When Alabama’s Governor, Robert Bentley, signed the Prison Reform Bill in May 2015, most observers focused on sentencing reform, prison overcrowding, recidivism, and the possibility of spending billions of dollars to construct new prisons across the state.
With the public’s attention focused on these broad issues, the inner workings of criminal justice reform continued, including the efforts to improve inmate quality-of-life inside prisons, the yeoman’s work of family-support groups, and the struggle to improve the support systems given to prisoners upon reentry.
This series examines the issues that are often overlooked by the mainstream media, the efforts that go on behind the scenes, in the shadows of the system.
In order to understand the current push for prison reform in Alabama, you have to go back to the late 1990’s when sentencing reform began as a baseline for reforming prisons.
Lawmakers and judges such as Joseph Colquitt, Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, realized things had to change. In 2000, Colquitt and others began work on Alabama’s sentencing guidelines in an effort to rewind the detrimental impact the existing laws were having on the criminal justice system. Prisons across Alabama were reaching critical occupancy levels and forming the Alabama Sentencing Commission was seen as necessary to help remedy the growing issue.
The commission’s first major act was the establishment of the Alabama Sentencing Reform Act of 2003. The act was supposed to help “manage the criminal justice system in the manner best able to protect public safety and make the most effective and efficient use of correctional resources.” In other words, The Alabama Sentencing Commission’s way of best resolving high incarceration rates and prison overcrowding issues was rewriting and restructuring the state’s sentencing guidelines related to nonviolent crimes such as drug and property crimes. Most of the guidelines were voluntary up until 2013, and from then on, judges had to consider the mandatory guidelines.
Colquitt said the guidelines ask judges to make responsible decisions from behind the bench in order to use the state’s limited resources wisely and steer the right people into prison and others out. Judges have to ask themselves who deserves leniency and who does not.
A defendant’s criminal record plays a part in sentencing, in addition to the nature of the crime. Outside of the guidelines, Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act can lead to a life sentence based on a person’s criminal history. There’s nothing the sentencing commission can do about those previously established laws. An important note is the habitual offender act only applies to multiple felony convictions.
The Alabama Sentencing Commission has provided judges with drug, property and personal worksheets in order to streamline the integration of the mandatory guidelines. The worksheets use a numbering system where questions and answers are given a numerical value. Once all the numbers on the worksheet are added up, the total value suggests either prison or no prison and length of sentence.
Judge Brian Howell from Calhoun County said judges have one overriding worry when it comes to leniency in the new guidelines: “If I let them out, are they going to do something worse?”
But he said people have to remember most defendants are already on bond anyway. They are walking free before their court date, so if they were going to do something, they probably would regardless, he said. Howell said it’s a constant adjustment for judges trying to apply all the new guidelines and updates that have been implemented in the past few years.
It’s important to keep in mind that some defendants appeal if they are sentenced outside of the guidelines. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles reviews appeals, evaluates worksheets for the specific case and makes decisions accordingly. A defendant’s fate does not depend on one single judge or jury. In the state of Alabama a single appeal could take several months to several years depending on the severity of the case.
Howell said there has been some confusion between attorneys and judges because the problem is some voluntary guidelines were treated differently across the state and uniformity would help everyone involved. He said, “If we’re going to use them, I wish they were all mandatory.” Making all the nonviolent sentencing guidelines mandatory would make it so that no matter if a defendant was in Mobile or Huntsville they could expect the same ruling.
For the most part, Alabama judges have been compliant with the new guidelines both voluntary and mandatory, decreasing the number of people sentenced to prison and the total amount of time spent in prison for a single crime. Judges have said the pushback against the new sentencing guidelines has come mainly from the state’s prosecutors.
Former Tuscaloosa County District Attorney, Lyn Head, said the mandatory guidelines approved in the past few years remove too much discretion from judges.
“Each case and defendant is specific, and the judge ought to have the discretion to sentence them without following a formula, which on application, is arbitrary,” she said. “Repeated recidivism, which in some cases, has resulted in defendants who ‘graduated’ to violent offenses. This is a severe public safety problem and is the reason for the ADAA’s (Alabama District Attorney Association) objection to the mandatory sentencing guidelines and the sentencing guidelines in general.”
Howell said district attorneys seem to be pushing back more compared to judges, but it might just be because they have a louder public voice. He said it is a possibility that even if judges didn’t approve of the guidelines, they might be cautious to speak out because they have to worry about re-election. Alabama judgeships are cyclical and voted on by each county that the judge serves.
But the bigger reason judges may be hesitant is the Alabama Judicial System’s Canon of Ethics, which restricts judges from voicing opinions that could insinuate that they would rule one way or another in any case. An example of a guideline listed in the ethical standards for judges is; “He should be unswayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism.”
Judge Jody Bishop from Baldwin County has been on the bench for 18 years in the municipal, district and circuit courts. Bishop said the guidelines, while far from perfect, are necessary in the state.
“Do I always agree with it? No,” he said. “But I can certainly understand why it’s being implemented.”
While the Alabama Sentencing Commission has drafted updated guidelines related to nonviolent crimes, the state legislature retained the power to establish law when it comes to cases involving violent crimes. The Alabama Legislature, for primarily political reasons according to Colquitt, still asks the Alabama Sentencing Commission for input on violent crime sentencing guidelines, but it publishes them separately. Having this system in place ensures that the legislature looks tough on crime in the eyes of the public.
Colquitt said the legislature wants to act on things of real concern to the public because it’s political. On the other hand, they want the sentencing commission to write reasonable sentencing limits in guidelines because they don’t want to take the heat for being moderate.
Politics has silenced many Alabama leaders when it comes to sentencing reform because they want to keep up a good image in the public eye.
In an article from the Columbia Law Review, “Lessons of a Sentencing Reformer from the Deep South,” sentencing commission member Bill Pryor wrote, “As a politician, I informed voters that the sentencing commission would enable Alabama to replace its supposedly tough on crime policies with policies that are, in fact, smart on crime.”
Pryor is a former Alabama attorney general who has served since 2005 as a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. He’s also a Commissioner on the United States Sentencing Commission.
As of now, Alabama is the only state in the country where there are two completely separate systems for constructing sentencing guidelines, one for violent crimes and one for non-violent cases. Colquitt said to his knowledge there is no other commission in the United States with the same model or one that has the power to write law.
