Alabama Forced to Confront Criminal Justice Reform
“We’re at a fork in the road,” Alabama state Senator Cam Ward, chairman of the Prison Reform Task Force, said in June 2014. “We have two paths to choose from and neither one is easy. Those of us on the task force can solve, it or federal courts can do it for us. It’s our choice.”
With the state’s prison system at around 192% of capacity, lawsuits pending over inadequate medical care and high levels of violence, and federal oversight due to pervasive staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse, Alabama has one of the nation’s most troubled Departments of Corrections. The state’s creation of the Task Force in early 2014 was a measure taken in an effort to avoid a federal court-appointed receiver or monitor over its prison system, as occurred in California.
PLN has been reporting for over two decades on deteriorating and abysmal conditions in Alabama’s correctional facilities. While prison systems in Southern states are typically at the forefront with respect to regressive policies and practices, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has been an outlier with its message of “incarceration means harsh and degrading punishment” – which may as well be its official motto.
Changes in criminal statutes resulted in the state’s prison population soaring 840% since 1977. In the 1990s Alabama began to adopt the “tough-on-crime” mindset of most politicians of that era, and in 1995 the state was the first to reintroduce chain gangs. Public criticism pushed the ADOC to drop the inhumane practice of chaining prisoners together on work squads shortly afterwards. [See: PLN, Sept. 2001, p.4].
The barbarity of Alabama’s prison system arguably reached its apex with the adoption of the “hitching post,” which was used to punish prisoners who refused to work or were disciplinary problems on work crews. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held the state’s use of the hitching post to chain prisoners outside in the sweltering summer heat without water or access to a bathroom constituted cruel and unusual punishment. [See: PLN, Nov. 2002, p.6; March 2002, p.10; June 2001, p.31].
Several years later, a 2004 settlement in a class-action lawsuit forced Alabama to hire full-time prison doctors to treat prisoners with life-threatening diseases. [See: PLN, Aug. 2005, p.28]. The ADOC was also recently forced to desegregate its HIV-positive prisoners, ending its policy of housing them separately and forcing them to wear identifying armbands. [See: PLN, Sept. 2015, p.26; Aug. 2013, p.24].
The state’s Prison Reform Task Force was created after federal officials began focusing on conditions in Alabama prisons in the wake of a U.S. Department of Justice report that found “a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuses and harassment” at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.46; Oct. 2013, p.26.].
Subsequently, on June 10, 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a report detailing atrocious lapses in the provision of medical care to state prisoners. Just a week later the SPLC filed a lawsuit to protect prisoners from deliberate indifference to their medical needs by staff employed with the ADOC’s private medical contractor, Corizon.
Calls for Reform
“You’d have to be blind whether you’re politically right or left to not recognize that 192% [over] capacity in your prison facilities is a problem,” noted Senator Ward. “There’s just no other way around it.”
Overcrowding has been the main theme of lawsuits alleging violence, chaos, poor medical care and other problems within Alabama’s prisons. Cramming too many people, especially people prone to engage in violence to solve disputes, into a space smaller than design capacity results in a host of issues that become part of the prison system’s culture over time.
The ADOC’s population jumped from 3,500 in 1977 to its current population of almost 25,000. The state’s prisons are designed to hold around 13,320 prisoners. In just the last dozen years that increase has boosted the prison system’s budget from $173.5 million to approximately $473.9 million in 2015, which included $394 million from the state’s general fund – around 22% of total appropriations. Alabama has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation according to PARCA, a non-profit research group based in Birmingham, but ranks 47th among the states in annual spending per prisoner.
Prisons are not meant to be pleasant and prisoners do not expect a “Holiday Inn” experience, observed Donna Summerford with the Alabama chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). They are, however, entitled to a safe and humane environment that does not violate their rights.
Federal officials found that type of environment did not exist at the Tutwiler facility, where rampant sexual abuse was blamed on “catastrophically low staffing and supervision levels.” Additionally, decades of mainstream media portrayals of prisoners being violent and unamenable to rehabilitation have made the public apathetic to abusive prison conditions.
That was the situation at Tutwiler, which was the result of too many people in too small a place, not enough guards to supervise prisoners – let alone themselves – and public indifference towards an unpopular population.
“First of all, no one’s ever run for election or re-election on the issue of how to solve prisons,” said Senator Ward. “I can tell you it’s not a big issue in the mind of the voters, but it should be.”
While recent media coverage of prisons and criminal justice issues nationwide has focused on the need to reduce mass incarceration, Alabama lawmakers have changed their tough-on-crime mentality due to fear of litigation and federal court oversight that will cost millions of dollars and potentially result in prisoner releases.
