By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
One case of prisoner abuse is one more than should be tolerated within the walls of our State’s penitentiaries.
One act of sexual violence against a woman or a man under custodial care of the Alabama Department of Correction in unacceptable.
These same sentiments have been expressed by ALDOC Commissioner Kim Thomas and Governor Robert Bentley.
The rush to sensationalize the U.S. Department of Justice report on Tutwiler Prison has betrayed the fact that the findings are old, and that much of the work to correct the problems cited has already begun.
The DOJ findings mirror many of those by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) report requested by Thomas over a year ago. While both reports are extremely disturbing the failure of the media to give equal time to the sweeping changes, Thomas and his staff have established at the aging institution is also concerning.
But as any good editor knows anytime you can marry sex, women and prison in a headline, you are sure to attract an audience. None of this is meant to minimize the seriousness of the problems at Tutwiler, but to emphasizes that in this instance, the ALDOC leadership is in front of the problem, not behind.
Someone recently suggested that Tutwiler be bulldozed, as if that would solve the problem.
The problem is as old as human nature and how to deal with those individuals in society that choose to break the law.
Prisons are a tool of the State used to punish those who commit crimes. They are also the way that the government keeps criminals separate from the law-abiding public, ensuring some modicum of public safety. Lastly, they are institution that provided rehabilitative education for those who are willing to improve their lives. But let’s be clear, their primary purpose in to punish.
Our State’s prisons are woefully ill equipped to do little more than warehouse inmates, but Commissioner Thomas is trying to do more.
Alabama spends on average $42.00 a day per inmate. That is the lowest cost of any state prison system in the country. There is little appetite among our lawmakers or citizens to raise taxes to fund more or better prisons.
As for bulldozing Tutwiler, it might be a good idea but where is the money to be found to replace it; where is the willingness among the people of Alabama to accept a tax increase to fund such an building project? Few politician are willing to risk the next campaign by announcing a tax-increase to fund better living conditions for prisoners.
So, our prisons stay over crowded, operating at almost 200 percent of capacity.
There are only two ways to reduce prison population:
One is to limit the number of individuals who enter the system.
The other, is to increase the number of prisoners released.
Again, neither of these ideas are popular campaign platforms.
Alabamians are law and order constituents; therefore, so are their elected representatives. We know how to be tough on crime, but we need to learn how to be smart on crime. This is not only risky for a politician, it also requires an informed electorate.
The media has a responsibility to educate the public as to the problems within the system, but it should also support the lawmakers and officials who are trying to improve this difficult situation.
Politicians like State Senator Cam Ward, Republican from Alabaster, has come forward to champion many reforms to our judiciary system that would lead to alternative sentencing. Testing on offenders before they enter the prison system is also a way to evaluate what type of punishment and what resources should be allocated to an inmate.
What may be surprising to die-hards on the right is that individuals like Susan Watson, the new Executive Director of the Alabama ACLU, are offering a helping hand to find good solutions to this most challenging of problems. In a written statement to the Alabama Political Reporter Watson said, “We really look forward to sitting down and working together with legislators and prison officials to find realistic and tangible solutions to the problems at hand.”
Tutwiler is just a symptom of a much larger problem. ”
This is a case were the left and the right need to sit together to establish a plan to do with is best for all.
As for finding realistic and tangible solutions, the state could not find a better man to lead the way than Commissioner Kim Thomas.
Thomas, is a man of advanced degrees, who has given his working life to the correctional institution. Working his way up from a rank-in-file correctional officer to commissioner over the entire system, Thomas has spend 30 years on the frontline of corrections. An individual of Thomas’ intelligence, character and drive would have been a success in any field but he unselfishly choose to serve in the most dangerous, thankless job one can find in state government. Those who call for Thomas’ head over the Tutwiler situation are as ill informed as they are wrong. The State would be hard pressed to find any individual more suited or more committed to those in the prison system be they inmate or staff, than Thomas. There are a great many things wrong with our state’s overcrowd prisons however, Thomas is not one of them.
Tutwiler is a real and pressing dilemma for our State.
We need more dialogue and less demagoguery.
This is a situation that calls for alacrity of mind, prudent judgement and a brave heart…
not a bulldozer.