Alonzo Goines was 19 when he says he “tried to fit in with the wrong crowd” and was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in an Alabama prison for a string of three robberies. He’s now 34 and says he’s a changed man, desperate for his freedom.
“At the end of the day, there ain’t nothing I can do about it but pray. If they do give me the chance to do right, they ain’t never gotta worry about me coming back,” Goines told VICE News the night before his second parole hearing in September. The Alabama parole board denied him once before because he hadn’t served enough time.
Because of Alabama’s strict mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, the only shot of getting out of prison for many of the state’s more than 25,000 incarcerated people is parole. Four years ago, Goines would have had a 54 percent chance. But the state’s parole rate has dropped to unprecedented levels. So far this year, its parole board has denied 90 percent of eligible candidates, bringing the rate to a new low of just 10 percent. Those odds are even lower if, like Goines, you’re Black, with a mere 7 percent chance.
“It doesn’t give you very much faith in the system. When you have somebody that’s been in there 15 years and done everything you’ve asked them to do and they still can’t get out,” Goines’ father told VICE News. “It makes no sense.”
“It doesn’t give you very much faith in the system.”
The shift away from granting parole began in 2018, when a white man named Jimmy Spencer murdered three people, including a 7-year-old and his grandmother, eight months after being paroled. Although he was convicted and sentenced to death in October, the effects of his case are still rippling through the state’s tough-on-crime justice system.
Because Alabama has now all but stopped paroling incarcerated people, the state’s prisons are operating at over 160 percent capacity, leading to violence and inhumane conditions, and eventually a work-strike earlier this year. Meanwhile, the state continues to use inmate labor and build more facilities, leading to questions about its motivations for keeping so many people behind bars.
On the day of Goines’ hearing, not a single person was granted parole. He’s now being housed at Red Eagle Honor Farm, a minimum security work prison where he and his fellow incarcerated people make $2 a day to perform labor outside the prison gates under minimum supervision. Red Eagle’s mission statement, in part, is to “assist male inmates to reintegrate into society.” Parole at Alabama’s 11 minimum-security work centers like Red Eagle have dropped over 80 percent since 2019.
“They get cheap labor out of us, but they did that to the slaves back in the day. It’s kind of like modern day slavery,” Goines said. He works most days cutting grass on what’s known as the Civil Rights Trail, a public route created in 2018 that crosses 15 states, including Alabama, where pivotal civil rights battles occurred.
Alabama’s parole guidelines include a nationally-recognized tool that’s supposed to determine whether an incarcerated person is likely to reoffend; it’s called an Ohio Risk Assessment. Back in 2018, Spencer was determined to pose “low to moderate risk for reoffending.” That apparatus has since come under fire, and in a private meeting in Oct. 2018, Alabama’s Republican governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall said to “stop letting anybody out,” according to Lyn Head, chair of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles when Spencer was released.
“There is no one capable of predicting with any accuracy what a human being is going to do. So you have to rely on those tools,” said Head, who still stands by the Ohio Risk Assessment. “Just because of that incident doesn’t mean that those guidelines were wrong. It’s a horrible tragedy, just like it would have been if he had committed it and had not been incarcerated beforehand.”
Head later resigned from the parole board. When asked about her alleged comments, Gov. Ivy’s office couldn’t confirm them. A spokesperson did say, however, that Gov. Ivey “does not have a vote on individual parole cases” but that “she is confident that the parole board shares her overriding concern for public safety.”
According to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles’ own report, in the month of October, the board conformed to the guidelines just 26% of the time. They granted parole 8 percent of the time, despite the guidelines recommending it for 82 percent of the incarcerated people that appeared before the board.
VICE News obtained Goines’ board action sheet which showed the board denied him parole, in part, due to “the severity of his offence.”
“They’re denying almost everybody,” Head said. “And that is whether the individual has a low risk assessment score or a high risk assessment score. They’re putting paramount importance on the details of the crime for which they committed and ignoring anything the individual has done since that time. And they’re not following their own guidelines.”
“They’re denying almost everybody.”
When asked what she thought the state of Alabama stood to gain by denying so many incarcerated people parole, Head answered: “They get to build new ones [prisons].”
Alabama’s prisons are already under investigation by the Department of Justice for their inhumane conditions and extremely high levels of violence. In response, the state Legislature has allocated $400 million in COVID relief funds to build two new mega prisons to house their overflowing prison population.
“In Alabama, building prisons is considered economic development. For those areas of the state that we don’t want to put any real investment into their infrastructure, roads, bridges or hospitals to be economic drivers for those communities, we build a prison instead,” said Chris England, a Democrat in Alabama’s Legislature fighting for more transparency and accountability for the parole board.
In February, Rep. England introduced legislation that would ensure the board follows their own guidelines, or at least explain why it’s refusing to do so. But the bill died. England believes that, by not following its own objective guidelines, the parole board has allowed its own unconscious bias to infect the decision-making process.
“It’s almost like if you’re a Black male, you’re going to be denied. It doesn’t matter what you did in prison. It doesn’t matter if you become a better person. ‘Twenty-five years ago, you did this. Oh, and by the way, I’m not gonna say this out loud, but you’re Black.’ The board does whatever they want.”
In September, thousands of incarcerated workers at all 13 of Alabama’s prisons went on strike and refused to work their prison-labor jobs. Their reasons for striking included unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, neglect, abuse, and rampant violence. But at the top of the list is the sense of desperation and hopelessness a broken parole system creates. Strikers allegedly faced severe retaliation by the Alabama Department of Corrections, including “bird feeding” striking workers, or cutting down their meals to just breakfast and dinner.
Goines didn’t participate in the strike. He was worried he’d have to go back to a higher security prison if he did. Now, he just has to get on with his life; he was hoping to get out in time to spend some precious final years with his mother, who’s in the fourth stage of kidney failure. He also wanted to start a family of his own, but those dreams are slowly dwindling.
“I’ve cried so many tears over the past 15 years. I don’t have any tears left to cry,” Goines said.