The Alabama Department of Corrections: We will remain transparent

The Alabama Department of Corrections: We will remain transparent
(Source: WSFA 12 News)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The Alabama Department of Corrections responded Thursday after removing an Alabama journalist from the press distribution list and then reinstating her.

That journalist is Beth Shelburne, a former reporter, news anchor, and digital journalist for WBRC FOX6 News.

Shelburne broke the story on issues at Tutwiler Prison for Women while she worked at WBRC and she continued to hold the state accountable on prison issues until she left in 2019.

Shelburne has also contributed to stories on our WBRC website as a freelance reporter.

Wednesday Shelburne got an email from ADOC detailing why some of her questions would not be answered.

Thursday Shelburne said she got a call from ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn in which he apologized and explained she would be added back to the list. Dunn also offered to get together and talk about concerns.

Thursday afternoon Commissioner Dunn emailed this statement about the incident:

Our operations at the Alabama Department of Corrections, as well as our efforts to make needed improvements and reforms to the system, are and will remain transparent. The agency is resolving the recent incident where a journalist was removed from our public information office’s press distribution list. The action of removing this person does not help us reach our ultimate goal of making Alabama safer and helping to cultivate an atmosphere within the system where both the inmates and correctional officers feel safe. The Alabama Department of Corrections is committed to working with all types of media and will continue working tirelessly to remain transparent and effective for the media and the public.

Also Thursday afternoon Alabama reporters, including two employees from WBRC FOX6 News sent a letter to ADOC expressing concerns about what happened to Shelburne as well as broader issues of transparency at Corrections.

Dear Mr. Dunn:

Alabama’s prison system faces violence that threatens inmates, employees, and public safety in general. It is imperative that the Alabama Department of Corrections be transparent about its problems and open to questions about them. We are very concerned about recent actions your department has taken against our colleague Beth Shelburne.

As you are aware, the U.S. Department of Justice says Alabama “routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in the Alabama prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions.” A DOJ report released in April accused your department of underreporting prison homicides; failing to disclose at least 30 prisoner deaths in a two-year period and dismissing sexual assaults as consensual homosexual activity. Subsequent reporting has found nothing to contradict those conclusions.

As a reporter at WBRC and with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, Shelburne has exposed violence at several state facilities, including Holman, Donaldson and St. Clair. She has spoken with family members of inmates who have been victims of violence or have died by suicide within the system walls. In short, she brings the human toll of the crisis to a wide audience. No one to our knowledge has seriously challenged the accuracy of Shelburne’s reporting.

Shelburne is a fellow journalist who is highlighting important safety issues within the system. To refuse to answer her questions, or to treat her as an uncredentialed reporter, does the public a great disservice and will do nothing to reduce the violence threatening everyone in the state prisons.

The situation highlights an increasing lack of transparency by the department. Among other problems:

· Corrections charges fees merely to file a request for public documents. Often, the department is nonresponsive to those requests. Corrections will often charge major fees to process information that should be publicly available.

· One of our colleagues has been told she cannot speak to you in public settings without prior approval.

· The department has been opaque about the new prison construction process, which DOC itself has said will cost approximately $900 million.

Corrections is budgeted to receive just under $517.2 million from the state’s General Fund this year, approximately a quarter of the total spending there. The citizens of this state have a right to know how that money is spent. The families of those held or those employed by the Department of Corrections have a right to know whether their loved ones are safe. As journalists, it is our duty to ask questions about operations and conditions within the state’s prisons. By remaining silent, or trying to limit whose questions you will answer, the department will only raise further questions about its response to the crisis it faces.

We are encouraged that you reached out to Shelburne on Thursday morning, as well as subsequent outreach to other reporters. We urge you to place Shelburne back on the media list, and, more broadly, to reverse Corrections’ move away from transparency. A department that confronts these difficult questions will be better prepared to solve its problems.

Sincerely,

John Archibald, Alabama Media Group

Eddie Burkhalter, Alabama Political Reporter

Mike Cason, Alabama Media Group

Josh Gauntt, WBRC-TV

Brad Gunther, WPMI-TV

Jeff Houston, ABC 33/40

Shannon Isbell, WBRC-TV

Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser

Josh Moon, Alabama Political Reporter

Connor Sheets, Alabama Media Group

Lauren Walsh, ABC 33/40

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