A prison cell in Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, as seen on Oct. 22, 2019. (File)
Something Rep. Marcel Black said has stuck with me for years.
We spoke a decade ago about Alabama’s endless prison crisis. It seemed as far away from resolution then as it does today. I asked Black, a longtime House Judiciary Committee chair, why it proved so intractable.
Black gave me this example. Suppose the state builds a new prison. Is an Alabama state legislator going to use it in a campaign? Will you open your mailbox and find a flyer of your representative or senator, smiling in front of fencing and barbed wire?
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“Bonds for building roads and schools and those types of things are popular,” he said. “Building for a prison is not popular.”
Last week, I asked Black, who left the House in 2018, if he remembered telling me that. He didn’t, but he still had the same feeling.
“That’s the issue,” he told me. “A new road or a new school means votes. A new prison doesn’t.”
It’s a self-fulfilling dynamic. We have a prison crisis because the Legislature doesn’t want to deal with it. And when the Legislature doesn’t deal with it, we have a prison crisis.
When the governor’s office announced that the price of a new Elmore County prison would go up to at least $1 billion — and that will probably go even higher — legislative leaders responded with a resounding “meh.” They blamed inflation. They took some gratuitous swings at the federal government. But they accepted the price tag.
“I mean, I wish it wasn’t up there,” said Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville. “But inflation has hit us pretty hard over the last few months, and I think that’s certainly a reflection of that.”
Inflation is a problem. But when the Legislature approved $1.3 billion in bonds for two men’s prisons in 2021, it ceded what control it had over the prison crisis to Gov. Kay Ivey and the Department of Corrections.
Ivey and Corrections believe that new construction will solve our prison problems. The thinking is that the new ones will be safer; will require less staffing, and will have more space for rehabilitation and training, reducing the chances that people return on new convictions.
This isn’t wrong, exactly. Many prisons are old and have poor sight lines that make assaults easier. Corrections has a backlog of maintenance it doesn’t have the funding to address. The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka is 80 years old and looks twice that age on the inside.
But the state’s prison crisis isn’t one of plaster and steel.
This is an epidemic of physical and sexual violence, where inmates are brutalized and dying; where guards face preventable dangers, and where the prison system is becoming a threat to public safety.
The U.S. Department of Justice — the Bill Barr DOJ, not the Merrick Garland one — issued two reports on the violence in 2019 and 2020. “Grim” only begins to describe the chilling stories in there. Just when you’ve finished reading about ghastly stabbings behind the walls in the 2019 report, you get to the documentation of hundreds of cases of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault from late 2016 to early 2018.
And to take just one of dozens of awful stories in the 2020 report: Investigators wrote that a guard at Ventress beat a handcuffed inmate bloody while screaming “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” then tried to silence nurses who witnessed it.
The state's prison crisis isn't one of plaster and steel. This is an epidemic of physical and sexual violence.
“Our experts’ on-site interviews of captains and lieutenants revealed that many ADOC staff appear to accept the high level of violence and sexual abuse in ADOC as a normal course of business, including acquiescence to the idea that prisoners will be subjected to sexual abuse as a way to pay debts accrued to other prisoners,” the DOJ reported in 2019.
New buildings won’t solve that. The DOJ reports made it clear that the violence in the prisons is due to inadequate staffing, along with the widespread availability of drugs and contraband in the facilities. Drug debts help fuel the violence.
In recent years, the Legislature has tried to address the staffing problems in state prisons. So far, they haven’t been successful. The state will need to raise salaries much further to entice people to work there.
But at its heart, this is a crisis of a professional culture that can’t or won’t see prison violence as anything other than inevitable. The first step to fixing that is strong oversight. The Legislature should be demanding answers and solutions, if only because it has to find money to address the soaring costs of the chaos.
Yet legislators, by and large, don’t treat this as an emergency that spills into public safety when inmates brutalized in the system rejoin the world, in worse shape than when they went in. There is a Joint Prison Oversight Committee, but it only meets four times a year and makes nonbinding recommendations to the Legislature.
Last week, lawmakers approved bills to cut incentives for inmates’ good behavior. By making it harder for inmates to get time off their sentences, it will make good behavior less of an incentive for those in prison. It will keep them in facilities where people are butchered. And it could make those prisons even more dangerous.
“I can’t look at this and say I’m not going to create other individuals who get out of prison and do horrible things,” said Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, during a House committee hearing on the good time bill Wednesday. “It’s a balance of incentivizing good behavior. At the same time, I don’t want to take away hope, either.”
England understands the scope of the crisis. Most of his colleagues place their faith in new, billion-dollar prison construction they have no control over. They hope the buildings will magically resolve decades of problems.
Or they don’t care.
Prisons get built, filled and forgotten. Real change will come when legislators start paying attention to the daily horrors happening inside. And it shouldn’t take a strong photo op to address a human rights catastrophe spinning out before our eyes.
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