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Prison bill could be defining moment

Craig Ford

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By House Minority Leader Craig Ford

Prisons could be the issue that defines the Alabama Legislature in 2017. Gov. Bentley has said he may call a special session to address the issue, and has indicated that he will revive the prison construction bill he first proposed in his 2016 State of the State address.

In recent years, numerous lawsuits have been filed relating to the conditions in our prisons. Violence and riots have increased as the number of corrections officers has decreased, and even the federal government has begun an investigation of violence, rape and overcrowding in our prisons.

Our prisons are so old, overcrowded and underfunded that there is a real possibility of a federal judge ruling that the state is violating the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” If a judge were to make that ruling, the state could be forced to either spend more tax dollars on prisons or release thousands of prisoners back into society.

This is a situation that every lawmaker wants to avoid.

One solution, proposed by Gov. Bentley and some state leaders, is to build four new “super prisons.” They argue that these new prisons will not only provide more appropriate accommodations for the inmates, but also allow the prison system to more efficiently manage larger numbers of prisoners with fewer correctional officers.

While we do need to replace some of our oldest prisons and with newer, more efficient facilities (Tutwiler Prison, in particular, is in desperate need of being replaced), building new prisons will not solve the problem by itself.

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Trying to solve our prison problem by building new buildings would be like trying to fix a low-performing school just by building new classrooms. Just as the new school would still have the same students, teachers and administrators; these new prisons would still have the same prisoners and the same overworked and underpaid wardens and correctional officers.

The rise in violence in our prisons isn’t because we have old buildings; it’s because budget cuts have left the system with far too few corrections officers to guard prisoners. Over the last five years, violence has doubled in our prisons while the number of corrections officers has declined by 20 percent. That is not a coincidence! And fewer recruits are signing up to be corrections officers because the conditions have become so dangerous.

So, if we are going to spend money to build new prisons, we have to spend money to hire enough corrections officers to run those new prisons. We also have to look at the way our prisoners are managed.

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I would never presume to tell our wardens how to do their jobs. But at the same time, there are some areas where common sense could be implemented, making a huge difference in reducing violence and recidivism (prisoners going back to jail after being released). We can start by separating violent and non-violent offenders.

Right now, everybody sits in the same cell regardless of the crime they committed. The people who are in prison for selling drugs or unpaid parking tickets are sitting in a bunk next to people convicted for murder, rape and child abuse. This forced exposure to the worst humanity has to offer only increases the odds of prison violence and non-violent offenders turning violent.

When prisoners complete their sentences, they return to society with a mark on their name that limits their job opportunities. Most of them lack marketable skills, which is why they turned to crime in the first place, and now they’ve been exposed to more violent and sophisticated criminals. Add it all up, and it’s no wonder so many offenders go back to a life of crime once they get released.

Our solution must involve more faith-based programs, drug addiction and mental health treatment, and educational programs that teach a trade (we already do this through our community college system, but we need to expand those efforts), so that our prison system truly is “correctional” and not just about punishing offenders.

Doing this will reduce recidivism and, in turn, reduce crime overall. It will also make our economy stronger as these men and women become productive citizens, able to earn an honest living and pay their taxes instead of living off the taxpayers in the prison system.

Addressing the problems in our prison system isn’t about being “soft on crime.” We have to take action or risk the federal government forcing action on us. Building new prisons needs to be a part of the solution, but it cannot be the only part. If we do this right, we can change lives, save the taxpayers’ money and make our state a safer place with a stronger economy.

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Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | There’s still work to be done

Chris Elliott

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Last weekend should have been a shining moment for the state of Alabama, a celebration of the life and efforts of Congressman John Lewis — a true freedom fighter and hero for civil rights and equality in our nation.

It was also an opportunity to reflect on our past and be proud of how far we Alabamians have come. Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites — all came together to honor and remember the life of Alabama’s courageous and remarkable son.

Well, not all, apparently.

What possible reason could a public official have to attend a 199th birthday party for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan while you’re in the same city as the funeral procession of a venerated civil rights hero who was literally beaten by that same Klan?

It almost seems absurd that we should have to have these conversations here in 2020, but here we are.

