Alabama Appleseed’s life-changing work on post-prison integration
By Rick Lewis
Photos by Brit Huckabay and Bernard Troncale
Scott Fuqua sounds incredulous. “This guy could die in prison for stealing two polo shirts,” he says, without irony. Sadly, there is a fair chance he is not wrong.
In Alabama, under the sentencing strictures of the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), also known as the “three-strikes law,” a Class-A felony conviction, in addition to any three prior felonies—even crimes with no physical injury from decades ago—results in a life without parole sentence. There are many aging prisoners in Alabama condemned to die in Alabama’s violent, overcrowded prisons, simply due to the HFOA’s continued existence.
But for some of these men, a chance at redemption lies tucked away in a conference room inside Office Park. This unassuming place serves as the Birmingham nerve center, in addition to another office in Montgomery, of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, one of a network of eighteen Appleseed advocacy organizations across the U.S.
Fuqua is a lawyer on Appleseed’s “Second Chance” team that focuses on cases of aging, inmates whose sentences could be drastically different if delivered in a current court. Every week, the group meets to discuss the possibility of providing these men with a second chance at life.
At times, the path towards getting someone out of prison can mimic a Rube Goldberg machine built on relationships, research, and luck, but the team at Appleseed’s work doesn’t stop at release—that is only the first challenge.
“The consequences to an individual and to the state for breaking the law are not simply legal consequences: they are economic, they are moral, they are familial, they are parental, and they’re communal,” says Reverend Gates Shaw in his deeply rich, Southern accent. “Justice can be destructive and oppressive in the name of ‘right.’ Three strikes and you’re out in Alabama. We have people serving twenty-five years to life for crimes with no physical injury.”
Rev. Shaw, a retired Episcopal priest, has served on the board at Appleseed for two terms and paints a picture of a state that has lost touch with what justice means.
“Indifference is unacceptable when it is so financially costly to our state’s taxpayers,” he says. It is true that millions of dollars from the state’s budget go towards housing inmates with clean prison records. These are inmates that, due to the HFOA and non-retroactive sentencing reform, could be left to die in some of the nation’s most violent prisons for relatively minor crimes. These inmates constitute the ‘Second Chance’ work that Appleseed is currently pursuing, in addition to its other legislative advocacy initiatives.
Veteran lawyer Nick Gaede, one of Alabama Appleseed’s original founders, explains the organization’s focus on redemptive work as an answer to a societal need.
“When we started [Appleseed], we were focused on things like landlord tenant law, payday lending, those kinds of issues,” Gaede explains. “But now that things in the criminal justice system have gotten so ‘messed up,’ the focus has shifted.”
“You get pushback from people with the ‘lock them up and leave them there’ idea. You hear about the one guy that is released from prison and creates a problem, but you rarely hear about the hundreds that got out and didn’t do anything other than contribute back to society. We have to show that a lot of these people that get released are valuable members of the community.”
As Alabama Appleseed’s executive director, Carla Crowder, puts it: “Getting people out of prison isn’t the final win. Providing them with community and people and good relationships is more important, and case by case, we are making a difference.”
So far, Appleseed has successfully gotten six offenders released (no physical injury crimes), providing them the opportunity to live a redeemed life and to act on who they are as opposed to who they were. One of the men successfully released now works for the organization, providing a sense of hope and understanding to the others in Appleseed’s care.
Birmingham native, Ronald McKeithen, speaks with a quick and attentive voice, one filled with a resonant warmth that fills a room with drawn-out words punctuated by emotion. On the day we spoke, he wore a “Family Above All” t-shirt, a “No Excuses!!!” wristband, and a trimmed beard and glasses. He possesses a kind smile and a knack for narrative. In short, he doesn’t hold himself like he has spent the last thirty-seven years in prison.
McKeithen’s story is one of both self-perseverance and the transformative power of Appleseed’s work.
“I was poor and lived on food stamps with an alcoholic mom and father who wasn’t in the picture,” says McKeithen. “[My mom] stabbed me a couple times when I tried to stop her from going out to drink. Her alcoholism left me to roam. I was in the streets by the time I was nine years old.” A robbery conviction at the age of twenty put him in prison for nearly four decades under the HFOA, all for no-injury crimes committed by a young man that had never truly known a home.
