'I Feel Like I'm Finna Die': Why Everyone in Alabama's Prison System Has a Death Sentence [Updated]

Illustration for article titled 'I Feel Like I'm Finna Die': Why Everyone in Alabama's Prison System Has a Death Sentence [Updated]
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For a portion of his 22 years, Bernard Jemison has been incarcerated at Kilby Correctional Facility, a maximum-security penitentiary located just outside of Montgomery, Ala. According to Alabama Department of Corrections documents reviewed by The Root, in September, 1031 men were housed in a prison designed to hold 440 men, an occupancy rate of 234 percent.


“The living conditions inside the 51-year-old facility have prompted lawsuits from the incarcerated, their relatives and even the Department of Justice. But even though the state has done nothing to alleviate the deplorable conditions, Kilby’s prison overcrowding problem is going away. According to Jemison, the penal institution has found a unique way to handle its people problem:

Give everyone a death sentence.

Let’s get this out of the way: Bernard Jemison is in prison for murder.

Jemison is also a human being and an American citizen with constitutional rights.

Even Former Attorney General William Barr knows this. In December, after an extensive investigation, the Department of Justice sued the state of Alabama and the ADOC, alleging that all of the state’s men’s prisons are in violation of the Constitution. The suit accuses Alabama of failing to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse; failing to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and perpetrating excessive force against the imprisoned Alabamians.

“We have to do something about this animalistic system,” Jemison told The Root. “How can they expect us not to act like animals if they treat us like animals?”

After a particularly brutal beating of another imprisoned man on New Year’s Eve, Jemison and a group of other human beings who don’t want to die are speaking out against Alabama’s inhumane treatment of incarcerated men. Since January 1, 2021, they have been on a hunger strike protesting the state-sponsored violence at Kilby.

“We refuse to eat until the deplorable conditions have been addressed,” said Jemison during a Monday phone call. “We aren’t protesting against a few guards. Every guard here is either perpetuating abuse and violence or they are an accessory to it.”


While all of the guards have been accused of either participating in or ignoring the mistreatment of Kirby’s population, Jemison pointed to the third-shift workers as the most abusive. He and others fully expect retaliation for speaking out, but as another convicted man who has not received a death sentence told The Root: “I feel like I’m finna die. But at least I’ll know why they’re doing it, this time.”

According to Jemison and other people who shouldn’t be murdered by institutional apathy, they are currently “packed like sardines” in a dormitory-style facility with two working sinks, one working toilet and two working showers...


For one hundred grown men.

“If you complain, you can expect retaliation,” Jemison explained. “And you better hope it’s verbal or mental. The physical abuse is rampant. [The guards’] violence reinforces the violence from inmates. The drug use is off the chain. Rape is everywhere...It’s like living in a zoo.”


But in the case of Kilby, it’s the zookeepers who are perpetuating the abuse and the drug epidemic.

“Drugs are easier to get in prison than on the street,” explained one anonymous person who I assumed was pretty fond of living because I heard him breathing. Jemison, who also seemed to be an advocate for not being bludgeoned to death or strangled by a deadly virus, acknowledged that “the biggest drug dealers in Alabama work in the Alabama prison system.”


The evidence seems to bear that out. In June, an ADOC corrections officer was sentenced for attempting to smuggle two ounces of meth into a facility. Another 26-year-old officer was arrested in September 2019 for the same crime. And another, and another and (yes literally) a sister and a brother.

Have I mentioned the violence?

The national homicide rate for state prisons is 7 per 100,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ latest numbers. In 2019, Alabama’s homicide rate was 62 per 100,000, including a record 13 murders in Alabama’s prisons. The 60 slayings since 2010 was a tenfold increase from the previous decade.


There have been 23 since then.

Jemison and the Department of Justice have also accused the supposedly “pro-life” state of exacerbating the COVID-19 problem. People in custody revealed that many guards don’t wear masks while the prison system doesn’t test the imprisoned people or the officers who guard them. While ADOC purports to offer free testing for employees and regular testing for the incarcerated, the state ranks ninth in COVID prisoner deaths, according to the Associated Press. Last year, the mother of another person in ADOC custody told The Root that she was not alerted to her son’s COVID-related death until his body was transferred out of the facility. And according to others on the inside, the state is still hiding the true numbers.


