Seeking redemption for aged and infirm prisoners amid Alabama's high bar for parole
Doug Layton, Jr. proudly takes a visitor on an after-hours tour at the glass shop where he works just outside Birmingham, Ala. Layton has been here less than a year but has been given the responsibility for locking things up at the end of the day.
"I haven't felt that since I was like 15 or 16 — where somebody just really trusts me," he says.
Layton is 56, and spent nearly 20 years in prison for reckless murder in a hit and run killing. With prior felony convictions, he was sentenced to life in prison. He had a clean record behind bars, and worked for 5 years at a work release camp. So when he was up for parole in 2021, he was hopeful he might get out. But even with support from the victim's mother, he was denied parole.
"What kind of message is that sending to somebody that's trying so hard to focus on their life, their character, their remorse, everything?"
Layton says repeated parole denials rip the hope out of incarcerated people, leading to more desperate conditions.
Now a legal non-profit, led by a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, is working to get aging and infirm inmates out of the state's overcrowded and dangerous prisons. It's called Redemption Earned. Lawyers with the group put Layton's case before a judge, including testimony from the mother of the man he killed.
"She hugged me and she says, 'I forgive you and I want you out of prison.'" Layton recalls, tearing up. "That day changed my life forever."
That was in March, and the judge granted him release. Redemption Earned helped him find housing and get settled outside of prison.
"They never gave up on me," Layton says. "They took my torch up and, you know, evaluated what I was doing in prison and stuff and thought that I might be a good candidate for them to try to help."
Believing in second chances
Now he's trying to be a productive member of society, working at the glass company and doing odd jobs on weekends.
"We believe in redemption. We believe in second chances," says former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, who founded the organization. She says it's an effort to counter a broken parole system that leaves people to languish for decades in a prison system that courts have found to lack adequate medical care or protection from violence.
"Redemption Earned was created to fill an enormous gap in services to the least, the last, and the lost, which are the worthy aged and infirmed incarcerated adults in Alabama prisons," says Cobb.
So far, in three years of operation, the group has won release of seven clients. Three of them have since died. Cobb, who also served on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, says people who show evidence of rehabilitation in prison are provided legal aid to seek parole or post-conviction release through the courts.
"What we've done is we've gotten somebody a home plan, whether it's a nursing home or home health in their home," she says. "And they're supervised. So it's not just carte blanche for letting folks out."
Up against historically low parole rates
Cobb says Alabama's tough on crime politics have resulted in a corrections system that's more about vengeance than justice.
"Alabama has the lowest parole rate in the United States of America, even though we have the most dangerous and overcrowded prisons."
Last year, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles had a 10% parole grant rate, compared to guidelines that recommend 80%. The rate in August was just 5%. Earlier this year, the board even denied parole to someone who had died ten days earlier.
Redemption Earned is currently trying to help a 71-year-old grandmother, Leola Harris, who was denied parole in January.
Harris calls Cobb from Tutwiler prison where she's serving a 35-year sentence for murder. She's been there for 20 years and is being treated for high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney failure.
"I want to know how you're feeling today?" Cobb asks. "Well, today is one of my good days," Harris says. "It's not a dialysis day so yea, I'm in one piece today."
After Harris was denied parole, Redemption Earned is now petitioning a judge to release her. They've found a nursing home placement, but are also trying to piece together a support system that could care for her at home. That's what Harris wants.
I pray that I don't die in prison.
"I know I'm slowly dying. So, you know, I would like to go home and die," she says. "I pray that I don't die in prison."
Harris says it's absurd to think she's somehow a threat to public safety.
"I'm 71-years-old, in a wheelchair. Can you imagine me wheeling myself down the road to try to get somebody and try to get up out of my chair to do it? Can you imagine that? I can't."
Harris is on dialysis three days a week, and sometimes needs help from her fellow prisoners tending to basic sanitation needs. She says the experience is like "being dead but not buried."
But victims' rights advocates in Alabama are skeptical of Redemption Earned's efforts on behalf of Harris and other offenders.
"Just because they're elderly does not mean that they should be released," says Janette Grantham, executive director of VOCAL – Victims of Crime and Leniency. The group sends representatives to parole hearings to oppose parole for violent offenders no matter how old they are, including Leola Harris. Grantham says her compassion lies with victims, not prisoners.
Living with the consequences of committing a violent crime
"The way I look at it, they chose to go to prison and the prisons is a bad place," Grantham says. "You've got to think of all the murderers and the rapists and the robbers, all of them are in one place - penned up. Of course it's violent. Don't go there. Everybody has a choice. And when you chose to go to prison, you've got to live with the consequences."
That's a political sentiment prominent in Alabama says Cam Ward, director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, which supervises people on parole.
"There is a tough on crime environment," Ward says. "We're a very red state and that's where we are."
Ward, a former state senator, chairs a criminal justice policy board of the National Council of State Governments. He says it's a passionate issue where emotions tend to drive policy.
"Data is saying one thing. Public perception is another," he says. "I think that society just goes 'they committed this crime — out of sight, out of mind. I don't want to hear about it anymore.'"
Alabama's parole rate dropped dramatically 2018, when a parolee murdered three people 8 months after his release. The chairwoman of the independent board that makes parole decisions declined NPR's request for an interview.
Ward says it would make more sense to parole people under the watch of his agency, than to let them get out of prison at the end of their sentence with no supervision.
Alabama State Rep. Chris England, a member of the state's prison oversight committee, agrees.
"If you don't release anyone, that means that you're creating a situation where the most dangerous people get out with the least amount of supervision. So that can't be about public safety," he says.
Prisons becoming an 'old folks home'
Alabama's prison commissioner has said an aging and sicker population is taking a toll on a system that that is already chronically overcrowded and radically understaffed.
In September for example, there were more than 20,000 prisoners in a system designed to house 12,000. About 14% of them are over 60. Another 24% are between 51 and 60.
England says Alabama's broken parole system has become a fiscal burden.
"We've basically become an old folks' home where we're basically caring for people who are no longer a threat to society, which means that they cost more," England says. "We spend more resources on incarcerating than we do on rehabilitation. And ultimately, it becomes unsustainable."
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