We called on Bryan Stevenson for a specialist’s critique of the state’s current proposal for fixing the overcrowded Alabama prison system. At an estimated cost of $800 million, the plan calls for construction of four new regional prisons to replace 14 of the 15 prisons now in the system. The building project, to be financed by bonds, was proposed in February by Gov. Robert Bentley after scandals over sex abuse at the state’s maximum security prison for women, Julia Tutwiler. The plan was unveiled just before widely publicized riots broke out in March at Holman men’s prison. Versions passed the Senate and House in late April but the final version stalled just before the close of the session. At press time, the governor was toying with a special session to reconsider his plan.
Alabama spent $394 million on the corrections system in 2015, 22 percent of the state’s general fund. The new prisons would add 3, 000 beds to the system, promising to reduce overcrowding from its current 165 percent, the most crowded in the nation, to 125 percent.
Stevenson’s specialty is public interest law, particularly prisoners’ rights. A professor at New York University School of Law, he is the author of Just Mercy, a New York Times bestseller named by Time Magazine as one of the 10 Best Books of Nonfiction for 2014.
He is also founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based nonprofit that, in October 2014, filed a federal lawsuit that claims Alabama’s prison system is dangerously overcrowded and fosters violence and corruption. Cheatham v. Thomas, filed in U.S. District Court Northern District of Alabama, seeks class action status on behalf of inmates of St. Clair Correctional Facility.
I do not believe building new prisons is the answer to the problems we have with our prison system. It’s like having a university with a losing football team and what the university decides to do is to build a new stadium. It’s misguided. You have to look at the personnel and the way you’re doing things. Five different groups have come in to look at the prison system, including the Council for State Government, the National Institute of Corrections and the Justice Department. None of these entities concluded that building four new big prisons was the solution. This came up out of nowhere and was presented as the response. It is not a well developed plan or well informed. It has not been presented with clarity or detail. And, when you think about spending $800 million, you should want details. Also, you are going to be subjecting communities to the loss of revenues when existing prisons are closed. Then there are the collateral costs of closing the facilities. And you have to consider the cost of transporting prisoners. That’s why the system has two-dozen facilities spread across the state, so that they will be in proximity to the courts. The whole concept is ill conceived.
I think the people most engaged in the new prison plan are a handful of inside players — lawyers, construction magnates. That $800 million doesn’t just pay for a building. It gets paid to the people doing the building, writing the contracts and managing those bonds. If you’re one of those and the state is going to spend $800 million, almost a billion, your motivation is to get paid, and you could care less about whether it is a good idea or a silly idea. Those are the people who seem to be the most engaged and enthusiastic about it.
I have been working inside Alabama prisons for about 30 years, and in the last 10 years there has been a really radical decline in the conditions of confinement. The morale among corrections officers has dropped, working conditions have worsened so that very few want to work in these jobs, and overcrowding has made prisons more dangerous than I can remember in 30 years. The amount of corruption connected with staff, involving contraband and drugs as a way of controlling people in these situations, has become worse than I’ve ever seen it. Five years ago, at Ventress, prison guards murdered an inmate, literally beat him to death, and the department did not do what it should have, and the Justice Department had to come in and convict those who did the crime. And there has been widespread sexual abuse at Tutwiler, and not the kind of response that was appropriate, and, once again, the Justice Department had to come in. We’ve been sliding down this dangerous slope to a chaotic situation where the prisons are in a crisis. The problems are not unique to Alabama, but it is the response of management that we have been so disappointed in. The system could be better managed, with the right leadership and commitment.
Overcrowding is the biggest problem. There were 5, 000 prisoners in 1979 and today it is 30, 000, a six-fold increase in prison population, without a corresponding increase in the resources to manage the prisons effectively. We’ve created a situation where we have people incarcerated for very serious violent crimes housed next to the mentally ill and inmates with a low level of crime. Even if we had a bed for every prisoner, we haven’t done a very good job of keeping out of the system administrators who shouldn’t be there — people who don’t think about the classification of inmates and how we should manage people.
There are resource issues connected with the problems, but primarily it’s an issue of management. There is a way to organize the system where you minimize some of the problems that we see. We set up a treatment unit for hepatitis at St. Clair, which means that every inmate in the system with hepatitis, no matter how violent his crime, is sent to St. Clair. The guy who forged a bad check is housed next door to someone sentenced for aggravated murder. You could see good outcomes by spending a fraction of what you might think you need to spend. It’s a matter of better management.
In Mississippi they have seen a dramatic reduction in the overcrowding issues. In Louisiana, Angola, which used to be the most violent prison in the country, they have introduced a lot of programing, getting people to take courses that develop skills, even people with violent crimes; you’ve seen a prison transform itself from being all about violence and destruction to one that is one of the most impressive prisons in the country, with a prison newspaper, radio station, horticulture. It’s a way of managing a crowded population by providing something they need that will lower the abuse. We haven’t even tried that in Alabama. We have 5, 000 people who could be let out of prisons in Alabama without threatening public safety: people in prison for marijuana, people with terminal illnesses in wheel chairs and people with lower level crimes such as writing bad checks. We could save millions of dollars with just the release of those 5, 000 prisoners.
The (sentence reduction) bill that passed last year was a very small step in the right direction. But it was like someone in a house that has been struck by a hurricane and we call in some people to do some dusting. It didn’t go anywhere near where we hope to go. The Council for State Government had a host of recommendations, most of which were rejected. They (Legislature) didn’t mandate a reduction in sentencing anywhere near what would be adequate. Alabama is the only state in the nation that makes marijuana a class A felony, alongside terrorism. There have been some model examples of reductions in sentencing in Southern states. The best models for change would be South Carolina and Mississippi and Texas, reworking the criminal code.
It’s about leadership, and, ultimately, it’s safer for elected officials to just keep saying the same things, although it is more expensive and economically more devastating. But, until most people realize that, rather than just being tough on crime, it’s not going to be the same here in Alabama as in other states.
Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.
Interview by Chris McFadyen