Reinforcing the urgency of Alabama’s prison crisis

Published 6:31 pm Wednesday, February 5, 2020

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Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, tasked with coming up with ways to keep Alabama from winding up in federal court over its close-to-implosion prison system, released its report in January.

Short version (you may have to use your attention spans anyway): Give the Department of Corrections more money (it’s asked for a $42 million increase to $563 million) to help it hire sufficient staff to control its facilities; help get inmates off drugs (and get contraband drugs out of prisons); give inmates who got “three strikes and you’re out” life without parole sentences for non-violent crimes a break either with re-sentencing or parole eligibility; step up educational and other efforts to help inmates find productive places in society and not wind up back behind bars; and explore alternative judicial methods like drug courts (Etowah County being a leader there).

The report dropped on schedule — the study group was supposed to offer its suggestions before the legislative session, which began on Feb. 4 — and on the heels of an additional reminder of the gravity of this situation.

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ADOC announced that it’s shutting down the main building and dormitory at the W.C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore and transferring more than 600 inmates to other state facilities. Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the move has been in the works for a while and described it as “the culmination of years of neglect.”

It was fast tracked, according to Dunn, because the tunnel that contains the prison’s electrical, sewer and water systems has become a safety and health hazard. The facility is 51 years old, but Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the Judiciary Chairman and a key player in efforts to solve this crisis, told the Montgomery Advertiser, “You look at the wires hanging from the ceiling … you look at the condition of the facility, it was only a matter of time before it got condemned.”

No one is protesting or mourning for another reason: Holman in some ways is the face of Alabama’s prison crisis because of the bloodshed and violence — the beatings, stabbings, sexual assaults and killings — that have happened there.

The Advertiser reported that inmates told Department of Justice investigators — who have said the conditions in Alabama’s prisons are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment (and given the hard-nosed law and order tone of the current administration that should jar even the most hardened “lock ’em up and throw away the key” hard cases into paying attention) — that they pack knives for protection and as “good common sense.” The latter probably is true at a place that just 19 months ago was only at 18% strength as far the number of corrections officers it needs.

Ivey last year said Alabama intends to address the problem by building three new modern prisons. Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who was in Gadsden in January, said ADOC is working to build sufficient staffing levels, although it’s hampered by the reality that correctional officer — a $100 word for prison guard — isn’t exactly a career people gravitate to, even if the salary scales are sweetened and other incentives offered.

We’re sure Ivey will mention the topic in her State of the State speech on Feb. 4. We hope she offers a specific plan of action for this session. We’ll be interested to see what the Legislature does with both it and the study group’s proposals.

No one’s asking that inmates be coddled or not face consequences for their actions. The status quo just cannot remain in place, and a fix will be imposed if state leaders can’t come up with one on their own.

Ward told the Advertiser, “Every year we kick it down the road, it’s going to get more expensive, in terms of lives and tax dollars.”

He’s right.

-The Gadsden Times