Release from mass prisons in Alabama: State frees 369 inmates under amended 2015 law

The Alabama Department of Justice will release nearly 400 inmates statewide on Tuesday.

The mass release — which will place the early-release inmates under the supervision of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles — stems from a bill passed by the state legislature in 2021.

This bill amended a law passed in 2015 as part of prison reform.

Inmates are being released from correctional facilities across the state, according to a notice received from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and the Alabama Department of Corrections — who determined it should not be released to the media.

The notification was sent to law enforcement agencies nationwide.

The types of offenses for which the 369 were convicted range from possession of marijuana and theft to robbery and murder. The majority should finish their sentences this year, many of them in the next few months.

Waiting at bus stops with ankle monitors

Each inmate will be processed by Pardons and Paroles and fitted with an electronic ankle monitor at the time of discharge.

“The law was passed in 2021 and we will follow it as it is written. We have not campaigned for it, but until a judge tells us otherwise, we will enforce the law as written,” said Cam Ward, director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

“After processing, many released inmates will be picked up by friends or family at the facilities, while others will be transported to local bus terminals,” the Jan. 27 release said.

“Bus terminals in the Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham areas are expected to accommodate the largest number of inmates,” the statement said. “Depending on bus schedules, released inmates may wait at bus stops for some time.”

The notice was intended to “ensure law enforcement in those areas is aware” that recently released inmates “necessarily congregate in those areas” until they can board buses to return to their sentencing districts.

According to the department’s November statistical report, the most recent report available from the Alabama Correctional Authority, 17,823 people were incarcerated at ADOC facilities. The department is only designed for 12.115. Efforts to reach ADOC officials for comment were not immediately successful Monday morning.

The 369 people released on Tuesday make up 2.07% of this latest population.

The release comes as the Justice Department is suing the state over its prison conditions — a lawsuit initiated during the tenure of former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

That case is ongoing, and a judge has told both sides to be ready for a trial without a jury in 2024.

The DOJ’s lawsuit alleges that ADOC’s failure to protect prisoners from inmate violence and sexual abuse, to protect them from excessive force by staff, and to provide safe detention conditions violates constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.

How we got here

The legislature passed the law during the September 2021 special session of the Legislature, when it also authorized the construction of two 4,000-bed male jails.

Gov. Kay Ivey included the bill in her call for the special session focused on prisons. It was one of the recommendations of a criminal justice policy group she appointed, which issued a report in 2020.

The bill amended a law passed by lawmakers as part of reform efforts in 2015.

This 2015 law required many inmates to complete their sentences during a period of supervised release by the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, rather than remaining in prison until the last day of their sentence.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was a vocal opponent of the bill in 2021.

“This law mandates the early release of dangerous individuals only with the possibility of electronic surveillance and without the assurance of other resources necessary to safely monitor those originally released,” Marshall said in 2021.

The law was due to go into effect on January 31, 2023, subject to the State Treasury Director certifying that the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has the resources necessary to implement it.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 77 to 23 and the Senate by a vote of 24 to 6. Republican lawmakers all cast no votes.

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, a former St. Clair County District Judge who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, supported the bill.

Hill said today he believes the bill will increase public safety by policing those who would otherwise finish their sentences within a year without supervision.

Noting that electronic surveillance would be required, he said those under surveillance could also be subject to drug testing, home visits and other probationary conditions.

“I think it gives us an opportunity to keep up with that person,” Hill said.

“Most people who re-offend do so within a year of being released. And I want us to do our best to prevent relapses. And one way to do that is to monitor and supervise them for a period of time after their release from prison.”

This is an evolving story and will be updated.