Kilby Prison, Alabama, 2020: Overcrowding, Violence, Pandemic, & the Systems of Mass Incarceration

(Contributions by T. Wilmot)

(Author’s note: Prisoners interviewed on the condition of confidentiality for this article, and are identified by letters.)

(Updated Thursday, August 6, with comments from the Alabama Department of Corrections)

Late July, a prisoner in Kilby interviews with HTR about living conditions, overcrowding, violence, misconduct, the coronavirus pandemic, and the larger system of mass incarceration in Alabama and The United States. He is identified as “M” in this article.

Mt. Meigs, Alabama, a municipality of Montgomery, contains Kilby Prison for adult males. Kilby has long been the processing center for those recently sentenced, where they await transfer to the next prison, until it is decided when and where they will go. In usual, pre-pandemic times, prisoners were rarely held in Kilby longer than six months or a year. 

“The living conditions in Kilby are just about like everywhere else” in Alabama prisons, M begins. “Social distancing – it’s never going to get like that around here,” he adds, due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. 

The ADOC has acknowledged in email responses for previous articles, published in HTR and elsewhere, that social distancing is impossible in prison.

Referring to assaults and other incidents of violence and altercations, “Correctional Officers on inmates, that is happening every day, all day long,” says M.

“So, only way you’re going to be able to solve [abuse of prisoners] is – I don’t know … (trails off) I don’t believe it’ll ever stop,” he adds. 

He describes one incident he saw firsthand a few days before our interview, which he feels is typical.

“I done seen an officer walk up on a dude smokin a cigarette, and slap him so hard he turned around and hit the corner of his [bed]rack, and busted his whole forehead. I done seen that,” M recalls. 

“Whenever they feel like it – it’s like [officers] come in here with their own problems from the house. If you’re a coward on the street, but in here, you’re given the right to do whatever, and people in here ain’t doin that to you, so you got the bigger advantage to slap on em, hit on em, and do whatever, knowing that these [prisoners] are just trying to go home, and they’d risk their life trying to retaliate” against a guard who assaults them, says M. 

He says other prisoners were slapped the day of the interview for this article as well. He says slapping is a common tactic for Kilby officers. 

In Ventress, prisoners have reported that officers commonly “kag” them, a way of tripping someone from behind while he is standing still. The ADOC answers a request for comment from HTR on whether they are aware of prisoners being slapped by guards in Kilby. ADOC Spokeswoman Samantha Rose writes that the Department “cannot comment on unsubstantiated allegations,” and claims that “there is no real evidence to indicate excessive use of force is pervasive at any of our facilities.” Nearly every Alabama prisoner interviewed by this writer over the past few months has claimed otherwise.

Asked if prisoners are filing Civil Action complaints against officers regarding these incidents, “They’re scared,” says M in Kilby.

“If you file a complaint on … a guard, next time [that guard] see you, you’ll be deep off in the hole somewhere. Nobody’ll be able to see you. Your mail get took. It’ll come up, and ain’t nobody got it. You know. There’s all kinds of issues like that,” M explains. 

Even for an average prisoner, one who is not in trouble or singled out more than most others for anything, it’s already “hard to even get mail to go out on the right time. My wife’ll receive mail six, seven days, sometimes a week or two later. It’s like – I don’t know – if they feel like you’ve got something like that going on, that you’re trying to report them or something, or write something, that mail will never leave. It’ll be disregarded,” he says. 

“Like, if I wanted to write the news on what’s going on, and actually head a letter to a news place, that’ll never get done, so I’d have to head it to someone in my family, and let them send it,” he says. 

“You’ll be so deep in the hole” for reporting misconduct and other problems in the prison, he adds, “that you’ll be wondering what it’s for. Like I said, they’ll come up in here, and they came for you, but they’ll make it look like they’re having to shake you down. And they tell you, ‘You’re comin with me,’ and then you’re deep off in the hole somewhere.” 

“The hole” refers to solitary confinement.

Samantha Rose writes in the ADOC’s email response, “the ADOC unequivocally has zero tolerance for violence within its facilities, including excessive use-of-force by staff. If an inmate alleges excessive use-of-force by a staff member, we will investigate this issue as we do with all allegations we receive. If it is determined that law enforcement or corrective action is warranted, I assure you the Department will respond appropriately.” But the ADOC’s email does not answer HTR’s inquiry as to whether the Department is aware that many prisoners who are assaulted or harassed by staff do not file complaints due to fear of retaliation.

Discussing Kilby’s living conditions, both in general and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, M begins, “Oh Lord, that [coronavirus] has been in here, man. We wear masks daily and everything, but, shoot, I’ve been here since last year. So, ain’t no way I’ve been out to get it. So, we know who brings it in: our [prison’s] employees. [Kilby’s] got one dorm down here I know is for coronavirus.”

