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Opinion | An Alabama Solution to an Alabama Problem: Rebuilding the Alabama Corrections System

Gov. Kay Ivey

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In order to correct a problem, you must first admit there is a problem. In Alabama, we have a problem. Our problem is our state’s corrections system.

Like many other states, issues of violence, poor living conditions and mental illness persist within our system. These issues, and others, are exacerbated by a crowded inmate population, correctional and health care staffing challenges, and aging prison infrastructure – each piece compounding the others.

We have a problem in Alabama, and we have waited far too long to address it. The path forward to resolve these problems is clear and obvious. However, this path is neither quick nor simple.

First, we must increase our correctional staffing levels by improving the pay scale for correctional officers and expanding our recruiting efforts. Second, we must construct prison facilities that meet the needs of a criminal justice system in the 21st century.

We have already started making strides toward reducing our prison population and increasing staffing levels. In 2015, the Alabama Legislature passed historic criminal justice reform legislation that greatly reduced the number of inmates in Alabama prisons. Thanks to members of the Legislature, the state’s prison population has decreased from nearly 200 percent of capacity to approximately 160 percent, still too large but an important step in the right direction.

Also in 2018, the Legislature helped improve our system by increasing funding for correctional and health services staffing. An additional $86 million was appropriated for the state’s 2018 and 2019 fiscal years to retain new staffing for medical and mental health services and to reduce the turnover rate of correctional staffing. For the upcoming Regular Session, my budget proposal will include an additional $31 million to hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay scale for all security personnel to make their salary competitive given current market conditions in Alabama.

Alabama currently sits under a federal court order requiring the state to roughly double the number of correctional officers in the next two years. Although I disagree with many aspects of the lawsuit that led to this order, the fact of the matter is that it compels us to make staffing levels a necessary and vital part of the solution to our problem.

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In December, we saw our first increase in the number of correctional officers in years. With a rising retention rate, we can begin adding to our officer ranks, rather than simply maintaining our current staffing levels. This is a difficult task, but because of the commitment from members of the Legislature, we are now well on our way to addressing our staffing challenges.

Next, we must improve the conditions in which we house inmates. “Deplorable”, “horrendous”, and “inadequate” are words which have been used to describe them. Our existing facilities need $750 million in maintenance alone. Last year, we closed the Draper Correctional Facility, a 79-year-old prison, because it was simply too costly to repair. Without costly maintenance, many other facilities may require closing as well. Repairing these facilities that do not meet the needs of today’s criminal justice system would be wasteful and ineffective. We must put aside politics of the past and fix this problem for the betterment of our state.

Alabama must have new prison facilities because we must have better conditions, we must have better safety, and we must have better programs. The Department of Corrections hired a project management team that recommended we build three new regional men’s prisons. Of the three new facilities, one will have additional space centralizing services for special needs populations: the aged, the infirmed and those with mental health conditions. Additionally, there will be space in each new facility for educational and vocational training programs.

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These facilities will be a valuable and lasting investment in the future of our state. On average, 95 percent of our inmates, once they have completed their sentence and are eligible for release, will be returning to the cities, towns, communities and neighborhoods within Alabama. This investment will secure our opportunity to release these individuals back into society as more educated and more productive, law-abiding citizens.

The investment in these new facilities will also ensure that we retain control of our correctional system. Across this nation, federal courts are intervening in unprecedented ways into the operations of correctional systems. In 2009, three federal judges ordered the release of thousands of inmates in the California prison system. Some estimate this order resulted in the release of more than 40,000 inmates. Following the release of these inmates, one study into the impact of this mass release called the increases in crime rates “alarming.” So, our public safety also demands this investment.

Today, the Department of Corrections is preparing a “request for proposals” for distribution to contractors in Alabama and across the nation, asking for bids to build these new prisons. By taking this step, we will – for the first time – receive the most accurate view of the real cost of building these new facilities.

Some opponents of this plan say that it is too costly. Here in Alabama and across our country, we have a set of laws to which every person must adhere. However, no matter what crime was committed, every human being deserves a certain level of care. I say to you that it is and will continue to be costly to provide adequate living conditions and health care for the more than 20,000 adults in our corrections system, to maintain aging facilities, and to sustain public safety.

Others say special interests have a hand in this plan; that could not be further from the truth. In fact, I make a promise to you that part of this next step is to publicly provide the real costs we receive from contractors and to work closely with the Legislature to determine the most cost-effective way of moving forward. Whatever we do will be the best and most fiscally responsible decision for the state of Alabama.

