Editor’s note: U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District of Alabama announced today that she will retire as a federal prosecutor after 25 years on January 19, one day before Donald Trump becomes president of the United States. In the second part of our three-part series about Vance’s legacy, we continue our look at how her office approached the expanded view of civil rights under the Obama administration Justice Department. This week’s installment focuses on the civil rights of prisoners and how that impacts whole communities.
In many ways, what Allen Wayne Denson Morgan did in 2012 had the typical overtones of what one might consider a classic hate crime.
Morgan, of Mumford, is white, while his neighbor Clifford Mosely, was black. Morgan thought Mosely, a man with a 2009 conviction for rape of a child, had raped his wife — although there was no evidence to that effect that the authorities were aware of — so he took the law into his own hands, firing his gun at Mosely to intimidate him and reaching out to the Ku Klux Klan to have him assassinated — but not just assassinated.
Here’s how U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance described the crime, which was prosecuted in federal court in 2013:
“He pleaded guilty to murder for hire for attempting to hire a hitman to torture and kill his black neighbor,” Vance said, noting that Morgan — an Iraq war veteran reportedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — had several convictions on his record, many of them for drugs.
“He reached out to what he thought was a KKK hitman, and fortunately for everyone that was an FBI undercover agent that he reached out to,” Vance said. “But he said — and I wrote this down because I think these words are chilling — he told the undercover, ‘I want this man hung from a tree like he is an animal. I want his expletive cut off, and I want him cut. You’re a hunting man, right?’”
In the well-publicized case, Morgan was sentenced to six years in prison. It was an important case to prosecute, Vance said, and it remains important for people to realize that such cases will always be the business of the Justice Department. “[It is] so important for people to understand that this sort of violent racial animus is a threat, and it’s something that we need to be on guard against,” Vance said, adding that it is important “for folks in the public to come forward if they become aware of this sort of animus spilling over into violence, so we can do our job and protect individuals and protect communities.”
Vance’s comments come at a time when “racial animus” seems to be spilling into the public in ways some consider shocking. Last week in Chicago, a case in which four young black people were shown on video torturing a bound and gagged victim — a young white man who is developmentally disabled — inspired outrage, particularly among conservatives, some of whom pointed the blame at the Obama administration.
At the same time, a variety of organizations, including Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, have indicated that the number of hate-based incidents, ranging from vandalism to violence, have increased since Donald Trump became president-elect. These incidents have become more common after a campaign where Trump was often criticized for making racially and ethnically offensive statements and not repudiating — until later — the open support for his candidacy of avowed white supremacists like David Duke and champions of far-right ideologies, including Trump counselor Steve Bannon.
And Vance’s comments, which she made during an interview in December, also arrive at a time when Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, is touting his record of civil rights prosecutions while under fire for making racially insensitive remarks, prosecuting black activists, opposing legislation designed to extend civil rights protections to members of the LGBTQ community, and even misstating his involvement in civil rights cases.
In a story last week in the Washington Post, former Justice Department prosecutors accused Sessions of trying to burnish his record on civil rights cases when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama and “mislead his Senate colleagues, and the country, into believing he is a champion for civil rights. … We worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which brought those lawsuits; we handled three of the four ourselves. We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them. He did what any U.S. attorney would have had to do: He signed his name on the complaint, and we added his name on any motions or briefs. That’s it.”
Despite the controversy, Vance said that no matter who becomes attorney general (the top law enforcement officer in the country, as the U.S. attorney is the top law enforcement agent in a given district), prosecuting crimes against civil rights crimes will go on. She cited Morgan as an example.
“This is not political work,” she said. “This is violent crime. I have to believe that any U.S. attorney and any attorney general from any party would look at a case like Morgan and prosecute.”
As Vance, a veteran of both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, reaches the end of her tenure in the Obama Justice Department, she talked about how her office worked to expand the role of civil rights to protect people across social strata.
One recently opened case is poised to take a long, hard look at Alabama’s prison system. In October 2016, Vance’s office opened an investigation into the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA).
“Typically, [CRIPA cases] are done in Washington by the Civil Rights Division, and they have to be authorized in order to do them,” Vance said. “There has never been an authorization to do a statewide look into an entire prison system until Alabama. Our system is overcrowded. By most accounts it’s the most overcrowded prison system in the country.”
