A new investigation reveals gun seizures under Bowser’s police department broke the law

A new investigation reveals gun seizures under Bowser’s police department broke the law

 A sit down with Washington City Paper editor, Mitch Ryals, on the recent investigation that revealed 19 MPD officers are under criminal investigation for gun seizures 

The Des interviewed Mitch Ryals, the editor of Washington City Paper who co-authored a revealing new investigation Nineteen D.C. Police Officers Are Under Criminal Investigation for Questionable Gun Seizures, According to Court Records. Ryals and co-author, Alex Koma, found almost 20 MPD officers are being investigated after their gun seizures came into question. The improper and even illegal gun seizures led to prisoner releases, dropped charges and a few of those offenders going on to commit more crimes including at least one homicide. The following interview was slightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

The Des: Please introduce yourself. 

Mitch Ryals: I’m the managing editor of Washington City Paper. In that role, I edit a lot of the content, and I also do some reporting of my own that usually focuses on criminal justice and the police and the D.C. jail and incarcerated folks from D.C.

Des: How long have you been reporting in D.C.?

Ryals: I got here at the end of 2018.

Des: Will you tell us a little bit about the recent investigation?

Ryals: My colleague Alex Coma and I published a big investigative story that provided details about the 19 D.C. police officers who are currently under criminal investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office. That’s the federal government agency that prosecutes felony crimes in D.C. 


The story is about 19 D.C. police officers who are on the crime suppression team in the seventh district. The crime suppression team is a specialized unit of officers that are untethered to regular dispatch calls. They are sort of proactively seeking to combat violent crime in the seventh district. 


In October of 2022, then-Chief Robert Conte announced that five or seven officers were under investigation for confiscating firearms but not arresting people they took them from and for their written reports not matching the body camera footage for certain incidents. So our reporting basically gives an update to that announcement last fall. The investigation has expanded now to 19 officers and has been elevated to a criminal investigation, whereas before it was just sort of MPD’s internal inquiry to see if they had violated any policies.

Des: Can you explain the significance of the investigation into those officers turning into a criminal investigation?

Ryals: The first, somewhat obvious, piece of significance is that for a police officer anywhere to be charged with a crime or even investigated for violating the law is a very big deal. It has implications for that officer and their career individually, but it also has implications for the cases that that officer has worked on and continues to work on if they’re allowed to continue working. And in particular, our story explained how these officers who are under investigation, the arrests that they have made are now being called into question. The people who they arrested that were charged, mostly with gun crimes, those cases are being dismissed, because the officer’s credibility is very seriously called into question because they’re under investigation. 


We found 28 cases, gun seizure cases, that have been dismissed, but it could be more. The Washington Post actually found that 65 gun cases have been dismissed and another 25 drug cases have been dismissed. It’s unclear how much our figures and their figures overlap. The fact that these officers are being investigated is completely destroying their work. 

Des: How did your investigation come about?

Ryals: Our interest was piqued from the moment that it was announced that cops had been essentially falsifying police reports and doing some questionable things with gun seizures. And it wasn’t until Alex Coma noticed a court of appeals decision that reversed a conviction for a man by the name of Terry Ward.


And in the narrative of the case the judge talks about how Mr.Ward was arrested by crime suppression team officers. And that set some alarm bells off for Alex, and he was like, ‘Hey this could be related to the announcement that Conte made a few months ago about these officers in 7D.’ 


That sent him down a rabbit hole of MPD gun seizure posts every week. They post the past week, and we just sort of started combing through those arrests in the D.C. Superior Court database and started noticing a pattern that if there was a gun arrest by officers in the current suppression team in the seventh district, sure enough, soon after October of 2022 when Conte made that announcement, that case would fall apart.


In some cases, the case had been resolved. In other words, the defendant had either pleaded guilty or been sentenced. Then Conte made that fall announcement, and that verdict of guilty got reversed because of the questions about the officer’s credibility.

Des: What you just said brings up this interesting thing in the story and in our city right now, which is this undercurrent of frustration between judges and police officers, the council and the mayor and everyone. Officers need to get the guns off the street, but they’re also not doing it the right way, as we can see due to this criminal investigation.

Ryals: That’s one of the main tensions that we tried to pull out in the piece. Giving the officers the benefit of the doubt is to say that they’re trying to get these guns off the street and out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them or have them illegally or could potentially hurt themselves or other people with them. 


From an officer’s perspective, I’m sure that they’re seeing these decisions from the court of appeal — we list two or three of them in the article — they’re seeing legislation passed by the D.C. Council, which now requires officers to give sort of a Miranda warning if they want to search someone without a warrant, which is, I guess, sort of unusual in that not a lot of cities have that sort of requirement. And you’re seeing all these things that make it harder for them to do the job of getting guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, which extensively is something we all want, right?


And on the other hand, there are rules and people have rights and you must follow them and the consequences of not doing so is exactly what we’re seeing now, which is that dozens of cases are being dismissed and people who have actually been found to have illegal guns are being released.

Des: What really stuck out was that some of the people who had their cases dismissed were arrested again. A lot of these people may be getting unconstitutionally searched so their cases are falling apart, but months later some of them are getting put back into the system on new charges.

Ryals: It’s incredibly frustrating, I’m sure, for the people in these communities, for the police, for anyone who’s working to make D.C. safer to see this kind of situation play out. Not to mention the family of the gentleman who was shot and killed in a McDonald’s drive-through of all places.

Excerpt from the July 2023 investigation by Washington City Paper.

Des: Can you explain the importance of the Police Reform Commission that D.C. started in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder and the protests in relation to this story?

Ryals: The D.C. Council set up the Police Reform Commission, and they released a report with a lot of recommendations, some of which MPD has picked up. But most of which MPD and D.C. Council have sort of forgotten about. One of the findings was that these specialized units, essentially the crime suppression team and the gun recovery unit, were ineffective.


There’s been reporting for years and years about the sort of aggressive, unconstitutional, violent tactics that officers on those teams have used and subject D.C. residents to, resulting in lawsuits. They cost the District a ton of money, and they’re just apparently like a bunch of thugs.


The commission recommended that MPD disband these units, because the commission found they’re doing more harm than good and that MPD should just disband them until the department can show that they are more effective at getting guns off the street, reducing crime, reducing violence than just a traditional patrol or some alternative policing strategy. Chief Conte, who was in charge at the time and who has since retired, ignored or rejected that recommendation and said he’d take care of it internally.

Des: But the crime suppression teams continued to have negative interactions within the community after this, including a few of the members being convicted in the death of Karon Hylton-Brown, right?

