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Alabama’s Prison Dilemma

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Alabama’s state prisons are currently operating at almost two hundred percent of capacity. As a result of overcrowding the state’s prison have become a dangerous place where guards are more captives than the inmates. A person with intimate knowledge of the Alabama prison system who wished to not be identified in this report said, “Because of the overcrowding situation in Alabama prisons the inmates are basically running the prisons.”

According to records from the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the inmate population as of December 25, 2011, totals 31,046.

The break down of the prison population is as follows:

Black Males: 17,200    White Males: 11,338    Other Males: 41
Black Females: 823    White Females: 1644    Other Females: 1
Total Males: 28,579    Total Females: 2467    Total Inmates: 31,046

Some estimates state that more than 200 inmates are being guarded by one corrections officer.

Our source says, “The guards have no choice but to stand back and just try to keep the prisoners from getting out of hand. But one day, one of these facilities is going to have a full-scale riot and the Governor is going to be forced to call out the national guard.”
He further said, “If you think the media is giving the state a black-eye over immigration, just wait until the cameras are rolling as the Alabama National Guard—carrying automatic weapons and blasting tear gas and percussion grenades—lays siege to a prison, there will be hell to pay.”

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The ADOC operates 29 facilities within the state. Five are considered maximum security: Holman, Kilby, St. Clair, Donaldson and Tutwiler. Eleven are considered medium security, with a total of 13 minimum camps, work release and community work centers.

With an operating budget over $450 million the state is being face with tough choices.

Record show that Alabama spends about $42 dollars a day per inmates which is statistically the lowest of any state, however, faced with budget shortfalls the Governor is being forced into looking for ways of shoring up the prison system.

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State Attorney General Luther Strange said in November, “We have a … [prison] population that’s about 195 percent of the designed capacity, so we understand the problems.”

The Governor and Legislature are looking for ways to solve not only the short-term problem but also address structural problems that have brought the prison system to the brink.

Senator Cam Ward (R-District 14), is the chairman of Alabama’s Joint Oversight for Prison Committee. Ward said, “We have to have alternative sentencing. I know people who shy away from that, but I can tell you right now, without alternative sentencing you will not fix this problem. It can’t be done.”

Alternative sentencing has in the past been ignored because politicians did not want to appear soft on crime. But realities have overtaken political posturing and there is a reasoned approach emerging that lays open the fallacies of some of the tough on crime rhetoric.

“The current system we have right now is softer on crime than anything else, because we have let non-violent offenders take up bed space, we have created a situation that is actually soft on crime and dumb at the same time. Right now, violent offenders are being released earlier and earlier because of the way this situation has been handled,” said Ward.

Ward said that he and others in the judiciary are looking at how other states have handled their situation. Ward believes the state must look at programs such as drug courts, half-way houses and any other kind of intervention services. This echoes what has been heard in many courthouses around the state.

“We are looking at changing some sentencing guidelines,” said Ward. “And we also are working to make sure that violent felons stay in prison for a longer part of their sentence and make sure there is room for them. You keep the non-violent offenders in alternative programs so the violent offenders can stay in [prison] longer.”

Many DAs and judges around the state are welcoming more local control for sentencing.  Judges, district attorneys and law-enforcement are local citizens and know many of the people who come before them in court. They generally know which ones can benefit from alternative sentencing and those that need to be locked up without impunity.

Ward said, “They do need more local control because what happens right now is we have the mandatory minimums that we have put into place and by putting those mandatory minimums in place for non-violent offenders you are tying the local law enforcements hands.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first in-depth report on federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws in 1991. Twenty years later, it has released its second in addressing mandatory minimum. The commission reports that, mandatory minimum sentences are too harsh, are not applied fairly or evenly, fill our prisons with small fish, and have contributed to overcrowded prisons and a budget crisis.

The Commission’s report does not renounce all mandatory minimum sentences, however, it does urge Congress to reform some aspects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

A politico who wish to not be named in this article said, “Alternative sentencing maybe the right way to go, but it doesn’t play well back home. And the AEA and others are going to beat you over the head with the idea that you are taking money away from kids and giving it to prisoners.” They added, “It is a political looser, period.”

Erik Luna, a law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law and an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute spoke before the United States Sentencing Commission, on May 27, 2010. Read full testimony.

