BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Ira Morris thought he had done everything he needed to do. He graduated from trade school, earning an electrical degree. He’d taken every class and program the prison offered. During his incarceration, starting at age 19, he had grown up, gotten married and planned to join his wife out of state. He’d been accepted into a re-entry program, had a job lined up and was ready to go.
Morris, 42, had served over 20 years in Alabama prisons on a 30-year sentence for murder, five years longer than the minimum required to be considered for parole.
Morris’s murder conviction came after he pleaded guilty to his part in the crime. In 1996, while he and another man robbed a convenience store, his co-defendant shot and killed a woman working behind the counter. Morris helped the prosecution by testifying against the gunman and pleaded guilty in exchange for avoiding a life sentence.
He’d had three parole dates before, but the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles denied him each time when the victim’s family protested his release. The last time was in 2015, and the board set his next parole hearing for four years later.
His wife, Maureen, a social worker, decided to hire a lawyer to help apply for a cut in that time. She also helped facilitate a verbal agreement with the prosecutor and victim’s family to let it go. Maureen, who believes in restorative justice, said it was important for her and her husband to promote healing for the victims of his crime.
“My husband is ready to do the right thing,” she said. “We have the support of the DA and the family. What else can they ask for?”
In 2018, Morris submitted paperwork for a parole cut, including 10 letters of support from his family, friends and even an ADOC correctional officer, who wrote, “Inmate Morris has been very respectful to staff, very neat, clean and has a good attitude in working and trying to get out of prison.” The board granted a parole cut of one year, with a date in November, 2018.
Then in July, 2018, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was accused of murdering three people, including a child, five months after Spencer was released from prison on parole. Marie Martin, Martha Reliford, and 7-year old Colton Lee were killed during a robbery of a Guntersville home. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall and Governor Kay Ivey immediately placed fault with the parole board and called for reforms.
“People have been stunned by news stories of inmates, who were convicted of violent crimes, being released from prison after only serving a fraction of their just punishment behind bars,” Marshall said. He pointed to Spencer’s case as emblematic of a parole system that was “badly broken.”
“Spencer, a violent offender sentenced to life imprisonment, was released back into the public after the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles made the unconscionable decision to grant him parole.”
In October, 2018, Governor Ivey issued a temporary 75-day moratorium on early parole hearings and asked the parole board to submit a corrective action plan. The Governor said the parole board docketed hundreds of violent offenders for early parole, with no justification.
But Spencer had not been released on early parole. ADOC records show Spencer served 29 years on a life sentence for second degree burglary beginning in 1990. He escaped in March of 1993, but was recaptured two months later. Spencer had been in and out of prison since 1984 for burglaries, breaking and entering a vehicle and has three escapes on his record. He was also convicted of second-degree assault against another prisoner in 2003. Prior to his release in 2018, he had no Class A felonies on his record, which are considered to be the most violent offenses.
According to WAFF, Spencer was granted parole in November, 2017 and released from prison in January, 2018. Upon his release, he was scheduled to report to Life Tech — a program run by the Pardons and Paroles Board. But, with the Alabama Department of Corrections downsizing facilities, authorities said there was no space at Life Tech. Instead, Spencer ended up at a halfway house. He was there only two weeks when he apparently stopped abiding by the rules and walked away. The shelter said they contacted Spencer’s parole officer, but didn’t hear back.
Alabama will pay $1 million to the families of the three murder victims, AG Marshall announced Friday. Marshall said he recused himself and was not a part of the settlement negotiations, because he personally knew two of the victims.
Ira Morris’s November, 2018 parole hearing was put on hold. His wife, Maureen, said they were hopeful his hearing would be rescheduled as soon as the moratorium was lifted. Last month, Morris received a letter informing him that his hearing had been moved to November 2020 due to Ivey’s Executive Order. He would have to spend almost two more years in prison.
“We are being judged by the behavior of Mr. Spencer,” Maureen Morris said. “The parole board is in hot water, so they’re just pushing everybody back. It is devastating.”
Last month Alabama’s House passed a bill that gives the Governor more power over the parole board, making the Executive Director a Governor-appointed position, instead of a post named by the 3-member parole board.
Marshall and Ivey have said this would make the board more accountable. Critics say it’s a political move to replace current Executive Director Eddie Cook. WBRC left a message for Cook but has not heard back. In August, Cook told WSFA the murders in Guntersville were unfortunate, but Spencer alone was to blame.
