In Alabama Prisons, ACLU Asks: Is A Dog's Life Worthier Than Human Lives?

By Beth Shelburne, Investigative Reporter, Campaign for Smart Justice

This piece originally appeared on AL.com

This past week the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) held a memorial service honoring Jake, a K-9 narcotics detection officer that died after he was exposed to a synthetic drug during a raid at Staton Correctional Facility. There were printed programs, and an enlarged photograph was displayed of Jake, a gorgeous Belgian Malinois, posed with his partner, K-9 Sergeant Quintin Jones. There was a white wreath of flowers next to Jake’s headstone, a 21-gun salute and a commendation from Governor Kay Ivey presented by ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn. Any mention of the epidemic murders, suicides and assaults that happen on ADOC’s watch were conveniently absent from the pageantry of the event.

A considerable crowd gathered under a white tent outside the prison’s kennel complex to listen to various ADOC folks extoll Jake’s courage, hard work and the gregariousness that earned him the nickname “Knucklehead.”

A copy of one of the printed programs for the memorial service.

A copy of one of the printed programs for the memorial service.

Jake had two experiences with fear during his life, one officer told the crowd. One was fear of his water bowl.

“The other fear was in the hearts of inmates,” he said as satisfied chuckles rippled through the crowd. In the distance loomed the razor wire and guard towers that surround Staton, and I wondered how many incarcerated people inside might be experiencing terror at that very moment. Was someone being raped, stabbed or beaten as this crowd of righteous people stood nearby? I thought of John David Teague, a 48-year old father of two boys who was stabbed to death with an ice pick inside Staton earlier this year. Teague was good looking, friendly, capable, but also addicted to cocaine. His mother told me about the awful phone call she received from the warden.

“I’m calling to tell you your son is dead,” he simply said. No apology, no prayer. Teague’s mother had to pay $300 to have her son’s battered body shipped back home to Morgan County for burial. She asked the warden to pay for it but he said no.

The value of life is not honored equally in the state of Alabama. If it was, there would be widespread moral outrage over the bloodbath going on behind the walls. If state leaders valued all human lives, they might have realized how tone deaf a funeral for a dog might seem to the families of people who have been slaughtered in their custody.

Alabama prisons have the highest homicide rate in the nation, ten times the national average. In the first six months of this year, eight men were murdered while in state custody, including Mr. Teague. 10 were murdered in all of 2018.

The murder rate has skyrocketed in the last decade as we’ve packed our prisons like the chicken farms that dot the landscape here, with thousands of squawking animals piled on top of each other in cages. Staton Correctional is the most crowded major prison in the system. It was designed to house 508 people, but right now is bursting with 1,388. Overcrowding like that is a crisis, but you wouldn’t know that by scanning the fine folks at Jake’s funeral who came in the middle of a workday wearing their Sunday best, many of them ADOC officers, wardens and executive staff. Never mind that the agency has an average staffing level hovering around 30 percent in its major prisons. The Department of Justice called the staffing deficiencies “staggering” in its investigation released in April.

Much of the violence is tied to ADOC’s inability to control the flow of illicit drugs into the prisons, like the substance that led to Jake’s death. “Contraband is rampant,” the DOJ wrote in its findings letter, which concluded that ADOC had committed severe and systemic Constitutional violations against the men and women in its custody.

At Jake’s funeral, an officer proudly read off a list of drugs the dog found inside the prisons: 211 grams of cocaine, 150 ecstasy pills, 70 grams of heroin, 2,400 grams of meth, 25,436 grams of marijuana. It’s good that those drugs were confiscated, but the bigger question is how does that much get inside? I asked Commissioner Jeff Dunn and he said drugs are thrown over prison fences, brought in through visitation and “occasionally” trafficked by officers or other staff. Last year ADOC’s Director of Investigations told me he believed corruption within ADOC was “very limited.” I hear a much different story from officers and incarcerated people, who say corruption among staff runs deep while leaders continue to obfuscate the obvious.

“I can assure you that dirty staff is the major source of contraband coming in,” a longtime ADOC correctional officer recently told me. This was echoed in the DOJ report, which found one staff member made $75,000 bringing in contraband, his accomplice, a prisoner, made $100,000.

Jake’s death was a tragedy. He was a loyal partner to Sgt. Jones, his best friend, but the law couldn’t protect him from the same danger that fuels the murders and suicides inside the prisons. At the funeral, a chaplain quoted Proverbs 12:10, “A righteous man regards the life of his beast.” ADOC gave Jake a service fit for a hero, but where is the regard for the lives of actual human beings in ADOC custody?

Attitudes about incarcerated people and punishment are changing across the country, but nowhere more slowly than Alabama. This “us versus them” mentality, disregarding the humanity of people who commit crimes and make mistakes must change before Alabama can truly reform its criminal justice system.

No one expects the prisons to throw an expensive funeral for the men and women who die under their watch, but the state’s response to the death of this dog tells us a lot about whose lives are truly valued and whose are expendable. And if you’re one of the unlucky 20,000 people locked up in Alabama prisons who happens to die in custody, expect no apology, no prayer.

Beth Shelburne is an investigative reporter with the Campaign for Smart Justice with ACLU of Alabama. Her email is bshelburne@aclualabama.org.