It is estimated that a brick-and mortar prison construction solution to Alabama’s prison overcrowding problem will cost around $800 million to build four new facilities ($1.5 billion including interest), plus ongoing operational costs.
“It’s a very serious problem that we have, and it’s been going on for many years,” said Governor Robert Bentley. “I mean obviously we inherited a serious problem: When we have 190% capacity in our prisons, that creates a tremendous amount of difficulties.”
“We need to be providing appropriate care and staffing for all people in the prisons,” noted Southern Poverty Law Center managing attorney Maria Morris. “Those are things that cost money, and Alabama can’t afford it.”
Yet while financing may be tight, the state has little choice but to proactively fix its criminal justice system.
“If the federal court comes in, we’re going to have to spend a whole lot more money, maybe double what we are spending now,” said Senator Ward. “We have to be very ambitious. It’s a choice of us fixing it in the legislature or a federal takeover. I think the legislature can do it a whole lot better than a federal court can.”
With that in mind, Alabama lawmakers appointed the Prison Reform Task Force to study the state’s prison crisis and propose legislation to address the problem.
Abysmal, Violent Prison Conditions
“I was scared every day of my life in there,” said former prisoner Nicole Brooks, referring to her time at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
Conditions became frightening at Tutwiler not so much due to abuses by prisoners, but by those charged with watching over them – mostly male guards who engaged in sexual assault and harassment. In a January 14, 2014 letter to the ADOC, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials said they could name more than 20 staff members who had sex with prisoners.
It typically started with a male guard walking into the shower full of women and staring at a particular prisoner. The guard would later call the prisoner aside to say “I’ve just been looking at you, you know you’re a pretty girl,” recalled former Tutwiler prisoner Perrion Roberts.
“When I was there, a lot of women would trade sex to get privileges with the guards,” she said. “If they approach you and you turn them down, they make it difficult for you.”
The DOJ listed unnamed guards who traded underwear, food and makeup for sex. In one case, a guard raped a prisoner who later gave birth. Federal officials wrote that Tutwiler had “vastly understate[d]” the problem of staff sexual abuse, and the DOJ report and threat of a lawsuit by the federal government got the state’s attention.
In response, Governor Bentley asked the National Institute of Corrections to visit the prison and make recommendations. Alabama officials also paid $50,000 to the Moss Group, a consulting agency run by a former Georgia prison employee, to provide advice in resolving problems at Tutwiler. Resulting changes at the facility included the installation of video cameras, saloon-style doors to provide privacy in shower areas, efforts to recruit more female guards and security mirrors in areas that previously allowed sexual activity to occur unseen.
“I frankly don’t understand why a year ago we didn’t install comprehensive video equipment in every prison,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which works on criminal justice and social justice issues. The organization had issued a report on sexual abuse at Tutwiler in May 2012.
Although conditions at the women’s prison have garnered public attention due to the lurid accusations of sexual misconduct, ADOC facilities that house male prisoners also have numerous problems. EJI cast light on deficiencies at the St. Clair Correctional Facility (SCCF) by filing a federal civil rights action against prison officials in October 2014.
The lawsuit claims that “mismanagement, poor leadership, overcrowding, inadequate security, and unsafe conditions, including broken and non-functioning locks on the majority of the cell doors, have led to an extraordinarily high homicide rate, weekly stabbings and assaults, and a culture where violence is tolerated.” [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.42].
Since 2011 there have been at least seven murders at SCCF, three of which occurred in 2014. One of the recent homicides, of prisoner Timothy Bradford Latham, 30, who was fatally stabbed on November 9, 2015, occurred less than a week after a guard was attacked and injured at the prison.
An unidentified SCCF prisoner was stabbed on March 19, 2016 and the housing unit where the incident occurred was placed on lockdown. Almost two weeks before, on March 7, a guard was stabbed and suffered non-life threatening injuries.
Earlier, an April 2015 riot at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, sparked by an assault on a guard, resulted in 15 prisoners being treated for injuries – including three sent to outside medical facilities.
“We are taking every precaution to increase the safety and security of the facility,” said ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn. “Our officers are continuing to search the facility for contraband, and segregating those inmates from general population who show a propensity for violent behavior.”
Violence has not been limited to SCCF. An overnight riot broke out at the maximum-security Holman Correctional Facility on March 11, 2016, and a guard and the warden were stabbed. The riot reportedly involved around 100 prisoners who used improvised weapons and set a small fire; video of the disturbance taken by prisoners using contraband cell phones was posted online. Only 17 guards were present at the facility at the time of the incident.
Three days later another prisoner was stabbed at the Holman prison, which houses the state’s death row, sparking a confrontation with guards that almost erupted into another riot. Governor Bentley visited the facility in the wake of the disturbances.