Between 1973 and 2003, the inmate population of Alabama increased 600 percent while the census population of Alabama increased 30 percent. “Without change,” Pryor wrote, “there was no end in sight.”
In 2013, Alabama reported to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that for every 100,000 residents, 647 are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections. That figure is 64 percent higher than the national average, according to the National Institute of Corrections. In February 2015, the Alabama Department of Corrections held 24,678 prisoners inside facilities built to only house 13,318 at maximum. Colquitt said the Alabama Department of Corrections is becoming more like a department of detention.
Huntsville attorney Logan Manthey said, “I think there should be more discretion given to judges moving forward to have a more just system. Furthermore, some of the crimes that land people in jail do not really need to be in there. They need counseling or therapy.” Drug offenders make up a large amount of repeat offenders because they are not assisted properly in improving their lifestyle choices.
With the new sentencing guidelines, judges have the opportunity to order probation in lieu of prison time, but the state budget limits resources such as rehabilitation programs and counseling.
Bennet Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said, “There are still countries in the state of Alabama that do not have any accredited drug treatment, substance abuse treatment or mental health services.” He said it’s a huge impediment on the criminal justice system. Places like Tuscaloosa and Jefferson County have accredited services available but many more rural places in Alabama don’t.
If these programs were more readily available, it is possible that recidivism rates across Alabama would decrease dramatically. Programs to decrease recidivism would cost more upfront than throwing a defendant in jail, but over time these programs could save taxpayer money ten fold by helping keep people from returning to the criminal justice system.
Substance abuse and mental illness has to be addressed or the cycle of recidivism continues in those individuals.
Head said, “These programs look at the ‘whole’ defendant to address emotional concerns, teach them financial, community, and family values that they may not have had the ability to learn in their background environment, teach them a vocation in which they are truly interested and help them with job opportunities, so that this potential, in the case of diversion, repeat offender or defendant coming out of prison actually has the opportunity to become a successful, taxpaying contributor to society.”
The lack of rehabilitation centers, counseling and therapy is only adding to the fact that Alabama is facing a prison-overcrowding problem that might eventually lead to federal interference if not addressed properly and in a fairly short amount of time. A majority of Alabama’s issues begin in the courtroom. The way in which judges enforce the new sentencing guidelines, written by the Alabama Sentencing Commission and the state legislature, have the potential to make or break the system.
Alabama Sentencing Commission member, Sen. Cam Ward, of Shelby County said, “The biggest issue going forward is how we deal with post-sentencing programs to combat recidivism such as technical violator laws, and post-incarceration sanctions.” He said, “While we have 18% fewer people going to prison than we had going in just three years ago, we still have not seen a significant decrease in the prison population.”
In May 2015, Gov. Bentley signed a bill sponsored by Ward that is supposed to decrease the Alabama prison population by over 4,000 in the next five years. That figure is equivalent to 195 percent to 162 percent of capacity between 2016 and 2021. The bill created a new low level felony class, Class D. It reduces punishments for some property and drug crimes. The bill passed the House on a 100 to 5 vote and the Senate concurred on a 27 to 0 vote.
Ward said the bill was a single step on the way to prison reform in Alabama, not the final solution. In a statement before the Alabama House of Representatives, the governor agreed.
“The first step was recognizing that our criminal justice system needed reform,” he said. “A cursory glance provided ample evidence of the problems facing the state and the need for action.”
The leading organization responsible for proposing prison reform bills in Alabama is the Prison Reform Task Force, created in February 2014 and led by Ward. It is made up of around 30 state policymakers and professionals that have spent time in Alabama’s criminal justice system. The task force’s main objective was to review the data collected by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
With the results in mind, the organization was asked to formulate policy changes that would potentially decrease prison overcrowding and increase public safety. According to the Prison Reform Task Force’s 2015 final report, five issues were found to negatively affect the prison system and lead to overcrowding. The topics are a significant number of people in prison were in prison due to violating their probation, two thirds of people in Alabama prisons committed drug or property crimes, Alabama parole boards lacked structured decision making standards, and the overwhelming number of cases brought before the parole board per year.
The task force presented solutions for each issue that they believe lead to the overcrowding issue in prisons across the state. Firstly, they recommend that individuals who break parole guidelines should only be in prison for a short period of time followed by a longer supervised period in order to free up bed spaces. In line with the Alabama Sentencing Commission, the task force also backed the idea of reclassifying non-violent drug and property crime offenses so that perpetrators would spend less time behind bars for these type felonies. Also, following alongside the sentencing commission, they asked for structured guidelines for the Alabama Parole Board. Lastly, the task force asked the state to hire administrative assistants for the parole board members. The hearings officers would review nonviolent cases and make decisions in order to reduce the number of cases that each parole board member reviews.
The overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons has gone on for so long, the state is at a crossroads.
Howell said the state basically has two choices: amend the sentencing laws or build more prisons. Howell said the sentencing guidelines are a step in the right direction but they will not produce an immediate return. “It’s like turning a battleship around; we’re trying.”
Scroll through the chart to examine the extent to which each prison location is overcrowded.
The policy options presented by the task force would help to relieve the overcrowding issue without straining the state’s already slim operating budget. The 2016 General Fund budget now has $16 million allocated to prison reform. Additionally, the state is attempting to raise $800 million in public bonds for the construction of four new prisons.
The consensus among the members of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, as well as attorneys and judges across the state, is that it will take time in order to see if the sentencing changes have a positive impact on the criminal justice system.
As commission member Pryor wrote in the [whatever journal it was], “sentencing reform takes patience, commitment, and data. The Alabama experience of chronic prison overcrowding shows that problems created over decades cannot be solved hastily or with temporary committees or task forces. Years of work on data-driven recommendations and research of sentencing practices are necessary to create lasting sentencing policies that allow fiscal planning and reliability for both officials in the sentencing system and policymakers in the legislative and judicial branches.”
With the combination of the new sentencing guidelines and the prison reform bills being drafted and passed, change should be on the way. But time is a resource that the state might be running out of. Alabama has been facing these issues for years. Pryor said, “When I became the attorney general of Alabama in 1997, ‘crisis’ was the only word that could fairly describe the condition of the criminal justice system of my state.” Now, almost twenty years later, Alabama is still in the same crisis situation.
In the center of the court, 12 in yellow and nine in blue circled together hand-in-hand for a moment of silence. A silence so piercing, and a sight so surreal, one would almost forget they were surrounded by convicts.
