, if we in y’all care, y’all the government, but y’all ain’t testin nobody that’s in prison. So, basically, y’all don’t really care,” says Z. 

He continues: “Y’all don’t like giving out the tests? We should be, like, some of the main people that get tested first, over the people that’s out on the streets, over the people out there in the free world. They should make sure that all the tests come to the prison first. We already can’t go nowhere. We’re stuck. And now we’re breaking the six feet [social] distance … Y’all are making us break that, because we can’t get no further than six feet apart.”

Z points out that it is the State telling people, and in some cases legally enforcing, six feet social distancing practices, “So, how can y’all call in a six feet social distance [measure], and then have people locked up, squashed up together, and got people in here for petty crimes and major crimes?” he asks.  

Asked if more people have been transferred in or out of Ventress since the beginning of the lockdown based on what he’s seen, “I ain’t really seen nobody gettin to leave since the pandemic,” he says, but some have been transferred in. 

“Like, I was supposed to be up for Work-Release in March,” he says, “over four months” ago. 

Z suspects that “older prisoners, for real, that’s already sick” with other illnesses, are most threatened by coronavirus hitting the prison, “because, like I say, if the coronavirus gets up in here, they’ll be the first to go.” 

Then, he says, “After that, I’d say everybody” is at risk. 

Z also tells HTR that multiple prisoners in Ventress talk to themselves often and sleep on the hard concrete floor instead of beds. 

G, also interviewing again in the first days of July on living conditions and overcrowding, believes there should be one or more prisons/medical facilities that are “just for [prisoners] with that type of stuff,” referring to coronavirus, “and not have them in the general population with everybody else. You know? They need to have them isolated somewhere – you know – with the COVID-19.”

G doesn’t know how many officers have been tested, but “they ain’t testing us” prisoners, he says. 

“They ain’t give us no tests. It’s too much money. You know how many prisoners are in the State of Alabama? They can’t test all of us, man. It’s too much money.” 

Asked his opinion on why there is no money for testing all, or at least more, Alabama prisoners, G explains, “The State don’t wanna pay for you living here anyway. You know?” 

Some problems caused by overcrowding, G observes, are, “Well, you got people who don’t have nowhere to sleep. The toilets get broke down, the sinks – they clog up. You know. It’s chaotic. Ain’t no ice in the ice keg, we ain’t got but one microwave for a hundred and something people. You know? It just don’t make no sense. They should have two microwaves. You know what I’m saying?” 

Asked how many sinks and toilets are broken, G elaborates, “Well, they come around every day, and check on them. But, at any time, they can break down, anywhere from three to four of them, because it ain’t built for – if you got a hundred and something people in [a dorm], and everybody’s using the sink, and everybody’s using the toilet, it’s quite a mess – you know – all that flushin, all that turnin the water on, any minute they’re gonna break down.” 

G, too, confirms that prisoners do not have privacy when they use the toilets in Ventress. 

There is “kind of, like, a little, um, podium to kind of, like, block the toilets. You know? But other than that, we ain’t got no privacy, except we had to build shower curtains. For the shower, we had to tie a string from one end of a poll to the other end.” 

Asked what it’s like getting used to using the toilet in front of so many people, in such an open view, so close to them, G explains, “Well – you know – you’ve got to do it. You know what I’m sayin? You’re gonna have to piss. You’re gonna have to shit. You’re gonna have to do it. I mean, that’s it. You’re gonna have to do it.” 

G says “none of [the toilets] are private” in any of the prisons in which he’s been incarcerated around the State throughout his sentence. 

Asked to elaborate on his comment above that prisoners “have nowhere to sleep,” and why that is the case, G says, “Because – you know – it’s overcrowded. So, they just ain’t got nowhere to put them, nowhere to sleep.” 

Asked if there are more prisoners than beds, G says, “Well, yeah – you know – you got a bunk mate, an up and down, a top bed and a bottom bed, but … if two people are on them, one on the top and one on the bottom, that means somebody don’t have nowhere to sleep.” 

(The ADOC’s website tends to list Ventress as having over a hundred more beds than prisoners in a typical month. See here. Curiously, though, the monthly “Statistical Reports” stopped being added to the cite after April, and there are no numbers on July, when G made this claim.)

Asked how things are going for him since he was diagnosed with diabetes months earlier, “Well, it’s still the same thing, because that stuff’s dangerous, man. You know? It can kill you at any given time. So, I’d rather be out there in the streets, where I can at least try to take care of myself. See, because in here they don’t give you the proper medical care that you need – you know – because they’ve got to see so many people,” G says. 

“It’s just hard on us [prisoners] to try to get to the healthcare unit, because it’s so small. And, if you get sick, man, they ain’t got nowhere to put you. Then, if they send you to the hospital, and the hospital’s overcrowded, then they’re gonna have to wind up sending you back here, then you’re still gonna wind up dying. You know?” 

Asked his thoughts on the increased delays of releases, hearings, and court dates during the pandemic, G explains, “Well, it’s the Parole Board, man … They need to do away with the Parole Board, because they’re not letting nobody go nowhere. You know. They need to do away with the Parole Board, make it radioactive, and make it so when you come up for Parole, that’ll be your end date, and you go home, because the Parole Board ain’t lettin nobody go but who they wanna let go.” 

G says he “was supposed to come up for Parole in March,” around the same time Z was supposed to be up for Work-Release, and he, too, is still “waiting to hear back.” 

Asked what the waiting is like, G says, “Well – you know – it’s just something you’ve got to do. You’ve got to wait, man. Can’t do nothin else but wait. You know?” 

Sometimes, he gets sad about it all, he explains, “because – you know – I’m human… But I just – just trust in God, man. I just pray, and ask God – you know what I’m sayin – that – you know – I just pray, and leave it up to God, man. When He get to lettin me get out, then I’m gonna get out. So, I try to keep a positive attitude about everything.”

Asked what the days that are a little sadder, a little harder, look like for him, G says, “Well, I try not to get – I try not to let nobody notice that I get like that. You know? I just pretty much stay to myself, and just let the day ease on by, and the next day I feel better.”

Asked why he feels he can’t talk about those feelings with anyone, G elaborates, “Well, because I don’t want to burden anyone.” 

He reflects: “I don’t really wanna discuss what I have going on with anyone else, because it really ain’t their business – you know – and I pretty much just like to have my own business. I don’t let nothin worry me, man.” (pause)

“You know,” he continues, “I just take it one day at a time, and I pray, and let God – I leave everything up to God, man, because I know one thing, right?: He ain’t lettin us – I mean, at the end of the day, man, God’s gonna have the last say so.” 

In the meantime, however,  “The Parole Board, man, they need to start letting people go. Then it won’t be so overcrowded,” says G. 

G concludes the early July interview: 

“There is only one thing you can do about overcrowding: they’ve got to release people. Man, they’ve got to let some people go. Ain’t no other way around it.”

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