BESSEMER, Ala. (WIAT) — Amid inmate strikes and people across the state rallying for better conditions, violence is at an all-time high inside Alabama prisons.
At William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, homicides have tripled so far in 2022. According to the Jefferson County Coroner, six people have died at the state prison so far this year.
“Predominantly we dealt with natural deaths out of William Donaldson and we’re seeing more traumatic deaths, some of which are due to homicide,” Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates explained. “That can be an indicator, obviously, of more violence.”
According to Yates, deadly drug deaths are also on the rise. In Jefferson County, 12 inmates died from a drug overdose so far this year. Seven of those deaths happened at Donaldson.
“What we’re seeing in the prison is fentanyl,” he said. “And we’re seeing methamphetamine. So those same types of mixtures, those same products that’s on the street is getting through the walls of the prison.”
Former Donaldson inmate, Ronald McKeithen, believes the violence is even worse now than when he was released about two years ago.
“It’s not safe for anyone in there. Officer or inmate,” McKeithen told CBS 42. “They’re [the prisoners] telling me that because of the lack of officers, there are many nights where there’s only five officers running the whole prison.”
McKeithen now works for Alabama Appleseed, the same organization that helped free him. He was locked up for 37 years after he robbed a convenience store. Mckeithen explained that even though he didn’t murder or hurt anyone, the Habitual Offenders Act would have kept him behind bars for life if the judge didn’t sign his petition.
“I’m lucky to survive. By the grace of God I am lucky to be alive,” he said.
McKeithen described Donaldson as ‘chaotic,’ recounting experiences of inmates killing or severely injuring each other. He said knives are common throughout the facility, as many inmates feel they needed to protect themselves. He remembers guards watching as fights broke out, sometimes not doing anything to stop the violence.
“Inside a prison where you’ve got a lot of drug use, there’s a lot of anger, it’s going to get crazy,” he told CBS 42.
Amidst the homicides and overdose deaths, Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), has remained silent on the issue, refusing to answer our questions, as well as other media groups requests.
CBS 42 Investigative Reporter Chloe Vincente asked ADOC Commissioner John Hamm about the deaths at Donaldson back in September at an execution press conference. He would not answer her question, but responded ‘certainly’ when she asked for an interview at another time. When we followed up with ADOC, they still denied that interview.
We then brought our questions to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who put the focus on the inmates themselves.
“We have a violent population,” Marshall explained. “The people who are serving time right now need to be in facilities that we can accommodate and deal with them in a safe way, but we also need to make sure that we’re keeping staff safe, but it’s a tough population to deal with.”
CBS 42 also reached out to Governor Kay Ivey’s office, and were denied an interview with her about prison deaths.
Across the state, families and prison advocates are rallying for change. They’re demanding better conditions inside state facilities, a better parole system, more accountability from state leaders and changes in the states criminal laws.
Videos circulating on social media show what appears to be Alabama inmates being beating, severely sick and injured, and poor conditions throughout many of the state facilities.