Birmingham City Jail

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This article is about the municipal jail. For other uses, see Birmingham Jail.

The Birmingham City Jail is a municipal jail operated by the Birmingham Police Department 425 6th Avenue South in Birmingham's South Titusville neighborhood. The jail holds an average population of 150–200 persons, including criminally-charged suspects awaiting trial, and inmates serving sentences for violation of city ordinances.

The jail facility has its own municipal courtroom for hearings, as well as a health office and a kitchen. The current chief administrator is Captain Graydon Newman.


The original city jail was housed within the Birmingham City Hall on the southeast corner of 4th Avenue North and 19th Street. In his final annual report in December 1896, outgoing Mayor James Van Hoose stressed the need to expand the overcrowded facility. He reported that during the past year wire screens had been put over the windows of the warden's office and dungeon cells, the range and smokestacks had received extensive repairs, two new stoves and a store of blankets were acquired for the winter, and a steel cage was built in the Police Court to prevent escapes.

The blues song "Birmingham Jail" became popular in the mid-1920s and was famously recorded by Jimmie Tarlton and Tom Darby in 1927. Tarlton was invited to the dedication ceremony for the new city jail at the present Southside site, which was completed in 1937.

An anonymous letter purportedly from a young Communist Party worker was published in several newspapers in 1930. The writer alleged sexual harassment, rape, mistreatment, brutal beatings and deadly forced labor was rampant in the facility.

During the 1963 Birmingham Campaign of the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrators coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference attempted to "fill the jails" as a form of peaceful protest against segregation laws they considered unjust. Police officials, under the direction of Birmingham City Commissioner Bull Connor detained demonstrators at numerous alternative locations, including Fair Park.

One of those arrested was SCLC leader Martin Luther King Jr, who was brought to the jail on Good Friday, April 12, 1963. Veteran guard Leon Medlock supervised his stay. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, composed for the most part during that incarceration, became a touchstone document for the movement, answering critics who would prefer to seek justice through the courts rather than by demonstrating before the public conscience.

Fuller & Thompson Architects designed renovations and additions to the jail that same year. The expansion provided an administrative center for Birmingham Police Department operations that was used until the new Birmingham Police Headquarters on 1st Avenue North opened in 1996.

Overcrowding at state prisons in the 1970s led to thousands of inmates having to serve their sentences at municipal and county jails. The American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project filed a class action suit which named the Birmingham City Jail as among those which were housing state prisoners without adequate facilities. Judge Sam Pointer Jr issued an order requiring jail officials to house no more than 36 inmates per dormitory and to improve lighting, ventilation and basic sanitation services for inmates.

In 1985 Police chief Arthur Deutsch proposed building a new jail. Most of the 1937 building was demolished in 1986, except for administrative offices which remained in use during construction. Administrative Staff Commander William Gaut supervised the construction project, and worked with Lee Hitchcock to develop new jail policies and train staff in cooperation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Major Frank Alexander, a former military prison warden, was hired to oversee operations.

The 1994 beating death of Donald Deason in his cell prompted accusations that he had been placed in harm's way as intentional retribution for alleged racial remarks made during his arrest for assault.

At the suggestion of Alabama Department of Tourism director Lee Sentell, the 2012 Class of Leadership Birmingham sponsored the erection of a historical monument at the site of the vacant jailhouse. The monument was dedicated in April, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the drafting of King's famed letter.

During the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic Beth Shelburne, an investigative reporter for ACLU Alabama's "Smart Justice" campaign, asked officials for a jail roster. Her request for the public record was denied for nearly a week, after which the administrator said that a roster would be made available to the public at the jail, "going forward."


Moving detainees to county jail

In recent practice, Birmingham City Jail has held detainees awaiting trial for misdemeanor offenses who were not eligible for release or could not afford bail. Those arrested for felony offenses would be charged under state law and sent to Jefferson County for processing.

In February 2012 Birmingham mayor William Bell, Police Chief A. C. Roper and Sheriff Mike Hale reached an informal agreement to move Birmingham detainees to the Jefferson County Jail in downtown Birmingham. The arrangement would allow the city to end jail operations, while providing funding for the county to begin using the newly-built facilities of the Jefferson County Bessemer Justice Center for county inmates.

During the time that it was closed, the Birmingham City Jail continued to provide GED preparation and literacy classes, drug and alcohol treatment programs, mental health treatment, domestic violence intervention and life skills classes to detainees held by the county.

The Birmingham City Jail later reopened. The kitchen, oft-cited for insufficiencies by the Jefferson County Department of Health, was renovated in 2016.

In 2022 Mayor Randall Woodfin started new talks with Sheriff Mark Pettway and the Jefferson County Commission about housing detainees arrested by Birmingham police at the county jail. Commission president Jimmie Stephens proposed charging Birmingham $110/day, or around $3 million a year for 75 individuals— a rate much higher than the $28/day it charged the State of Alabama, and the $65/day it had been charging other county municipalities.

In October 2023 a number of individuals who were arrested by Birmingham police "on sight" (without a prior arrest warrant) were turned away from the county jail. In a subsequent conference call, Sheriff Pettway explained that he was operating under a "longstanding policy" that jail staff were not authorized to take custody of detainees without a warrant issued by a Jefferson County Magistrate.

After further conversations Birmingham officials reached a "memorandum of understanding" with Pettway in December. Under the agreement, Birmingham police would be directed to obtain arrest warrants from magistrates of the 10th Judicial Circuit rather than from municipal judges. Pettway expected the additional cost to the county to be minimal, and that further negotiations would result in fair compensation for the added burden. Commission president Jimmie Stephens objected to the agreement, saying that the city was abandoning its own obligations, complaining that, "They're taking a city misdemeanor and are attempting to use a state statute that would correspond in order to house them in the county jail; they’re trying to get around the city ordinance that is designed for that."

Pettway broke the agreement within two weeks, citing Alabama Law Enforcement Agency requirements regarding the keeping of records. He began turning away misdemeanor detainees arrested by Birmingham police. Birmingham officials offered to resolve the record-keeping issue, but received no response from Pettway. In early February, the City of Birmingham filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff, seeking a court order for the county to process and hold detainees charged under state law.


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