In her opening statement before the commission, Luna said, “The basic critique of mandatory minimum sentencing schemes is well known and becoming more widely accepted. To begin with, mandatory minimums do not serve the traditionally accepted goals of punishment. All theories of retribution (and some conceptions of rule utilitarianism) require that punishment be proportionate to the gravity of the offense, and any decent retributive theory demands an upper sentencing limit. The notion of proportionality between crime and punishment expresses a common principle of justice, a limitation on government power that has been recognized throughout history and across cultures, and a precept ‘deeply rooted and frequently repeated in common-law jurisprudence.’”

There are those who will contend today that sentencing reform or any attention given to prisoners is a potential third rail in Alabama politics.

Ward says that the sentencing commission has some very good recommendations that are forthcoming that should be considered as part of solution to the problems facing our prison system.

Ward said, “There is a great simple presentation that the sentencing commission has done and it talks about exactly how we compare to other states. Everybody talks about Arizona with Sheriff Joe. Did you know that Sheriff Joe, even with his tent cities spends more per prisoner than we do in our prisons?

“The system that we have is just so broken,” said Ward, “If we don’t do something soon we are going to be in a world of hurt.”

Ward said he believes that the fix is available. Most believe it will just take a will to change the system and a good deal of work, wisdom and planning.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Elections

Trump Truck and boat parades this weekend

Brandon Moseley

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Trump boat parade

As Election Day draws near, Alabama Republicans are excited about promoting the re-election of Donald J. Trump as President and the election of Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate. This weekend two pro-President Trump events are happening in the state. There will be a truck parade from Ashland to Phenix City on Saturday sponsored by the Clay County Republican Party, while there will also be a boat parade on Wilson Lake in the Shoals sponsored by the Colbert County Republican Party on Sunday.

The pickup trucks will assemble at the Ashland Industrial Park in Clay County, 8240 Hwy 9, Ashland. There is a pre-departure rally at 10:00 a.m. central standard time. The trucks will depart at 11:00 a.m. and then proceed on a parade route that will take them into the bitterly contested swing state of Georgia. The Trump Pickup Parade will wind through east Alabama and West Georgia traveling through LaGrange and Columbus before concluding near the Alabama/Georgia line in Phenix City, 332 Woodland Drive, Phenix City at approximately 2:00 p.m. central time. Speakers will begin at 3:00. Trump flags will be on sale at the event.

The Phenix Motorsports Park will be hosting what sponsor hope could possibly the world’s largest Pickup Tuck parade in U.S. history that is routing over 50 mile through Georgia in effort to “pickup” President Trump’s numbers in GA.

A number dignitaries have been invited to address the Phenix City rally, including Coach Tuberville. Former State Sen. Shadrack McGill, Trump Victory Finance Committee member former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., and Paul Wellborn, the President and CEO of the largest Family owned Kitchen Cabinet manufacture in the USA are among the featured speakers who have committed to speak at the event.

Entertainment will be provided by: Charity Bowden, an up and coming country music singer who was the runner up on “The Voice”. Charity will sing ‘I am Proud to be an American’ as well as songs from her Voice performances. The McGill Girls will also perform. The three beautiful and talented sisters will be singing patriotic songs in three part harmony. Geoff Carlisle, a professional DJ will be keeping the crowd pumped with music and entertainment.

Following the speakers and the entertainment there will Trump truck-vs- Joe Bidden truck races down the drag strip for the finale.

The Northwest Alabama boat parade will be on Sunday. The boats will gather at 2:00 p.m. near Turtle Point and then the flotilla will parade around the open waters of Wilson Lake til 3_00 p.m.. There will be a contest for best decorated Trump boats.

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Trump supporters have held a number of large boat parades across the state to show their support for the re-election of Pres. Trump.

Boat parade sponsors say that this parade will be: pro-American, pro-law enforcement, pro-military.

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Health

COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise

Eddie Burkhalter

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COVID-19 Corona Influenza Virus Molecules Image Stock Photo

The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9. 

UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.

“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said. 

Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.

Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.

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Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.

The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.

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Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”

Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”

Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.

“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”

Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.

“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.

Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.

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Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology

Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

John H. Glenn

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.

Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”

The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.

Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.

“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”

Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.

“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.

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Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”

Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.

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The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”

Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.

“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”

District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.

“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”

District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” 
Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”

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Elections

Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies

Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

Josh Moon

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Alabama Sen. Doug Jones speaks during the Democratic National Convention.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C. 

Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.  

But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump. 

“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”

Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”

Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home. 

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“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat. 

“I rest my case.”

You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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