By Alan Farley
I recently made a trip to the city of Clayton, Alabama in Barbour County. My reason for going was to tour the Ventress Correctional facility located there. As is the case with most correctional facilities, this place is in the middle of miles and miles of two lane country roads. Pastures, livestock, and chicken houses. Then, there it is. Another 200 acres with a lot of fencing. But, these fences are noticeably different. This fence is about 20 feet tall with rolls of razor wire separating it from another 20 foot inner fence. No livestock or chickens here. However, like most things behind fences in rural Alabama, this crop will grow.
Psalm 66:11 states “You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs”. For me that burden is twofold. First, how can we address the growing family, and community, cancer of alcohol and drug addiction that continues to grow our prisons? Second, when these angry individuals decide to revolt and come through the fences, are we prepared to face the consequences?
Alabama has 29 State Correctional Facilities. Ventress Correctional is classified as a medium security facility. This facility was opened in 1990 and was designed for 650 offenders. On the day of my visit there were 1660 inmates housed there. The security staff totaled 25. (That is a total of 25 male and female state prison guards, unarmed, watching 1660 men who have been convicted of felony offenses).
A Snapshot of some of the Crimes & Sentences at Ventress:
199 inmates at Ventress are serving Life sentences. 209 inmates are serving sentences for Murder. 347 inmates are serving sentences for Robbery & Assault. 240 inmates are serving sentences for Trafficking & Manufacturing Narcotics. 161 inmates are serving sentences for Sex Related Crimes.
As the gate opens to allow you to walk the sidewalk leading to the first building inside the fence you do not see any bars. As you enter the butler styled building you are looking across a lobby at a steel sliding door. Once my credentials were verified I was allowed to enter the prison facility on the other side. Once inside you see more butler styled buildings built in a circle with those 20 foot fences visible on the other side of the buildings. Each building had a door standing open with large fans visible. There were inmates in white uniforms everywhere. No bars. We were shown the different buildings that were each set up with row after row of bunk beds. (All of the buildings had a large letter printed on the outside to designate the classification of that particular building).
Upon entering the dorm building you saw inmates sitting on beds, sleeping in beds, and standing beside beds. There was also a building where each dorm was given a time to go get their meals. No bars.
There was a medical building, a mental health building, and a building designed for 2 shop styled classrooms. There was a building with a library and a building with a classroom for those interested in acquiring their GED. No bars.
As we walked through the city behind the fence called Ventress, I asked the Prison Commissioner about the absence of cameras. He stated they did not have the funds.
As I drove back to Jefferson County I reflected on what I had just seen. I couldn’t help but think about my years of Law Enforcement with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. I thought about Sheriff Hale’s mission statement of “Keeping Neighborhoods and Communities Safe”. I thought about the criticism Sheriff Hale took, and I was a part of that, when he chose to close the county jail in Bessemer and move all county inmates to the downtown Birmingham facility. The county commission could not provide additional deputies to safely man the Bessemer jail facility. So, all inmates were crowded in to the county jail in Birmingham. (That total is currently 1346 inmates. That jail was designed to house 900). Concrete, steel doors, bars, cameras, motion sensors. The goal of the Sheriff was not only to protect the “pre-trial” inmates. But, to protect the deputies, and the citizens of Jefferson County.
The Alabama State Correctional System houses over 26,000 individuals “convicted” of felony offenses. Our Prison facilities are at 200% capacity, and our Prison Guard Staffing is at 55%. (That’s 55% staffing based on half of our current inmate population). There is not a State Prison I have toured that comes close to having the security and technology of the Jefferson County Jail. Once the “pre-trial” inmates become State Convicts how safe are our neighborhoods and communities? More importantly; when the state convicts escape from the state facilities, who’s Neighborhoods & Communities will they go to first?
Remember that one third of the state prison inmate population comes from Jefferson County. It’s a good bet that group will come home.