Inmates were scattered around the court, ready to watch their Old Timer’s league in yellow jerseys face the ones in blue, the ones who rode in on the corrections van from Bullock Correctional Facility.
The announcer introduced the teams.
“For the home team, we have number 32, my boy Tre, rocking those Air Force 1’s and that arm sleeve like he’s Allen Iverson or something.”
Tipoff was underway and Madison Brown III, known as “Tre”, took it straight to the basket for Elmore. He had scored 25 points in their 40-36 loss at Bullock the week before. They were out for revenge.
“Whoever’s driving the blue Lexus, you left your lights on,” the announcer joked as Elmore led 13-11 at the half.
The second 20-minute half was underway, and Warden Leon Forniss walked onto the yard. He watched his team pull away with a win, 35-32.
Tre had 15 points, and it was Elmore who would have bragging rights now, until they met again.
According to Australian researcher Emma Sherry, prison programs help inmates in prisons all across the country practice participation, social inclusion, setting goals, self control and taking responsibility for their actions.
All of those things are said to lead to rehabilitation, better health and better well-being, and inmate management; the three main goals of sports and recreation in prison.
The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) mandates sports and recreation in Administration Regulation 447 for all of the state’s correctional institutions. The types of sports the inmates can play are also mandated. The program has to be voluntary, but it has to be accessible to all inmates.
With a new $15,000 court that was finished in July, inmates are eager to get on the paint. The freshly paved court sits in the center of the camp. It’s as if it was planned that way, to beat at the heart.
The labor for the new basketball court was done by about 20 inmates, with the only expenses coming from concrete costs. The new court took the place of an old asphalt court, put on the yard about 26 years ago. Before that, inmates played on dirt.
For Bullock, their basketball court sits in a gym.
Not only do inmates get to compete against other inmates inside Elmore’s walls, but they have the opportunity to try out for the institution’s travel team and compete at and against inmates in other institutions. There are three different leagues for basketball at Elmore, a lower competition league called the ABA league, an NBA league and Old Timer’s league for ages 35 and up.
Before an inmate can travel for a game, they must be six months disciplinary free, and a background check must be done to check for enemies at the prison they are traveling to. If an enemy is found at the opposing camp, the inmate is denied his rights to travel that day.
When each inmate on the team has been approved by the Warden to travel, they are shackled and handcuffed, and pile into a 15 passenger van. The shackles and handcuffs do not come off until they are securely in the facility of their opponent that day.
Elmore travels to Draper Correctional Facility, Staton Correctional Facility, a mile up the road to Kilby Correctional Facility and of course to Bullock.
“Here, sports are how we communicate, and how we celebrate being in our predicament,” Elmore Correctional Facility inmate Johnny Street said. “We are limited to some things, but sports are our chance to go out and be all we can be.”
Street plays on the Old Timer’s team.
Charleston George thought his sports career ended back in 1990. That’s when he hung up his Selma University basketball jersey for the last time. But he was wrong.
He was working one day on the prison yard when his role in the prison world changed.
Officer Tyrone Montgomery, the sports activity director approached him. According to Montgomery, God had told him that George was an excellent choice for the commissioner job. But the 1987 Wetumpka High School grad and basketball star knew nothing about being a commissioner.
Born in 1968, George is now 47 years-old. He was put behind bars on December 18, 2003. He was 34. George is serving a 25-year sentence for rape in the first degree.
When he first began life behind the fence, he was angry. He was vulgar. He believed he was wrongfully convicted, and that his life was ruined forever. He back-talked prison guards and smarted off to those in charge. He received several disciplinaries for fighting and disrespecting officers.
But those things he said he now regrets.
George’s role has changed over the 12 years and a handful of months he has served in the prison. He is now a highly respected and trusted member of Elmore Correctional Facility, not only as the sports commissioner, but also as a minister at “The Covenant House,” Elmore’s chapel.
“I see a lot of young men that have the same behavior problem that I had,” George said. “I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. You have some that respect me for my position, and you have some that don’t, but at the end of the day they know they can come and talk to me, and they know that it doesn’t have to be about sports.”
Prison sports have helped George see himself more positively—as a winner. He’s not alone.
“Whether its basketball or another program, you have to start here,” Elmore inmate Kerry Moss said. “You can’t get out and expect to start doing things that are going to be prosperous and keep you out there if you don’t do them in here.”
George has many duties as sports commissioner, from handing out team contract forms to inmates in all of the dorms, to making out the game schedules. He even has to play his fellow inmates from time-to-time, because according to him, everyone thinks if they beat the commissioner they have beaten the best.
“That’s the main thing for me, to not see people give up,” George said. “When I see people win when they have given up, I don’t say much from where I’m at, but I am so joyous in my heart because most of us in here have failed, and to know we can succeed is a blessing.”
In spring of 2013, the sports activity director position was handed down to Clifford Williams. And no one at Elmore would argue that Sergeant Williams is one of the most popular guys in the camp.
“Hey Sergeant Williams,” said an inmate watching horseshoes in the yard.
“How’s it going son? How’s that arm healing up?” George said.
“I should be back on the field in no time,” the inmate said.
It’s tough for Sergeant Williams to make it from one side of the yard to the other without a handful of inmates wanting to stop him for a chat.
“I am still a correctional officer, but with my position of sports activity director, I try and change my behavior to a certain degree,” Williams said. “I want the inmates to find me approachable so that they will want to participate in the various sports activities we do around here.”
Edward Fleming, an inmate serving 15 years for kidnapping to the first degree, had been spending most of his time hanging around Commissioner George and Officer Williams, so they decided to bring him on board. He has now been Co-Commissioner of the sports program for the program for two years.
When Williams took on the director’s role, altercations on the fields and courts were too common. With the help of George and Fleming, and the influence they have on the other inmates, there has not been any major altercations in over two and a half years.
At Elmore, prison officials maintain a no-nonsense toward athletics. If there is a squabble on the court, or a conflict on the field, the inmates involved are forced to throw in their towels for the remainder of the season.
“If they fight out here on this football field, or in any sport that we play, they are pretty much done for the season,” Williams said. “We will try them again next year.”
Sergeant Williams is supervised by a security captain, who makes sure all the different recreational activities are accessible to all inmates. Williams’ job is to make sure things are running smoothly and all guidelines are being followed, but the program is predominately run by inmates.
Inmates set out equipment before games and put everything away after. Inmates referee the matches, while others keep score. Some inmates are even the head coaches of teams. It takes a lot of work from the inmates to keep the program afloat, but those responsibilities are ones they don’t seem to mind having.