Ryals: Yes.

Des: Did MPD give you any answers to any questions or any feedback on the article?

Ryals: I haven’t received any feedback on the article. I mean if we got something wrong, they would have told us. The official response I got was that the MPD, as is always their response to these situations, will not comment on an ongoing investigation. MPD would not comment on the investigation specifically because the investigation is ongoing, but they did give us some details about the statuses of these officers.


We were only able to find the identities of 16 of the 19 officers so MPD was able to provide us with the status of those 16 officers. One group of officers are on non-contact status, which means their police powers have been revoked but they’re still working for the department in some capacity. Two officers are on administrative leave. And another handful of officers are on desk duty, which means they’re still working, but they’re not out patrolling and arresting people.

Des: So in different variations, all 19 of these officers are still getting paid in the department but have been demoted or removed from their previous positions?

Ryals: I believe that’s true. I don’t know if I would say demoted. I would say either reassigned or suspended, and then there’s the one that resigned.

Des: The city council just passed an emergency resolution, a crime bill this past month in response to rising crime. How do you think the findings of the article are significant in our current context?

Ryals: I hope that it adds to the conversation that we’re having. Certainly the message that we hear, at least that I hear from Mayor Bowser quite often, is that we need to do something about crime, it’s rising. And Bowser blames the rise on the U.S. Attorney’s Office not prosecuting MPD’s arrest or the judges not holding people accused of gun crimes in jail for long enough who may commit new crimes while they’re released and waiting for trial. These are a few of a number of explanations that the mayor has provided that basically deflect blame from her administration or the officers under her control. 


This article adds context to that discussion. There may be issues with judges letting people out when they shouldn’t be. There may be issues with prosecutors not prosecuting arrests when they should be, but that’s not really what this article is about. I’m not saying that isn’t true, but that’s not what this article addresses. This article talks about one specific group of police officers contributing to this problem or, potentially, at least, contributing to this issue of allowing people to reoffend.

Des: If the officers are providing essentially broken cases to a judge and prosecutor, there is not much they can do?

Ryals: Basically yes. It all starts with the officers’ arrest and their initial interactions with their suspect. A number of the officers who we identify as a part of this investigation are repeat offenders themselves. They’ve either been accused in government records or lawsuits of harassing or roughing up or harming or using coercion against people, and then they were sued.


But another layer is that it’s hard to say whether these officers are put in situations where they feel they must use force more often than other officers or they are individually more prone to using force. But the fact is that they are being accused of some pretty serious things and some of them at least have a history of being accused. 


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More Voices of Justice To Come

A new investigation reveals gun seizures under Bowser’s police department broke the law

Journalists Alex Coma and Mitch Ryals published an investigative story uncovering a criminal investigation of 19 D.C. police officers for misconduct while serving in a crime suppression unit. Originally an internal MPD inquiry, the investigation has since been upgraded to a criminal inquiry, with allegations including taking firearms without making arrests and filing false reports.

House of pain

House of Pain: an introduction

My name is Bernard Jemison and I will briefly explain my story. I’ve been incarcerated since May 13, 1998, over 25 years now for felony murder that should have been self-defense. I was sentenced to serve life with the possibility of parole in the Alabama department of corrections.

More Voices of Justice To Come

D.C. council member calls for national guard in response to most violent week in 2023. Baltimore rap producer Whiteboy killed in shooting. Youth summit to prevent violence held in D.C. 

justice from the frontlines: Aug. 14, 2023

Popular Baltimore rap producer Whiteboy was killed in a shooting at the beginning of August. He was a cornerstone producer for most of Baltimore’s top rappers, including YG Teck, OTR Chaz, Roddy Rackzz and 448 RIQ. Police are still investigating the incident, but they believe that Whiteboy was targeted. The Baltimore Banner (Aug. 4, 2023)

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has been under a consent decree since 2017 after the U.S. Department of Justice found that the department engaged in a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing. As part of the consent decree, BPD is required to collect and release data on its stops and searches, but a new report from the monitoring team overseeing the consent decree found that BPD’s data collection and reporting on stops and searches is still not adequate. The Baltimore Banner (Aug. 14, 2023)

Juvenile crime in Washington, D.C. has been on the rise. In response, a summit was held in Southeast D.C. to engage young people in finding solutions. The summit called on young people to help remedy juvenile crime by speaking out against violence and participating in community programs. WTOP (Aug. 13, 2023)

DC has seen a surge in gun violence this summer, with August being the deadliest month so far. The city has recorded 17 homicides in August, bringing the total number of killings in 2023 to 97. Police and community leaders are working to address the issue, but they say more needs to be done to prevent gun violence. DCist (Aug. 8, 2023)

DC Councilmember Trayon White is calling for more action to address gun violence in the city, after a recent spike in homicides. White met with DC Police Chief Robert Contee to discuss the issue, and is calling for more resources to be dedicated to preventing gun violence. White also wants to see more investment in programs that help children stay safe, such as after-school programs and mentorship programs. WJLA (Aug. 8, 2023)

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is facing a staffing crisis. In order to address this crisis, MPD is implementing a number of new recruitment initiatives. These initiatives include increasing pay and benefits, offering signing bonuses, and waiving some hiring requirements. The MPD is currently about 1,000 officers short of its authorized strength of 4,000 officers. DC Crime Facts (Aug. 11, 2023)

Pamela A. Smith, the new acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, says it will take a “whole-of-community” approach to fight crime in Washington, D.C. Smith has pledged to focus on increasing police presence in high-crime areas, building trust with the community, and addressing the root causes of crime. She faces a daunting task, as D.C. has seen a significant increase in violent crime in recent years. Washington Post (Aug. 8, 2023)

Treating addiction inside

California has the highest rate of drug addiction among incarcerated people in the country. An estimated 70% of people in state prisons have a substance use disorder. In response to this crisis, the state is expanding access to addiction treatment in prisons. This includes providing medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction, as well as counseling and other services. Expanding access to addiction treatment is an important step in addressing the opioid crisis and reducing recidivism. MAT has been shown to be effective in reducing opioid use and overdose deaths. Additionally, treatment can help people address the underlying causes of their addiction, which can make it less likely that they will re-offend after they are released from prison. New York Times (Aug. 10, 2023)

community board

17 people shot and killed in D.C. in one week, the community responds, police ask for information on suspects, Council Member suggests calling Natl. Guard

justice from the frontlines: Aug. 8, 2023

Note from the editor: We are experiencing a real and overwhelming spike in violence in D.C. We at The Des implore readers and community members to read, educate yourself and act from compassion and facts not fear. Many of the people most impacted by the violence aren’t the loudest voices. Do not let this violence become a political pawn or let yourself be played by leadership and politicians. We need solutions. And to get to solutions, we need an engaged community. We hope the recent spike in violence will make the entire city engage in real solutions and tough conversations. These solutions must be all encompassing – police and prisons will not stop this violence. At The Des, we will continue to cover both the violence and solutions.