“We have people being killed, sexually assaulted, raped, stabbed on a daily basis at St. Clair, Holman, and multiple facilities; it’s a systemwide problem,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative.
Nor is violence in Alabama prisons only perpetrated by prisoners. The warden who was injured during the Holman riot, Carter Davenport, had previously been in charge of SCCF, where he punched a handcuffed prisoner in 2012. That incident was noted in his personnel file and resulted in a two-day suspension.
“They don’t think it’s that big of deal to punch a handcuffed prisoner in the head,” said EJI director Stevenson.
A number of other ADOC wardens and deputy wardens have disciplinary records, too, according to an investigation by www.AL.com. And in November 2013, four state prison guards were sentenced for beating and stomping prisoner Rocrast Mack to death or trying to cover up the incident. Mack, 24, was killed at the Ventress Correctional Facility on August 4, 2010 after reportedly hitting a female guard who struck him first. Lt. Michael Smith received a 30-year sentence, while guards Matthew Davidson, 45, Joseph Sanders, 32, and Scottie Glenn, 30, were sentenced from 5 to 7 years in federal prison.
“These defendants each played a role in the vicious and fatal beating of Mr. Mack, and then they lied to authorities to conceal their culpability,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
The state paid $900,000 to settle a wrongful death suit filed by Mack’s family.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s civil rights complaint also cites dozens of incidents where guards have smuggled drugs, and claims methadone, heroin and methamphetamine use is widespread among prisoners. As a recent example, three former guards at the Bullock Correctional Facility were arrested in early 2016 for smuggling contraband. Victor Lamorris Davis, Jr., 24, and Tevin Terrell Benton, 23, were both arrested on February 25, while Khayla Chambers, 20, was arrested in January. The contraband they attempted to bring into the prison included marijuana, cocaine, Suboxone strips, cigarettes, and cell phones and chargers. Chambers also was charged with custodial sexual misconduct. All three were fired.
At the Ventress Correctional Facility, kitchen steward Sandra Johnson Cooper, 61, was arrested on January 22, 2016 for trying to smuggle two cell phones, phone chargers and synthetic marijuana. She had been employed with the ADOC for almost 20 years.
EJI’s lawsuit also alleges that prisoners’ security classifications are not considered when prison officials make cell assignments.
“They put people in housing units where they have enemies. They don’t respond to the serious problems of mental health,” Stevenson said. “Half the people require mental health counseling and services they’re not getting.”
Additionally, according to the complaint, prisoners must barter to receive basic hygiene items such as soap, toilet paper and underwear. The elimination of programs, books and other recreational activities has contributed to an “oppressive and monotonous environment.” Stabbings occur on a weekly basis, resulting in prisoners being sent to outside hospitals for extended stays.
On June 3, 2014, during the night, SCCF prisoner Jody Wayne Waldrop was stabbed to death in his cell. His girlfriend, Angela Bennett, said she spoke with Waldrop on his contraband cell phone just 25 minutes before he was attacked. She was told another prisoner entered his cell because the lock on his door didn’t work properly, and fatally stabbed him in the neck during an attempted robbery.
“Everyone I talked to said the guard was asleep in his office,” she said. “How can somebody take someone’s life like that when no one can do anything about it and no one can help him? People make mistakes and go to jail, but they still have family, they have friends, they have people that love them and expect them to come home.”
It is that question and rationale that pushed the Equal Justice Initiative to file suit. “It’s an increasingly dangerous prison where things are just going to get worse,” Stevenson stated. The case remains pending, with EJI moving for class certification in February 2016. See: Duke v. Dunn, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 4:14-cv-01952-VEH-HGD.
Privatized Medical Care Questioned
For many years the ADOC has used a private, for-profit contractor to provide medical care to prisoners. In 2012 it awarded a 34-month contract to Corizon Health valued at $224 million, and extended the contract in February 2015 for another 24 months at a cost of $181 million.
Corizon was the only company to submit a bid in 2012; its predecessor, Correctional Medical Services, had previously held the contract for five years. Corizon is owned by Valitas Health Services, which in turn is owned by Beecken Petty O’Keefe & Co., a private equity firm.
Pressure is being applied to Corizon due to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit alleging inadequate medical care in Alabama’s prison system. Although the company is not named as a defendant, it is footing the bill for a private law firm to represent the state pursuant to its contract.
Conflicts of interest abound. The ADOC’s top healthcare official, Ruth Naglich, is a former executive at Corizon’s two predecessor companies, and her husband worked for firms hired by Corizon to perform X-rays on Alabama prisoners.
Then there is Linda Maynor and Clay Ryan, who both work for the law firm of Maynard Cooper & Gale, P.C., which was hired by Corizon to defend state prison officials against the SPLC’s lawsuit.