According to Williams, many of the inmates in Elmore Correctional Facility are serving long-term sentences, and by having that many inmates in an overcrowded Alabama prison long-term, they desperately need an outlet. The sports program is that outlet.
Elmore Correctional Facility has a football field that is also used for soccer, a volleyball court, horseshoe pits, where a tournament is played every Saturday, a basketball court and an outdoor weight facility.
For older inmates, there are barrels set up for softball toss. They can also play chess, checkers, dominoes and scrabble, and monthly tournaments are held for each.
There are several things that can prohibit sports and recreation on any given day in the camp. Security could close down the yard for various reasons. The weather also has to be permitting. Inmates pray for sunny days and an open yard.
In the fall, just like on the outside, it’s football season. Flag-football season starts when NCAA football starts, but before the season takes way, the team contracts are issued out by George. Inmates pick their own teams, their head coach and assistant coach, and their team names. Team names range from Alabama, LSU, Florida and Auburn. There even is an Ohio State team that is coached by an inmate from Ohio.
These teams are hyped up even more after watching their NCAA team win in the packed-out TV room on college football Saturday’s.
This past year, the prison followed college football standards and hosted a four-team playoff in January.
The winner of the flag football four-team playoff not only gets a year to talk smack, but they are fed a special meal in the chow hall, and are given a championship plaque to display in their dorm.
Surprisingly, many of the inmates involved in prison sports did not participate in organized sports before coming into the system. Some of them do not know the rules to all the different sports, and most of them have never been a part of a team.
“I stereotyped people for a long time in here, but sports bring us all together; the Mexicans, the blacks, the whites,” Street said. “It’s a beautiful thing inside these walls.”
The sports director can not mandate that inmates participate. That’s where the commissioner and co-commissioner come in, encouraging their fellow inmates to participate.
The sports activity director is designated by the Warden and is responsible for developing a comprehensive recreation program that includes leisure time activities of interest to the inmates. The activities must be suitable to a variety of skills and mental levels. Inmates can participate actively or passively in these programs.
However, the state does not fund sports or recreation inside prison walls. It is approved by the Alabama Department of Corrections that each institution establishes an inmate fund. The inmate fund comes from money put aside out of each purchase made by the inmates at the canteen—the prison store.
“Our job is to be sure that we protect the public, we incarcerate those who have been convicted of felonies in a safe, secure and humane environment,” ADOC’s Public Information Director Bob Horton said. “We don’t have the funds to pay for these additional programs, but through the inmates’ fund we are able to have these type of programs in the prison system.”
The ADOC designates what the funds can be used for. The inmate fund is generally used for things like televisions, jerseys, exercise equipment, yard-line markers and scoreboards. Recently for Elmore Correctional Facility, it was used for the new basketball court.
The sports activity director is responsible for keeping an equipment inventory, and for following protocol for ordering new equipment.
Sports and recreation programs are not the only programs offered inside prison walls. GED classes are offered in all institutions, as well as vocational schooling. Recreation activities must not interfere with work, academics or vocational programs.
“We have these programs in place to help reform, to help rehabilitate inmates so they wont recidivate and hopefully will be productive citizens when they return back to society and are released from prison,” Horton said.
An annual program evaluation of the inmate recreation and leisure activities will be prepared by the Recreation Director. The report will disclose of the major accomplishments of the year, the major problems that were encountered, recommendations or actions that were taken to solve the major problems, and the goals and objectives that are put in place for the upcoming year. The annual program report will also list an itemized summary of the expenditures used across the program for the year.
“The sports program is also another part of our mission, and that is to rehabilitate the inmates,” Horton said. “And through the participation in the sports program, it helps with that rehabilitation because it gives them leadership positions and responsibilities within the program and it leads to improvement in their behavior, which leads to their release from the prison system.”
George’s leadership role has most certainly changed his behavior for the better. It has helped change others’ as well.
“We have a high percentage of guys that their behavior changes for the better, and I praise God for that, because if it wasn’t for that I could just throw my hands up and go do my own thing,” George said.
“Most of these guys will go play basketball, go take a shower and then they will go in a lay down and go to sleep. They will be so tired they do not have the strength to get into any mischief.”
At the end of the basketball season, there will be a tournament for Kilby, Staton, Bullock and Elmore. Last year, Elmore took home second place.
“Hopefully this year we can bring it home to Elmore,” Street said.
Two church vans scurried along U.S. Hwy 231. One van had Gardendale First Baptist Church etched on the back and side of it. The vehicles and the passengers it carried traveled all from Birmingham, Ala. The drivers pulled the loaded vans over on the side of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, not to stop to relieve passengers after the distant trip but to unload them.
Everyone from toddlers to adults stepped out of the van. One young boy ran from the grasp of his grandmother and ran toward a SpongeBob Squarepants statue that might have been left standing on the grounds of the facility from a prior family event. A little girl dressed in bright colors waited with her two older brothers who chose to drive to the prison. Some younger children were leading older individuals to the facility’s security gate, as if they had frequented the roadside prison facility. In fact, they were all too accustomed to the prison and the trips there.
An organization called Aid to Inmate Mothers [AIM], which provides services to incarcerated women and their children, was responsible for the bus load of people. AIM provides monthly visits for children to see their mothers behind bars. The Montgomery-based organization was established in 1987, and its executive director, Carol Potok has been helping make the visits possible for 18 years. She said the visits mean a lot to the children.
“It’s such a traumatic kind of separation because some of the women did have custody of their children,” Potok said. “One day you’re living with your mom, and now you’re living with your grandmother and at a different school away from your friends.”
Makarios Carter, 18, wheeled in a cart of art supplies, board games like Monopoly, bright green cupcakes, Doritos, bread and lunch meat the families would later devour during the three-hour stay in the prison’s chapel. He and his younger brother Andre Carter greeted Potok as if they had known her for years. Potok said she and AIM practically raised the brothers- who have received help from AIM since they were babies-with help from their grandmother and mother.