Police block off the scene of a triple homicide in NW D.C. on Saturday Aug. 5, 2023.

Gun violence sweeps NW and SE D.C.

Starting Friday night, multiple mass shootings hit D.C. along with other single victim homicides. The first was in the Adams Morgan (there were other shootings on U Street that night). Saturday night, three people were killed and two injured critically in Southeast D.C.

17 people were killed in total last week. The police chief didn’t have much to add past a plea for people who saw any of the shootings to come forward with evidence. D.C.’s police union went after a council member following her statement on the Adams Morgan shooting who supported defunding the police.

This has been the community response so far.

Other events this week:

  • The 40 Days of Increased Peace events continue this week offering movies, dance classes and more across the city. See all the events here.
  • We’ve updated The Des’s community calendar for the next two weeks.

The week before the record homicides, D.C. government focused on addressing crime in Chinatown despite it being one of the least impacted by gun violence this year. Other areas like NW and SE that would see mass shootings a few days later did not get visits. Chinatown has been a rapidly gentrified area full of luxury apartment buildings that are still near the Capitol.

Areas more impacted by crime did not get visits from the Chief of police or coverage by The Washington Post until multiple homicides occurred. The Post dedicated most of its D.C. coverage to which areas Trump had recently mentioned, yet again demonstrating the lack of national media to fully comprehend local issues or care. The New Yorker ran a long piece on how D.C.’s crime code reform became a national political soccer ball for Congress, highlighting the lack of statehood which prevents the city’s efforts to govern itself and respond quickly to community needs.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, shown at a news conference earlier this year.

free Adnan Syed 

After a pleading, public defenders asked Maryland Supreme Court to keep Adnan Syed free. Syed was reinstated in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and High School classmate. His public defender argued that the issue was moot, given that Baltimore prosecutors dismissed the case. Syed asked the state’s highest court to take the case, after claims that prior hearings and in-person attendance was violated. The Lee family has urged the Justice to hear the matter. The court has scheduled an oral argument for October 5, where they will deeply consider questions raised in Syed’s appeal.  The Baltimore Banner (August 2, 2023)

fixing healthcare in Baltimore jails

Reports by court-appointed monitors cast doubt that Baltimore City jails can comply with medical care requirements set for June 2024. Monitors have documented inmates with severe mental illness suffering in solitary confinement, error-prone records, missed medications, and inmates with disabilities that are misidentified or unaccommodated. Caught in a lawsuit, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services have claimed that it is “fully committed to resolving the various challenges related to the Duvall case.” Officials are targeting the end of 2025 to be fully compliant, despite the fact that the judge has given a six-month extension two years ago.   The Baltimore Banner (August 2, 2023)

25% decline in Baltimore homicides

A view of the D.C. Superior Court building in downtown Washington.

In July, Baltimore recorded 19 homicides, the lowest count since 2015 in what is historically the city’s deadliest month of the year. The city reported 159 homicides in 2023, a 25% decline from July of last year. Mayor Brandon Scott has touted public safety efforts and the Baltimore Police Department for curving the rates of homicides. Despite the current pace of homicides, analysis has shown that the reduction in violence is not proportionally shared across the city. One analysis found that high-school-age youth have been shot at a record number this year. Baltimore Banner (August 2, 2023)

Maryland juvenile justice laws

Local leaders pledge to seek changes to Maryland juvenile justice laws. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates remarked, “Young people are supposed to have wraparound services. So, the law fails the public because there is no public safety. It fails the young people because they are not getting services.” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott agreed, saying he wants significant changes made.  In the next session of the General Assembly, the mayor and state’s attorney plan to lobby state lawmakers to enact change. Although there is no plan for a special session, the chairman plans to hold a briefing to address the issue of youth gun violence. WBALT TV (August 2, 2023)

operation bold blue line

The D.C. Jail.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin updates law enforcement drug safety initiative, called “Operation Bold Blue Line.” The state-wide initiative works to remove illegal drugs off the streets and keep the commonwealth safer. Since the initiative’s early stages, there has been a removal of 2,060 pounds of illegal narcotics across the state. The operation comes at a time when law enforcement vacancy rates are nearly 40%, leaving state-funded agencies stretched thin. In response to its early success, the initiative will work with the Virginia General Assembly to fund a victim/witness assistance program, which would provide funds for lodging, relocation expenses, transportation and other necessary services.  ABC 8 News (August 1, 2023)

transgender inmates at higher risk

In an investigation by News 3, transgender inmates were reported to be at a high risk of physical assault. A 2015 survey of over 27,000 transgender inmates showed that nearly a quarter of respondents were physically assaulted by staff or other inmates, and one in five were sexually assaulted while in prison. Director of U.S Transgender Survey Josie Caballero responded, “It proves more about how in danger the trans population is when you are incarcerated. A lot of this has to do with inmates being out in the wrong jails and prisons.” 3 WTKR (July 31, 2023)

DC man brutally arrested in MD

Video shows D.C. man being brutally arrested on Ocean City, Maryland Boardwalk. Parents of the victim claim that the officers targeted him because they were enforcing a ban against vaping on the boardwalk. Police documents reveal that Ruff had “intentionally smoked his vape,” despite being told about the ordinance, and refused to stop when police ordered. His mother said in a statement, “I felt his fear. I felt my fear. I felt how close we were to possibly losing him.” Ruff was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting/interfering with an arrest, 2nd-degree assault, and failure to provide proof of identification because of his retaliation. CBS News Baltimore (July 12, 2023)

14-year-old arrested for crime spree

Prosecutors said that within a span of two hours, a 14-year-old and three others carjacked, robbed, and fatally shot a 34-year-old man. For nearly three hours, D.C. homicide detective Jeff Clay testified that authorities identified the teen as a suspect based on evidence from security cameras from around the city that he captured the crimes. The 14-year-old’s identity has not been disclosed, but the teen and others have been charged with crimes including felony murder while armed, attempted robbery while armed, carjacking while armed, two counts of robbery while armed, and carrying a pistol without a license. The Washington Post (August 1, 2023)

in other news

After George Floyd’s murder, states are demanding the release of police disciplinary records. Lawmakers have introduced over 500 bills addressing police investigations and discipline, sixty-five of which have been put in action. Greater transparency should hold officers accountable and look for patterns of police abuse. Virginia Mercury (August 2, 2023)

