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Alabama Says It Will Reform Prisons, the Nation’s Deadliest

Back in 2014 Alabama was sued in federal court regarding failures in taking care of the medical and mental-health needs of prisoners. Approximately three years later, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found the ADOC “horrendously inadequate” in meeting those needs and also criticized severe staff shortages in the system. He then subsequently ordered the state to hire more than 2,000 additional correctional staff by 2022.

The possibility of a DOJ lawsuit against the state has apparently spurred Republican Governor Kay Ivey to convene a criminal-justice panel. “We’ve done a great job of identifying the issues,” panel member Chris Englund, a Democratic state representative, said. “But if we can’t muster up the political will to actually invest in the system, then all this is meaningless.”

A spokesperson for Ivey said the state is continuing discussions with ADOC about solving the problems. “Our infrastructure was not designed to rehabilitate,” said ADOC Commissioner Jefferson Dunn. “It was designed to warehouse. We’re trying to update that.”

Ivey has proposed a plan that would close around a dozen prisons and replace them with three new facilities offering better mental-health and vocational services. As of October 2019, the prisoner population in ADOC facilities was 21,081, 171% of capacity. The state has made modest progress in mental-health service staffing, going from 212 in 2017 to 263 in 2019.

Thompson’s order to hire more correctional staff is another matter, coming up far short of the target of 3,826: The tally stood at 1,659 as of September 2019.

The group Alabamians for Fair Justice (AFJ) wrote an open letter to ADOC Commissioner Dunn and Attorney General Steve Marshall that said, “If ADOC wants to invite real oversight of its violent prisons, it must include independent, external observers in its new task force. The people of Alabama do not trust prison officials to provide meaningful oversight of the violence in their prisons and amidst their correctional officers’ ranks. They have had that option for the last several years and they have failed.”

Equal Justice Initiative Senior Attorney Charlotte Morrison said, “We believe it’s necessary in light of the resistance of the Department of Corrections to have transparency around instances of violence and the lack of information the public has about the violence in the prison. The delays in reporting, the under-reporting, and the unreliability of reporting by the ADOC about instances of violence within prison walls makes independent investigations of these incidents really important. Until we have information that is accurate, the safety of everyone within the prisons is at risk.”

LaTonya Tate, formerly a parole officer and now executive director of the nonprofit Alabama Justice Initiative, said of the ADOC, ‘‘Will people continue to trust their motives? Absolutely not. You need independent oversight. You need people looking at this thing from a different lens, who will make recommendations for change for the better.  At the end of the day, these are humans At the end of the day, they are still people. They’re in your custody, and you have to be responsible for their care, in a meaningful, protective way.

“Those who are close to the problem are the problem solvers. The state of Alabama cannot continue to do business as usual. It’s been proven.” And “directly impacted people” should be part of the task force.

AFJ has called for not only legislators but also formerly incarcerated advocates, family members, currently incarcerated advocates, and lawyers to be part of the task force.