The Carter family’s lives flipped upside down in November 1996. Their mother, Triona Carter, and her friends went out to a movie theater. According to the Carter V. State case, her boyfriend and a friend were involved in a fight with three other people after Carter’s boyfriend’s car bumped into the vehicle the other three individuals were in. The male driver of the car exited his vehicle and he and her boyfriend began to fight. Carter became involved in the altercation, and made a life-changing decision when she picked up a 9 mm pistol on the ground near her. She fired the gun, shooting and killing the man who was fighting her best friend. She shot and wounded her boyfriend. She was arrested and charged with intentional and provocation manslaughter for the crimes. During that time, the then 19-year-old was pregnant with her son, Makarios. She spent two years in a county jail, where she made bond, but Carter was sent to Tutwiler in 1999 to serve her time. She said she deeply regrets what happened, and said she was scared at the time.
“My friend was shot,” Carter said. “Two people died over something that could have been avoided.
Since her sentence, Carter’s mother, Cathy Carter, has taken her grandsons into her home, as if they were her own children she birthed into the world. The 38-year-old said she is grateful for the love and support her family and AIM has given her.
“I’m glad I have a family that’s well taken care of,” she said. “My oldest son just graduated and he will start college in January. I love AIM. They have been a blessing to my family. They spoil my children to death. If it wasn’t for AIM I wouldn’t have the bond I have with my family.”
On this afternoon, 16-year-old Andre lay in his mother’s lap as she stroked his back.
Incarceration might be hard for some families to deal with, as they might go through a grieving process which makes it hard for families to move on, said University of Alabama Human Environmental Sciences instructor Tricia Witte.
“Without something permanent like death, families are on the fence with whether to move on or stay connected,” she said. “This person is still living, but not accessible. This makes families stagnant in the grieving process.”
Witte said inmates might feel a sense of uncertainty and loss of control because they no longer have access to their family members.
Cathy Carter recalled the day she got word of her daughter’s actions that November in 1996.
“Life stopped,” she said. It felt like I was in a dream. I feel like I’m still dreaming and I can’t wake up. You feel like it won’t happen to you, especially when you’re doing all the right things.”
From that day forward, Cathy Carter said she knew she had to step up and take care of her grandsons. Initially, when the brothers were in their grandmother’s custody, she had a hard time seeking appropriate childcare for the boys while she worked at the Sheraton Hotel and later for the City of Birmingham Public Works. The boys’ godfather cared for them, while Carter worked, she said.
“Financially, I was doing OK, but I needed someone to keep them. God brought people in my life that helped,” she said. “He [the brothers’ godfather] took a lot of pressure off me by taking them places and spoiling them rotten.”
One thing is for sure, Carter said: She draws a distinct line between her being the brothers’ grandmother and her daughter being their mother.
“I raised them as mine. I let them know I’m not their mother,” she said. “They know she’s the mother and I’m the grandmother. I didn’t take that away from them.”
Nearly 30,000 people are serving time in the state’s prisons, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. Many of these people are leaving families and the baggage they carried throughout their lives in the hands of family members and close friends. Family members are often left with the burden of financial and emotional demands, among other struggles during the incarceration of a loved one.
Seated to the left of Triona Carter — at a nearby table —was another mother who shared a background similar to Carter’s. Tangy James is eight years and six weeks into a 20-year sentence for gunning down a woman after a gambling dispute over $172 in 2005. She said she felt cheated, and wanted her money.
“Money was taken from me,” she said. “Me and another person got into an altercation. I tried to scare them into getting my money, but they ended up getting shot. I’m not a killer. It was never my intention to hurt anybody.”
James’ son, Keavon Odoms, was a little over 5 years old when she entered Tutwiler Prison.
“He’s a good boy. He plays football and baseball. He’s an honor student,” James said. “I’m proud of him because he could’ve went another way.”
Keavon was too shy to speak about how his mother’s imprisonment affected him, but James’ sister, Sonya James, spoke of how overwhelming life has been since her sister has been away.
“I feel a little lonely,” James said. “When I was in trouble, when there were rent problems or anything she was always the first person I turned to.”
Recently, James has been battling transportation issues. She said she needed a part on her car, and she is currently in the process of buying a more reliable vehicle that will get her to and from her destinations. She said she’s glad AIM was able to help her and her nephew be able to visit her sister.
“When I was able to come down here I would visit,” James said. “The car I have now is not reliable enough to come visit her.”
Along with transportation and travel conflicts, families and friends of imprisoned people face economic issues some might not actually know exists. The Federal Communications Commission has been made aware of alarming phone call costs in prisons, and is expected to vote to limit the price of phone calls. James said when her sister calls, she calls directly and she hasn’t accrued any charges. Potok and staff members at AIM have offered courses to inmates on how to manage their phone calls, she said.
AIM is one of several Alabama organizations dedicated to helping families navigate the challenges of life when a loved one is behind bars. Often organizations focus on children, who suddenly face a world without a parent there to drop them off at school, attend their games and events, tuck them in at night, and more.
Healthy You Inc., based in Dothan, focuses on children who are left parent lessor emotionally broken after a prison sentence. In order to reach the children of the imprisoned, the organization begins at the root: mothers. Executive Director Mary Palo said it’s important the organization stretches its resources to mothers.
“One of the reasons we work with the mothers of these children is because when dad goes to jail — generally speaking — mom will have to take care of the babies,” she said. “When mom goes to jail, children wind up with grandparents or family members or foster care. No one’s really tracking these children, and it’s a real concern to us,” said Palo. “We feel it’s part of our challenge to reach these children and teach them they have real value, and they don’t need to feel like throwaways, or feel like they’ve been let down. They don’t have to do the time their parents brought upon themselves. They are not responsible for their parents’ behaviors.”
In Palo’s eyes, children are the invisible and forgotten faces of incarceration, as they are left without resources and hope, she said. The hurt experienced by children of incarceration exists, and no one seems to take note of it, Palo said.
As a way to ensure children will receive proper care and attention, formerly incarcerated mothers are given the opportunity to enlist themselves into Healthy You’s Genesis II Transitional Home for women. The 6-bed maximum transitional home assists women by offering employment opportunities, economic training and various resources in an effort to promote family reunification and successful reentry into the community. Women from all backgrounds participate in the program.
“It’s usually a mix,” Palo said. “That’s just the way it is right now. They all have children who need to be parented. They are learning how to parent their children. Children love their parents, whether they deserve it or not.”
The organization’s efforts have been rewarded in a remarkable way, as one of its former participants now works as resident manager at Healthy You Inc.’s Genesis II transitional home for formerly incarcerated women.
Stacy Hollis was working as a property manager and bookkeeper at a real estate company when she was accused of stealing $12,000 from the company. However, more than the $12,000 was actually missing.