In New York’s red light district, sex workers have reported that police see them as “disposable.” Officers are pushing workers to take greater risks to survive, through searches and arrests. Legislators are looking for the answer to this problem in the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, which will eliminate penalties for consensual sex work and strengthen labor protection for sex workers. The Guardian  (August 3, 2023)

Solitary confinement survivors rally in support for proposed federal ban of the practice. Standing in support of these survivors, Congresswoman Bush remarked, “Solitary confinement is a deprived and sadistic practice.” Number of reports have shown that solitary confinement is comparable to psychological torture and can lead to migraines, vertigo, and claustrophobia. Truthout (August 4, 2023)

community board

  • Read: Anthropologist in Baltimore Argues Safety for Black Communities Requires an End to Policing 
  • Read: Black Drivers in Virginia are More Likely to be Stopped After Drop in Searches
  • Volunteer: The “Comeback Backpack” Prepares People for Life Post-Incarceration
  • Report: Social Intervention Can End Mass Incarceration and Improve Public Safety
  • Read: Wells Fargo Pledges $60 Million for Worker Re-Entry Program 
  • Read: Bowie State University Expands Program for Inmates Earning Degrees
  •  Report: Safety Beyond Sentencing

“A break in belonging” – a prison preacher and the quest to document him

“A break in belonging” – a prison preacher and the quest to document him

A interview with Shirley Vernae Williams about her developing documentary

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Shirley Williams is a Emmy nominated producer and producing a full length documentary titled A Break In Belonging about pastor Martin Thomas who pled guilty to murder without revealing why he took a man’s life. Martin’s family was shattered and left with unanswered questions. After serving 23 years in prison, Martin is home working relentlessly to save men from incarceration all while striving to rebuild his relationship with his sons.

Shirley just launched a Kickstarter campaign. Here’s a few reasons to support:

  • Media’s negative influence on the U.S. criminal justice system affects policy & inflicts punishment over corrections. We have the opportunity to create a new image and impact within our system. 

  • There are up to 2.7 million children in the U.S. affected by parental incarceration. This film examines the relationship between Black men and their children while highlighting the impact of generational secrets. Only 20% of producers and directors on top films are women. Let’s help Shirley change this!
    Make a pledge and donate today!

Shirley Williams

A year and a half ago, Shirley was at church when her minister mentioned that Martin Thomas was coming back to New York. The congregation was a buzz, but she had no idea who Martin was. So Shirley asked her mother. Martin, she learned, was a minister who murdered someone and was returning after decades in prison. 

Naturally, Shirley wanted to talk to Martin. Then she heard him speak, read a few books and was hooked on his story. After many talks with Martin’s wife, she got in the car and drove to talk with the ex-minister. What unfolded before her was a story about the power of love and redemption. 

Martin was sentenced to prison after killing his business partner for reasons he will disclose for the first time in Shirley’s documentary. He’s never told anyone even his family, why he killed the man. 

Martin’s story starts after he went to prison and lost contact with all five of his sons. He entered prison and became the pastor of the prison’s church. The prison was violent and terse with gang rivalries, but his power as a pastor transformed it.

“He brings all that energy, all that swag into the prison, completely changing the culture,” Shirley said. 

In his 23 years he baptized hundreds of people per year and started many programs that emphasized rehabilitation for inmates. 

He also fell in love with a caseworker in what Shirley said is “a very complicated love story”. They reconnected after her retirement, and he married her the day Martin left prison in 2017. 

After Martin left prison, his wife and him started a program called Foresight For-Givers to provide men on parole housing and food at no cost. 

Housing is a huge block for returning citizens who often can’t qualify for housing assistance, are blocked from rentals and can’t live with family in public housing due to their criminal records. 

The documentary has “a lot of layers” she said. “[The story] will be leaning heavily on the mystery of why Martin committed this crime. We’ll also get to see the impact that he’s had in the prison and hear from men whose lives he changed and then focus now on the impact that he’s having outside of prison walls,” Shirley said.

Martin is a “remarkable” man who enrolled his parole officer to become the director of operations for Foresight. “I mean, this is how powerful this man is,” Shirley said. “That shows how dynamic and how moving of a man he is.”

Martin Thomas

“He is a story that just speaks to second chance and possibility and redemption,” Shirley says. 

“So often us, as a society no matter what the crime is when people get sent away, we write them off. Martin is completely opposite. He did a horrible thing. And to this day, he hates that he did that thing. I think he’s still in a space of trying to forgive himself after all these years, over two decades. But he’s a person like everybody.” 

“I’ve committed crimes. I just haven’t gotten caught. Like you, me, so many of us commit crimes, commit wrongdoing and, you know, a lot of us don’t get caught. He got caught.”

Martin and his wife, Lady Carolyn Thomas.

How does this story speak to the bigger criminal justice world? 

“The system is really designed to support these ex felons return back to prison. So in Indiana itself, when you get out, you can’t go to an apartment. Like, even if it’s your mom’s apartment or your brother’s apartment, you have to go to a home. So you have to go to a place where someone owns a home. 

So then these men, when they come out of prison, especially those that are there for long term, usually these are not first time offenders. They’re probably not first time offenders within their family or friends dynamic. So they probably have burned bridges. People don’t want anything to do with them. So their chances of having a place to return, the pool of people gets slimmer and slimmer and slimmer. So then you have people already don’t want me around. 

And then for those that do want me around, they then have to be in a bucket of they have to be homeowners. A lot of these are Black men. A lot of Black folks, especially in these urban communities, don’t own homes. So then it starts to get more complicated. So many of Martin’s men have violated parole simply because they did not have a home to go to. So then they’re thrown back into the system, not because they committed a crime, not because of wrongdoing, simply because they didn’t have a home. 

So Martin’s design is really to help tackle recidivism. He now owns two homes and he creates a space where these men can stay at forever because he knows just not having a home can lead you to violate parole, which can throw you back into the system. So he’s tackling that in that way.

He’s also tackling recidivism in a way where the programming that he’s designed for these males to help you on unlearn bad habits, unlearn thinking, thinking, unlearn negative belief systems, and put on new things that can help you to create a new life for yourself so that you’re not engaging in poor and old bad behavior that once led you into the into prison in the first place. 

What are you most looking forward to exploring in this film?

