Despite court orders, Alabama prison officials failed to freeze stimulus funds sent to prisoners

Mobile County District Attorney’s Office says it has collected less than 9 percent of the $333,760 ordered for court costs, victim compensation
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Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 4:55 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – For the better part of a year, a prosecutor and aide have worked full time getting court orders to seize stimulus funds sent to state prisoners as part of the COVID-19 relief passed by Congress.

Nearly all of that money, however, is gone.

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley told FOX10 News that she is “furious” after learning that the Alabama Department of Corrections failed to comply with court orders last year freezing inmate accounts until judges decided whether the money should be used to pay court costs and victim compensation.

“According to the Department of Corrections, it’s not still recoverable because it was never held,” Rich said.

She added: “And that is absolutely in direct defiance of a circuit court order by the Department of Corrections.”

After repeated calls and emails over the last few days, agency spokeswoman Kristi Simpson told FOX10 News that the department did not receive court orders quickly enough.

“The Alabama Department of Corrections made extensive efforts to deduct court-ordered payments and fees owed by inmates from their economic impact payments (EIPs),” she said in a statement. “To facilitate processing, we held funds for specific time periods. Upon expiration of that time period, if no court order was received, the Department followed a process for release of EIP funds to inmates. We are continuing to review this process.”

When Congress authorized the three separate rounds of stimulus payments, it did not place any eligibility restrictions on prisoners. As a result, state corrections officials told FOX10 News in April, 1,918 inmates had received more than $2.3 million.

Prosecutors in Mobile and Baldwin County vowed to recover funds that prisoners owed from their criminal cases.

“This was a windfall for prisoners,” Rich said. “It should have been an opportunity for victims to get paid what they were rightfully due. And that’s what we were trying to do by filing all of this paperwork.”

That paperwork filled two boxes in the DA’s Office. Rich said that after getting court orders freezing the inmates accounts, retried Circuit Judges John Lockett and Rick Stout conducted virtual hearings with inmates across the state. Some inmates failed to show up for their hearings. In a few extraordinary circumstances, Rich said, judges allowed inmates to keep their stimulus money.

But for the most part, the judges issued orders requiring the stimulus funds be used for the debts owed by inmates.

The DA’s office targeted 340 inmates convicted in Mobile County. Collectively, they owed almost $1 million. Judges awarded $333,760. But Rich said her office has gotten only $29,347 from 33 inmates – less than 9 percent of the total.

Inmates either spent or transferred to friends or relatives on the outside, Rich said.

Fausak’s Express Lube on Government Boulevard was one of the victims. Court records show that Melvin Franklin broke into the business in 2017 and took a cash drawer with more than $500. Joseph Gentry, the shop’s assistant manager, said he went to court a few times to testify but then lost track of the case.

Franklin pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary, along with other unelated offenses.

After learning of the issue with the Department of Corrections, Gentry said he figures the business will never see that money.

“I think they kind of screwed up a little bit there,” he said. “It looks like they (should) have tried to do a little bit better job of keeping track of where that money went.”

Rich said she has not gotten a satisfactory explanation for how the Corrections Department so much of the money go unprotected.

“And it’s atrocious,” she said. “Other than, we were told they were understaffed. That was the only comment that they’ve made about all of this.”

Updated at 6:29 p.m. to include a response from the Alabama Department of Corrections.

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