By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
I was the internet reporter. Accompanying us was Kim Thomas, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections; State Sen. Cam Ward; Capt. Lloyd Wallace, the president of the Alabama Correctional Organization; St. Clair Correctional Facility’s Warden Carter Davenport and others.
Over my career I have toured a few prisons none of them were places I want to stay, none of them were what might be called nice. The ones I have visited have served one major purpose, to punish those individuals who have committed crimes. They were little pieces of hell on earth.
The St. Clair Correctional Facility is one of those prisons. It is old, worn-out and as dismal as those who are held there. Opened in the 1980s the slow passage of time has not been kind, the prison looks its age and then some. The bare concrete walls stained and shifting, the stairs steps grooved from the tedious hourly flow of inmates, feet, leather upon steely stone. The stair handrails are rough to the touch as paint over paint had given it the feel of cold wrinkled skin. The door to the cells, solid and unforgiving, holding men and hiding secrets best not discussed in polite society. Danger is everywhere, sudden violence waits for opportunity or emotion. The men who are housed in the St. Clair Correctional Facility are prisoners, criminals, offenders, lawbreakers, felons, jailbirds, cons, crooks and lifers. Housed in the prison’s belly are men who are not fit to walk, work, wake or sleep among the law-abiding citizen. St. Clair is home to some of the worse humans of Alabama. Murders, rapist, child molesters and others, these people committed crimes, they put themselves in prison through their own actions. Now, we the state, must keep, them feed, clothed, sheltered and constantly watched.
Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, estimated at approximately 193 percent of capacity they are a time bomb for riot, mayhem and disaster.
On the day the media toured St. Clair, there were almost eight hundred men in the prison, most were not behind bars, they were where they were supposed to be at any given time, but they had complete freedom of movement within those confines. The only thing standing between them and the outside world was a razor wire topped wall and five men. Five Correctional Officer, keeping us safe, the prisoners safe and the people of Alabama safe. Don’t ever call a corrections officer a guard, it is disrespectful, and they get enough disrespect from the convicts, they don’t needed it from us.
The things I have noticed over the years is that no matter the size, age or location of a prison, they always have three things in common they are clean, orderly and lifeless.
They are lifeless because the men living behind the walls are resolved, just doing time, most are use to that, no big deal.
Alabama is tough on crime, the men and women who stand watch and ensure the will of the people is carried out are a tough breed, perhaps even a breed apart, they choose to be locked up everyday, to protect us.
The media was invited to St. Clair to get a close up view of what the facility was really like, it was also in a way to showcase some of the reforms that are before the Alabama Legislature.
The Alabama Department of Corrections is headed by Commissioner Kim Thomas. Thomas is a fit man, with a polite and gentlemanly manner, he speaks quietly as one who has the self-assurance that he doesn’t need to be loud to be heard. He is tall and erect and his stride is smooth and determined.
Thomas knows who he is and he knows his job, he became a correctional officer after completing his university degree, he served as a rank-and-file officer working his way through the ranks to become Commissioner. Thomas is not a hired bureaucrat, he learned the job from the bootlaces up. Not every correctional officer will become commissioner but every commissioner must have been a correctional officer.
As we all gathered to receive our instructions for the tour, Commissioner Thomas spoke first, saying, “There are three things I want to make sure I talk about and you see today.”
The first thing was that we would understand that Alabama has been tough on crime. He added, “Now, we must be smart of crime.”
Secondly, he wanted us to understand the high caliber of staff that worked in Alabama’s correctional system saying, “They deal everyday with the people that no one wants.”
Thirdly, the commissioner said that he wanted us to understand that Alabama’s prison budget is leaner than any other state, Alabama spends approximately $42 dollars per inmate per day. Most state pay around $85 dollars, only six states spend under $60 dollars a day.
Alabama is tough on crime as is witnessed by the burgeoning prison population. While lock them up throw and away the key is a good campaign slogan, it is not as easy as it sounds.
According to the facts: Alabama’s prisons are severally overcrowded, the budget to maintain the prisons we have teeters on collapse and there is no will to raise taxes to build more prisons.
There are only two ways to control prison population without building more facilities, one is to release more prisoners the other is to put fewer people in prison.
No one wants to see the prisons emptied of violent offenders and no one wants criminals walking the streets unpunished, so, we must look at alternatives.
State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) who was a part of our tour group has offered a solution. Known as the “The Sentencing Reform Act,” Ward has offered a creative solution to a complex problem.
The Legislation also known as SB386, would put forward guidelines for non-violent offenders, reduce prison population and put the state on a path to Truth in Sentencing.
“Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the United States. This bill will allow us to alleviate some of that,” Ward said.
Ward makes the point that with Alabama’s prison population hovering at 193 percent of capacity that measures were needed to not only address sentencing but the growing threat of takeover by the federal government. According to federal statute once a correction system reaching a 200 percent capacity the feds takeover and mandate the prison system.
“About 65 percent of the states inmates are non-violent offenders, and we don’t want a situation where the federal courts take over and begin releasing inmates,” Ward said. “This is a creative solution to that problem.”
He also said that this bill will allow judges to sentence non-violent offenders to community corrections, mental health court and drug court. This will slow the prison population growth allowing violent offenders to remain in prison longer.
This may not be the perfect situation in everyones’ mind but it is a solution that has received wide agreement between law-enforcement, victim’s advocates, DOC, justice and others.
This is a method of being smart on crime that the commissioner wanted us to see on our tour.
The second thing that Commissioner Thomas wanted us to see and understand was the quality of men and women who serve in the DOC.
As an observer, it is some what disturbing to be surround by so many inmates in dressed in white and so few correctional officers in blue.
When standing in line at chow time, there are only specks of blues infrequently seen flowing between heavy rows of white. Only five men to guard around eight hundred are not the kinds of odds a man would want to bet his life on. But everyday these men and woman place their training and skill against the odds.
According to the department, the DOC is the largest law enforcement agency in the State of Alabama with more than 3,100 correctional officers and 1,000 non-uniformed support personnel, managing an inmate population exceeding 31,000.
The training the officers receive is as tough and rigorous as most in law enforcement and tougher than many. However, starting pay for a correctional officer is under $28,000 per year lower than their peers outside of correction.
While a patrol officers or beat cop knows that there will be danger, a correctional officer knows danger is always present and imminent.
Just a few weeks before our visit to St. Clair an inmate coming out of the mess hall, suddenly thrust a homemade knife into the body of a fellow convict. The man went down and suddenly a nearby officer was faced with the bloody blade.
In an instant, the officer grabbed the man wrestled him to the ground and disarmed him, all while being surround by other, some hostile inmates. It was preparation that saved the officer, his training and skill won the day.
Of course most of the time we never hear about the officer that stopped a brutal attack or kept prisoners from rioting, we only hear about the poor inmate.
How soon society is willing to forget that the men and women behind bars committed crimes and that is why they are in prisons.
Those who serve in our prisons have a heavy burden to bare in the best of times. But without money, staff or modern tools they still work to keep the prison, safe for the inmates and safe for us.
Yes, living conditions are meager for prisoners, but beyond cruel or unusual punishment they should have no complaints under our constitution.
Almost the lions share of inmates at St. Clair are doing life without patrol, this means these men have nothing to lose and little to gain by following the rules.
There are only two televisions in the facility and they are an important tool in keeping discipline within the wall. Prisoners will obey rules, do their jobs and work together so that they may be allow to watch TV.
One of the things that must happen with so few officers and so many prisoners is to keep the inmates busy. Exercise, classes and TV are just a few of the tools.
The third thing the commissioner wanted to impress upon us was how lean a budget the DOC operated under.
According to the DOC the department spend $42 a day per inmate. This is half of what most states spend.
For all of the uncompromising attitude towards prisoners coming out of Arizona they spend over $61.00 a day on inmates.
No one in an Alabama’s prisons is living a life of luxury, in fact it is just the opposite. Men are stacked up and down and side by side, because of overcrowding.
The beds are small with a mattress when compress looks to be about one inch thick.
The prisoners and correctional officers make do with what is on hand, keeping it clean and serviceable, more “Green mile,” than Hilton Head.
About an hour after our tour of the St. Clair Correctional Facility ended, the Governor was forced by budget constrains to declare proration for the State. This meant a 10.6 percent cut on most government services and facilities including prison.
To head off a crisis that would lead to releasing inmates from prisons, Sen. Arthur Orr introduced a bill in the Legislature that would allow the DOC to operate at its September 2011 budget. The bill has passed the Senate and is excepted to pass the House sometime next week.
Faced with a dilapidated and failing infrastructure the men and women of the Alabama Corrections department carry on. Faced with overcrowding and under manning, the men and women of the Alabama Corrections department carry on. Faced with low wages and grueling work the men and women of the Alabama Corrections Department carry on.
This is a small picture of what our prisons are like. There is more to be reported as the above portion of the story only covers the first 30 minutes of a two hour tour.