By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, June 27, 2017, US District Judge Myron H. Thompson declared the mental health care system in Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate.” Judge Thompson said that the prisons are an unconstitutional failure that has resulted in a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among prisoners over the last two years. US District Judge Myron H. Thompson has ordered the state to reform the system which has been chronically underfunded and overcrowded.
The big issue before Legislators is where do they get more funding to fix the myriad problems with the prisons or do they drastically decrease the population of the prisons in a relatively short period of time?
State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) told The Alabama Political Reporter, “No one likes spending more on Prisons, me included, but if the option is letting a bunch of violent criminals go or finding a solution, I’m willing to try to find a solution. Not sure what that is yet, but I’ve heard a lot of folks say we should just blame the Feds for everything when in fact it’s our own fault so we need to fix it.”
The suit was brought by the Montgomery based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and several inmates who claim that their rights were violated by the lack of appropriate mental health care in the prisons.
Sen. Ward said, “Well SPLC would like to see a large number released. But with 73 percent of all inmates being violent offenders I’m not sure that is best for public safety.”
Ward added, “I have sounded like a broken record on this unpopular subject, but I believe this court order lays out what I see as a very serious problem we face in the Legislature. No more kicking the can down the road. Either we fix the problem or endanger public safety by having to release a lot of dangerous people.”
A recent media report detailed a plan to provide inmates with access to tablet computers, leading to criticism from some in the community that the state should not spend money on such things for its inmates.
Sen. Ward defended the program: “It will actually save money. Most states do this already. First, you are talking about 5-6 for each prison. They do not have internet access. They are used for two purposes. One it makes it easier for the officers to administer mandatory education GED type programs. Two they will replace the outdated and VERY expensive public pay phone system. Like most states these tablets would replace the phones and be paid for completely out of the phone account which is funded by the inmates and their families. So there is no taxpayer money paying for them.”
Sen. Ward added, “I’ve toured every prison in Alabama and trust me no one is living good in there. The cost we spend on their food is $1.43 a day and there are no TVs or air conditioning. It is a living hell as it should be. Second as far as phone calls go that is their right under the US Constitution. We may not like it but that is the law. I can assure you no one is in favor of letting inmates and crooks live the easy life but there are certain minimum constitutional standards that have to be followed or else we get hammered in court like we did last week to the tune of about $27 million.”
Sen. Ward said, “Corrections Officers will tell you that in their experience they want these people learning skills and working inside prison because it makes the prison much safer.” Sen. Ward added, “They are all required to do work in prison. Example– some are required to cook all the food, others clean toilets, still others now the grass and yes many other menial jobs. It works pretty well. The idea behind them getting an education certificate is that it has shown to reduce recidivism by 73 percent once they get out. If you have a job your much less likely to commit a crime.”
In the last session, Senator Ward sponsored then Governor Robert Bentley’s (R) Great State 2020 prison construction plan to borrow $850 million to build four new mega prisons. That was the second year in a row that the Legislature rejected the plan. Prison officials had hoped to use passage of the plan to show the court that the State was making progress in efforts to address concerns about the conditions in the prison system, which is the most overcrowded system in the country. That did not happen and now the State faces the possibility that the Federal court may mandate how the State addresses the prison system, which would cost the State millions of dollars.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) is expected to address the prisons in a Special Session that in August or September; but passing any plan to borrow more money or raise taxes on the people of Alabama seems unlikely with Legislators facing voters in primaries on June 5, 2018.