A tough decision will have to be made in the very near future. With the continued support from the Alabama Legislature and with the added support from the people of Alabama, I am putting forth this plan to make “Trouble in Alabama Prisons” a headline of the past.

As we work together, we will solve this problem and make the situation better for those incarcerated, the employees who care for them, and the entire state of Alabama.

 

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Opinion | Comprehensive sex-ed for all can improve people’s health

Annerieke Smaak Daniel

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Last July, I spoke with Sky H., a 20-yearold who identifies as non-binary and grew up in a very conservative rural town in the Black Belt region of Alabama. In school, Sky received abstinence-only education. Sky told me there was little instruction about sexual and reproductive health besides the basics of reproduction.

After years of pain, Sky was diagnosed at age 18 with endometriosis, a painful disorder that can lead to fertility complications. The condition might have been diagnosed much earlier if they had learned more about their own bodies and reproductive health in school, Sky believed.

Unfortunately, Sky’s experience isn’t unique. Over the past year and a half, I’ve spoken to more than 40 young people from 16 counties throughout Alabama who also didn’t learn about their sexual and reproductive health in school. Like Sky, they missed out on critical information and described the negative impact this had on the choices they made and their health as they grew older.

Schools in Alabama are not required to teach about sexual health but if they do, the State Code mandates a focus on abstinence. The State Code also contains stigmatizing language around same-sex activity and prohibits schools from teaching about sexual health in ways that affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. This makes it even harder for young people like Sky to get information.

But Alabama is not alone. Sixteen other states in the U.S. also do not mandate sex education in schools. And at least five others have laws stigmatizing samesex activity.

Comprehensive sexuality education can improve health outcomes for young people. It can help them learn about their bodies and how to recognize abnormal gynecological symptoms, steps they can take to prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other dangers to their health, and where they can go for reproductive health services.

Sex ed can also educate young people about the human papillomavirus (HPV) — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. — and how to lower their risk of HPV-related cancers through the HPV vaccine.

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This information can improve young peoples health and save lives. Yet so few young people in schools throughout Alabama and the U.S. receive it. Instead, like Sky and other Alabama students, many young people receive abstinence-focused education.

These programs withhold critical, science-based information young people need to make safer decisions on their sexual health. They also shame adolescents about their sexuality, often leaving young people uncertain about who they can talk to or where they can go for accurate information about sexual behavior and health.

The problem is both a lack of political will and of adequate funding. Discriminatory property taxes and an inequitable education system leave many school districts in rural and less wealthy regions of Alabama without adequate funding. This means that programs considered optional, like sex ed, often aren’t offered.

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Alabama, a state with high rates of sexually transmitted infections and cancers related to HPV needs to do more to address historic inequalities and state neglect that have left Black people at a higher risk of poor health outcomes. Mandating comprehensive sexuality education for all of the states schools — and allocating state funding for these programs — would be an important step forward.

Students in underfunded and neglected school districts many of whom are Black and living in poverty — often lose out on access to critical and lifesaving information. It keeps them from being able to make informed and safe decisions and can harm their health. This unequal access to information can create lifelong disadvantages and may contribute to racial disparities in health as young people age into adulthood.

The Black Belt region of Alabama, where Sky is from, has high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes. The Black Belt region also has high rates of sexually transmitted infections and the highest rates of HIV in the state. Yet schools in this rural and marginalized region of the state are persistently underfunded.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought glaring attention to systemic inequalities and racial disparities in health, including in Alabama, where Black people are significantly more likely to die from the virus than white people. Within the United States, we continue to see the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on Black people, who are more likely to live in poverty, lack access to health insurance, and suffer from chronic health conditions that put them at a higher risk of adverse health outcomes from the virus.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring that everyone has the information, tools, and resources they need to make informed decisions to protect their health. Schools in Alabama — and across the country — should help do that for all young people.

The pandemic is also showing us what happens when discrimination and neglect leave certain people out.

 

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Opinion | The “United” States of America. Really?

Larry Lee

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(STOCK PHOTO)

We’ve all had it pounded in our heads virtually from birth that we live in a united country of 50 different states. Truth is, few things could be farther from the truth. If it were, we would all be pulling in the same direction at the same time, striving for common goals. This has seldom been the case. Even the original 13 colonies had great differences and some were much more interested in pulling away from England than others.