“It was later determined the amount missing was $93,000. I didn’t do it, but I was accused of taking the money,” Hollis said. “I was arrested and charged with first-degree theft of property.”
For four years, Hollis and her lawyer fought the charges against her, but the lawyer who took her case pro bono told her she needed more ammo to win the case. Hollis needed a certified public accountant- someone she could not afford to have on her team. Her attorney dropped the case because he could not continue the defense without the aid of a CPA. Hollis bounced back with a new attorney, but her legal woes were far from over.
“The next attorney was court appointed,” she said. “We were a week away from trial and I found out from him that he is not prepared for the case. He convinced me to change my plea and told me I would only get 2-3 years probation.”
That did not turn out to be the case. Hollis served 18 months. She reported to the Coffee County Jail in New Brockton, Ala. on April 26, 2013, where she stayed until June 4, 2013. The Montgomery Women’s Facility became her home until she was released April 23, 2014.
During her lockup, Hollis said she got in touch with her faith, as she attended church and Bible study classes offered by the prison. Yet, church meetings and worship groups could not ease the constant tug on her heart.
“The most difficult thing about being incarcerated was simply being away from my children,” Hollis said. “That was extremely painful and I think it will always hurt on some level.”
Hollis said the year she spent behind bars divided yet strengthened her family. Her son, then 15, and daughter, then 7 months old, felt the ongoing pain of her absence, as her son was sent to live with his father in Texas. Her daughter stayed with her father, Hollis’ boyfriend.
“It made us stronger,” Hollis said. “It was a difficult time in all our lives. My family visited me regularly and brought my daughter. My son didn’t come visit. It was a decision that he and I made together. My incarceration hurt him deeply and I didn’t want him to see me in that kind of environment. We wrote letters and I called him often. My boyfriend worked out of town a lot so my mom and sister took care of my daughter when he worked. My whole family pulled together and took care of my daughter.”
Family support was something Hollis had that many incarcerated women could only dream about.
“I was very fortunate. A lot of family members send inmates money to put on their account so they can buy the things they need,” she said. “However, I saw a lot of women who didn’t have any family to send them money and it was very difficult on them.”
About an hour and a half away from the prison where Hollis served time, Warden Karla Jones of the Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton, Ala., has observed the significance of visitation and family support within correctional facilities. With nearly 1,500 male offenders under her supervision, Jones has sat in on many visitations.
“Visitation is a privilege to all inmates that abide by the rules,” she said. “I have observed visitation on many occasions and witnessed families sharing memories and just catching up on family activities.”
Excitement and happiness cross the faces of many inmates on that day filled with reunions and memories, Jones said. She said she believes the joy from the inmates derives from the fact some are happy they feel loved and not forgotten. Some inmates might feel saddened because they have embarrassed or disappointed loved ones who in turn might not want to visit them, she said.
Visitations came for Deborah Alexander Alford who used to visit her brother James Alexander in prison after he spent a total of 17 years in and out of different facilities for crimes such as violations of parole and possession of cocaine.
“I visited my brother both times he was incarcerated. I treated him the same as I did when he was not incarcerated. I have gone to 5 different prisons to see him. My first visit was at Ventress which was the S.A.P. program at the time,” she said. “Being frisked and checked was odd. The next time I went was his graduation from the S.A.P. program.”
Like a bridge, Alford said she was the communication link between her family, as she shared information about her brother’s incarceration with their mother who lived in Europe. Although she shared knowledge about Alexander’s incarceration with her mother, Alford said the family never really discussed the issue much. Alford and her mother visited Alexander a few times while he was incarcerated. His lockup took a toll on the whole family.
“She [their mother] had no concept of where he was nor what he faced on a daily basis. She would get depressed after the visit. She didn’t like to talk about it and usually did not with me,” said Alford. “Our dad disowned him earlier when he was 18 so he did not care at all nor did he talk about him. My parents and other family members viewed him as a “black sheep” and mom took it more personally as a parenting flaw. My parents actually blamed each other for James’ incarceration.”
During the times she visited her brother, Alford sad she began to take heed to some of the conditions and issues that come along with visiting an imprisoned loved one. Visitations are different from what they were years ago, as most visits are extremely noisy, Alford said.
“You almost have to yell to speak to each other. The machines take only quarters and sandwiches were $4.25 each and the food is old and sometimes moldy, she said. I always went alone except for Ventress Correctional Facility and I had a friend we shared go with me. Driving the distances was difficult but worth it. For the first time in my life I realized how horrid the conditions were. He [Alexander] had contracted a bacterial infection at Fountain Correctional Facility and nearly died. His demeanor was different and the desperation to get out before he died was in his eyes. My visits were more emotional. I hated being in the prisons. I always showered after I got home and I was mentally exhausted.”
Prison is for the correction of crimes already committed, Alford said. She said the public sometimes continues to punish those who were formerly incarcerated, which stops them from moving on.
“Those sent to prison in this state are punished by being sentenced to prison, doing the time given, treated as second-rate citizens as though they do not exist and are punished if they file complaints or ask their family to help,” she said. “When they are released, we, the public continue to punish them for their crime.”
VOICES OF INCARCERATION
Ann Brooks helps organize the Free Alabama Movement, an activist organization that advocates for, among other things, better living conditions Alabama’s prisoners. Brooks’ son, Melvin Ray, is currently serving time for murder. Brooks shares how she’s been coping with his incarceration.
Sitting down on the hard wooden bench, his eyes jump around the courtroom at the Covington County Courthouse in Andalusia, Ala.
He slowly wrings his hands as a nervous tension swells up inside him. His fate is soon to be determined by the man in black, who wields the small wooden gavel with a godlike strength.
The wait is agonizing.
There are 10 to 15 others ahead of him, and one by one, they are sentenced to their fates. The process is absolute and final.
He looks up at his dad sitting next to him. “Dad, it’s over with. I’m fixing to leave.” His mother, sitting towards the back of the courtroom, just solemnly watches in silence.
Finally, his name is called.
The frightened teenager stands up, and makes his way to the front of the courtroom, where he’s met by a lawyer, not the lawyer he was originally assigned, but a new court-appointed lawyer who seems bumbling and unsure what to say.
After a short meeting with the lawyer, he walks to take his place in front of the judge, who sits atop his bench like a king upon his throne.
Looking down at the young man, the judge declares his verdict:
“20 years, split 5, suspended, five years probation.”