In prison, McKeithen dedicated his days to being “constructive.” He took hundreds of classes, got his GED, discovered a talent for art, and served as a barber, talking men through their worries and setting their minds on looking forward. However, no matter how perfect his record, years of looking for ways out of the system seemed helpless, given his life without parole sentence, but after journalist Beth Shelburne brought McKeithen’s case to Appleseed, there were glimmers of hope.
After months of back and forth with the local prosecutor, the courts, and the victims of McKeithen’s robbery—who were shocked he was still in prison for what amounted to a theft of less than $200—Appleseed filed a petition for sentencing relief. In December of 2020, McKeithen was freed.
“I came out of prison with a different mindset, with an appreciation for life and an eagerness to get involved,” says McKeithen, Appleseed’s second successful release case. After his release, he got a part time job at Appleseed, helping drive recently released people to medical appointments.
“But I kept showing up here,” he explains, “and [the team] recognized that the way I communicated with the released guys was helpful. I was able to share a view they didn’t understand.” There was no one else at Appleseed that had actually been to prison or struggled with trying to build a life after release. In that vein, McKeithen represented an eager answer to a blind spot, and he was asked to take on a full-time role as Appleseed’s re-entry coordinator, helping others like him return to life on the outside.
“My task is to communicate with guys and their families: ease their minds and point out any ‘institutionalized behavior.’ For example, one guy has an issue where he doesn’t want to leave the house. I have to assure him it’s going to be alright, to take one block at a time.”
To McKeithen, the challenges presented by leaving prison can be alienating in ways both obvious and nuanced, from using an ATM to re-establishing trust with others, making his work all the more vital in helping newly-freed people succeed.
“It’s like sending a person to another country where you don’t know the language—imagine how difficult it is transferring from a prison to a normal society,” he says. There are small things that remind him of the gap.
“One winter day, I was standing by a tree, and I heard this sound. I hadn’t heard it in so long,” he says. “The wind was blowing through the tree and the leaves, and I was looking at the wind moving the leaves on the ground. There were no trees in prison, and the only ones you could see were off in the distance. Later that night I called a friend about this amazing thing I saw and just broke down.”
“There are things in my past that affect my thought patterns now, making me more compassionate or overwhelmed. Out of prison, you have this tendency to get overwhelmed and start crying. In prison you have to put up these walls. You can’t deal with emotions, pain, and regret—you have to train your mind to not linger on things, but now that I’m out, these walls are coming down.”
Though, amidst all the conflicting feelings McKeithen is working through, he seems to find much room for joy: “I’m living the dream,” he says. At Appleseed, he has dived head-first into setting up others for success. There are few other organizations as dedicated to helping those released from prison find a sense of community, get a good job, obtain an education, and get their healthcare needs met. McKeithen is not only a walking symbol of that commitment but now its key driver.
Importantly, Appleseed has also given McKeithen a network of friends and people that feel like family. His mother died during his first year in prison, and his grandmother passed away in 1999. A talented artist, McKeithen regularly depicts women holding children in his work, “reflecting the need” he has had for so long. Little by little, he has worked to find good people to surround himself with.
“When I got out, I met this woman with four kids,” he says. “I was craving this family setting.” Their friendship has been a positive one, allowing McKeithen to return back to orbit at his own pace and with people that care for him–a feeling that coalesced during an early trip they took together to Panama City.
“I had never seen the ocean before. When I went out there and saw the water, I thought I was looking at God. I got in, and I just swam.”
Cover photo by Bernard Troncale
Photo Caption: Members of Appleseed’s team, along with a client and intern meet at the organization’s Birmingham office, located in Office Park. From left: Re-entry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen, client Michael Schumacher, summer intern Mercedes Davis, a Cumberland law student, Executive Director Carla Crowder, Research Director Leah Nelson, and Staff Attorney Alex Laganke. Additional members of Appleseed’s Birmingham team, not pictured, are: Communications and Development Manager Megan Cheek, Social Worker Catherine Alexander-Wright, and Attorney Scott Fuqua. Appleseed also has an office in Montgomery where Policy Director Frederick Spight and Organizer Dana Sweeney are based. Additional team members are Community Navigator Callie Greer, who works in Selma and Researcher Eddie Burkhalter, based in Piedmont.