By Ronald King, MD MPH
COL, USA (Ret)
Alabama Political Reporter
It is an almost immutable political mantra that the people we elect to office parrot phrases like “no new taxes” or “support our troops” – “I will be tough on crime!” But the latest budget passing out of committee seems to have forgotten the last slogan, especially since our prison system is essentially on probation.
Nearly every month in the last fiscal year, the news featured a prison break from the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). Whether they crawl through air conditioning ducts or walk away from work release centers in the dark, overburdened correctional officers are having trouble keeping track of their charges. Last month the U.S. Department of Justice, who is conducting an investigation of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, said in a letter to ADOC Corrections commissioner Kim Thomas that Alabama was violating Tutwiler inmates’ Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment “by failing to protect women prisoners at Tutwiler from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff.”
House Ways and Means General Fund committee chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, responded to the crisis in the Alabama prison system by denying any increase in their funding in this year’s budget. “We’re not adding anything to the prisons here,” Clouse said about his budget proposal. The department received a funding boost last year, in part to fund security improvements aimed at curbing abuse. Additional investigations into the system including allegations of physical or sexual abuse have also been leveled at three men’s prisons. This may mean that the ADOC could fall to federally mandated takeover from Washington D.C. like it did from 1976 to 1989. In September 2013, Alabama’s in-house prison population consisted of 25,340 inmates living in facilities designed for 13,318, nearly double the designed total capacity. That month’s statistics also showed a 12 to 1 inmate-to-correctional officer ratio – one of the highest in the country. No surprise that inmates regularly slip away from their overworked guards.
Oddly enough, another state agency is being left out in the cold in Clouse’ proposed funding plan; the state Attorney General’s office had their $7 million appropriation completely zeroed out in the General Fund budget proposal. The Attorney General is a constitutional officer who provides legal representation for the state of Alabama, its officers, departments, and agencies. In addition to defending the state, the Attorney General may initiate court action, both civil and criminal, to protect the state’s interests or to enforce state law. The Attorney General represents the state in all criminal actions in the appellate courts of the State of Alabama and in habeas corpus proceedings in the federal courts. He has the authority to superintend and direct the prosecution of any state criminal case. In a statement, Attorney General Luther Strange said he hoped “it was a mistake.”
“Given everything my office is working on across the State, like defending laws passed by the Legislature and prosecuting the BP oil spill case, it’s troubling not to receive guaranteed funding for the office,” the statement said. Also on the AG’s plate is the Special Grand Jury investigation into possible wrong-doing by Clouse’ fellow republican and boss, House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
Put together, this budget seems to be sending a message to the crime fighters in our state: don’t expect any assistance from the legislature while you deal with your problems. It further seems to present a callous disregard for Constitutional protections and protecting Alabama families from monthly prison breakouts.