That was 20 years ago. The crime was theft of property, and the perpetrator was Lamarcus Magwood, a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, who had just moved to South Alabama with his parents after his dad retired from the military. He and his cousin had stolen a black, two-door Grand Am in Opp to take on a joy ride. Lamarcus was caught and placed in the Opp jail two days, before being sent to the Covington County jail in Andalusia where he spent a few months prior to the sentence.
Since then, Lamarcus, now 37 and living in Dothan, had been in and out of the criminal justice system. His longest sentence was 15 years for burglary, which he received in 2006 at the age of 26. In 2008, he was released on parole, and then a year later, he violated parole and was sent back. He was released for good in 2012.
“I just had a lot of things I was putting my hands on that I had no business with,” said Magwood. “I hate I did that, I really do. It’s something I don’t want to go back to again. Right now I don’t drink, I don’t do no drugs, I don’t do anything. I want to be around my children, that’s it.”
Since his release in 2012, Magwood has lived a relatively quiet life in Dothan, getting both his money and priorities in order as he prepares for new work in the coming weeks.
The Individual Struggle
For male inmates in the state of Alabama, the reentry process starts off with the absolute bare essentials. Clothes are furnished in cases where the individual has no suitable “free-world clothing,” a small discharge allowance of $10 is handed out to each reentrant, and a bus ticket is given to those who do not have any available transportation home.
In order to receive these benefits, the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) requires inmates meet a few specific qualifications. The $10 allowance is given out to those inmates who meet two requirements: they must serve less than five years, and the DOC must determine if assistance is necessary based on the needs of the individual at time of his release. However, when men serve more than those initial five years, and are in need of assistance, they are eligible for $10 plus an extra $2 for each additional year served after the original five. A man who served 20 years would walk out with $40, the cost of a one-way Greyhound bus ticket from Montgomery to Birmingham.
This early difficulty in the re-entry process is just the start of a complex journey that with the smallest of problems can create a domino effect that has the ability to lead to one issue after another.
For former inmates, the task of just adapting and dealing with normal everyday things that many people in the “free world” take for granted is a chore unto itself. Such issues of adjusting can lead to the nonstop, cyclical battles with recidivism that individuals like Magwood face on a daily basis.
According to an Alabama state report, nearly 12,400 Alabama prisoners were released during the 2014 fiscal year, which is an average of 1,032 inmates a month making their ways from prison back into communities. From that same state report, of those reentering, the recidivism rate stood at 31 percent (the Alabama Department of Corrections defines a recidivist as “an inmate who returns to the ADOC prison system within three years of release from ADOC jurisdiction”).
Recidivism is a key cog in the issue of reentry, but it is not the only one. A variety of complications come into play when dealing with reentry, and they can have far-reaching effects. The individuals themselves deal with the physical and psychological complications, such as PTSD or dependency, that come from spending years in a prison cell and being told how to live every aspect of their daily lives to being responsible for their own actions and daily routine. Health specialists, such as Dr. Jennifer Wilson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in forensic psychology, say such a shift can be overwhelming for anyone, so individual setbacks, both physical and psychological in nature, should be expected.
“Within the general population, I would say that we saw still quite a bit of mental illness; and I would say that ranges from things as common as depression to as specific, and severe, as schizophrenia and personality disorders,” said Dr. Jennifer Wilson.
Dr. Wilson’s observations fit with a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners, and 45 percent of federal prisoners experience some level of mental illness while in prison.
These conditions, without proper treatment, have the ability to develop or worsen at an individual-level with inmates as the high stress related to incarceration and reentry can fuel physical and psychological traumas, which can ultimately be detrimental to the progress of the inmate both in and out of prison.
With experience working with those reentering, Glory McLaughlin, assistant dean for public interest law in the School of Law at the University of Alabama, understands the legal and social roadblocks that come with prisoner reentry.
“One of the biggest issues that people face is a very practical one of getting a driver’s license,” states McLaughlin. “A lot of folks have had their driver’s license suspended or revoked as a result of their criminal charges. It’s a real basic thing they need to do is get a driver’s license when they get out, and go out and try to look for work. Of course without a driver’s license people don’t have a way to get to and from a job, and if they don’t have a job, then they don’t have a way to pay back their court costs and fines or to pay all the expenses that one has to pay.”
In his experience, Magwood has dealt with the intertwined issue of being without a license and car, but hopes to have that problem fixed soon.
“Hopefully by this spring, work goes well, and I hope to have a car,” said Magwood in an optimistic tone.
Complications also arise for former inmates who are looking for a foot in the door when it comes to the job market. Most jobs require applicants to disclose information concerning past convictions. This itself can be a devastating blow to an individual’s chance at finding work, and has become a uniting cause of organizations around the state (and country) that look to ‘ban the box’ to allow for equal treatment of those with past records.
Magwood has been fortunate in this instance in that he currently has some jobs lined up that he will be starting in the next few weeks.
“I know how to do a lot of things, but right now I’m fixing to do some concrete work for a man and I’m going to a chicken plant to hang chickens, and do some other things, working for $12 to $14 an hour,” Magwood explains. “I don’t know what the concrete man is paying me, but I just left a concrete company where I worked for 15 months. I’ve done a lot.”
Reentry Programs and Help
A key part of Magwood’s success so far has been a non-profit, faith-based organization called The Ordinary People’s Society (T.O.P.S.) located in Dothan, Alabama.
According to the T.O.P.S. website, the mission of the transition home is to “offer hope, without regard to race, sex, creed, color or social status, to individuals and their families who suffer the effects of drug addiction, incarceration, homelessness, unemployment, hunger and illness, through comprehensive faith-based programs that provide a continuum of unconditional acceptance and care.”
The concept for T.O.P.S. came to Glasgow, a former inmate who served 14 years in prison for various drug-related charges, in 1994 during one of his three stints in prison. He said it came as an epiphany from God that he experienced while serving a short spell in solitary confinement.
“I got this idea for organizing the Muslim groups, the KKK, the Skinheads, the white pride, the Bloods, the Crypts, the Christians, because I figured that since we all would buy drugs from each other, then why can’t we stop killing and fighting each other?” Glasgow said.
During his prison stint, Glasgow became known as the “preacher man,” due to the preaching he did throughout the prison.
In 2001, after being released from his final stint in prison, Glasgow would borrow his mother’s white Nissan Altima and go pick up pizza (which was donated) from Dante’s Pizza at Winegrass Commons Mall in Dothan in order to help feed the homeless. This is how T.O.P.S. started.
