Matthew Vernon Whalan Original

Hard Times: ‘It’s Like They’re Trying to Kill Us’

Recent interviews with Alabama prisoners and officials paint grim picture of overcrowding, theft of personal items, surprise transfers and pandemic fear.
Draper Correctional Facility dormitory. File photo from Montgomery Advertiser / Albert Cesare

By Matthew Vernon Whalan / Adapted for Scheerpost from reports on The Hard Times Review

[Author’s Note: Prisoners were interviewed confidentially for this article. They are each identified by a randomly chosen letter to protect their privacy and safety.]

American prisoners are incarcerated for years, often decades, often a majority of his or her life. Many prisoners serving more than a couple years are transferred from one prison to another, often multiple times, throughout their sentences. For this story, I spoke to three long-term Alabama prisoners about their experiences being transferred to a different prison mid-sentence or waking up to learn their friends have been transferred – including in the middle of a pandemic – and tried to square them with official policy.

Linda Mays, Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Communications Director, said that there are “numerous specific reasons that inmates are transferred” from one prison to another mid-sentence, but “it is impossible to explore every scenario” in which transfers occur. 

“Typical reasons,” Mays adds, “can be broadly categorized under two buckets: healthcare and security.” For example, “[A]n inmate may develop a medical condition” that “requires a higher level of care, up to chronic or hospice care. Our facilities’ infirmaries are equipped differently, and … an inmate may be transferred to a different facility in order for the Department to best provide for his or her individual healthcare needs.”

Transfers may take place for security reasons, Mays said. For example, “if a crime is perpetrated by one inmate against another, the perpetrator may be validated as an enemy of his or her victim following an investigation,” and transferred “once classified as validated enemies.” Some are also transferred to minimum security prisons if their security status is lowered, she added.

Alabama prisoners describe the reasoning behind their transfers, and the experience of being transferred mid-sentence, differently than the ADOC.

One source, identified as “T,” has been imprisoned for around a decade in Alabama, during which he has been transferred several times few times.

The process is “different at different prisons,” he said, but “basically, they shake you down. The task force puts you in a van. Then, when you get to a prison, they take you in, search all your properties, and make you strip naked. It’s a horrible thing. They make you hold your butt cheeks open and cough, all these unnecessary procedures. It’s uncalled for.”

In T’s experience, prisoners sometimes have jobs involved in processing newly arriving prisoners, “So, they can take whatever it is you got, and sell it to other inmates.”

Prisoners, he said, are not informed until the day of the move because “they don’t want you to come back into the dorm to anybody else, saying you’re leaving to another prison. … They just wake you up at about four in the morning, tell you to pack it up, any given day they decide they just don’t want you in their prison anymore.”

The other prisoners interviewed echoed this description.

A dorm at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Ala., is shown in April 2016 holding 300 prisoners.Julie Bennett/

The first time T was transferred, he said, “It was really frightening. I didn’t know what was going on. Officers come in yelling at you, ‘Pack it up. Pack it. Dress up. You’re outta here.’ And you be like, ‘What?’ They’re like, ‘You’re done, that’s what’s up.’ You be like, ‘Alright.’” T says “most” officers handle the transfers with this type of aggression, “depending on the reputation they have.”

“It’s frightening the first time, if you don’t have no firsthand [experience] in prison. I didn’t know anything about prison. You never know what’s going to happen.”

During one transfer, T recalls, “when they called me, while they were shaking me down, I asked an officer, ‘Could I use the restroom?’ I had to go real bad. One officer said, ‘Sure, yeah. Man’s got to relieve himself.’ Then the other officer was like, ‘No.’ I was like, ‘What?’ And that became a big issue.”

Asked how it is decided whether prisoners being transferred are allowed bathroom breaks throughout the process, Mays answered that there “are far too many possible scenarios for [ADOC] to provide an answer,” adding that “situational factors and individual circumstances surrounding transfers are vast and cannot possibly all be specified here.” 

Asked whether prison laborers participate in any part transferring other prisoners in or out, Mays writes that prison laborers “do not have a direct role.” But an “ancillary job assignment” to a prisoner “may indirectly be connected to the transfer process,” she adds, citing “cleaning duties at the intake area” as one example, stipulating that this “does not mean that the inmate performing cleaning duties is involved in the process” of transfers and intake. 