He had an unspeakable bond with his sons post the crime. That bond was broken. It was almost as if Martin didn’t exist. He wasn’t talking to the sons. Twenty three years. He never saw one of the five. He didn’t start getting letters until his sons were older and started to learn. But in all that, what Martin didn’t do was Martin did not victimize himself. 

He took his power and channeled it into other men. So he became the father, although he temporarily lost five, he became the father of hundreds. And I’m looking forward to being an example by showing how you can still be powerful in the context of loss. It’s really about your perspective. We always have a responsibility to use our tools and talents and gifts to forward the planet. And to be supportive of other human beings. 

What have you learned about yourself so far? 

I learned through Martin and through watching him, I saw how far I have to go when I thought I was compassionate. It allowed me to see how judgmental I could be and how wrong I was within those judgments. And that when I thought I knew so much, I knew nothing. 

I also think he helped me to connect to my people, Black people specifically in a way where I was just like I live in a bubble where even for my own people I’m not aware of so many of the hardships and the pain and suffering. He kind of burst that bubble. 

“I need money from individuals, from organizations, people who are down for the cause, who want to support in telling stories of second chances – telling true, authentic stories of what happens within prison walls and ending recidivism.” 


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The documentary has “a lot of layers” she said. “[The story] will be leaning heavily on the mystery of why Martin committed this crime. We’ll also get to see the impact that he’s had in the prison and hear from men whose lives he changed and then focus now on the impact that he’s having outside of prison walls,” Shirley said.

I also think he helped me to connect to my people, Black people specifically in a way where I was just like I live in a bubble where even for my own people I’m not aware of so many of the hardships and the pain and suffering. He kind of burst that bubble. 

From headphones to the streets: a revolutionary goes back to Hip Hop’s roots to end all incarceration

From headphones to the streets: a revolutionary goes back to Hip Hop’s roots to end all incarceration

an interview with ATL abolitionist and hip hop artist Nikos

By LJ Dawsonn

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

You couldn’t find Nikos, an Atlanta based artist and self-titled revolutionary, in the studio making music after May 29, 2020. Since protests popped off, he’s gone to where the people are to deliver his message. But before the masses of young people took to the streets, he met the youth where they were — in their headphones

“I’m thoroughly passionate about making change happen specifically for the Black community in America, but more broadly for oppressed people all over the world,” Nikos said. Since 2015 he’s used Hip Hop as a tool to reach young people and turn them on to ideas that subvert the system. 

“Peace is about liberation, about establishing sovereignty. And it’s about raising the revolutionary consciousness of young people,” he said. Nikos sticks out among Hip Hop artists due to his centering of prison abolition. While more and more artists are weaving in protest and revolutionary thought into their music this summer, they haven’t centered incarceration and the justice system. Nikos has been rapping about the justice system and prisons for years. 

What does he hope young minds get from his music? 

Primarily:  “The machine of oppression, the wicked empire that has played a role in genocide not just here in America but all over the world and is actively involved in supporting the system that is destroying our ecosystem as we speak, that this system is artificial, impermanent and can be torn down.”

Beyond that: “I want young people to understand that they are powerful beyond their own imagination. We the people are powerful beyond our own imagination, and that fearlessness is real.”

Hip Hop grew up as a catalyst for revolution — it manifested in resistance. But as the ‘90s turned the decade, the music lost its revolutionary message and evolved mostly into ego-driven materialism. Nikos says that he himself didn’t start creating revolutionary music until five years ago. After backpacking for months in Europe, he returned to Atlanta with the clarity that losing and finding yourself delivers. He’s been making revolutionary trap music since then.

Music is a way for him to introduce young minds to big revolutionary concepts they might otherwise ignore. And Hip Hop, well it’s the default channel. It is divine in its original form, he said: its power comes strictly from it being Black music from the souls of the ancestors.  

“The purest of art forms that come from the bottom where we reside here in America — the ones that are unable to abide materialism — are the ones that are untouched by industry: those are going to be the ones that speak the loudest truths,” he said.

He’s chosen it as an art form to deliver his message because of its ability to move young people’s imagination. “Music is probably one of the primary world view shaping forces that young people come into contact with prior to life experience,” he said.

It can invert the narrative: “Hip Hop is actually a tool for projecting the kind of ideas that might help a young person imagine themselves as being more powerful than the oppressor, more powerful than those things that strike fear into their heart.” 

Nikos has taken the same message of his music to the protests in an attempt to elevate the “political imagination” of his peers. 

“I don’t think any group of people should have to fight for ‘matter.’ I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. It pains me that that’s the banner under which this movement is moving because mattering is the minimum. We’re fighting to matter. There is so much more that we actually ought to be fighting for,” he said. 

If the people on the street are risking their lives, jail-time, felonies and thousands of dollars in defense expenses, Nikos wants to turn them onto more than “matter.”

“If you’re risking all of that just to matter then let me put you on to some game because what you are owed is far more than ‘matter’.” Still, it is a pivotal moment to organize in resistance.”

“We have to stand on mattering because if we don’t fight for mattering then nothing will stop the oppressive force from continuing its oppression. Just as they used prison as a weaponized tool against us, they will continue to do that, and they’ll turn our communities into open air prisons,” he said.

Nikos believes this generation has a responsibility to defend “our communities.” If not, “the carceral state will continue to creep into our sovereignty or whatever illusion of sovereignty that we have,” he said. Part of toppling the system is rebuilding a society. That is where abolition comes in, and abolition means freeing the people in prison. 

“I’m a firm believer that Black people will get our freedom. I believe that we will become the sovereign nation that we are. But I don’t believe that we’ll be able to do that in any meaningful way without our brothers and sisters who are locked in the dungeons of America,” he said. 

“They have been wronged generationally. And the system is illegitimate and impermanent, meaning that it is artificial, meaning that we should shake those bars loose until all injustices are atoned,” he said. Meaning that people are freed. 

The way protesters have been treated this summer by police is just an out spilling of the violent abuse the system has executed upon people inside prisons for centuries. 

“It’s important for me to understand that what’s happening in the prisons does affect us because those are the same tactics and the strategies and message-framing that they are deploying against us in the streets right now. The same way that people are being surveilled in prisons, the same way that repression is used against those people who speak up and blow the whistle in prison, is the same way that activists and organizers are being treated today,” Nikos said.

“People ought to pay attention to how the carceral state operates in the dungeons because that is the true character of America and anything else is a façade.”

“If they think for even a second that we’re looking at isolated incidents of injustice, that’s crazy because you can go sit with anybody who’s been to prison and they’ll tell you exactly how racist and exactly how oppressive and classist the system actually is and has been for generations. What we’re seeing in the streets now is that brutality is leaking out into every facet of society because it had always existed at the root of the tree, its poisonous tree.” 

