By Beth Shelburne, Investigative Reporter, Campaign for Smart Justice
This article originally appeared on Alabama Political Reporter.
Belinda Brown’s birthday is Monday. She was hoping her son’s freedom would be the best gift she’s ever received.
For months, Belinda and her husband, Marion had planned to drive to Montgomery next Tuesday to ask Alabama’s parole board to approve their son’s parole and set him free.
Eric Brown has spent the last 19 years in prison. Belinda says her son has a good heart, lives in the faith/honor dorm at Ventress Correctional Facility and has only survived the drug-fueled violence in Alabama prisons through the Grace of God.
Last week, Eric called his mother to say he heard a rumor that his parole date was off. She called Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Paroles and someone informed her all hearings were suspended until November.
“They didn’t tell me anything,” Belinda said. “Nobody notified us. My son is tired. We are tired. He is ready to come home.”
Eric Brown is one of hundreds of people whose life is now in limbo after retired Judge Charlie Graddick, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, suspended parole hearings until November. 627 hearings set for September and October are now postponed because Graddick’s office says it would have been illegal to hold the hearings.
Graddick blames former leadership in the organization, namely the three African-American executives that he suspended his first week for alleged “malfeasance.” An investigation is underway, but the writing is already on the wall. The longtime employees who helped raise parole rates are no longer welcome.
For people like me, who believe people are more important than prisons, Governor Ivey’s surprise appointment of Graddick to lead Pardons and Paroles seemed like a declaration of war.
Isn’t he retired?
Has Kay Ivey lost her mind?
Charlie Graddick, who served as Alabama’s Attorney General from 1979 to 1987, is a throwback to the tough on crime mindset and throw-away-the-key policies that got us into this mess. He wrote Alabama’s infamous habitual offender law, which punishes people with a life sentence for drug and property crimes.
“Most career criminals have committed a heck of a lot more crimes than we know about,” he said at the time the law was passed. “I have no sympathy for them.”
But those “career criminals” include hundreds of men, mostly poor and Black, who were sentenced in their late teens or early twenties to a mandatory life without parole for crimes like robbery, theft and burglary. They’ve spent decades warehoused in our terrible prisons and are now past middle age.
Alvin Kennard was one of them until he was freed last month. Bessemer Judge David Carpenter resentenced him to time served after Kennard served 36 years for a $50 robbery. Kennard was prosecuted under the habitual offender law and sent away to prison to die, even though he never physically hurt anyone in his crimes.
Graddick made a career using inflammatory rhetoric about people in the criminal justice system. His most notable comment was a promise to “fry them until their eyeballs pop out and smoke comes out of their ears.” He has denied saying this, but maintains a zealous support for executions, despite known wrongful convictions and an appalling racial disparity on Alabama’s death row.
As Attorney General, he blocked efforts to reduce the prison population and fought against rehabilitative programs. When he ran unsuccessfully for Governor, he promised to make sure Alabama prisons remained brutal for people serving time.
“The next Governor needs to make sure our prisons look more like prisons and less like welcome centers,” he told a crowd of supporters.
Knowing all of this, and perhaps because of it, Governor Kay Ivey appointed Graddick just two months after the Department of Justice put her on notice that our prisons are unconstitutional. In April, the DOJ released a scathing report, citing overcrowding, widespread violence and corruption in Alabama’s prisons, and gave leaders a deadline to implement changes.
Instead, Governor Ivey pushed a bill through the legislature that further politicized the parole board and codified time requirements on sentences, making it harder for incarcerated people to make parole.
The bill also requires the parole board to give crime victims a 30-day notice prior to parole hearings. Graddick says the previous administration was not in compliance with this part of the law, but the claim that it would be illegal to hold any parole hearings is a stretch. The text of the new guideline states that the Board “shall exercise due diligence in locating the victim or the victim’s immediate family members,” but there’s no provision to call off hearings if due diligence is not achieved.
Some family members of incarcerated people worry Graddick is using the new requirements to keep people locked up for longer periods of time. Reform advocates wonder if it’s all just an excuse for him to continue with retaliatory suspensions against people who supported making parole an option for more men and women trapped in our vicious prison system.
Graddick, 74, retired in 2017 after serving as presiding judge in Mobile, and some suggest he mellowed during his time on the bench. Attorneys I’ve spoken to across the state say Graddick is a smart administrator and a good boss. One longtime criminal defense attorney told me as a judge, Graddick was tough, but fair.
“He’s always been a fierce advocate for prosecutors, but he adjusted to the role of being a jurist,” he said. “I’m not a Charlie Graddick cheerleader, and some judges are just bad, but Graddick is not in the category. I never saw him operate outside the discretion of his job.”
Which Charlie Graddick will lead Alabama’s parole board? Will it be the tough but fair public service custodian? Or will “lock-em-up Charlie” have one last chance to marginalize the people and families caught up in Alabama’s criminal justice system? Advocates for reform believe in the power of redemption. We’re hoping even Charlie Graddick can transcend the worst things he’s done and said.
It is true public safety is an important component of the parole board and crime victims deserve a voice in the process. But it’s also true that our prison system has locked up far too many people for too long. Parole is one of the only avenues of relief for people and rates have dropped dramatically in the last year.
Brenda Brown is hoping this is not a sign of more heartache for her family. Her son Eric had been accepted into a residential re-entry program and planned to start a ministry in order to teach young people about staying away from drugs and prison. Last year her son was beaten in prison, but she tries to stay strong for him and encourage him to stay focused on getting out.
“He has a good record now,” she said. “I don’t know when he’ll come up for parole again, but I just pray the Lord lets us live to see him come home.”
Beth Shelburne is an investigative reporter for the Campaign for Smart Justice with the ACLU of Alabama. @bshelburne