Maynor volunteers on Governor Bentley’s campaign finance committee. She listed Corizon as her only client in 2012 quarterly lobbying reports; Maynor said she did not lobby for the firm that year, which coincided with the ADOC’s renewal of its medical contract, saying she worked on “legislative issues” for Corizon. Gayle is a former special counsel to Governor Bentley.
Lobbyists were not part of the 2012 contract procurement, ADOC spokeswoman Kristi Gates said in a statement. Nonetheless, when negotiating the medical care contract with Corizon, the ADOC dropped a provision that had kept at least one interested competing firm, Wexford Health Sources, from submitting a bid.
The ADOC’s request for proposal required the winning company to purchase a $5 million performance bond to obtain the contract. That, according to Wexford executive Edward McNeil, was “out of proportion” with the bid proposal.
“We feel this amount not only far exceeds any reasonable estimate of the liquidated damages a contractor might be liable for during the course of a contract, but is also not in line with the current industry standards,” he wrote.
Eight days after Governor Bentley approved the contract with Corizon, ADOC attorney Anne Hill contacted McNeil to dispute his claims, calling them “misunderstandings.” While she contended other states had a similar bond requirement, Naglich, the ADOC’s associate commissioner for healthcare, wrote to Corizon executive James M. Courtney in October 2012 to ask if the company would mind removing the performance bond from the contract. Courtney agreed two days later and said the change would “create an annual savings of $31,000.”
Of course, the ADOC contended this post-award alteration of the terms of the contract was fair.
“Corizon was the incumbent provider with a strong reputation in Alabama. The department was confident in Corizon’s financial strength and position, and we chose to drop the performance bond requirement in final negotiations with Corizon,” ADOC spokeswoman Gates said. “At the time of the decision, Corizon had a five-year track record of delivering its obligations in Alabama. Given Corizon’s history of performance, it made logical sense for the state to reduce the amount of the bond.”
Perception lies in the eyes of the beholder, apparently. While the ADOC lauded Corizon’s “financial strength,” ratings firm Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded Corizon’s parent company multiple times. In October 2015, Moody’s cited the firm’s “weak liquidity profile” and “earnings volatility,” as well as the Florida DOC’s recent decision to rebid its contract with Corizon, as justification for another ratings downgrade.
Further, the ADOC’s reference to Corizon’s five-year performance track record conflicts with the fact that medical care in Alabama prisons is so bad that the SPLC was forced to file a class-action lawsuit, which remains pending.
The suit is filled with grisly accounts of Corizon’s failure to provide adequate health care in the name of higher profits. The complaint claims the prison system has a policy and practice of not treating hepatitis C; in early 2014, 2,280 state prisoners had been diagnosed with hep C but only seven were receiving treatment. A prisoner who had survived prostate cancer had a blood test indicating his cancer had likely returned, but no follow-up test was given until a year-and-a-half later. By that time the cancer had spread to his bones and his condition was terminal.
Another prisoner with a history of cardiac problems had a stent placed in his heart in 2012. Afterward, he did not receive necessary blood thinners, though his doctor had prescribed them. The stent became clogged, requiring emergency open-heart surgery.
In another case, Patricia Smith, 58, a prisoner with a history of high blood pressure and heart problems, experienced chest pains, diarrhea and vomiting in March 2008, and was “treated” with ice and Maalox. She suffered a heart attack and died; medical staff had not been trained in the use of the defibrillator or oxygen bottles. Her estate filed suit against Correctional Medical Services (which later merged with Prison Health Services to form Corizon), and an undisclosed settlement was reached in July 2011.
The SPLC’s lawsuit also alleges that prisoners were placed under “do not resuscitate” or “allow natural death” orders without their consent or knowledge, and that prison medical staff used those orders to deny treatment.
How do such incidents occur when there is supposed to be a licensed doctor supervising prison health care? Often the supervision is lacking because the physicians either never visit the facility or Corizon has them overseeing so many prisons that they are unable to adequately review individual cases. Sometimes, the person in charge of monitoring medical care is under-qualified or possesses questionable credentials.
“ADOC provides what is commonly known as constitutionally adequate care, a level of care meeting community standards,” claimed ADOC spokesman Brian Corbett, who presumably has never been the recipient of prison medical care.
In an effort to maximize its bottom line, Corizon tends to pay low wages that fail to attract highly-qualified medical staff. The company employs at least two prison physicians in Alabama who regained their medical licenses after being disciplined for misconduct.
Dr. Timothy Iliff and Dr. David J. Pavlakovic were both barred from practicing medicine by the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners; they were hired by Corizon after their licenses were reinstated. Iliff was employed at the Fountain Correctional Facility while Pavlakovic worked at SCCF, according to a 2014 news report. The Southern Poverty Law Center called their employment by Corizon “extremely concerning.”
