Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery on Monday to vote on a $1.3 billion prison construction plan proponents say will help address the state’s longstanding problems in corrections, but critics argue the troubles go much deeper and won’t be remedied with brick, mortar and bars.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session next week for lawmakers to vote on the construction plan as well as a sentencing and supervision bill. Ivey said Alabama is risking a federal takeover of the prison system.
“We are already under several federal court orders that impose certain mandates and Department of Justice is getting ever so close to intervening. These federal mandates take critical funds away from hard-working Alabamians and their families which is something I won’t continue to allow to happen as your governor,” Ivey said in a speech this week.
Ivey said the main issue is “our prison infrastructure is growing worse day by day and is not capable of truly rehabilitating inmates.” But advocacy groups and lawmakers say the plan does not address the underlying problems.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said unless the state takes on substantive sentencing reform and makes leadership changes, “we’ll just have shiny new buildings, with old problems.”
The Department of Justice last year sued Alabama, saying the state prisons for men are “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.” The lawsuits came after the Justice Department issued reports describing a culture of violence and listed a litany of incidents including a prison guard beating a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” as the prisoner begged the officer to kill him.
The Department of Justice noted in the 2019 report that dilapidated conditions were a contributing factor but emphasized that, “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse.”
The state has disputed the Justice Department accusations.
Kenneth Traywick, an inmate who started Unheard Voices OTCJ to push for prison reforms from the inside, said the “conditions are horrible, there’s no doubt,” but said the violence, suicides and overdoses occurring inside won’t be solved by new buildings
“We’ve seen murders. There have been suicides. I’ve seen overdoses, left and right,” Traywick said.
Traywick said the main problem he sees “from living here and watching it and experiencing it” is the lack of incentives, such as rehabilitation programs and good time programs, that encourage good behavior. Good time, which can lead to slight sentence reductions, is not available to all inmates and a new program that rewards participation in vocational programs excludes most inmates.
“Otherwise, the only thing they can do in here is be in the gladiator type mode all the time,” Traywick said.
Stacy George, a corrections officer running for governor in next year’s election, said prisons are dangerously understaffed and officers are quitting because of the workload. George said the staffing shortage merits calling in the National Guard to get facilities under control.
“I have to ask the question: Are we really running the prisons or are the inmates running the prisons?” George said.
Prison construction is the centerpiece of the special session call, but it does include two policy changes: proposals to make retroactive both the 2013 sentencing standards and a 2015 law on mandatory supervision of inmates. Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said they are trying to determine how many inmates would be affected, but he expects that “the number will much greater” than the 200 they estimated last year.
Lawmakers are also looking at buying a vacant private prison in Perry County to house parole violators, instead of sending them back to prison and to provide programs to address substance abuse and mental health issues.
Alabama has been here before.
Alabama prisons were put under federal court supervision in 1972. The state built several new prisons while under court supervision. Nearly 50 years later the state is facing the threat of federal intervention again and is proposing new prisons.
Republican Sen. Greg Albritton said he expects the construction component to win approval next week.
“I think there is a recognition in the body that this is the right thing to do. Our prisons are crumbling, falling apart really,” Albritton said. But he added that “facilities alone will not fix it.”
“We’ve got to get more people employed, not just guards but the mental professionals, the medical professionals.”