Nikos is currently constructing an album from the summer of upheaval in his mind, but his main efforts are going towards building a platform to host revolutionary thoughts, Free World Radio. Listen to him here. For other Hip Hop artists making a movement, Nikos says to check out Raury.

*This feature was first published in the fall of 2020.


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Nikos believes this generation has a responsibility to defend “our communities.” If not, “the carceral state will continue to creep into our sovereignty or whatever illusion of sovereignty that we have,” he said. Part of toppling the system is rebuilding a society. That is where abolition comes in, and abolition means freeing the people in prison. 

When school slides into prison easier than graduation

When school slides into prison easier than graduation

Sheriffs showed up to a 12-year-old Black boy’s home after a toy gun appeared on his webcam for school. What happened next? (an election aftermath break until next week)

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

The school to prison pipeline has long been established across the country, Colorado is no different. But this year, online classes have brought school discipline into children’s homes. This story explores how that could impact Black children. First written by me for the Colorado Springs Indy (Oct. 14, 2020)

The family in 2018. Courtesy of Dani Elliott

On the third day of online school in August, Dani Elliott called her 12-year-old son. She was terrified. She told him to lock every door, turn off the lights and go to the basement until his father returned from a quick errand down the street. 

Widefield School District 3’s two school resource officers (SROs), who are El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) deputies, were on their way to her home for a welfare check. A teacher had reported Elliott’s son and his friend, another student taking classes at her home, for displaying what the teacher thought, but was not sure, was a toy gun during an online class.

Elliott’s first thought, she says, was of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy like her son who was killed by police in 2014 when an officer shot him because he thought his toy gun was real. 

“It seems like almost every week there’s a new story, and I did not want my son to be the next headline of something that happened tragically at the hands of law enforcement because of a misunderstanding,” she says.

The SROs gave Isaiah a stern lecture with his father present and told him he could have been criminally charged with “interference with an educational institution.” He was not charged, but he was suspended by the school for five days for behavior which was “detrimental to the welfare, safety or morals of other pupils or school personnel” and violating district policies.

Experts say implicit bias and racism result in higher rates of punishment of minority students, which contributes to the “school-to-prison” pipeline where students of color are more likely to end up incarcerated and less likely to graduate than white students. Elliott believes her son was a victim of that same bias, only in a new online setting. And there are other cases like Isaiah’s. In September a 9-year-old Black student was suspended in Louisiana when a teacher saw a BB gun in his room during an online class. 

The toy gun that Isaiah showed on his class video. Courtesy of Dani Elliot

Locally, Elliott says the school handled the situation poorly. “Not only did [they] fail to protect his safety, but [they] endangered his life, potentially, by calling the police,” she says. 

But the district says it acted with Isaiah’s well-being in mind, though it is not policy to send SROs to the home. 

Isaiah’s parents pulled him out of D-3’s Grand Mountain school after the incident due to, they say, fears for his safety. But Elliott says Isaiah’s interaction with the EPSO deputies took away a piece of his innocence. She says he was in tears after the visit and thought he was going to jail. All of a sudden, an already difficult school year became even harder. [Read the full story]



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Shaking off the dust

The United States Sentencing Commission’s four year interruption has left the circuit court system in disarray and many incarcerated people waiting to hear back on appeals. Its first meeting addressed the list of priorities it will tackle including The First Step Act.

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Still locked out of the ballot box

 An estimated 4.6 million Americans are still unable to vote due to felony records despite reforms. This includes more than one in 10 Black adults in eight states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.


Bail industry gets away with murder, costing defendants and citizens alike

An investigation was published indicating that six NYC bail bond companies were using fake trade names in order to continue operations without being shut down by state officials for large amounts of debt. The ability of agencies to continue to profit off of the bail system despite state laws that allow officials to suspend agencies owing large sums of money is the sixth loophole emphasized by the report.


Mass incarceration punishes kids too

The arrest of a parent can be traumatic and severe for children whose parents are incarcerated, causing emotional, physical, educational and financial well-being difficulties. According to a  new study, kids of incarcerated parents are likely to become incarcerated themselves.

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Holiday Book Drive

Holiday Book Drive

The Des is raising funds and donations to send books to DC Books to Prisoners

Donating used books 

  • No hard covers
  • No stained or damaged books
  • No books with sexually explicit content
  • No nudity 
  • No true crime


  • learning Spanish
  • fiction and nonfiction in Spanish
  • westerns
  • RECENT how to start a small business
  • RECENT how to learn trades like electrician
  • DC comics
  • Marvel comics
  • RECENT almanacs
  • New dictionaries
  • historical fiction
  • history books
  • non-DC and Marvel comics
  • biographies
  • other learn foreign language books

Buying Books to donate: 

Donating funds for us to buy books: 

  • please make donations via venmo @lj-dawson with book drive in the subject line. We will update this post with total donated amount and books purchased.

Please text 202.630.4322 for local DC drop off locations.


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left to die

new report finds ten of thousands of people over fifty who are sentenced to life without parole face increasingly grim conditions

More Voices of Justice To Come

gun violence surges despite crime fighting efforts; package snatching is now a felony in some states; new laws could provide relief to survivors of domestic violence in prison

from the frontlines: AUGUST EDITION

sentence delivered

A federal court sentenced Gregory McMichael, the shooter of Ahmaud Arbery to life in prison for hate crimes. His son who also participated in the killing of the Black runner, also received a life sentence. Arbery’s mother responded to McMichael’s statement: “Unfortunately his apology doesn’t bring back my son, but I do accept it.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Aug. 8, 2022)