Dr. Iliff’s misconduct dates back to 1986 in Lowndes County, Mississippi. According to a Board of Medical Examiners complaint, he was charged with a felony for attempting to obtain drugs fraudulently by calling in and writing prescriptions for two women that were not medically indicated. He avoided a conviction on his record by agreeing to two years’ probation.
The complaint further alleged that from 2007 to 2009, Iliff had sexual contact with a patient and prescribed her an excessive amount of controlled substances. Finally, the complaint claimed that on July 8, 2009, Iliff called a pharmacy and identified himself as another doctor in an attempt to obtain drugs.
The Board of Medical Examiners found Dr. Pavlakovic had “engaged in a pattern and practice of inappropriate sexual behavior with patients by kissing patients on the mouth, fondling patients’ breasts, and exposing his penis to patients during the time when he was rendering medical treatment, including prescriptions for controlled substances, to these patients.”
Corizon said in a statement that it is “committed to providing quality care to our patients.” Quality, of course, has varying standards. When the level of care has devolved to the point where a federal lawsuit is filed, there is an obvious conflict with regard to which standard is being applied: The company’s for-profit standard or the Eighth Amendment standard that prohibits deliberate indifference to prisoners’ serious medical needs.
“If we’re getting service that leads to a serious lawsuit from the SPLC, why are we doing business with these people?” asked state Senator Arthur Orr.
While that’s a good question, the ADOC apparently doesn’t have a good answer. The state partially settled the SPLC’s lawsuit – only for claims raised under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – in March 2016. PLN will report the terms of the settlement, which requires adequate services for disabled prisoners and includes over $1 million in attorneys’ fees and costs, in a future issue. The lawsuit remains pending as to other claims related to inadequate medical care by Corizon. See: Dunn v. Dunn, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00601-MHT-TFM.
The Push for Improvements
Efforts to fix Alabama’s criminal justice system took a step forward with the implementation of new sentencing guidelines that went into effect on October 1, 2013. The Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) assisted the state’s Prison Reform Task Force in recommending additional improvements.
The CSG presented a report that found a 16% drop in prison sentences from the effective date of the sentencing guideline reforms to June 2014, resulting in 5,253 prison sentences compared to 6,260 over the same period the year before. Prison sentences for high-volume crimes, such as drug possession, dropped by 2%. As for those sentenced before the change, one-third of property and drug offenders are serving sentences that exceed 15 years. Almost 60% of Alabama state prisoners are serving sentences of 15 years or more, according to SPLC attorney Maria Morris.
Othni Lathran, director of the Alabama Law Institute, was a member of the Task Force, which issued its final report in March 2015. He is also on a review committee composed of up to 25 judges and attorneys who have spent the last four years looking for ways to revise the state’s criminal code.
“I think a simplification of the code, even when you’re just talking about crimes that exist, would simplify the system enough to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples,” he said. “I don’t mean to suggest it’s an easy fix or a simple process, but I think it’s one more piece of the puzzle when you look at the total picture of what’s going on in the criminal justice system.”
There are numerous anomalies in Alabama’s criminal statutes. For example, assault of a sporting official is a Class A felony, while assault of anyone else is a Class B felony; a drug conviction results in automatic driver’s license revocation, making it difficult for offenders to attend rehab programs and drug classes, or go to work; burglary is classified as a violent crime even if the building is detached from a home or business; and felony theft has a $500 threshold, which is lower than the $1,000 or $2,000 level in other states.
Shorter sentences and diverting offenders from prison as potential solutions for the ADOC’s overcrowding problem are not popular with everyone. “Yeah, the population of the penitentiaries are up,” said Mobile County Circuit Judge Joseph S. Johnston, “but the crime rate is also down. Does that have a correlation to anybody? Does that indicate things might be working?”
Before retiring in April 2015, Johnston cited the case of a prisoner who was released after serving time for robbery. Shortly after getting out of prison, he went to the home of Holocaust survivors and knocked on their door at night. “After he bashed in the door, he tortured the man to death and put the woman in the hospital,” Johnston said. “And that’s what happens.”
Then again, perhaps it’s the violent prison environment that is making some prisoners go from bad to worse.
“I had friends to go into prison and came out different,” noted Darius Foster, a candidate who ran for a seat in the state House. “So, I’ve seen that prison creates criminals.”
“Every single year the Legislature comes to town they generate more crimes that are felonies,” remarked ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas, before he resigned in January 2015. “We’re in a state that is very pro law enforcement, that very much had a ‘lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key’ mentality for a number of years and not much foresight into what that creates.”
