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State leaders have lost their credibility on prisons

Craig Ford



By Rep. Craig Ford

With all the attention being given to the special election for the U.S. Senate, you may not have seen what has been happening in Montgomery with the prison crisis.

Last year, Gov. Bentley proposed a plan to build four new “super prisons” at a cost of about $800 million. At the time, a lawsuit had been filed claiming that the state’s prisons were overcrowded and did not provide adequate safety and healthcare services, which is a violation of the 8th Amendment that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”


State leaders’ claimed that building new prisons would solve all the problems by allowing the state to house the same number of prisoners without having to hire more guards or mental healthcare professionals.

But legislators couldn’t agree on a construction plan, and the court ultimately ruled that our prisons are “horrendously inadequate,” and, more specifically, that there are “serious systemic deficiencies” in the delivery of mental health services, driven by chronic overcrowding and understaffing.

And even the overcrowding may not be as bad as state leaders have claimed.

State leaders have claimed that our prison system is at 160 percent capacity. But that number does not take into account housing additions that have been made after original construction at prison facilities.

For example, the Decatur Work Center and the Decatur Work Release Center combined were designed to house 128 prisoners, but a 340 bed dorm was added in 2008, bringing the total capacity to 505 (the facilities have 525 inmates assigned to them, meaning they are actually operating at a capacity rate of 104 percent).

But in order to make their case for building new prisons, state leaders are excluding the 340 bed dorm from the calculations so that they can say, for example, that the Decatur Work Center is operating at 894 percent of capacity (designed for 37 inmates, but housing 331).

That’s why they are careful to use the phrase “design capacity” instead of just saying “capacity.” Basically, if it wasn’t part of the original design, they aren’t counting it.

That’s not to say that we don’t have overcrowding in our prison system because we do! It’s just not as bad as state leaders are making it seem.

The real problem is that we don’t have enough mental health professionals and prison guards (there are nearly 12 inmates for every one corrections officer).

Some renovations and new construction may be necessary. But expecting to fix our prison problems by building new prisons makes about as much sense as expecting to fix failing schools simply by building a new school.

New buildings can only ease the overcrowding. They will do nothing to improve mental health or make prisons safer, which is as important for the officers and staff working in these prisons as it is for the prisoners living in them.

And yet, despite the court’s orders to resolve the mental health and staffing problems, state leaders are continuing to push for new prison construction, even as they claim that they don’t have the money to afford the adequate amount of mental health professionals and correctional officers needed to fix the problem.

“We just don’t have the money in the General Fund right now,” state Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, told back in October.

But last month, the state hired a project management team to develop a master plan to build and renovate state prisons. That team is also looking at finding private entities to build facilities that the state would then lease.

So, basically, what state leaders are saying is that the state can’t afford to hire the number of correctional officers and mental health professionals needed to satisfy the court and resolve this issue once and for all, but the state can somehow afford to spend a billion dollars or more building and/or leasing new prisons.

What kind of sense does that make?

Properly staffing our prisons would basically only cost about $5 million or so a year more than what the state has already agreed to spend. So, for the same amount of money that the state would spend on building new prisons (which would have to be replaced in 40 or 50 years), we could properly staff our current prisons for the next 160 years.

Our state leaders have lost all credibility when it comes to the prison crisis. Their math simply doesn’t add up, and the only reasonable explanation for this continued push to build new “super prisons” is because somebody who makes big campaign contributions is hoping to get a taxpayer-funded, multi-million dollar government contract out of it.

Rep. Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.


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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Battling the death penalty with Baldwin

Stephen Cooper



If you’re thirsting to understand our increasingly cold, jaundiced, at times carcinogenic society, James Baldwin’s singular insight about America and his dizzying, divine command of the English language are as refreshing as an icy elixir on the hottest day in hell.

Moreover, for death penalty abolitionists, Baldwin’s writing is particularly poignant in the wake of: (1) the Supreme Court’srecent refusal to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty, and, “wipe the stain of capital punishment clean” (In the aftermath, Reuter’s Andrew Chung soberly observed that “[t]he Supreme Court has not seriously debated the constitutionality of the death penalty since the 1970s”); (2) the Trump administration’s doubling down on a harebrained,ass-backward plan to put drug dealers to death; (3) the abominable push by legislators in several states to kill death row inmates by electrocution or even nitrogen gas—an unconscionable, ungodly, untested method (harkening back to atrocities like the gassing of the Jews, including my great-grandmother, during the Holocaust)—a method so gruesome and likely to cause pain and suffering, it’s not even accepted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals as a form of euthanasia; and last, but certainly not least, (4), the ignominious fact that Alabama has been consistently torturing poor death row inmates for a very long time, and currently, is primed to pump its nasty chemical cocktail into a long-incarcerated octogenarian (on April 19th).

In his magnificent essay, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” Baldwin made sense of such dastardly developments, writing: “There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”


Of course, Baldwin’s right (was he ever wrong?). Noble, courageous people exist in America—people with integrity who know it’s morally wrong to gas or electrocute other human beings to death. Yes, noble, courageous people exist in America, people with integrity, people who’re willing to call lethal injection the vile torture it is; good people exist in America, people who know killing is wrong under any circumstance, no matter how it’s done, or, most critically, who’s doing it.

It is these and all good people whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was addressing in his 1954 sermon on “Rediscovering Lost Values,” when he proclaimed: “The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and be opposed to wrong, wherever it is.” But almost as if issuing a direct rejoinder to King, here again comes Baldwin with his blistering, bare-knuckled truth, its percipient glare so white-hot that it threatens—if we do not learn from it—to burn down all we claim makes America great, if it has not already.

