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