DA saga in the bay drags on

Brooke Jenkins, the recalled San Francisco District Attorney’s former employee not only quit to successfully replace him in the recent recall election, but also received $100k as a consultant for a nonprofit that shares the same address and almost the same name as the organization behind the recall ballot, according to new ethics records. The Appeal’s Nick Wing makes some sense of the madness here.The San Francisco Standard (Aug. 9, 2022)

cracking down on snatches

Porch piracy in eight states is now a felony, and five states have introduced similar legislation. But others argue that these penalties are too severe and will disproportionately affect people of color. Type Investigations (Aug. 25, 2022)

cashed out

Baltimore school police officers earned almost $1.8 million in overtime and additional pay during a pandemic school year. They worked as after-hours security for other agencies and Orioles and Ravens’ games. Baltimore Banner (Aug. 26, 2022)


what does forgiveness look like decades later

A mass school shooting in Kentucky in 1997 left three students dead and another five others wounded. The teen shooter, now an adult, is up for parole forcing the victims and families to confront the tough question of forgiveness of a teen shooter who claimed bullying. Washington Post (Aug. 28, 2022)

call in the troops

As the humanitarian crisis in Alabama’s prisons continues to deteriorate, a former warden said that the national guard should be called in to support record low numbers of staffing. WAAY31ABC (Aug. 5, 2022)

shots continue to rain from B-more to DC

A press conference about crime-fighting team work in Baltimore last week was overshadowed by a mass shooting of seven people. Multiple people were shot and killed in D.C., P.G. County and Baltimore this month in a continued resurgence of gun violence. A football player for the Washington Commanders was shot multiple times this weekend on H St. NE. Baltimore Banner (Aug. 24, 2022)

forced labor

A year-long investigation into Arizona Correctional Industries found that the nearly 2,000 workers are employed for less than $1 an hour, and at times have to pay to live in their own cells and receive no benefits.They are also leased to other companies. KJZZ (July 18, 2022)

punished for protecting yourself

Women’s prisons are full of domestic violence survivors who took their fate into their own hands and killed their abusive partner. Laws passed to allow judges to consider abuse survivors for early release could fix this. Mother Jones (Aug. 11, 2022)



D.C. substance abuse expert provides awareness to end stigma over the opioid crisis by demonstrating the use of Narcan and reconstruction tactics; Baltimore State Attorney published a ‘Do Not Call’ list of police officers in order to protect the integrity of the department

D.C. substance abuse expert provides awareness to end stigma over the opioid crisis by demonstrating the use of Narcan and reconstruction tactics; Baltimore State Attorney published a ‘Do Not Call’ list of police officers in order to protect the integrity of the department; D.C.’s NEAR Act, despite providing more police data, has failed to lead to any significant crime reform

Read More »

Maryland’s youth justice system faces potential reform as offense rates rise, the attorney general and public defender of Maryland went on a barbershop tour in hopes to lower mass incarceration rates.

In Baltimore, the attorney general and public defender engaged in a barbershop tour to discuss mass incarceration and community investments. D.C. residents grapple with rising crime rates, prompting safety concerns even in past low-crime neighborhoods. A Ward 8 community crime walk aims to address escalating violence, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ director emphasizes the need for prison system reform, touching on various critical issues.

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New report finds rise in arrests didn’t slow an explosion of meth use and overdose deaths across America

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New report finds rise in arrests didn’t slow an explosion of meth use and overdose deaths across America

From 2015-2019, the data studied showed arrests rose in 40 out 43 states by an average of 80% in each state, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ new report

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Despite a rise in arrests for possession of meth, both the use of meth and subsequent overdose deaths skyrocketed from 2015-2019, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable TrustsThe report found that arrests for meth possession increased by almost 60% across the country while people using meth rose by 37% and overdose deaths more than doubled.

Earlier research from Pew showed that drug arrests overall did not drop from 2009 to 2019 despite lower arrest rates for cannabis. This was due to higher rates of arrest for meth. This inspired them to look deeper into drug use by type of substance across the country, according to Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.


“This is not a problem that because you live in a state that hasn’t traditionally had a big meth use problem you can ignore,” Velázquez said.


The Pew analysis found that more than 2 million people used meth in 2019, the most recent data available, and half of those users qualified for substance use disorder, meaning that meth use significantly impacted their ability to function. In 16 states, at least 1 in 100 adults used meth in 2019.


“Meth use is growing across the country, overdoses are growing across the country, and policymakers and states that have not traditionally thought about it as a problem they need to deal with, they need to start thinking about dealing with it,” she said.

“Lacking other tools to deal with this growing meth problem, communities are hoping that they can arrest their way out of it."

Other studies and reports show that overall drug use and overdoses continue to rise since the pandemic. Preliminary data reported 1 in 3 drug overdose deaths nationwide involving meth in 2021, compared with 1 in 4 in 2019.


And the meth people are using is deadlier. Overdose deaths more than doubled from 2.1 to 5.6 per 100,000 people. Part of this is due to meth contaminated with fentanyl. Deaths involving fentanyl more than quadrupled from 7% to 31% over the five years.

On average, meth possession arrests rose almost 80% across the country. They more than doubled in nine states and rose in 40 out of 43 states. Ohio, Illinois, New York and Nevada lead the country with increases over 200%. 


“Lacking other tools to deal with this growing meth problem, communities are hoping that they can arrest their way out of it,” Velázquez said.


Previous research shows that increasing arrests for drug possession does not lead to a reduction in drug use. Velázquez said there is no reason to think that targeting meth use through arrests would work this time around. She said that they hope the report encourages the federal government to develop and research novel treatments such as a Narcan, which counteracts opioid overdoses, for meth overdoses.


Velázquez also pointed to harm reduction strategies which address underlying mental health issues that spur self-medicated illicit drug use and also attempt to reduce the risk of drug consumption such as supervised drug use sites. 

Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts

“We feel that it’s a sort of an inflection point, where how we address the issue of meth use going forward can make a big difference in what this looks like, five years from now,” Velázquez said.


“I am hopeful that substance use disorder is seen as a health issue that isn’t someone’s fault. It’s not a personal failing, but rather a result of both their own biology and environment.”


Read the full report here.

credit: Pew Charitable Trusts

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Overdose Deaths Behind Bars Rise as Drug Crisis Swells

Even if Alabama’s prisons and jails are especially overrun by drugs, death, and violence, their problems are not unique in the U.S. Within three weeks this spring, incarcerated people died of overdoses in Illinois, Oklahoma, New York, and the District of Columbia.

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New report debunks 2020 youth crime wave

politicians and pundits are peddling youth gone wild but a new report says the most recent data doesn’t support their claims and harsher sentences won’t stop crime


The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

Just because prison overpopulation is usually discussed in regards to males, America also has a glaring problem of over incarcerating mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmas. There are currently 108,000 women in prison in the United States — accounting for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated females.

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Overdose Deaths Behind Bars Rise as Drug Crisis Swells

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Overdose Deaths Behind Bars Rise as Drug Crisis Swells

Drug-related mortality rates increased in prisons and jails even as the numbers of people incarcerated for drug offenses dropped. The pandemic visitor lockdowns didn’t eliminate the problem, showing that guards are the main source of contraband. 

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Annissa Holland should be excited her son is coming home from prison after four long years of incarceration. Instead, she’s researching rehab centers to send him to as soon as he walks out the gate.