A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Alabama’s tough-on-crime approach has not been particularly successful. The report noted the state prison population rose by 41% between 1994 and 2012, which outpaced the national average by 21%. Only Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma lock up a greater percentage of their population.
During the same period of time, Alabama saw its crime rate drop by only 19% – less than all but six other states. The report found that seven states which reduced their prison populations beat Alabama in reductions of their crime rate. Five of those seven also beat the average 40% national crime reduction rate.
While reforming criminal statutes will help reduce the number of state prisoners, it will not do so immediately.
“Simply waiting on the [sentencing] guidelines to have effect won’t get the system where it wants to be until many years out,” observed Andy Barbee, research manager at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “Therefore, it is critical, if the state wants to have a near-term on the crisis level of overcrowding, it looks beyond sentencing.”
“If someone has a serious drug addiction and our solution is ‘you’re addicted to drugs and I’m going to throw you in jail for 5-10 years,’ we’re not fixing the problem,” added Senator Ward. “You want to make sure [you] get these folks the attention they need before they commit a serious crime. You can’t do it for free either.”
Again, the bottom line is the state’s fiscal bottom line. Overcrowding and understaffing are major problems within the ADOC, and both cannot be fully addressed without additional funds. The staff shortage resulted in the ADOC paying $20.8 million in overtime in 2013 – an increase from an average $13 million over the previous four years. Alabama’s prison system had an average staffing ratio of one guard to every 12 prisoners in 2014 and employed just 58% of the guards it was budgeted to hire, according to PARCA.
“Our prisons are crowded with a high inmate-to-officer ratio,” Governor Bentley stated. “Over time, the number of inmates incarcerated in the system has increased but the corrections budget has had trouble keeping up the increasing need.”
Nationally, the average guard-to-prisoner ratio is around one to 6.4, based on a survey conducted by the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
In April 2011, the ADOC settled a class-action federal lawsuit over staff shortages and high levels of violence at the Donaldson Correctional Facility. The suit claimed there were too few guards to properly manage the overcrowded prison, and understaffing was described as a “crisis” by former Warden Stephen Bullard in a letter to the ADOC commissioner. [See: PLN, March 2012, p.22].
A lack of rehabilitative programs for prisoners is also an issue in the state’s prison system. Education is the most cost-effective way to reduce recidivism, saving $5 for every $1 spent, according to Calhoun Community College President Marilyn Beck. About 5,500 Alabama prisoners were enrolled in community college programs in 2012-2013.
Yet such programs have seen budget cuts. Several years ago the budget for the J.F. Ingram State Technical College, a community college that provides education programs for up to 543 incarcerated students at a time, was slashed by 12%.
“And this year I’m facing another twenty-something thousand dollar cut. It makes a huge difference,” Hank Dasinger, president of the J.F. Ingram school, said in 2014. “In light of all the evidence about the effectiveness of correctional education, how in the world do we cut the program that stands the best chance of getting people out of the overcrowded situation where they won’t come back?”
Governor Bentley announced a Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2014 to obtain answers. “Our goal is to make the criminal justice system as efficient as possible in order to maximize the amount of state dollars we spend on corrections,” he said.
On May 21, 2015, the governor signed a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill, AL SB67, into law. “This is not the final end result,” said Senator Ward. “This is the first step in a long road we have ahead to fixing our corrections system.”
The bill, which is expected to decrease the state’s prison population by almost 20% over a five-year period at an estimated cost of $23-26 million per year, reduces the punishments for some property- and drug-related crimes and creates a new, lower-level felony classification. It also expands parole and community supervision programs, reclassifies some property crimes as non-violent offenses and includes new guidelines for technical parole violations. As expected, prisoner releases were not on the table.
“No one’s being released early,” Ward noted. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid, a bunch of violent offenders being released early.” He also acknowledged during an interview with PBS NewsHour that some lawmakers supported the reforms for moral reasons, and others for strictly budgetary reasons.
Fixing the Problem: Competing Solutions
“We have people in prison that shouldn’t be there for as long as they are and people that need to be in prison on the streets,” said Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. “We can rehabilitate people. We can improve the system that we’ve got now.”
Parole reform is one alternative being examined. Of the ADOC’s nearly 25,000 prisoners, approximately 7,000 are eligible for parole. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles holds around 70 to 80 hearings each week.
The percentage of prisoners approved for parole has dropped from 42% in 2009 to 36% in 2013, yet Robert Longshore, a member of the Parole Board, said nothing has changed about how they decide who to release.
“By the time someone gets to prison, many have been on probation, drug courts, or community corrections,” he stated. “By the time they get to us they’ve had opportunities to live free, law-abiding lifestyles.”
