With resources from the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Information provided by: Deborah Gurt, Processing/ Digital Archivist at the McCall Library
This exhibit features a selection of photographs and papers from four separate collections held by the McCall Library. Each depicts a facet of the criminal justice system in Alabama between the years 1900 and 1960. Alabama currently operates the most crowded prison system in the United States.
The Rickarby images depict a gallows and a condemned man. Taken circa 1900, these give us a view of the death penalty that is stark, public, and visceral. The McNeely images were taken at a prison farm in the 1930s. These show rough conditions and menacing guards. Erik Overbey’s photographs were made circa 1920 and feature Moffett State Farm also known as Atmore Prison Farm. Rural Escambia County has been the location of several correctional facilities since the 1920s. Alabama discontinued its farming programs in 2007 and is currently trying to sell the acreage. Holman Correctional Facility, also near Atmore, is the location of roughly 200 Death Row inmates and is where all state executions are carried out. Built to house a total of 600 inmates, it currently holds over 900 male prisoners.
Finally, this exhibit displays documents from legal proceedings in the 1960s in which Mobile attorney Vernon Z. Crawford challenged the prosecutorial practice of selecting all-white juries. It was just such a jury that had convicted Willie Seals of rape in 1958 and sentenced him to death. Crawford successfully challenged this conviction on constitutional grounds seeking a writ of error, and Seals was eventually released.
The Correctional system in Alabama today faces a number of problems. It is overcrowded, understaffed, and violent. Mandatory sentencing laws have led to huge increases in prison populations without addressing any of the underlying social issues. It can be argued that the consequences of these conditions fall disproportionately on African Americans, the poor, and those with mental illnesses. A few of the themes that Bryan Stevenson discusses in his book, Just Mercy, are reflected in these images and papers.