DOTHAN, Ala. — If a single inmate could reflect Alabama’s dysfunctional prison system, it might be a tall man with a walled right eye and a drug-addled past, trying to survive at a violent penitentiary with a thriving shadow market in contraband.
His name was Joseph Michael Wood, and he was doing life at the St. Clair maximum-security prison for a couple of inept armed robberies. But he made the best of it, taking courses in everything from anger management to engine repair and proudly sending each certificate of completion to his mother.
He also used cellphones, which are banned in prison, to beg her and other relatives incessantly for money. His family often heard other voices in the background, instructing him on what to say.
It’s a matter of life and death, he would implore. You don’t know what it’s like in here.
A relative finally ended what was clearly extortion. “I told everybody to stop sending money,” a cousin, Steven Davis, recalled. “He might get beat up, but they will stop when they know they can’t get any more money.”
One night in July 2017, after two pleading calls from his imprisoned cousin, Mr. Davis refused to answer a third. Soon after, the family received another call, this time from the prison chaplain. Mr. Wood had been strangled in his cell. He was 33.
“I just screamed and screamed,” his mother, Angela Wood, recalled.
“I was worried people were going to start blaming me,” Mr. Davis said. “But I never heard a word.”
The authorities have not established a connection between the killing of Mr. Wood and the extortion of his family. But his case reflects how the longtime indifference of the Alabama Department of Corrections — including its failure for many years to crack down on cellphones, which seem almost as easy to obtain behind bars as at a Best Buy — had terrifying consequences for those beyond the prison walls.
Inmates have used contraband phones to issue threats, demand money and transmit photographic evidence of what happens when payment is not made. Their boldness seems boundless: Even the chairman of the State Senate’s judiciary committee has received threatening calls and text messages from Alabama inmates.
In a lawsuit filed against corrections officials last summer, Ms. Wood said her son would call from the prison 200 miles away to say he was being threatened with assault “if he did not pay the inmates certain sums of money.”
Mr. Wood would “frantically beg” his mother to send the funds, the lawsuit says. He repeatedly told prison officials about the lax security in the unit where he was housed, and eventually murdered.
Jeff Dunn, the state corrections commissioner, said in an interview this year that he was frustrated by the continuing problem of illicit cellphones in Alabama prisons. But he said their proliferation reflected an “unfortunate nexus” of factors: not enough corrections officers guarding too many inmates in old facilities with too many blind spots.
“It makes it exceptionally difficult for our correctional officers to be everywhere all the time,” Mr. Dunn said. “And so these types of things, we freely admit, go on.”
Mr. Wood was killed in a closely monitored cellblock, yet it was more than two years before another inmate was charged with his murder. The authorities blamed the delay on a long wait for forensics results.
Mr. Wood’s cousin, Mr. Davis, questioned how cellphones could be so common in prison.
“With no cellphones, there would be no extortion,” he said. “They can literally take a picture of a loved one beaten up and say: ‘This happened today. And it will be worse tomorrow.’”
“Go ahead and put your cellphones up, so’s we don’t have to go and take ’em.”
That call went out whenever corrections officers conducted their sweeps, according to Bobby Monaghan, who spent a decade at the St. Clair prison in Springville before his assault conviction was vacated in 2018.
Mr. Monaghan, 55, and others described a nerve-jangling dystopia behind bars, in which street gangs — sometimes in tandem with corrupt officers — controlled the sale of smuggled contraband, including drugs and phones.
If the loved ones of an inmate targeted for extortion will not pay, then that prisoner is “going to get stabbed up,” Mr. Monaghan said. “That’s just how the Alabama prison system works.”
The Justice Department agrees. In a bluntly critical report last year, the federal agency accused the state of “deliberate indifference” by failing to address problems that jeopardize inmate safety, including overcrowding, understaffing, the smuggling of contraband and extortion.
Alabama is not alone in having troubled, violent prisons, or in struggling to stop the illegal use of cellphones. But the state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and its prisons are antiquated and short-staffed, creating danger for employees and inmates alike.
Mr. Dunn, who became corrections commissioner in 2015, did not dispute many of the systemic issues cited by federal investigators. Alabama’s prisons are near 160 percent of capacity, the department said, and most of its facilities have less than half the necessary staffing.