Andy Barbee, with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, believes there is a fundamental problem with Alabama’s parole system.
“There was a time when the parole board was releasing a larger volume of individuals. We’ll look and see what the profile is, but it’s never been the case that the parole board had had the pool that’s much more substantially favorable for release,” he said. “They’ve never had a system full of Boy Scouts. This is not something that’s fluctuated wildly over the years. The notion that there’s a fundamentally different population sitting in prison compared to one year ago, five years ago or ten years ago is incorrect and inaccurate.”
The CSG assisted the state’s Prison Reform Task Force in seeing through the smoke-and-mirrors that have hidden the truth about Alabama’s criminal justice system.
“It’s very revealing. Take out the person crimes, the violent crimes, you look at property crimes and drug possession, there’s a large portion of that population that is still sitting in [prison] beds when they’ve been eligible [for parole] for a long time,” said Senator Ward. “Now, we need to look at those statistics to make sure it’s not someone who committed multiple offenses, but if it is solely possession or solely a minor property crime and no one was injured and they’ve already served their time and are eligible, maybe that’s a big part of our problem. And [paroling them] is something that would be very cost efficient for taxpayers.”
SPLC legal director Rhonda Brownstein agreed, saying, “This bloated, archaic system is the direct result of misguided and overly harsh policing and sentencing policies that send people to prison for long periods for non-violent drug offenses, technical parole or probation violations, or minor crimes that should be dealt with in a way that would better confront the underlying causes of crime and reduce recidivism.”
There are more than 1,000 drug and property offenders in state prisons who have been parole eligible for over a year, and prisoners are currently serving more time than in the past – from an average 30 months in 2009 to 43 months in 2014. The Parole Board is not required to state its reasons for denying parole.
“It makes it difficult for anyone working on behalf of the inmate to have a target or a plan,” Barbee said. “It’s very challenging to lay out a clear picture on the kinds of expectations [the Board] puts forward for inmates.”
The Parole Board’s practices might be influenced by financial concerns, as its budget was cut by $6 million in 2014. As a result, parole officers handle about 200 cases each. That may create fear that a poorly-supervised parolee will commit a heinous crime with negative media publicity and harsh political fallout, making it safer to simply deny parole.
Additionally, Alabama re-incarcerates around 40% of its parolees and probationers for violating the terms of their release. Many of those violations are due to technical reasons, not because new crimes were committed.
“My friends, it costs too much to incarcerate people for technical violations,” said W. David Guice, Commissioner of North Carolina’s Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, who spoke at the 2014 annual convention of Alabama’s Association of County Commissioners.
North Carolina sends technical violators – those who do not have new charges or have not absconded – to prison for a “quick dip,” a practice whereby violators are locked up for two- and three-day periods.
“It’s an attention-getter,” Guice said. Those who received a quick dip successfully completed their probation terms 92% of the time. By contrast, according to a study of 600 probationers, those who did not receive a quick dip had a successful completion rate of only 54%.
Slowing the revolving door of released prisoners returning to prison is an essential component of penal reform. Alabama has an average three-year recidivism rate of 32%, which, while below the national average, is still unacceptably high. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, only 48% of parolees have access to substance abuse programs and just 23% can receive mental health services.
To reduce the recidivism rate, the state’s Prison Reform Task Force recommended increasing funding for improved parole supervision, including reentry services and resources to help ex-offenders obtain employment.
“At some point, the state will have to make a bigger investment in community services and supervision programming,” declared Bennett Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. “Matching offenders with the right service lowers the likelihood that they’ll commit more crimes.”
“We are a nation of compassionate people,” said Parole Board member Longshore. “Given the proper circumstances, the people of Alabama would welcome a more rehabilitative model. But that is trumped by the fact that it would cost more money.”
Money, however, apparently isn’t the stumbling block for state officials; on February 23, 2016, Governor Bentley proposed building four new prisons, including a women’s facility to replace Tutwiler, at an estimated cost of $800 million. While decades of mass incarceration in the U.S. has definitively proven that states can’t build themselves out of prison overcrowding, Alabama lawmakers are undeterred.
“We have made significant progress over the last year to improve our criminal justice system, and with the construction of four new and modern prisons, Alabama is poised to be a national leader in safe and effective incarceration of inmates,” Bentley remarked.
The prison-building proposal, dubbed the “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act” (AL SB287), was approved by the state Senate on April 7, 2016; the $800 million will come from bond financing, and the new facilities are projected to reduce overcrowding to 125% of the prison system’s capacity. Of course the $800 million slated for prison construction means those funds will not be used for education, health care, housing or other programs to benefit the public.