Asked to describe, in as much detail as possible, how prisoners are transferred mid-sentence, from the beginning to the end of the transfer process, Mays says the “ADOC does not disclose the details of our transfer process,” because “this information greatly compromises our ability to securely move inmates.” 

She adds: “We can confirm, however, that the transfer process varies and is subject to numerous situational factors including the inmate’s custody level and circumstances leading up to his or her transfer.”

In his interview, T described the challenges to readjusting to a new prison once a prisoner’s transfer is complete.

“It’s hard to adjust,” he explains. “Like I’ve said: In prison, there’s all different types… You’ve got inmates that are HIV positive living with inmates that are not; You’ve got a lot of other things … to deal with, like mental health; You can’t put your hands on [the officers], but they can put their hands on you.”

To adjust to life in prison, no matter when or how you get there, or which prison takes you, says T, “You have to rehabilitate yourself. Therefore, you have to have knowledge, literature that you can read, and make your mind up to … do right. I’ve reprogrammed – you know – to adjust my way of thinking.”

The worst prison T has lived in, he says, is Ventress Correctional Facility, where he is currently, and one of the worst parts of prison in general is the unpaid work, which he said “seems like slavery to me.”

A prisoner identified as “B,” also in Ventress, has been incarcerated over half a decade and transferred about a half-dozen times during his sentence. “No camp tells you … when you’re going to be moved. You will find out on the way” to the next prison, said B, “if the officials [handling transportation] are not dirty.”

B said he didn’t know what was happening the first time they came for him early in the morning and didn’t know which prison he was going to until after he got there, about four hours later. Upon arrival, “processing” the prisoner can take another few hours, he said.

One time, “when they [transferred] me for no reason,” an officer took all of his belongings, B said, “[B]eing smart, telling me I couldn’t come back.” By the end of the interaction, “I was just glad to leave.”

The officer even took his Bible, he said, along with “letters and pictures I can’t ever get back, and legal documents.” It took about two years to get his legal documents returned.

Asked if Alabama Corrections employees are allowed to take all of a prisoner’s belongings, including things like legal papers and his copy of the Bible, and if ADOC is aware of occurrences of this happening, Mays said “officers” and “any ADOC staff participating in the transfer process, are not allowed to ‘take’ inmates’ belongings. As part of the transfer process, all inmate belongings are inventoried and stored, and … returned once the inmate arrives and is processed through intake at his or her receiving facility.”

She notes that, “of course,” it “is possible that some inmates’ belongings are lost or misplaced during the transfer process. Our system is large, and human error occurs.” A prisoner who loses belongings in the process, Mays says, “has the ability to file a Board of Adjustment claim and will receive appropriate compensation […] if the claim is verified and approved.”

In early June, B said multiple prisoners were transferred into Ventress, about 70 miles southeast of Montgomery, which strikes him as unsafe and frightening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s like they’re trying to kill us.” 

Asked whether there were indeed transfers into Ventress at that time, Mays wrote, “Movement between our facilities has been limited with few exceptions as a result of COVID-19; however, security and healthcare exemptions are granted as needed, including at Ventress Correctional Facility.” She said she would not comment on “when, where, or how many transfers occur between our facilities,” for “security” reasons. 

Mays confirmed prisoners “are not provided advance notice” before they are transferred mid-sentence, and that, depending on the situation, “of course” it is “possible that an inmate may be woken up if he or she is sleeping at the time of his or her transfer.” 

Prisoners are not informed that they will be transferred until after the transfer is already underway, because informing them beforehand, the ADOC believes, “would pose an unacceptable risk to both our staff and inmates, and would greatly compromise our ability to securely move inmates,” Mays said.

Back in Ventress, B is more concerned with emotions and relationships than security. He describes the pain of having other prisoners transferred away from you, people you lived with every day and night for years, and consider friends and even family: “It feels like a family member has been removed from around you, because that’s a brother you done shared some real stuff with, far as family stuff, shit about your kids, and yourself.”

A third inmate, identified here as G, is more sanguine about transfers, perhaps because he has had to endure so many in his nearly four decades in the Alabama prison system – he has lived in all but a couple of Alabama’s adult male prisons throughout his single sentence handed down when was a teenager for a crime he claims he did not commit, and estimates he was transferred between them some two dozen times.