“He made this choice,” Cook said. “The Board didn’t do anything wrong in the parole, the police didn’t do anything wrong. This is a conscious decision he made.”
The bill also creates new guidelines for early parole, giving the Governor and AG veto power.
Democrats fought the bill’s passage in the House, calling it a knee-jerk response to the Spencer murder. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate next Tuesday.
New parole guidelines established in 2015 are credited with relieving some of the overcrowding in Alabama prisons. The state’s prison population has 5,000 fewer incarcerated people than it did in 2013, but the system is still at 165 percent capacity. Alabama’s parole rate has steadily increased from 30 percent in FY 2013 to 54 percent in FY 2018.
After Ivey’s executive order, the number of paroles granted dropped 58 percent. According to ADOC statistical reports, only 92 paroles were granted in October, 2018 when the governor issued the moratorium. The average monthly paroles granted from the prior six months was 313. The average monthly paroles granted since then is 130, according to the latest data available through March, 2019.
The Department of Justice released findings of its investigation into Alabama’s overcrowded prisons in April, citing record homicides, suicides, extortions and sexual assaults that happen “at all hours of the day and night.” The DOJ issued immediate and long term measures the ADOC must take or face a federal lawsuit. The immediate recommendations include addressing under-staffing, overcrowding, contraband, sexual abuse and violence.
Opponents of the parole bill said imposing further limits on parole will increase overcrowding and violence, which goes against recommendations from the DOJ.
“If passed, this bill will have the immediate effect of increasing hopelessness and desperation of the people under the state’s care,” said Shay Farley, Senior Policy Counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund. “Without the incentive of reentering society, incarcerated people are more likely to act out in prisons, and our state’s prisons will continue to be among the most dangerous in the country.”
Critics also said the bill is not evidence-based, and will further politicize the parole process.
“Once again, Alabama is making criminal justice decisions based on politics and ideology,” said Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “For our elected leaders to seek to arbitrarily keep more Alabamians locked up in these horrific, unconstitutional places is beyond disappointing.”
Frustrations with parole outcomes are not limited to early paroles or violent offenders. David Mears, 26, is currently in prison for drugs and theft. Originally sentenced to probation, a judge sent Mears to prison for four years when he relapsed and was caught with heroin. Part of his sentence was to complete a six-month treatment program known as “Crime Bill” that is offered in some Alabama prisons.
Instead, Mears has been on a horrific odyssey through Alabama’s prison system, according to his mother, Debra Howard Mears. In the last two years, he’s been assaulted at least four times, suffering broken ribs, knocked out teeth and he was stabbed. He’s received disciplinary citations for defending himself and his mother said she’s been extorted for close to $10,000 by prisoners and officers. ADOC transferred Mears to three different prisons, finally putting him in protective custody at Limestone Prison. In January, Mears said the parole board denied her son’s release, citing his failure to take the “Crime Bill” program, which she said is not available at Limestone Prison.
She explained this to the parole board, and told them that her son was on a waiting list for “Crime Bill” at his first two prisons, but never got in. He’d completed other comparable classes, but Mears said the board members insisted that “Crime Bill” should be available to her son and set him off another year. Mears then called the Warden of Limestone Prison.
“And he laughed at me,” she said. “He told me, they don’t know what they’re talking about. We haven’t done “Crime Bill” at Limestone since the 90’s.”
Mears has accepted that her son will probably have to serve his full sentence until 2020. She had no idea that he would be in even more danger locked up in prison than he was while using drugs on the street.
“He’s going to need extensive therapy,” she said. “There’s no way he’ll come out of there without PTSD.”
Maureen Morris also worries her husband Ira will not survive the violence of prison.
The same month he was supposed to have a parole hearing in 2018, Ira Morris was stabbed at Holman prison and almost died. He underwent surgery to repair his intestines and spent four days in a hospital, then was sent back to prison.
Through his wife, Morris said he feels he is being punished for the actions of someone else, cheated out of his opportunity to escape “hell on earth.”
“I’ve watched a guard get killed over a plate of fries. I’ve fought for my life on two occasions. It is truly cruel and unusual in Alabama’s DOC and parole is holding me back. What more can I do but wait?”