It is especially disconcerting to see behavior like this coming from someone so young. Perhaps one could expect this sort of thing from a grandparent or great-grandparent, as they were products of an era that may still hold those problematic, antiquated views — but from a 30-year-old, someone who should exemplify how far we have come as a state? It is worrying, to say the least.

To lack the basic knowledge of history to know that the 199-year-old birthday boy at your party was the founder of the KKK seems incongruent with the career of this young House member, who continues to claim to be a student of Confederate history. Perhaps it’s willful ignorance — it’s tough to tell.

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For all the progress our state has made in moving forward from our history of racial divisiveness and strife, incidents like the one involving this young State representative are an important lesson that while it is important for us to remember our past, our priority must be our continued journey to the better, brighter future that awaits us all and that, thanks to Will Dismukes, that journey is clearly not over yet.

Rep. Dismukes has, however, shone a bright light for those of us that thought racism was something we could put behind us. In the words of Congressman John Lewis from our own Edmund Pettus Bridge, “We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish the work. There’s still work left to be done.”

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Opinion | Dr. Wayne Reynolds should resign from the State Board of Education

Glenn Henry

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Dear Dr. Wayne Reynolds, Thank you so very much for apologizing to our awesome Gov. Kay Ivey for your comments made recently. First, let’s talk honestly about the little girl with freckles from Camden, Alabama, who grew up to be our nation’s best governor.

In Alabama, the most trusted and powerful elected officials are Sen. Richard Shelby and Gov. Kay Ivey. The reasons are due to their core values, such as honesty, integrity, trust, accountability, responsibility, and prudent decision-making.

Dr. Reynolds, when I first read your comments concerning Gov. Kay Ivey, I was very upset. Although I’m a 63-year old African-American Republican, those comments hurt me, because I have worked with Gov. Ivey for years to solve problems. I was worried that she may be hurt.

Just for your information, due to the poorly performing state school superintendent, Alabama State Department of Education and State Board of Education, there is a lack of trust from the public.

Gov. Ivey has earned trust from the nation — from the president of the United States, vice president, secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff of the Air Force. Truthfully, she is the only person who can get things done. I personally know.

I have binders and documents stacked 6 feet high, concerning numerous issues and solutions Gov. Ivey has provided. Although I send emails to the state superintendent, State Department of Education and the State Board of Education. I can recall no solutions coming from any of these entities. Basically, all I see are people following parliamentary protocols, and raising their hands — but never solving any problems, including no solutions from Dr. Reynolds.

Due to these poor perceptions, many people are wondering if these entities are needed. In my view, since Gov. Ivey seems to be the only one solving all of the problems, and she is out-thinking all of us, why do we need a state school superintendent, State Department of Education or State Board of Education?

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Dr. Reynolds, sir, we can’t be observing women’s bodies — looking at their rear ends and commenting on their weight. You claimed you were just making an observation. Sir, we have a mission to accomplish, and we have too much work to do. Education must be fixed.  The state of Alabama is dead last in math, and we are at the bottom of all national lists.

Dr. Reynolds, sir, please spend more of your time providing solutions to the numerous problems facing our great state. If you can’t provide solutions, you should respectfully resign instead of discussing foolishness.

I was raised to compliment and help our leaders, especially our female leaders, by placing them on a pedestal and helping them to be successful.

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Gov. Ivey has earned the respect from the highest levels of the federal government. She is one of our trusted wingmen, because she has been doing the jobs of the state superintendent, State Department of Education and the State School Board. She doesn’t have time to waste on craziness.

Respectfully, Dr. Reynolds, if you and the other board members resign, you can be easily replaced. We are in last place anyway. The lack of trust, and foolish comments by Dr. Reynolds, surely do not help the State Board of Education, which continues to be ineffective. No one is following you.  Folks are running away from you.

Haven’t you recognized this yet? Gov. Ivey is basically doing your job anyway.

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Opinion | Alabama’s finest hour

Progress for unity comes in fits and starts, Sunday in Alabama was a giant leap forward and a day that helps define our future.

Will Sellers

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The casket of former congressman John Lewis as he lays in state at the Capitol Sunday, July 26, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

In describing his constituents, George Wallace used to say that “the people of Alabama are just as cultured, refined and gracious as anyone else in America.” Whether it was true when he said it or not, it made Alabamians stand a little higher and feel better about their circumstances.