“In October, eleven inmates died in 14 days,” one man reported. “But they don’t test nobody, so they report the deaths as natural causes. They’re hiding the numbers.”

The numbers seem to corroborate this. According to the state database, 832 ADOC employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, nearly a third of its 3,400 total employees. Yet, somehow only 1,164 of the 25,000 incarcerated Alabamians have tested positive for the virus. If that were true, it would mean the ADOC’s staff has the highest COVID rates in the known world (24,470 positive cases per 100,000 people) while Alabama’s imprisoned had the eighth-lowest positive case rate in the United States).


Maybe that’s why ADOC has only tested 12,681 of its detainees.

Or perhaps the imprisoned men are really washing their hands in those two sinks.

In July, the mother of a person imprisoned at Easterling Correctional Facility contacted The Root after her son fell victim to COVID-19 on June 23. Two days her, 31-year-old Laveris Evans was dead.


“What’s going in Kilby is going on in all of the prisons in Alabama,” another mother told The Root. “They were gonna go on this hunger strike until the guards and the inmates stop killing each other.”

A longtime prison reform advocate, the “concerned citizen” spoke to The Root on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals against her two sons who are confined in two separate Alabama facilities. For years, she has worked to transform the barbaric circumstances in the system the Equal Justice Initiative calls “deadliest in the nation.”


She continued:

The inmate are killing each other, but that’s not all that’s going on. The guards are standing around watching inmates kill each other. The guards are opening gates, then the inmates come into dorms and kill each other. The guards are handcuffing these inmates and beating them and killing them.

I have pictures of my son where a guard actually handcuffed my son at Donaldson Correctional Facility. He beat my son and almost knocked his eye out of his head. My son lost sight in his eye. And they did nothing when I went to internal affairs but gave this man a few months in the tower and put him back in the dorm.


“People keep saying the system is broken,” she continued. “It’s not broken. The system is doing what it was designed to do.”

The protesters say the hunger strike will continue until the state takes definitive acts toward improving prison conditions and they have already experienced abuse for their refusal to eat.


The Root has contacted the Alabama Department of Corrections’ Public Information Office, as well as the Kilby Corrections Facility for comment.

“They gon’ kill us one way or the other,” said the American human being.

Updated: 1/5/2021, 11:41 p.m. ET: In response to this article, Samantha Rose, the Press Secretary for the Alabama Department of Corrections issued the following statement to The Root:

There are numerous ADOC processes and procedures that are followed if a hunger strike is declared, and ADOC staff and ADOC contracted health staff monitor the condition of any inmate on a hunger strike to preserve life. Inmates of the ADOC who report, or clearly imply, their intent to begin a hunger strike, are immediately referred to the ADOC contract medical staff. Once medical and mental health personnel have evaluated and met with the inmate, the Warden of the institution is notified. Clinical staff take and record weight, vital signs, and collect a urinalysis at least once every 24 hours while the inmate remains on a hunger strike.When a consistent pattern (no more than 72 hours) of an inmate not eating or drinking nutritional fluids is verified, the inmate is scheduled to see a medical provider who will verify the inmates’ intent to continue a hunger strike, the date/time it began, and the exact nature of the food products and/or fluids being refused. The inmate also will be moved to an appropriate location(s) within the facility that allows for additional, constant monitoring by medical personnel.

As for any alleged assault, the ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and any actions taken by inmates or staff will be thoroughly investigated. As the inquiry into the alleged assault is ongoing, we cannot provide additional detail at this time. More information will be available at a later date.


Updated: 1/4/2021 4:59 p.m. ET This article was updated to note The Root requested comment from the ADOC, as well as the comments of parents and activists.

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Let’s get this out of the way: Bernard Jemison is in prison for murder.

Given that this is Alabama and their justice system, was he actually the person that pulled a trigger, or was the situation just that he happened to be black within 4 miles of someone else dying?