In “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin explained that “[p]eople who’ve had no experience suppose that if a man is a thief, he is a thief; but . . . . [t]he most important thing about him is that he is a man and . . . if he’s a thief or a murderer or whatever he is, you could also be and you would know this, anyone would know this who had really dared to live.”

And so, if we who have dared to live—and while less blameworthy, even those who have not—continue to deny this truth, if we continue to deny our collective identity, and that this means that each and every one of us, no matter how damaged, how defective, how depraved, how guilty, are nevertheless human, if we don’t reverse course on this damnable death penalty and fast, not in some meandering, interminably slow, plodding fashion, Baldwin’s diagnosis of America will be as incurable as it is inescapable: “The failure on our part to accept the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes monstrous people.”

Reinforcing this sentiment in a brilliant piece included in last year’s blockbuster collection of criminal justice reform essays called “Policing the Black Man,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the sentencing project, wrote: “The United States is one of the only industrialized nations that still maintains the death penalty; this both casts a stain on our moral standing and exerts an upward pressure on the severity of punishment across the board.” Only we, fellow citizens, through our mighty electoral power, can change this. No longer can we rely on our feckless Supreme Court to do it for us. And, as it has from time immemorial, history will judge.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq


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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Checking in on the Alabama Accountability Act

Larry Lee



By and large, the Legislature passes laws and seldom looks back to see what impact they are having.  Which seems a HUGE mistake to me.  The Alabama Accountability Act passed in 2013 being a prime example.

So from time to time I visit the Alabama Department of Revenue web site where they post info about AAA.  It’s always an interesting read.

For instance, you find a list current through Feb. 22, 2018 that shows there are now 204 private schools which have signed up to participate in this program that gives vouchers to students to attend private schools.  (This does not mean 204 schools have gotten scholarships, just that many have said they would take them.)


The state indicates if these schools are accredited or not.  Of the 204, 69 of them are NOT accredited.  That’s 33.8 percent.  AAA started in 2013 and 12 of the non-accredited schools have been that way since 2013.  One has to ask why we allow this to happen?  Why are we diverting money from the Education Trust Fund that may go to a school that has had five years to become accredited, but hasn’t?   Is this really looking out for the best interest of the young folks of this state?

For instance, the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations (SGO), reported that at the end of 2017, they had students at 114 private schools.  By my count, 166 of these scholarships are at 27 non-accredited schools.

The Department of Revenue keeps track of how much money is given to SGOs each year.  From 2013 through 2017, the total amount is $116,617,919.

Remember that each one of these dollars gets a one for one tax credit from the state.  Which means we have now diverted $116 million from the Education Trust Fund for private school scholarships.

Today there are 396,711 elementary students (K-6) in Alabama.  So over the past five years we have diverted $294 from ETF for each one of these students.  That is $7,000 per elementary classroom.

I visit a lot of elementary schools.  I see a lot of classrooms.  I don’t know a single elementary teacher who would not have jumped at the chance to have an extra $7,000 for her classroom since 2013.

In this legislative election year, we need to let every candidate, incumbents and challengers alike, know what is going on.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Protecting our children

Bradley Byrne



For much of the year, the safety of our students rests in the hands of the faculty, staff, and resource officers at our schools.  Without a shadow of a doubt, the people who know best how to protect our schools are the teachers, parents, administrators, police officers, and students in their own communities.

In February, the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida resonated throughout our communities, highlighting a disturbing trend of individuals who clearly show signs of grave mental instability falling through the cracks.

Sadly, this incident likely could have been avoided had there been better oversight at every level of law enforcement.  From the top down, we failed these students by not heeding the warning signs and working together as a team to ensure our students’ safety.


In response to this incident, the House recently passed the Student, Teacher’s Officer’s Prevention (STOP) School Violence Act, which provides grant funding for evidence-based training for our local law enforcement, school faculty and staff, and students to help identify and prevent school violence before these tragic events occur.

First, the STOP School Violence Act provides funding for training to prevent student violence, including training for local law enforcement officers, school personnel, and students in the event of an emergency.  This training would be designed to give students and school personnel the ability to recognize and respond quickly to warning signs of violent behavior and would include active shooter training.

Second, the bill provides funding for technology and equipment to improve school security.  This includes the development and operation of anonymous reporting systems, as well as the installation of metal detectors, locks, and other preventative technologies to keep schools secure.

The legislation also authorizes funding for school threat assessment and crisis intervention teams for school personnel to respond to threats before they become real-time incidents.  Recognizing the warning signs of violent, threatening behavior and having the proper resources to address it on the front end can prevent these tragedies from ever occurring.

Finally, the STOP School Violence Act provides funding to support law enforcement coordination efforts, particularly the officers who already staff schools.  From the federal level all the way down to our local law enforcement, we need to ensure there is accountability and communication when handling violent behavior.

Many of our local schools are already reevaluating their security measures and taking additional steps to promote a safe learning environment for our students.  Our students’ safety and security should always remain a top priority, and I believe it is imperative that our local schools have the most appropriate resources in place in the event of an emergency.

As we look for ways to prevent these terrible tragedies, I am open to additional solutions to address the underlying issues that cause these events to occur.  That said, I remain steadfastly committed to upholding the individual right of all law-abiding Americans to keep and bear arms.  Millions of Americans should not have their Second Amendment rights infringed upon due to the bad actions of a few individuals.

Rather, I believe we should focus on addressing mental health issues and combatting the role of violence in our modern culture, such as the prevalence of violent video games that normalize this behavior for our young students, and promoting commonsense solutions that will address the larger issues of mental health so that those with mental illness do not fall through the cracks.

There is still work to be done to ensure each child’s safety and well-being while attending classes. However, I am proud that we have taken this action in the House to promote a safe, secure learning environment for our children.

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State leaders have lost their credibility on prisons

by Craig Ford Read Time: 4 min