If actions speak louder than words, on Sunday, the people Alabama in memorializing John Lewis demonstrated to the nation how truly refined, gracious and cultured we really are. While other parts of the nation were literally on fire and factions seethed with hate, Alabamians provided a stark contrast in honoring Congressman Lewis.

Where 55 years ago State Troopers severely beat John Lewis, on Sunday fully integrated law enforcement officers saluted him and gave him the dignity and respect he earned and deserved. Where once the governor of Alabama prevented Civil Rights marchers from entering the Capitol, on Sunday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, silently stood near Jefferson Davis’s star and with respect and solemnity saluted and welcomed the casket of the 80-year-old congressman.

In other parts of America, where Democrats and Republicans engage in angry debates neither giving nor receiving quarter, in Montgomery, on Sunday, members of both parties came together, transcended partisanship and found common ground in recognizing someone who lived a faithful life in support of peace, justice and mutual understanding.

Indeed, in some cities in our country federal law enforcement officials, without invitation or consent from mayors or governors, were engaged in riot control. At the Capitol in Montgomery, federal officials were not only invited but attended and participated in a memorial service. Federal troops came, not with a show of force, but as an honor guard to drape the mortal remains with an American flag as a pall to lie in state. While Federal marshals were present, they were there to pay their respects and mourn Lewis, not to protect federal property from destruction.

On Sunday, Alabama taught the world what racial harmony looks like; Alabama showed an integrated community embracing a hopeful future. Any outsider saw clearly that Alabama is no longer tied to a past anchored in division, but is a mosaic of people from all walks of life coming together, laying aside their differences and agreeing that when a great man dies, the brightness of his sun setting reveals a glorious legacy for all to pause, reflect and regard in all its majesty.

Sunday was a testament to dreams anticipated and while not yet fulfilled, much closer to reality. The celebration of Lewis in his native Alabama served to acknowledge the legacy of the civil rights movement that still motivates us to judge people not on their externals, but on the internals of kindness reflected in the content of each one’s character.

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Progress for unity comes in fits and starts, Sunday in Alabama was a giant leap forward and a day that helps define our future.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Prison system issues show “lack of institutional control”

“Our Department of Corrections is not being run in a manner that the people of Alabama should accept, and it is past time to make a change there.”

Matt Simpson

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“Lack of institutional control.”

Growing up as a sports fan in Alabama, and even when I attended the University of Alabama, I became familiar with that phrase as the NCAA brought down sanctions on our beloved athletic programs.

Our athletics programs should hold themselves to higher standards, the champion level programs we’ve come to expect in our state, whether you say “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle.”

Shouldn’t we hold the officials in charge of running and managing Alabama’s prison systems to at least a modicum of the same standards?

When you look at the Department of Justice report released last week detailing the continued horrendous abuses within our state’s prison system, there is no way that you can read the horrors outlined there and not think there’s a lack of institutional control that starts at the very top.

When a prisoner handcuffed to a bed is beaten with a baton while an officer yells “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!”, there is a lack of institutional control.

When an inmate is punched in the face for simply sticking their tongue out, there is a lack of institutional control.

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When the officials in charge of our prison system have known about these violations for years and know they are under investigation from the federal government and the abuses still continue to happen, there is a lack of institutional control.

Our prison guards, corrections officers and staff are overworked, underpaid and understaffed, with some of our prisons remaining at half of their full hiring capacity – despite the fact that last year, the Legislature appropriated more than enough money to fill those positions and create new ones to help secure and make safer our correctional institutions. Those positions, both current and new, have not been filled, so our officers and staff at these prisons continue to not get the support they need and deserve due to the inaction of our Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner.

Not using the ample resources and funding that have been given to you – again, it’s a clear lack of institutional control by the Alabama Department of Corrections’ leadership and something has to change.

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We need new leadership who is actually willing to address these problems head-on and make the changes necessary to fix these problems.

We need new leadership who is willing to work with the Legislature and not try to do things behind the scenes of behind closed doors. The entire nation is watching how we handle this, and we need to be as open, as honest and as transparent as we possibly can be.

Our Department of Corrections is not being run in a manner that the people of Alabama should accept, and it is past time to make a change there.

Lack of institutional control – we would not allow and have not tolerated it from a football coach, and we certainly don’t need to continue to tolerate it from appointed government officials who should be working for the people.

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