Editorial Roundup: Alabama

Dothan Eagle. November 27, 2021.

Editorial: New penitentiaries, same old hellholes

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report alleging constitutional violations in the Alabama prison system. DOJ cited overcrowding in the state’s 13 prisons for men, understaffing of corrections personnel, and high risk of violence, death, and sexual abuse, along with excessive force and unsafe physical plant conditions.

It should’ve been a wake-up call for Alabama officials. The situation in the Department of Corrections didn’t materialize overnight. Prison officials watched as the inmate rosters grew, and kept tabs on the inmate-corrections officer ratios, and passed the information up the pipeline. The buck stops with elected officials who hold the purse strings and set the agenda.

And year after year, the growing problem was ignored. In 2019, the DOC put the state on notice. Last December, it filed suit against the state.

State officials began discussion about spending a billion dollars on new prisons, and after a false start, the Legislature approved a $1.3 billion construction plan earlier this year.

Now the DOJ has issued a new report saying conditions have not improved since its first complaint in April 2019. Alabama prisons hold more than 14,000 inmates in facilities meant to house 9,462. There are only half as many corrections officers as needed. Since 2015, 58 inmates have died at the hands of other prisoners in Alabama penitentiaries; seven were killed in 2021.

DOJ’s new complaint doesn’t address the new prison plan, but has asserted that new buildings won’t solve the ills of Alabama prisons.

Lawyers for the state are challenging the DOJ complaint in court, but it seems futile to argue facts such as 150 percent occupancy rate, 50 percent deficit in corrections officers and seven violent inmate deaths in less than 11 months.

Lawmakers must show a good faith effort to address the myriad challenges within the walls of the state’s prisons, or we’ll simply have the same hellholes in billion-dollar Big Houses.

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Decatur Daily. November 30, 2021.

Editorial: Alabama’s prison system continues to worsen

The past two weeks have brought more bad news about the state of Alabama’s beleaguered prison system.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice updated its complaint in its lawsuit against the state over prison conditions.

“In the two and a half years following the United States’ original notification to the State of Alabama of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama’s Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners,” the complaint said.

The complaint says at least 33 inmates were killed in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The Alabama Department of Corrections, meanwhile, has stonewalled efforts by The Associated Press to get information on the current year.

The state Legislature has passed and Gov. Kay Ivey has signed a law that authorizes using $400 million in COVID relief funds to help build two new prisons for men, a new prison for women and renovate other facilities, but the problems with Alabama’s corrections system go beyond bricks and mortar and even beyond money.

There is a lack of leadership at the Department of Corrections, an issue Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa, has raised many times. It is becoming clear that no meaningful improvement at the state Department of Corrections is possible without changes at the top, starting with Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn.

But even changes in leadership may not be enough. The entire culture at the Department of Corrections may be the issue, just as it seems to be with the state parole board.

According to news reports this week, the number of inmates granted release by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has dropped for three straight years.

“The three-member board granted parole for 648 inmates and turned down 3,584 others during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The approval rate for the year was less than half the average of 37% for the previous 10 years,” according to an Associated Press story.

The parole board’s decisions appear to go against its own guidelines, under which more inmates should qualify for release. They also come despite a reform-minded former state lawmaker, Cam Ward, now being director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

“They’re within the law because the law is so flexible on how they get to make those determinations,” Ward said of the parole board’s decisions. “But I would hope that if they’re going to have these guidelines, you follow the guidelines.”

Ward says legislation is necessary to force the parole board to follow the guidelines, and England says he would sponsor such legislation.

Meanwhile, the state’s prisons continue to be overcrowded and dangerous to the point of being deadly, a situation exacerbated when those who do qualify for parole or pardons are denied.

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