Family of Man Who Died in Alabama Prison Not Informed of His Death


Tracy Besselaar

The family of Tracy Besselaar, who died while incarcerated at Fountain Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, is searching for information about what happened to him after Alabama prison officials failed to notify them of his death, NBC News reported yesterday. Alabama is the only state in the country that has continuously banned family visits for people who are incarcerated in response to the pandemic.

Mr. Besselaar died at Fountain on July 19. He was one of at least 10 known deaths in Alabama prisons that month alone.

But Mr. Besselaar’s niece, Aniston Mixson, said they didn’t learn about his death until late September, when someone at church told them they’d read about it in the newspaper.

Since then, Ms. Mixson told NBC, “We’ve been using all of our time to find out what happened.” The family has tried to reach the warden and the investigator assigned to look into Mr. Besselaar’s death, she said, “but no one has given us any answers.”

Ms. Mixson said they wanted to have a memorial service for her uncle but had no death certificate and did not know what the prison had done with his remains.

NBC News contacted the Alabama Department of Corrections, which issued a statement confirming that Mr. Besselaar died at Fountain on July 19.

According to the statement, an investigation by the department’s Law Enforcement Services Division and an autopsy determined that Mr. Besselaar died from an accidental fentanyl overdose.

ADOC said Mr. Besselaar was buried in a corrections department cemetery after staff at Fountain were unable to contact his next of kin.

Mr. Besselaar, 56, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for burglary in 1996.

After EJI won a ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court that permitted people sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses to obtain reduced sentences, Mr. Besselaar was resentenced in 2007 to life with parole.

He was paroled in 2008. Seven years later, his parole was revoked after he received citations for driving with a suspended license and a DUI.

Families Left in the Dark

Mr. Besselaar’s family is one of many Alabama families who have reported that ADOC would not give them information about a loved one’s death in prison.

In 2014, the warden declined to give information to Marquette Cummings’s family after he was stabbed in the eye while incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility. Mr. Cummings was taken to the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital, where prison officials authorized a “Do Not Resuscitate” order without the family’s consent. Mr. Cummings died shortly afterwards. His family filed a lawsuit that led to a federal court ruling that bars prison wardens from making these life-or-death medical decisions for incarcerated people.

After Antonio Bell died at Holman Correctional Facility from a suspected drug overdose last year, his father reported he did not receive a call from the prison to tell him how to retrieve his son’s body and property. By the time he was able to reach anyone at Holman, he was told his son’s remains had already been sent away for an autopsy.

Marquell Underwood’s family received calls from other men incarcerated at Easterling Correctional Facility in February 2020 informing them their son had died. Alabama Political Reporter reported that prison staff told the family Mr. Underwood’s death was under investigation and they could not provide additional information. The family learned that his death was being investigated as a suicide from a news article.

This spring, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that Larry Brown’s family feared that something had happened to him after he missed his regular call to them—and their fears were confirmed when the prison deleted his spending account. They later learned that Mr. Brown was hospitalized in April after a suspected assault. He died on May 5 after he was removed from life support. The family told the Advertiser that ADOC officials refused to allow them to sit with him in his final hours.

“What my brother went through was cruel, inhumane and unjust,” Mr. Brown’s sister, Jennifer Brown, said. “We had to find out on our own that my brother was on life support. No one contacted us.”

The U.S. Department of Justice found in 2019 that ADOC repeatedly misrepresented causes of death and the number of homicides, overdose deaths, and natural deaths in Alabama prisons. Federal investigators discovered at least 30 deaths of incarcerated men that were not disclosed by Alabama prison officials and identified three homicides in 2017 and 2018 that ADOC had failed to report as homicides.

In the past fiscal year, 195 people have died in Alabama’s prisons—the most in a single year in ADOC’s history.