But Mr. Dunn said that he and the governor, Kay Ivey, who took office in 2017, were determined to end the decades-old culture of indifference they inherited. He noted that the state recently raised the salaries of its corrections officers — they now make an average of close to $50,000 a year — and said it was putting into place a plan for long-term change.
“We need to shift from warehousing inmates to rehabilitating individuals,” he said.
Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, a prisoners’ rights organization in Montgomery, said she had heard all this before. And still the violence and extortion continue unabated.
“We get calls and emails from families saying that if they don’t, for instance, pay $200 by midnight, their son will be raped,” Ms. Morrison said.
“The extorted families are traumatized,” she added. “And they run out of money and become even more traumatized.”
The pervasiveness of cellphones in American prisons has exasperated corrections officials for years, even as they sometimes expose troubling conditions. The devices — dropped by drones, thrown over walls, smuggled inside basketballs — have been linked to murder plots, escape attempts and assorted other crimes. Last year, authorities in South Carolina exposed a ring of inmates using cellphones to dupe members of the military through dating apps, and charged an inmate with orchestrating a woman’s murder by cellphone.
The most obvious solution, to jam cellphone signals, is illegal. The Federal Communications Commission says jamming technology would also interfere with 911 calls and other communications related to public safety.
Mr. Dunn said Alabama had instead tried a layered approach that included surprise searches and dogs trained to sniff out cellphones. Corrections officials say that from mid-March to mid-June, they confiscated more than 150 electronic devices, as well as more than 100 weapons and 7,166 grams of illegal drugs. They said that 22 civilians and four staff members were arrested and charged with trying to introduce contraband into the state’s prisons.
“Our borders are porous,” Mr. Dunn said.
He said the department had either fired or taken legal action against more than 140 corrupt officers over the last five years, which he described as a small fraction of an honest if overworked staff.
But given the low pay for corrections officers, the lure to make some money on the side is real.
A $29 cellphone can be sold for $300 or more in prison. And the investment can deliver handsome dividends; with mobile phone in hand, an inmate can threaten anyone, anywhere, anytime.
According to people who have spent time inside Alabama’s prisons, the scams typically work like this:
An inmate, often affiliated with a prison gang, will linger near the commissary to identify any prisoner spending a lot on incidentals — a tip-off that someone on the outside is replenishing that person’s account. Soon the inmate is coerced into surrendering the cellphone numbers for his loved ones.
Prisoners addicted to drugs are the most common targets, according to Louis Singleton Jr., an inmate at the Kilby maximum-security prison in Montgomery. “It opens doors for people to extort them and their families.”
Mr. Singleton, 44, a prisoners’ rights advocate who is 26 years into a life sentence for murder, said addicts fell into debt by promising to pay later for drugs. The interest can be astronomical. “A guy can owe $30,” he said. “And by the end of the month, it could be $300 or more.”
Addicts in debt then face unrelenting pressure to call people on the outside for the money they owe, Mr. Singleton said. Relatives are instructed to send the cash to a particular account through various money-transfer services, such as Walmart2Walmart, or prepaid debit cards.
Jeff Rust, whose son served time for property theft and rape, recalled the constant instructions to send payments to another inmate’s wife or girlfriend — or else.
“The phone would ring, and I would jump like I’d been woken with a cattle prod,” Mr. Rust recalled. “I had a terrible time dealing with the stress.”
In 2018, his son was found hanging in a cell with a belt around his neck. Corrections officials said he had killed himself.
Shakedowns sometimes involve a cooperating officer, who might help to identify which inmates have cash at their disposal. “Guards can find more info on someone than anybody,” said Mr. Monaghan, the former St. Clair inmate. “Say, ‘This guy’s folks got money.’”
Mr. Singleton agreed. “The guards can be in on it,” he said. “The inmate can tell the officer, ‘Turn your back for a few minutes while I beat the crap out of the guy who owes me money.’”
Debra Howard Mears estimated that she paid $10,000 over the course of a year to protect her son, David Mears, 27. She said he is serving four years for property theft and distribution of a controlled substance.
She said one of the people who told her to send money had identified himself, in texts and a 5 a.m. phone call, as a lieutenant at the Staton medium-security prison in Elmore. He said that David Mears had been stabbed and that he would help to protect him — but that she needed to pay.