The ADOC has said in past emails to HTR that it will not disclose where prisoners who are ill have been isolated in any of its prisons.

M estimates that 40 to 50 prisoners who are sick have been isolated to that dorm. He says he knows of at least four prisoners who have died of COVID-19 so far in Kilby. 

“If you get sick in here, you’re just that. You’re just sick,” he explains. Some “probably died in a local hospital or something. I ain’t got no dates. I just know of at least four,” he explains. 

Asked about the sanitary conditions of the prisons, and which ways prisoners are most likely to contract the virus, M answers, “Oh, it ain’t sanitary, man. I know I’ll catch it. Yeah, I know I’ll catch it. It’s just a matter of time.” For example, M says there are no cleaning or sanitation products near the phones with which prisoners could clean the phones in between each other’s calls. 

All sources incarcerated in Ventress Prison have echoed this and other phone problems, and prisoners and their families express concern over the increased demands on the phones, especially as visitations from the outside world are not allowed due to the pandemic, and they worry that prisoners’ primary way of keeping in touch is also an easy way to contract the virus.

M further describes the phones in Kilby. 

“We got 10 phones here on the wall, 10 people on all of em. As soon as they get off, 10 more come. All I can say you can do [to clean the phones] is take your shirt and wipe the ends off, and keep going,” he says. He says the lines stay this long until 10 p.m. 

M notes that understaffing is one of many problems caused by overcrowding, and worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s like one officer to about 500 inmates. Now, you do the math on that,” he says. 

“So, it’s really messed up. You know. And it’s not messed up more than the other prisons,” he adds. 

Asked if he knows Kilby’s total current population, M replies, “That’s the problem. You don’t know. There was an intake place right here in Kilby, and you actually wouldn’t be here that long – [Kilby] is like an in and out to your other camp, or whatever – but, since the coronavirus been here, they’ve been not transporting.” 

(See the ADOC’s monthly reports on the number of prisoners and beds in each facility here. The most recent report is on May, as of this writing.)

M says more prisoners are going into Kilby than out during the pandemic, which prisoners in Ventress have also said. 

Asked for comment on whether more people have been put in prison or released since March, and to an inquiry on whether more prisoners have been transferred into or out of Ventress and Kilby, Rose writes 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 Kilby Correctional Facility. We do not disclose when, where, or how many transfers occur between our facilities as this information compromises security.”

Asked how the restriction on visitations has impacted him and other prisoners and their families, especially as the rest of the State has reopened while the lockdowns and restrictions on the prisons have remained in place, he replies, “I haven’t seen my family since January … Ah, man. I got a newborn, man. I’ve been wanting to see him, play with him, have my family keep their eyes on me. And all I can do is talk on this phone.” 

M also says the phones in Kilby are supposed to be available until around midnight during the pandemic, but that officers in Kilby have recently been ending phone time an hour or two early each night. “So, they’ll take that privilege [away] on their own,” he says. 

The ADOC’s email response for comment on this article does not address HTR‘s inquiry as to whether the ADOC is aware of officers cutting phone time short on any evenings in Kilby recent weeks or months.

Elaborating on further problems caused by the overcrowding, T says, “Psh, man, it’s like a sardine can in here, with no air.”

Describing the conditions of the dorms, he continues, “It’s like you’re walking down the street in the middle of New York … trash everywhere.” 

Asked what kind of trash, he replies, “Like, whatever stuff didn’t make it to the trash can, cigarette butts, bathrooms ain’t ever cleaned up. They’ve been threatenin us to clean up now, because they know somebody’s about to come through here,” presumably to investigate or inspect the prison. 

M describes the constant work that goes into keeping the toilets clean, which is done by unpaid prisoners. There are simply “too many people. As soon as you clean it up, in the next hour or so, it’ll look like that again, because there’s a lot of folks in here. Some folks don’t like to clean up. Some got cleaning skills. Some don’t like to clean up, don’t care about little stuff.” 

M was incarcerated once before, also in Alabama, many years ago. Asked how the prison conditions compare between his previous and current sentences, “It done got worse,” he says, and repeats, “It done got worser.” 

His first time incarcerated was around 15 years ago, he says, “and the [officers] were still doing it then. It just got worser. I’m talkin bout worse,” he repeats, “and the inmates are worser too.” 

He adds: “In the prison, we’re like – we’re like, it’s already a graveyard in here, and you’re just waitin on your time to be laid down to rest.” 