She doesn’t know the person who’s coming home — the person who she said has been doing every drug he can get his hands on inside the Alabama prison system. She can hear it in the 34-year-old’s voice when he calls her on the prison phone.


Her son is one of almost 20,000 inmates in the Alabama prison system living in conditions the U.S. Department of Justice has called inhumane. In two investigations, it found that the rampant use of drugs causes sexual abuse and “severe” violence in the state’s prisons. The department has sued Alabama, alleging conditions in its prisons violate inmates’ civil rights. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ own report, almost 60 pounds of illicit drugs were confiscated from its prisons in the first three months of this year.


Even if Alabama’s prisons and jails are especially overrun by drugs, death, and violence, their problems are not unique in the U.S. Within three weeks this spring, incarcerated people died of overdoses in IllinoisOklahomaNew York, and the District of Columbia.


The alcohol and drug overdose death rate increased fivefold in prisons from 2009 through 2019, according to a recent study from the Pew Charitable Trusts — a surge that outpaced the national drug overdose rate, which tripled in the same period.


As the opioid crisis ravages America, overdose deaths are sweeping through every corner of the nation, including jails and prisons. Criminal justice experts suggest that decades of using the legal system instead of community-based addiction treatment to address drug use have not led to a drop in drug use or overdoses. Instead, the rate of drug deaths behind bars in supposedly secure facilities has increased.


This rise comes amid the decriminalization of cannabis in many parts of the country and a drop in the overall number of people incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Pew report.

According to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ own report, almost 60 pounds of illicit drugs were confiscated from its prisons in the first three months of this year.

“It certainly points to the need for alternative solutions that rely less on the criminal justice system to help people who are struggling with substance use disorders,” said Tracy Velázquez, senior manager for safety and justice programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.


For decades, drug use in America has mainly been addressed through the penal system — 1 in 5 people behind bars are there for a drug offense. Drug crimes were behind 30% of new admissions to Alabama prisons in March. Nationally, they were the leading cause of arrest, and almost 90% of arrests were for possession of drugs, not sale or manufacturing, according to the Pew study. The researchers also found that fewer than 8% of arrested people with a drug dependency received treatment while incarcerated.


Velázquez said a lot of drug use is spurred by people with mental health issues attempting to self-medicate. Almost 40% of people in prisons and 44% in jails have a history of mental illness, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.


Holland said her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia and PTSD six years ago after struggling with drug use since his teens. The son, who asked that his name not be published for fear his comments could jeopardize his release from prison or subsequent parole, said a schizophrenic episode in 2017 led him to break into a house during a hurricane. He said he didn’t realize people were in the house until after he ate a sandwich, got a Coke from the fridge, and looked for dry clothes. They called the police. He was sent to prison on a charge of burglary.

Holland's son with his sister at 4-years-old.

“They don’t put the mental health patients where they should be; they put them in prison,” Holland said.


She’s not only frustrated by the lack of medical care and treatment her son has received, but also horrified at the access to drugs and the abuse she said her son has suffered in the overcrowded, understaffed Alabama prison system.


He told KHN he’s been raped and beaten because of drug debts and put on suicide watch more than a dozen times. He said he turned back to using heroin, meth, and the synthetic drug flakka while incarcerated.


“We need to really focus on not assuming that putting someone in jail or prison is going to make them abstinent from drug use,” Velázquez said. “We really need to provide treatment that not only addresses the chemical, substance use disorder, but also addresses some of the underlying issues.”

Beth Shelburne, who works with the American Civil Liberties Union, logged 19 drug-related deaths in Alabama prisons in 2021, the most she has seen since she started tracking them in 2018.


She said those numbers are just a snapshot of what is going on inside Alabama’s prisons. The Justice Department found the state corrections department failed to accurately report deaths in its facilities.


“A lot of the people that are dying, I would argue, don’t belong in prison,” Shelburne said. “What’s so disgusting about all this is we are sentencing people who are drug-addicted to time in these ‘correctional facilities,’ when we’re really just throwing them into drug dens.”


The corrections department’s reports reveal at least seven overdose deaths in 2021, three of which officials classified as natural deaths. It reported 97 deaths in the first three months of this year that have yet to be fully classified.


Though Republican Gov. Kay Ivey recently announced a grant of more than $500,000 for a program to help incarcerated people address drug use disorders, the number of graduates of drug treatment programs in the state’s prison system has plummeted in the past decade to record lows. About 3% of prisoners completed a treatment program in 2021, down from 14% in 2009.

In contrast, California reported a 60% reduction in overdose deaths in its prisons in 2020, which state officials attributed to the start of a substance use treatment program and the widespread availability of medication-assisted therapy.


Alabama’s system is developing a medication-assisted treatment plan with its health contractor, said Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson Kelly Betts. Before 2019, medications that curb drug cravings or mute highs were given only to those who could be separated from the general prison population, according to Deborah Crook, the department’s health services deputy commissioner.


“The science has changed considerably and there are more medication options that are safer to prescribe — even in general population,” she wrote in a statement.


Though prison officials have long blamed visitors for bringing in drugs, the ban on visitation during the pandemic did not lead to a drop in drug use inside. Multiple officers were arrested in Alabama last year and accused of bringing drugs into jails and prisons, and the Department of Justice’s 2019 report found dozens of officers arrested in the previous two years on charges related to drug trafficking and other misconduct.


Illegal drugs are “a challenge faced by correctional systems across the country,” Betts wrote in an email. “The ADOC is committed to enforcing our zero-tolerance policy on contraband and works very hard to eradicate it from our facilities.”


Betts did not specify how these policies are enforced. The department also refused to respond to a detailed list of questions about drug use and overdoses in its prisons, citing the litigation with the Justice Department.

Holland doesn’t know what will happen when her son gets out. He said he hopes he can restart his business as an electrician and provide for his family. But the four years of his so-called rehabilitation have been a nightmare for both of them.


“They’re released messed-up, hurt, and deeply dysfunctional. What do you do with someone that’s been through all that?” Holland said. “That’s not rehabilitation. It’s not.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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Fighting for a second chance

When Dontrell Britton returned from federal prison to his mother’s DC apartment in 2017, he didn’t have tens of thousands of Instagram followers or over 400 thousand TikTok followers on his team like he does now.

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These Colors Don’t Run (At Least Not Fast Enough)

In the devastating aftermath of the mass killing at a Texas elementary school this week, questions swirl around the police response, or lack there of, while an 18-year-old slaughtered children, we turn to Posse Comitatus.

More Voices of Justice To Come