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Opinion | The state of Alabama’s prisons should embarrass us all

Josh Moon

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What’s happening in Alabama’s prisons is not OK.

It’s not what anyone — including criminals — deserves. It’s not a deterrent to crime. It’s not how humans should treat other humans — especially when a majority of those humans proclaim to practice a religion that harps quite a bit on kindness, decency and goodwill (There are even well known lessons in that religion that utilize criminals).

We know better.

Yet, we allow these absolute hell holes to exist.

And it’s not OK.

Federal judge Myron Thompson, in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed over the weekend, issuing a blistering ruling that criticized the state’s pathetic response to prisoner suicides.

We had 15 in 15 months.

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And our prisons have three times the number of suicides as any other state’s.

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Awful doesn’t begin to describe that.

Even if Alabama’s lawmakers haven’t seen and heard enough to do something about that, Thompson has.

“The defendants argue that they cannot prevent all suicides in (The Alabama Department of Corrections),” Thompson wrote. “It is true that, as in the free world, not all suicides can be prevented. But this reality in no way excuses ADOC’s substantial and pervasive suicide-prevention inadequacies. Unless and until ADOC lives up to its Eighth Amendment obligations, avoidable tragedies will continue.”

Among other corrective actions, Thompson ordered the state to begin monitoring all isolated prisoners, and he put in place an independent monitor to ensure the court’s orders were being complied with.

And a federal judge being forced to install a monitor to ensure his orders to address the nation’s highest prison suicide rates pretty much sums up Alabama’s prison problem in a nutshell.

We don’t care.

For some reason, despite the reality that we all live every day — the one in which our family members and friends and classmates and coworkers and church members keep going to prison for drug addiction and addiction-related crimes — whenever the term “prisoner” is used, we have this idiotic image of Jeffrey Dahmer. Or, given that this is Alabama, any random black guy.

The fact is Alabama’s prisons aren’t filled with the worst humans on earth. Oh, yeah, sure, there are some very bad dudes and women in our prison system — people who definitely belong behind bars and who would be an absolute menace to society if allowed to roam free for an hour.

But mostly, Alabama’s prisons are filled with desperate people who were trying to feed an addiction. So they stole or held someone up at gunpoint or got caught too many times with drugs.

Thanks to an opioid epidemic that’s impacting a lot of white, wealthy lives, quite a few people are suddenly coming around to the idea that addiction is an illness not unlike the worst diseases out there. It drives otherwise good and decent people to do horribly idiotic and just plain horrible things.

And that’s mostly who we have locked up. That’s mostly the people committing suicide in our prisons.

And they’re doing so because our prisons aren’t facilities focused on rehabilitation. They seem to mostly be focused on not letting people escape, and whatever else happens inside just happens.

The horror stories from our prisons would make third-world dictators proud. The ransom demands, the assaults, the sexual abuse, the drug use, the torture, the stabbings, the murders.

A few years ago, I spoke to a guy — a white, middle-aged businessman — who was sent to prison for a sketchy business deal he was involved with. He was supposed to go for less than two years. In the just over a year that he served, he lost nearly 80 pounds, was held for ransom, had his back broken, was stabbed, would have been murdered if not for the aid of another inmate and was repeatedly denied prescribed and necessary medication by guards and prison officials.

It’s no mystery why prisoners are killing themselves in our prisons.

They go in believing that they’ve failed in life, that they’ve disappointed those closest to them, and mostly, that no one cares about them.

And judging by the state of our prisons, they’re right about the last part.

 

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