Estimates say that ADOC may have as many as 200 percent of the number of prisoners it is supposed to hold. To get authorization to investigate Alabama prisons, the U.S. Attorney’s Office had to “write a memo to the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division that detailed all of the information and evidence we had collected that supported opening the CRIPA case so when she opened, it wasn’t just to say, ‘Gee, there might be problems,’” Vance said. “It was to say we’ve compiled this significant body of complaints that warrants investigation.
“This is among the most egregious civil rights situations I’ve ever encountered in my career as a lawyer. And although, perhaps it’s popular among some people to say, ‘Well, these are prisoners. These are bad guys that are in jail. Why should we care?’ I would strongly resist that characterization,” Vance said. “These are human beings who are in the custody of a state, which is charged with their care. And I think that we are judged as a society by how we treat the most marginalized people in our community. How do we treat the homeless? How do we treat veterans with post traumatic stress? How do we treat people who are incarcerated?”
Vance said that even with a transition in presidential administration and changes at the head of the Justice Department — and potentially in who occupies the offices of U.S. attorneys across the country — she expects the CRIPA case to continue “full speed ahead.”
The CRIPA case is expected to look at three major areas of concern in Alabama prisons. “One is whether or not there is violence and sexual assault being committed by prisoners against other prisoners,” Vance said. “[The] second area is whether there is violence and sexual assault being perpetrated by guards against prisoners. And the third area [is] whether there is a lack of sanitary, secure and safe living conditions. For instance, reports that there is open sewage in some facilities, or the facilities are so overcrowded that bathing is not a possibility.”
The findings of the CRIPA investigation has the potential to impact how Alabama’s burgeoning prison population fares behind bars, which, in turn, can impact a substantial portion of the state’s population. “Alabama has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country,” Vance noted. “One of every four adults in this state has had contact with the criminal justice system. So our prisons impact an enormous percentage of our population.”
The outcome of the CRIPA case also has specific potential to positively affect the guards or corrections officers working in Alabama’s overcrowded prisons — by making their jobs safer.
“Staffing at Alabama prisons is only 51.1 percent of what’s authorized,” Vance said. “This situation is incredibly dangerous for the prison guards. So, as much as we’re doing this case to protect the civil rights of prisoners, we’re deeply worried about the safety of guards. There’s recently been a stabbing death of one guard.” That guard, at William C. Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, was stabbed in September 2016, allegedly by a prisoner who had been denied extra food. Inmate Cleveland Cunningham, already serving a 20-year sentence, is now charged with murder in the September stabbing of correctional officer Kenneth Bettis.
The stabbing was not the first attack on a guard; Holman’s warden and another guard were stabbed during a riot at the prison in March 2016, according to news reports. There have been numerous reports of violence in state prisons, causing officials to call for reform. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said the state needs more prisons. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the state needs more prison guards.
And while state officials have pledged to cooperate with the CRIPA investigation, federal authorities are looking elsewhere as well in an investigation that brings together former law enforcement members, expert witnesses, and attorneys from all three of Alabama’s U.S. Attorney’s Offices.
“We’re the biggest of the three U.S. Attorney’s offices, so we have the most capacity to work on this,” Vance said. “We’ve got two of our lawyers who are essentially working full-time on this and two others who are involved along with some supervision. We have unbelievable support from the Civil Rights department, a really just fabulous career lawyer in the department who has been instrumental in helping us understand the law and the best way to conduct the case. And we have one lawyer that we’ve been working with from each of the middle and southern districts.”
Investigators are also seeking input from members of the community. “We want to know what else is there that we don’t know about,” Vance said. “So we advertised a community meeting for folks to just come in and share their stories with us.” The meeting was held at the Birmingham Public Library.
“We got some interesting information. The problem with the prison case is every time you think you’ve heard the worst story, you hear something else,” Vance said. “And so again, we don’t prejudge. The investigation is ongoing. But our hope is that the work here will permit Alabama to undertake serious reforms in its prison system.”
Recidivism reform as a civil right
Even as the CRIPA investigation is in its early stages, the USAO is also involved in what happens to prisoners when they return to society. While an ex-offender’s return will most obviously affect the former prisoner and his or her family, release also touches the community he or she goes to live in. As noted in a July story in Weld, the Department of Justice estimates that 98 percent of felons will be released. According to the Prison Policy Institute, some 35 percent of Alabama inmates, once released, traditionally break the law again. Experts say some of the reasons are simple: former prisoners are dropped back into society with no or few job skills, no references, and low prospects of getting work because of their felony conviction record, for example.
