Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Alabama prisons dodging lawyers for inmates

The Alabama prison system is constantly in the news these days because of civil rights lawsuits over prison conditions, maltreatment of inmates by prison guards, and – in the case of Julia Tutwiler State Prison for Women – sexual exploitation of female inmates.

In the 20 years I have been practicing law, I’ve seen another change for the worse. Prison wardens and personnel have become impossible for lawyers to deal with.

It used to be I could see a client in prison with a phone call. I’d tell them I was a lawyer, the name and inmate number of my client, and I’d ask for permission to visit my client at a certain day and time. I was always met with cooperative, friendly responses. All I needed to do was arrive at the prison at the appointed time with my driver’s license and my ID card from the Alabama State Bar and I was in. It was smooth. It was virtually effortless. I saw my clients, handled my business with them in short order, and left with smiles and expressions of thanks for their cooperation.

In the past two decades that collegiality has evaporated. Now it’s virtually impossible to see a client in prison without going through a ridiculous amount of stalling, red tape, obfuscation, double talk, and deliberate “forgetfulness.”

The prisons want lawyers to call for a permission sheet, which is faxed (who faxes these days?) or emailed to me. I fill it out, copy my driver’s license and ID from the state bar and send it via email or fax back. I then get a notice I have permission to come to the prison. Sounds easy, right?

Not so. The administrative assistants for the wardens seem to have a system of ignoring lawyers down pat. They never call back. This month I called Tutwiler Prison on May 11, 12 and May 20 seeking a permission form to visit a client. No calls back. None. Nothing.  This week I called Bullock Correctional on May 18, 19 and May 20 seeking permission to see a client. At Bullock, I was promised the form on Monday. No form. I called on Tuesday, where an irritated staffer told me she’d send it Tuesday. No fax. On Wednesday, same thing. So, I called the office of the director of Alabama Department of Corrections. His assistant promised to get to the bottom of it. She called me back to tell me the staffer at Bullock would get me the forms “in plenty of time for you to visit.”

I’ve talked to other lawyers, some who have practiced longer than I have, and they inform me they have the same troubles. 

Apparently there is a “circle the wagons” approach going on at Alabama Department of Corrections. With so many lawsuits flying against the system, they’ve gotten gun shy about lawyers coming to visit clients.

None of that matters. Incarcerated people have the right to visit with their attorney whenever necessary. It’s the law. It’s part of the Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

(Required by Alabama law: No representation is made that the legal services to be performed are greater than other lawyers.)

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