Prison reform to top the list of legislative priorities in 2020

Photo: Unlike the perception many people have from television and movies where inmates live in cells, the reality in Alabama’s overcrowded prisons is quite different. Inmates in many state prisons live in dorms that are more crowded than military barracks in living conditions that have been found unconstitutional by federal courts. 

Each year in the lead up to a regular session of the Alabama Legislature certain pieces of legislation begin to stand out. The upcoming 2020 session will include a number of bills that could be big lifts for certain legislators because the measures might be seen as controversial.

One such area is prison reform. Alabama is already at odds with the U.S. Constitution and federal courts when it comes to conditions in the state’s prison system. Alabama has the most crowded and the most deadly (per capita) prison system in the United States. The rate of homicide in Alabama’s prisons are approximately 62 per 100,000 inmates compared to the national average of 7 per 100,000 inmates.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI): In the first 10 months of 2019 alone there have been 13 homicides in Alabama prisons. That’s more than the total yearly homicides reported in 34 other states combined. Nine of the 13 people killed this year in Alabama prisons were in medium security facilities.

Mandatory sentencing laws in the state combined with recent changes to parole guidelines threaten to increase the rate even more. This week the Campaign for Smart Justice with ACLU of Alabama released a report on the outlook for Alabama’s prison system based on current parole practices. Based on an analysis of current parole practices using five years of data from the Alabama Department of Corrections, the ACLU report projects Alabama’s prison population will skyrocket this year by over 3,700 people due to a dramatic drop in paroles.

Randall Marshall, Executive Director of ACLU of Alabama said, “Alabama’s Parole Board and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles have tremendous power over our prison population. Their decisions to docket fewer eligible people for hearings and to grant fewer paroles are exacerbating Alabama’s prison crisis systemwide. For individuals who are trying to survive inside Alabama’s overcrowded and violent prisons, the board’s actions can truly be a matter of life or death. State agencies should be working together to solve this disaster, but instead new leadership at the Bureau and Board have doubled down, justifying their actions with the same old tough-on-crime ideology and fear-driven rhetoric that has pushed Alabama’s addiction to incarceration for decades.”

While any discussion of prison reform is sure to include the possibility of building additional prisons or increasing funding that might not actually solve the problem. In July of last year Governor Kay Ivey established the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy to receive and analyze accurate data, as well as evidence of best practices, ultimately helping to further address the challenges facing Alabama’s prison system.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, who chaired the governor’s study group said that new prisons alone would not fix the problems.

“We must consider methods of sentencing that take into account the changing times from the time that the original laws were passed, with the advent of drugs as a cause for crime,” Lyons said. “We need to be sure that we are incarcerating those who are guilty of drug crimes in a manner that is most likely to lead to treatment and release without the state having to pick up the tab for them to come back and go back into the system as prison inmates.”

Likewise the problem has not been corrected by throwing money at it. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is budgeted to get more than $500 million from the state general fund in 2020, up from $443 million in 2019. Additionaly more than a half dozen corrections officers have been arrested on charges ranging from corruption to violence against prisoners in some cases leading directly to prisoner deaths. Many of Alabama’s prioson problems, says the EJI, are cultural not structural.

Some of the recent budget increases are dedicated to recruiting and hiring new corrections officers, but despite handsome pay many are simply not interested in the working conditions. ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the improved pay package approved by the Legislature has boosted correctional officer staffing, which had declined for several years. But Dunn adds it will take more resources from the Legislature to sustain progress.

In September Dunn led the study group in a tour of Staton, a medium security prison that holds about 1,400 inmates, which he said exemplifies some of the problems. One dorm the group toured holds more than 300 inmates that is sometimes, according to Dunn, supervised by just one or two officers.

Alabama’s prison problem has already reached crisis mode, but the problem could be made worse if too many legislators fear looking soft on crime.