M also notes that it’s “way more crowded” this time than last time he was incarcerated, because “they ain’t lettin nobody go. So, you think of where everybody’s at.” 

M continues on the current overcrowding and living conditions. “Shoot, it’s overcrowded. They ain’t lettin nobody go. They ain’t givin nobody no breaks. Like, the feds, they let their … non-violent cases go. I don’t know why the governor of Alabama wouldn’t let hers go – you know – due to the virus. I’d rather be at home with my family right now. I don’t have long. I’ve got like, possibly, 20 months left, probably less than that … But at the same time, they ain’t even pushin that issue to even let nobody go. It’s like we – like we’re here making them money … That’s what it feels like,” says M. 

“We’re their crop, man,” he adds. 

“As long as they keep us here, man, they get money … from the government, and wherever else they get money from, because some of them ain’t servin no purpose with being still here. There should be alternative programs, like, for people to go to and generate money in the county, or somethin like that, instead of just bein – just being a bed number. That’s all you is. Yeah. I ain’t served no purpose since I’ve been here. I’m just here. I’m up on a Judge’s order, but I really wish the Governor would say something about releasing all nonviolent inmates, and especially the ones that are ordered by the Judge – you know – and it’d help the crowding that’s around here,” he explains. 

But, in M’s view, the Governor, the Parole Board, and others in charge “ain’t sayin nothin, man. There’s probably people here [who violated probation] with dirty urine that are back. There’s people in here with way under a year left … They should be gone. Help them into society, and get em straight, but all you’re doing is, when it’s your time to go, then they don’t know nothin. They just get back out there and do whatever they did to come back, instead of gettin them off into something startin them off in the free world. Like, ‘We’re going to take you to this halfway house, and these folks are going to help you get a job, and this and that, and set a stage for you,’” he says. 

The discussion with M is nearing the end, but doesn’t feel over. This writer and this prisoner feel something missing, something else to get at, talked out and heard. 

M continues: “It’s way deeper than some of the topics that you’re writing on. The overcrowding and how the living conditions is, man, they know all that. They know these are old prisons. They know that. Man, it’s mostly – the problem is: Why ain’t you releasing them?” 

In a previous story on Ventress, a prisoner there noted that the only solution to overcrowded prisons is releasing people.

Director of Communications at the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, Terry Abbott, responds to an email inquiry for this article in early August, writing that the board has paroled only “278 inmates in 2020. Parole decisions are not based on whether there is prison overcrowding. The board has no legal authority to grant paroles based on the size of the prison population. Parole decisions are based on whether someone can be safely released into the community.”

Alabama Governor Kay Ivee’s Press Office has not responded to request for comment on whether the Governor plans to release nonviolent prisoners, and also has not responded to a request for comment on whether there is any way to implement social distancing in the State’s prisons, and solve other problems related to overcrowding, other than releasing prisoners. The Governor’s Press Office also does not answer an email inquiry as to why the State has not released more prisoners during the pandemic. 

“Man,” M continues, “if you look at the number of people incarcerated, and look at the number of people that’s violent – murder, rape, kidnapping – all the offenders that’s violent, that these prisons are supposed to hold … You ain’t supposed to be holding these people in here on nonviolent crimes that ain’t impacting the community, getting taxpayer’s money to hold these folks. You’re supposed to be putting these folks somewhere to rehabilitate them into something that’s going to help them proceed in life, not just, every time you think about it, send them down here.”

(Prisoners interviewed by HTR in various regions of Alabama describe prison as “down here,” or “down in prison.”)

M explains that understanding the problems related to and posed by mass incarceration, both during the pandemic and generally, “has got to start with the Governor, down to the Parole Board, down to the judges that ain’t going by the guidelines of sending folks to prison, all of that, then you – once you get past all that – then you jump in the prison system and let them know how bad – see, if everybody in here was in here on a violent case, maybe it wouldn’t matter about how you have shown them some obedience, or you put your hands on them, or something like that, but you got folks up in here that got real families, and that ain’t did nothing.” 

He pauses, then continues. “So, you understand what I’m saying? So, it’s way deeper than just overcrowding, and the living conditions, or – it’s – it goes further before you get down to how we’re living in here. It’s got to start with who puts these folks here. Who puts these folks here? And who’s over releasing these folks?” he says.  

“It’s overcrowded. They could have numbered it out, and said, ‘Okay, all these nonviolents, we’re gonna make the county do something to em where they can rehabilitate their self, give them a program, offer them jobs, stuff like that, to get them back started in society, instead of just, ‘Okay, we’re going to just crowd up our prisons,’” he explains. 

M says he believes prisons should be for the most violent offenders. Otherwise, the human and economic costs are both too high.

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