BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Tabitha Beaman had a bad feeling. Although she had visited her son the weekend before at Holman prison where he is incarcerated, she felt like something was wrong. Her bad feeling escalated when she heard on the news that several prisoners had been injured in a fight at Holman, and one was killed.
Panicked, Beaman began calling the prison to check on her son. She spoke with an officer, who said he couldn't give her any details about the incident. Beaman called the next day and spoke with a warden, who promised to call her back, but never did. If she didn't hear something by the middle of the week, Beaman planned to drive to Atmore and demand to know if her son was OK.
Then she received a letter from another man incarcerated at Holman, informing her that her son had been moved to segregation after being stabbed in the fight. Beaman was incredulous.
"My son was one of the one's who was critically injured, and I knew nothing about it," she said. “It just pisses me off so bad that you can’t get answers from these people. I’ve been calling for almost two weeks and haven’t gotten an answer from one single person who works there.”
A spokesperson for Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) disputed Beaman’s story.
“Our operations division has confirmed that the facility notified the mother of the inmate who was injured on Dec. 2,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to WBRC.
Beaman’s son called her the day after she received the letter. He told his mother he’d been stabbed four times in a gang-related fight on December 2 that led to one prisoner dying, and three others being injured. His wounds were deep, he said, in his upper and lower back and abdomen. He told her they “stitched him up” at an outside hospital and sent him back to the prison where he was being held in solitary confinement. He expected more violence to come as retaliation and was hoping he’d be transferred to another prison for his safety. WBRC reported another fight at Holman Prison on December 9 sent two people to the hospital for treatment.
"He told me lockup is not even safe," Beaman said. "It’s a blessing he’s still living.”
A spokesperson for ADOC said the circumstances that led to the fatal stabbing on December 2 is still under investigation, as well as additional incidents at the facility. The spokesperson also said a Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) was sent to Holman after the Dec. 2 incident. The facility was searched for weapons and other contraband and prison officials have moved over 30 inmates to different correctional facilities as an additional security measure.
Beaman's son has been incarcerated at Holman Prison since he was convicted of robbery and murder in 2015 and sentenced to life in prison. She asked us to not use his name in this report.
She regularly makes the 45-minute drive from Mobile to Atmore to visit her son. She couldn’t say for sure exactly how involved he is in prison gang activity, but he’s told her the prison is so dangerous, people are joining gangs for protection. She advises him to avoid conflict and confrontation.
“And he’ll tell me, ‘Mama, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t avoid things in here,’" she said. "He told me, you have to be a part of something in there in order to survive. You have to affiliate yourself with something, because if you don’t, you are by yourself and you might as well just be gone.”
A correctional officer who works at Holman Prison spoke to WBRC, but asked that we not report his name or assignment out of fear of retaliation by prison management. He said joining gangs for protection has always been part of the prison experience, but the new gangs run by younger inmates present a higher level of danger for inmates and officers.
“There are inmates that are scared to death in there,” he said. “These younger gang members only care about what they want. There’s no prison code anymore. The groups are more violent and without any supervision, it’s like an out-of-control, rambunctious child with zero guidance. It’s very dangerous.”
The officer described chaos in Holman’s housing units that has resulted from gang rivalries, including some prisoners sleeping in the wrong dorms to avoid rival gang members. Other prisoners who are not gang affiliated may try to find a neutral place away from violence to try to stay out of trouble.
“You’ll find them huddled up in cells, sleeping on the floors or whatever, because they are scared to go in the other cells,” the officer said. “If you don’t belong to that gang, and you go to sleep, you might wake up with all your stuff stolen, or they might wake you up, beat you up and throw you out.”
The officer also described dangerously low staffing levels that he believes ADOC inflates the numbers in reports by including part-time workers and members of the CERT team, who are not at the prison on a regular basis.
ADOC’s spokesperson said Holman employs 72 security staff comprised of correctional supervisors and officers that cover three to four shifts for an inmate population of 951. The maximum security prison is required to have 195 security staff to cover all shifts. The average ADOC security staffing level for all major correctional facilities is 48 percent, according to the spokesperson.
“I know there are entire dorms that are not being manned,” the officer said. “The prisons have been taken over by the inmates,” he continued. “At Holman, the inmates allow you in a cell. They allow you in a dorm. When I say ‘allow,’ I mean, the officers are scared. Unless the riot team is there, they don’t go in.”
“There is no way that we can man every post,” he continued. “Unless they can get 30-40 officers per shift at every facility to just drop from the sky, we are too short now to safely house the number of inmates we have. We are in there alone, just like Officer Bettis was in that dining hall.”
Officer Kenneth Bettis was stabbed to death by an inmate at Holman Prison on September 1, 2016. Since then, Randy McGilberry, the father of another correctional officer who survived a stabbing at St. Clair Correctional Facility, formed the Alabama Corrections Officers Association (ACOA) to lobby for better working conditions.
Earlier this month, advocacy law firm Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) published a report, calling Alabama’s prisons the “deadliest in the nation," citing high homicide and suicide rates, including 19 homicides in the last two years. WBRC reached out to Governor Kay Ivey’s office for comment about the report, but did not receive a response.
Both Beaman and the correctional officer described another widespread problem- “crooked” staff that get involved in the prison contraband trade and work in collusion with violent prisoners.
“It’s a dirty world in the prisons right now,” the officer said. “The good staff working in these facilities, the staff that’s not corrupt, we are in fear. We are trying to survive and looking for a way out.”
Living with the constant worry about her son’s basic safety has been hard to cope with, Beaman explained. The outside world may see people like her son as hardened criminals, but to her, he’s still her baby, terrified and facing constant danger.
“I have sleepless nights. I have to take PM pills to try to sleep. It is very hard as a mother to listen to your child cry and you can’t do anything.”
Beaman knows her son and others are in prison because they have committed crimes, some of them terrible, but she called on state leaders to look beyond the stigma and recognize the ripple effects of prison violence that plagues family members of incarcerated people with constant anxiety and fear.
"They have to know the inmates in there have loved ones,” Beaman said. “They have people out here who believe in them, support them and are praying for them. You don’t need to treat them like animals,” she continued. “Those are human beings in there and they are letting the inmates kill each other. I think something can be done with all the tax money we spend. Why can’t this be fixed?”