Since its founding, T.O.P.S. has developed a range of programs that not only help with individuals reentering society (such as criminal rehabilitation and reentry to prison/jail ministries programs), but also community programs that seek to help educate (adult literacy program) and counsel (domestic violence counseling program) the local community and the issues faced by its residents who were former inmates.
“We have church Tuesdays, Sundays, and if there are any church services in between I go to them,” says Magwood.
“Mainly when I’m not doing anything, like right now, if I’m not sitting at the house, I come over and sit with them all day, and do whatever they need help on. Being in the situation that I am in, it doesn’t matter if I’m fixing a sewer line, you’re enjoying it because of the fact that you’re free and it’s something you can do on your own without anyone hanging over your head or being told what to do. You know, it could be anything. So I come up here and help these folks out, when they need me and when I’m supposed to. I enjoy every bit of it.”
Along with his participation in programs and facility maintenance, Magwood recently moved into one of the several transition homes that sits a few blocks away from the main T.O.P.S. facility, which he shares with two other individuals who are part of the organization.
Working alongside community programs such as T.O.P.S., the State of Alabama, itself, features a range of specialized reentry programs for inmates that are in the process of being released, with the main reentry program currently offered by the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) being the Supervised Reentry Program.
As defined in the Alabama DOC 2014 Annual Report, the SRP is a “structured re-entry initiative that allows qualified inmates to transition from an ADOC prison and reside in the community.”
Requirements for this program include having an approved community sponsor, supervision by a SRP Correctional Lieutenant or Sergeant, employment or enrollment in an educational/training curriculum or participation in community service work, and must also meet any court ordered restitutions and/or child support obligations. In 2014, only 501 inmates of Alabama’s 12,348 releases were able to meet the requirements to participate in the program.
Along with the Supervised Reentry Program, there are four other reentry programs offered to inmates, including the required in-house reentry program that is provided by all ADOC facilities in the state. Programs such as In-House Re-entry, the Limestone 90-Day Re-entry, the Alabama Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (APRI), and Re-Start offer inmates finishing up their sentence some guidance and assistance before departing the prison.
While such programs are offered by the state, such temporary help does not always meet the needs of those dealing with much more deep-seeded issues or fears in regards to reentry.
Issues such as that of substance abuse and mental health are touched on as major complications that can be helped along by health programs and family support according to Dr. Glory McLaughlin, who is the assistant dean for public interest in the School of Law at the University of Alabama.
“They’re (substance abuse and mental health) systemic problems with there not being enough support networks for those issues, but to the extent that families and friends can help people get the treatment they need or stay in the programs they are in,” says Dr. McLaughlin. “Those things go a long way to helping prevent recidivism, and to helping people to get them back on their feet.”
Many who work in the criminal justice system and reentry understand that having family and friends as support, not just for substance abuse and mental health, but for the jail/prison process in general, is a healthy way in helping to rehabilitate and help those in prison and out of prison.
A Second Chance
It’s getting late in the afternoon, the sun beginning to set on a cool Saturday evening in February. Sitting at a table that just outside of the large, front window of The Spot, a small diner that is part of the T.O.P.S facility in Dothan, Lamarcus Magwood sits in reflection. He watches in silence as cars zoom past on Oates Street, the only noise that fills the air of the quiet space. Reaching to his pocket, he pulls out a cigarette, slowly and calmly rolling it between his thumb and forefinger.
There is an ease about him. His body language and demeanor like that of someone without a care in the world. For Magwood, this is one of his favorite places to relax and stay out of trouble. It is his place of peace.
Although he knows that there will be challenges in the future, Magwood is also positive on where his life is heading.
“Within the next five years I hope to have a house paid on; a four to five bedroom house for my children; I’m going to have my CDL (commercial driver’s license); and just get things ready for the future for them (his children),” Magwood declares.
Magwood then remembers some words of wisdom that he received from his father, words that he has since used as inspiration for proving himself.
“My daddy even told me time, after time, after time, ‘Marcus, you tell me all the time, but your actions speak louder than words,’” Magwood recalls before going on to say, “I’m so sick of hearing that, because I know he is right.”
“I’m so sick of hearing that to the point, that’s how I’m going to get you. When you see me with that house and 3-4 cars, I’ve done it. And I don’t want to hear nothing else out of you. I’ve finally done it,” Magwood says as he lets out a laugh of accomplishment.
“I don’t want to hear anything else, I’ve done it, and I’m doing it for myself and for my children… and that’s my main concern, being there for my children more than what I have been, and leaving them something behind when I get older and it’s time for me to go.”
The Shadows of the System was a special reporting project produced by the 2015-2016 Masters students in Community Journalism at the University of Alabama.
Troy Herring is a native of Mount Olive, North Carolina, and a 2012 graduate of the University of Mount Olive where he received his BS in Visual Communications. Troy started in the media field as a freelance photojournalist at the age of 15, a position he has continued to this day, and has had multiple stints as a staff photographer and photo editor at the Goldsboro News-Argus (NC). His work has been published by numerous newspapers in North Carolina, the Associated Press, and has been exhibited at multiple art galleries, including the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Kayla Howard is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama, where she double majored in sports journalism and criminal justice. Since 2014, she has freelanced as a sportswriter for The Tuscaloosa News. She also worked as the social media manager for the Alabama student chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Tyra L. Jackson is a native of Selma, Ala. She received her Bachelors of Arts in Journalism from the University of Alabama in 2014 and then worked as a reporter for The Selma Times-Journal. While a graduate student at UA, she has interned as a reporter/producer at Alabama Public Radio.
Lee McAlister is a native of Birmingham, Ala. She graduated with a Bachelors in English from Rhodes College in 2015. She has interned for WBHM 90.3FM and At Home Memphis & Mid-South Magazine, and contributed to The Bridge, Memphis’ street newspaper.
Casey Voyles graduated in 2015 from the University of Alabama, where she double majored in journalism and political science. She served as the online content director for Alpine Living Magazine, co-director of Vida Magazine, and managing editor and special projects coordinator of Dateline Alabama. The executive president of the UA chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2013-2015, Casey was a Ted Scripps Leadership Institute Graduate, a Localizing Democracy Multimedia Intern, a Tuscaloosa News Intern, and a board member of the Student Executive Council for the College of Communication and Information Sciences.