MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Family members and advocates of Alabama inmates crowded into a state task force meeting Wednesday to plead for changes to the state's criminal justice system and in state prisons that have come under national scrutiny for violent and crowded conditions.
The Governor's Study Group on Criminal Justice heard from family members, attorneys and advocacy groups at the meeting . Speakers urged an overhaul of conditions, medical care and current sentencing laws.
Sandy Ray showed the panel a photo of the battered face of her son, Steven Davis, who died in October after an altercation with corrections officers at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility where he was incarcerated after a murder conviction. In a news conference before the meeting, Ray said she has gotten no information from the state prison system about what happened to her son and described the agonizing moment he was removed from life support at a hospital.
"This is my son," Ray said as she held his photo. "He is beaten beyond recognition. I had to have a closed casket because of what they had done to him. No one, not even a dog deserves this." Ray said.
The Department of Corrections said in an October news release that it is investigating Davis' death after officers used "physical measures" on Davis whom they said rushed officers with makeshift weapon. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said after the meeting that her son's death remains under investigation.
Ten inmates were killed in inmate-on-inmate homicides in a 10-month period between October 2018 and August 2019, according to statistics from the state prison system.
The Alabamians for Fair Justice Coalition, a coalition of advocacy groups, at the news conference placed signs on empty chairs with the names of 21 inmates they said died in state prisons in the last year from homicides, suicides and drug overdoses.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey created the study commission after the Department of Justice threatened to sue Alabama over unconstitutional prison conditions. The U.S. Department of Justice in April issued scathing findings that condemned Alabama prisons for what it called unconstitutional conditions, including high rates of violence and inmate homicides.
Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb told the panel that the state system continues to be plagued by violence, drugs and corruption behind bars.
"DOC has got to come forward with some bold steps," Cobb said. "People are leaving Alabama prisons and they are more addicted today than when they entered our prisons."
Diyawn Caldwell told the panel said her husband is incarcerated at a prison that the state has allowed to "descend into chaos and violence."
"Every single time there is a report of a stabbing, my heart stops," Caldwell said.
A mother confronted the state prison chief after the meeting, saying her son was beaten by two officers while incarcerated.
"I don't want to bury my child. She buried hers," Jennifer Cullers told Dunn as she pointed to Ray.
Dunn told reporters after the meeting that the state has acknowledged its problems in prisons. He said the state, which faces a court order to add as many as 2,000 officers, is working to add staff. He said more "boots on the ground" is the top step the state can take to reduce prison violence.
"This is going to take a long time to fix. There are no quick fixes here, unfortunately. It is going to take a long sustained effort," Dunn told reporters.