The reason for much of this is pointed out to us in American Nations by Colin Woodard as he paints graphic pictures of the 11 nations that actually comprise the U.S .and how they were settled at different times by different people from different backgrounds.

Certainly, there is no greater indicator of our lack of unity than the current highly fractured and divided response to COVID-19.  Unfortunately, there is no coordinated, 50-state effort to get this pandemic under control. Instead, our national leaders have sent one mixed message after another and left states to individually flop and flounder.

The result?

One thousand deaths a day across this land.

Imagine we were presently losing 1,000 people a day in some foreign war. That each day we were shipping 1,000 caskets back to this country from some distant land.

Would we be as tolerant of ineptitude in such a crisis as we are right now?

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Vanity Fair has just reported on how the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, inserted himself into the war against COVID-19. It is not a pretty picture. Nor a useful one.

Back in March Kushner set out to solve the on-going disaster of lack of diagnostic testing. So he brought together a group of largely bankers and billionaires — not public health experts. In spite of their lack of knowledge and willingness to work with others, the group developed a fairly comprehensive plan, that got good reviews from health professionals who saw it. But then the plan, according to someone involved with it, “just went poof into thin air.”

What happened? Politics.

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According to Vanity Fair, “Most troubling ….was a sentiment ….a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically.  The political folks believed that because it (the virus) was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”

“United” States of America? Don’t kid yourself.

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Opinion | Alabama’s teachers are standing tall with return to classroom instruction

Nathaniel Ledbetter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

All of the personality traits, values, and life lessons that we carry with us as adults were shaped and instilled in us by the people we encountered in childhood. For many, the strongest influences can from our schoolteachers, who opened new worlds of knowledge and taught us skills that remain with us today.

Consider for a moment the music teacher who taught you to play an instrument, the math teacher who led you to a love of numbers, the history teacher who brought to life the stories of our nation’s past, or the English teacher who inspired you to love great literature.

Teaching is one of the few professions whose impact continues to last for decades after the individual who does the job retires.

As many children across Alabama are preparing to return to school even while the Coronavirus pandemic continues, teachers have never been more important or vital or deserving of our deepest appreciation.

Returning to brick-and-mortar school instruction will, hopefully, restore a sense of normalcy to our children’s lives in these decidedly abnormal times.

A return to the classroom and even resuming the online instruction that some are adopting will also help our students maintain their education progress and continue the important social and emotional development that interaction with their peers and instructors allows.

Our English second language learners will receive the communication skills they need in order to better assimilate, and many low-income students will receive the healthy nourishment from the school lunch program that might be denied them at home.

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Given the current circumstances and environment, I recognize that some of our public school employees may have a sense of trepidation about returning to school, and that is certainly understandable. Wearing a face mask to do something as simple as shopping for groceries, paying for gas, or walking into a restaurant offers all of us a constant reminder that COVID-19 is a very contagious virus.

But our teachers and educators are setting their concerns aside and answering the call to duty.

I know that Gov. Kay Ivey, State Superintendent Eric Mackey, and the staff of the Alabama Department of Education took great care in developing the “Roadmap to Reopening Alabama Schools,” and local school boards are being equally diligent in creating and implementing their own safety guidelines.

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The importance of sanitization will be stressed more than ever before, and billions of dollars made available to Alabama through the federal CARES Act will help ensure that any resources that are needed to reopen schools safely will be readily available.

As the majority leader of the Alabama House, I can also offer assurances that the Legislature stands ready to pass legislation or make appropriations that are necessary to ease the return to classroom instruction once we are in session.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an even deeper appreciation of the frontline heroes who have remained on the job and provided the most essential services throughout the crisis.

Doctors and nurses in our hospitals and health clinics; grocery store and other retail employees; law enforcement officers, emergency workers and firefighters; postal workers; sanitation workers; restaurant personnel; and those in dozens of other professions are among those who continued working even when times were their toughest.

I am proud to say that the teachers, school nurses, administrators, and support personnel in Alabama’s schools also rank high upon the list of those who have stood tall, and their already invaluable service to our state is even more important to students and parents in each of our cities, towns, and crossroads today.

Helen Keller, one of Alabama’s most inspirational figures, once said, “It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me.”

As I close by wishing everyone a safe, happy, and healthy school year, we would all do well to keep Helen Keller’s words in mind.

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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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