Preventing ex-prisoners from breaking the law again is in everyone’s best interest, Vance said, which is why she touted her office’s work on issues related to prisoner re-entry into society. Contrary to some public opinion, helping prisoners successfully reintegrate into their communities is not a matter of being soft on crime, she said.
“Look, I’m a law-and-order type of person, right? Enforcement is the core of our work. People who commit crimes should be charged, should do their sentences, should be held accountable,” she said. “Here’s where re-entry fits into that picture, though.
“Once someone has served their sentence and paid their debt to society, when they return to the community, they shouldn’t continue to serve that sentence, right? They’ve fully paid their debt. They should be able to reclaim their life and go on and find a job, become a taxpaying American citizen and work to rebuild relationships with their family.
“What we’ve learned is that’s simply not the case, that that felony conviction haunts them from the moment that they get out of jail. That they can’t get job. They can’t even get a driver’s license or get a Social Security card,” Vance said. “There’s no continuity of medical or mental health care. It can be difficult to find housing.”
On the other hand, appropriate programs can make a former prison’s return to society easier, and cut down on the likelihood that he or she will break the law again, which would not only create a dangerous situation in a community, it would cost more in police and prosecutorial resources, as well as taxpayer resources to re-house a repeat offender, she said.
“Re-entry work really matters because it makes communities safer by tamping down on recidivism,” Vance said. “It has the potential to significantly reduce prison costs like it’s done in North Carolina, Texas and Georgia — all red states that have adopted ‘justice reinvestment,’ reduced their prison populations, reduced their crime rate, and saved enormous amounts of money. North Carolina was able to scrap plans to build new prisons, their program was so successful.”
Vance said she has worked with stakeholders who are involved with prisoners, including the chief judge in the Northern District of Alabama, officials of the federal bureau of prisons, the federal parole system and counterparts on the state level including the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office, the office of the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Alabama pardons and paroles, and ADOC, as well as community groups. So far the result has been more than 20 pilot programs designed to help former inmates stay out of trouble, Vance said.
“It was everything from a continuity of care medical clinic that had been previously grant funded to social work in the prisons to community programs in the faith-based community for mentoring,” she said. “Everyone began to understand that re-entry work has to begin on the day that people enter prison. We shouldn’t be warehousing people. We should be rehabilitating them and preparing them to return to the community. So they might need to get GEDs. They might need anger management counseling. All of those programs have to be part of that work.”
Back in 2013, in an effort to share that work, they held a summit in partnership with the Council for State Governments (CSG), a bipartisan nonprofit which serves all three branches of state government. CSG has an office in Washington, D.C., that monitors the impact of federal government on state issues and programs, and advocates for state interests in the nation’s capital, according to the organization’s website, csg.org.
“They’ve been very involved in re-entry, which they characterize as ‘justice reinvestment’ — having fewer people in prison, more people working in the community and how do you make that happen,” Vance said. “That one-day summit was very, very impactful. It was widely attended and it had an immediate impact on re-entry in Alabama, because in early 2014, state leaders, including members of the senate and the house, the chief justice, the governor, and the head of ADOC, asked for services from Pew [Charitable Trusts] and CSG that would provide them with the input that they needed. And that was what led to the formation of the prison commission in the state.”
On the ADOC website, which fails to mention the involvement of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, officials tout the work of state politicians, and the Prison Reform Task Force including nearly 30 “policymakers and practitioners who guided Alabama’s justice reinvestment process toward reducing prison crowding, containing corrections costs and reinvesting in strategies to bolster public safety.” The task force has recommended, among other things, “that the state invest $26 million in FY2016 and more than $25 million annually for FY2017 through FY2021, including funds for evidence-based substance use treatment and recidivism-reduction programming for people on supervision in the community.”
The ADOC website does acknowledge “support from the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, which has provided data-driven analyses and policy options to state leaders in 21 states to date, in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.”
In any case, Vance said reinvesting resources to help former prisoners re-enter society has a strong connection to fixing what’s wrong in the prison system. “When you focus in re-entry, you then begin to see how there are issues in the prison system, which if resolved will make the community safer, will save a lot of money and will also be the right thing to do — it will help these people reclaim their lives and move forward,” she said.
Next week: for the final installment of our conversation with Vance, we look at how the USAO for the Northern District of Alabama has gotten involved with protecting the civil rights of voters and the disabled.