She filed a complaint against the lieutenant in 2018, according to agency records, but he denied knowing her, and no disciplinary action was taken. A department spokeswoman said the texts were later traced to a cellphone used by an inmate in another prison.
Ms. Mears later contacted an investigator for the U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham about the lieutenant and her son’s treatment. The investigator responded via email that he was “very familiar with him and his tactics,” and had forwarded her information to the F.B.I. Ms. Mears said late last month that the agency had recently told her it was continuing to work on the case.
In some cases, the inmate purporting to be at risk is in on the scam. Last year, investigators determined that a prisoner at the Bibb medium-security prison in Brent had conspired with two other inmates to extort his sister. The woman, who had paid the $300 demanded for her brother’s safety, decided not to press charges against him.
No matter what, Mr. Singleton said, an inmate should never admit he is in danger.
“If you say something on the phone like, ‘I need help because I’m being extorted,’ you’re likely to have the hell beaten out of you or get stabbed,” he said. “And the same or worse will happen if you don’t pay.”
Mr. Singleton spoke several times with a reporter — from prison, by illegal cellphone.
For decades now, there have been devastating investigations into Alabama prisons by journalists. Critical assessments by federal officials. Damning lawsuits and reports by the Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others. And most recently, accusations of too little testing and a lack of transparency as 19 prisoners and two employees have died of Covid-19.
Yet little changes.
Dick L. Brewbaker, who served 15 years as a Republican state lawmaker before retiring in 2018, said he did not recall the Legislature ever taking meaningful steps to address the conditions that allow prison extortion and violence.
“We have been like kudzu,” Mr. Brewbaker said. “All over the place and not worth a damn.”
Cam Ward, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Republican, agreed that the state had failed. About 30 families of inmates have complained to him about extortion in recent years, said Mr. Ward, who revealed that he, too, had received threatening messages.
Mr. Ward said that when he refers complaints to the Department of Corrections, the agency often calls him weeks or months later with a progress report. But the extortion scams continue.
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” he said. “You knock one down, and the next thing you know, there’s another one.”
A couple of years ago, another Republican state lawmaker, Allen Farley, was puttering in his garage when a longtime acquaintance brought over some Walmart bags stuffed with wrapped bundles of receipts — proof, the man explained, that over a 10-month period he had paid more than $48,000 in extortion money to keep his son safe at the Bibb prison.
“The father would get these calls from his son, who said things like, ‘If you don’t send $300 by Wednesday afternoon, I will be raped and killed,’” Mr. Farley recalled. The father even shared a few of the chilling text messages he would receive in the middle of the night.
“Dad if your awake I am in a bad situation about them $140 I mentioned last night to u I desperately need the help.” In another text message, the son wrote that he needed $170 right away, adding, “I got to have it by Friday afternoon dammit.”
Ms. Wood still has her dead son’s letters of apology.
“I’m sorry if I made you feel that way,” he wrote once. “I am going to take care of you Momma when I get out — please believe that.”
By age 16, Joseph Wood, the second-oldest of her six children, was addicted to crack cocaine, and received treatment. “But he could not beat it,” his mother recalled.
In 2006, Mr. Wood pleaded guilty to breaking into a car. Five years later, he was convicted of the armed robbery of two convenience stores.
“The reason that they charged me with being armed is because I told the cashier that I had a gun,” he later wrote to the parole board. “I got nothing but $99, and it got me a life sentence.”
But, as with any inmate, Mr. Wood was more than just his prison identification number. He was the father of two children, and an earnest son intent on proving that he had turned his life around. After completing a course in masonry, he sent his family a photograph of brick stairs he had built.
He also vowed to give his mother, a stroke victim on dialysis, one of his kidneys if he ever got out of prison.
Ms. Wood, 58, said she cries when she thinks about what her Joseph endured as an inmate. The thought of him being strangled in his cell.
But also the memory of his voice, so anxious, when he would call on one of those cellphones he never should have had access to in the first place.
You don’t know what it’s like in here.
Serge F. Kovaleski reported from Dothan, Ala., and Montgomery, Ala., and Dan Barry from Springville, Ala., and Huntsville, Ala. Research was contributed by Susan C. Beachy, Jack Begg, Sheelagh McNeill and Alain Delaquérière. Produced by Michael Beswetherick, Clinton Cargill and Crista Chapman.