However, the first times were terrifying. With no parents, no legal guardian, no money, no formal education, no meaningful legal advocacy, and “no help” or resources in general, G said he was just 16 when he was tried and convicted as an adult in the early 1980s.

“It was rough up there, because it was … my first time ever being in prison, first time ever going to a max camp,” he recalled. “I wasn’t used to being around those types of guys – you know – because you got all types of guys in a max camp.” 

He paused. “I was a kid. I was scared.” 

First jailed at 15, G started at Kilby Correctional Facility outside Montgomery, which is still the initial “processing center” for all Alabama’s prisoners. He was then sent out to a maximum-security facility. After about six months, he was transferred again, and then four to six months later, yet again, “because they would just move me around. You know?” A similar pattern followed for the first several decades of his sentence.

Asked what types of experiences were scariest to deal with as a child in adult prisons, G reflects, “Well – you know – they were raping people. Guys were getting raped. Guys were getting stabbed up and down. You know. It was just so much going on.”

For the most part, these things didn’t happen directly to G as a child, he said, “because I just so happened to have some older guys pull me over to – you know – took me up under their wings, and raised me, and taught me the game. You know?” 

But before he was 18, he’d already seen more than any adult should. The scariest experience of those years, he said, was seeing people get stabbed. “I’d seen one guy get stabbed in the neck, [who] almost died, and I’d seen another guy got his – got his head almost cut off. So, I’d just get – it was just different stuff.”

Now, with the hindsight of middle age, G, perhaps surprisingly, believes that “transferring from prison to prison was a good experience, because … I got a chance to see a lot of different stuff, and experience a lot of stuff.” 

In G’s experience, “They don’t transfer no more like they used to. They used to just send you from prison to prison” randomly and frequently, through most of the time he’s been incarcerated. “They’ve kind of slowed that down now,” he said. “Only ways to get transferred now are, basically, you get into something – you know – catch a stabbing case, or have some type of … issue.” 

He attributes the slowed movement to ever-increasing overcrowding in the prisons.

“See, when I first came down [to prison] in the 80’s, it wasn’t as crowded as it is now. It’s so crowded now, we are stacked on top of each other, man, and it’s – just … They ain’t lettin nobody out, parole board ain’t letting nobody out – you know – and there’s a lot of guys, man, that have done a lot of time, and deserve to be out.” 

G says mid-sentence transfers started decreasing “about 2007, 2008, 2009, somewhere along there.” According to a Sentencing Project chart on the number of state and federal prisoners from 1925 to 2017, the number of imprisoned Americans indeed peaked, and stayed at its highest, just before, during, and after the years G cited. 

G believes that the prisons’ classification officers were overwhelmed by the numbers that “they just can’t move everybody at one time, so they started slowing down on them transfers … started moving two or three people at a time.” 

While incarcerated in one of these prisons during the early years of his sentence, he got his General Education Diploma. For a brief time, he was “taking trade [classes] and working on a farm” in prison, as well. Now, he frequently laments that many educational and other programs have been cut, and sees a widespread problem of boredom, restlessness, lack of hope and lack of structure instead. 

Taking classes at the prison and working on a farm outside, decades ago, he says, “learned me how to work … how to be more responsible, and to have more responsibilities.” 

G has been in Ventress a couple of years, and by now, he says, “I would like to be transferred to a different one, because this one is just too far gone, man. You know? The respect to disrespect [ratio] number is too messed up.” 

Asked how many times he’s been transferred from one prison to another, “Psshh,” G sighs, “I can’t even count ‘em all, but I know it’s at least 20, 25 times.” He doesn’t ever get comfortable, “because anything could happen, any given time. You know? They can just snatch you up at any time, and transfer you.”

When G wakes up to learn that a prisoner who he’s known a long time has been transferred, “It’s good,” he says. “I like to see prisoners get transferred out, especially if they’re going to Work-Release, or honors camps, or somewhere they can get out of prison. You know? But going from one prison to another, that ain’t good, because you ain’t getting out of prison.”

Matthew Vernon Whalan

Matthew Vernon Whalan is a writer and contributing editor for Hard Times Review. His work has appeared in The Alabama Political ReporterNew York Journal of Books, The Berkshire RecordThe Brattleboro ReformerThe Manchester Journal, The CommonsRed Crow NewsThe Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and other newspapers and literary journals.