The bond payments, estimated at $50 million per year over three decades at a total cost of $1.5 billion with interest, would be paid by reducing employee overtime, cutting maintenance expenses, reducing costs for prisoner medical care (when the care currently provided is already inadequate) and reducing the number of prison employees (when ADOC facilities are already severely understaffed).
The proposal also calls for closing 14 existing prisons, and some state lawmakers have expressed concern about the impact the closures will have on local economies. The bill, which remains pending in the House, has been criticized by prison reform advocates.
“A multi-year prison construction [plan] does not address the immediate crisis they have,” said EJI senior attorney Charlotte Morrison.
“The problem is simply that Alabama incarcerates too many people,” added SPLC legal director Rhonda Brownstein. “Before the state borrows money to build new prisons, our leaders must do everything they can to reduce the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders who are locked up.”
Beyond reducing the state’s prison population or building more facilities to alleviate overcrowding, there is also a need to improve existing conditions within Alabama’s prison system – including reducing levels of violence, improving medical care, respecting prisoners’ rights and creating an environment conducive to rehabilitation. Even if the new facilities the state plans to build result in improvements, they will not open for another three years.
A group composed of Alabama prisoners and their family members and supporters, the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), has proposed a number of immediate reforms and organized several non-violent in-prison protests to improve conditions. Using contraband cell phones, incarcerated FAM members have taken photos and more than 60 videos inside state prisons and posted them online to publicly expose egregious conditions, including poor food, filthy housing units and “the inhumane, unconstitutional living conditions that prisoners inside the State of Alabama are forced to live under.”
According to one FAM member who did not want to be identified, “These cell phones are lifesaving devices for us, and the only reason why they are considered contraband is because the state doesn’t want us to expose what’s going on inside.”
The organization has also drafted proposed legislation, “Alabama’s Education, Rehabilitation, and Re-entry Preparedness Bill,” to improve conditions in the state’s prison system.
In January 2014, FAM members successfully staged non-violent protests and work strikes at three ADOC facilities. The group planned another protest in April of that year with the support of International Workers of the World, though the protest failed to take place due to intervention by prison officials and, reportedly, a lack of unity among the prison population. Several prisoners affiliated with FAM were placed in segregation, including the organization’s founder and spokesman, Melvin Ray.
According to Ray, the group decided to organize work stoppages because withholding prison labor was “the only weapon or strategy ... we have.” FAM “wants to change the overall approach to what corrections is like in the United States,” he added. “And we want to start with Alabama because Alabama has the worst prison system in the United States.”
Freeworld members of FAM and Mothers and Family held a demonstration outside the Holman Correctional Facility on April 9, 2016 to draw attention to prison conditions.
“At what point are prisoners allowed to fight for their rights without being reprimanded and made to face confinement? Prisoners do have rights,” said FAM spokesperson Dara Folden, who added the ADOC “is a profit-based system that has nothing to do with rehabilitation.”
FAM’s defined goals, beyond improving prison living conditions and medical care, include reducing overcrowding through prisoner releases; ending unpaid prison slave labor; overhauling the Parole Board and establishing parole criteria; and abolishing the death penalty and sentences of life without parole.
Those goals certainly sound more reasonable than the state’s plan to spend $800 million ($1.5 billion with interest) to build four new prisons, which will not address underlying issues related to the need for sentencing reforms, better parole practices and constitutional conditions of confinement.
“People go to prison because they have committed a crime. They must pay a price,” said Senator Ward. He acknowledged, however, that “There is a distinction between the prisons we have and say the ones in Central America. We are not a third world country. We want to make things safe for society and there are smart ways to do that.”
But if the state fails to pursue those “smart ways” and lawmakers lack the political will to address the critical issues affecting Alabama’s prison system, then those issues will have to be addressed by the federal courts. Or as Ward put it, “I would rather us as a Legislature deal with it ... as opposed to a federal judge coming in slashing and burning.”
Then again, perhaps slashing and burning is exactly what the ADOC needs. Nothing else has worked to date, and critics argue that the plan to build new facilities and expand the state’s prison system will merely postpone existing criminal justice problems, not solve them. Plus what happens if the legislature fails to pass the prison-building bill?
“There is no plan B,” said Governor Bentley. Not that one was needed; the state House approved the legislation on April 28, 2016.
Sources: Montgomery Advisor, www.al.com, www.cullmantimes.com, www.reason.com, CNN, www.wdef.com, www.correctionsone.com, www.pbs.org, www.annistonstar.com, The Intercept, www.truthdig.com, www.freealabamamovement.com, www.timesdaily.com, www.alreporter.com, www.prisonbooks.info, www.prisonwatchnetwork.org, www.truth-out.org, www.msnbc.com, www.inthesetimes.com, www.parcalabama.org, www.asca.net, www.abc3340.com
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