Why three ‘mega-prisons’ aren’t the solution to violence in Alabama’s prisons
In the past two weeks, Alabama prisons have received national attention for their dangerous, even deadly, conditions. The New York Times reported on a set of over 2,000 photos taken inside the notorious St. Clair prison which documented unrelenting violence and systemic disregard for the safety of those incarcerated there. The photos were sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) by a person who self-identified as a corrections officer. While the Times published only a few of the photos it received, in the following weeks multiple news outlets published larger selections from the set.
Days after the New York Times reporting, the Department of Justice issued a report on conditions in Alabama prisons, documenting a system-wide failure to protect people in prison from harm and unconstitutional conditions. The Justice Department gave the state 49 days to develop a plan to address the problems or risk facing a lawsuit. [Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan / New York Times]
In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey has said that the opening of three new “mega prisons”—expected to cost about a billion dollars—will be a major part of her administration’s response. Although Ivey and the corrections commissioner have also proposed new funding to be able to hire additional corrections officers and increase pay, Ivey argues that new facilities will help with officer retention. [Mike Cason / Al.com]
Earlier proposals to build mega-prisons have previously failed to win legislative support during Ivey’s administration and the previous administration. Under the current proposal, the state would, rather than building the prisons itself, lease the facilities after they have been built by private companies. This plan would allow the governor to circumvent the legislature. [Times-Daily Editorial Board]
The plan has been met with criticism from multiple quarters. An editorial in the Times-Daily last week pointed out that according to a recent poll a majority of Alabamians—58 percent—disfavor the idea of new prison construction. In contrast, an overwhelming majority support reforms related to decarceration and re-entry: “86 percent support expanded rehabilitation and re-entry programs; 83 percent support moving people with nonviolent convictions back to the community; and 54 percent believe only violent offenders should go to prison.” [Times-Daily Editorial Board]
The Equal Justice Initiative has, for several years, drawn attention to the violence in Alabama prisons. As the Department of Justice notes in its report, discussing the prisons department’s inaction over the years: “In April 2014, the Equal Justice Initiative (“EJI”) urged ADOC [Alabama Department of Corrections] to investigate, among other violence, the fatal and non-fatal stabbings that were escalating at St. Clair. Following another homicide in June 2014, EJI renewed its formal request that ADOC address the violence.” Later that year, EJI filed a class-action lawsuit over conditions at St. Clair.
In a Q-and-A about the prison crisis published on its website, the organization discusses the sources of the violence—“overcrowding and severe staffing shortages.”
Prison construction is not the solution, according to EJI. “Alabama’s primary problems,” the organization says, “relate to management, staffing, poor classification, inadequate programming for incarcerated people, inadequate treatment programs, poor training, and officer retention. None of these problems will be solved by building new prisons, nor does a prison construction strategy respond to the imminent risk of harm to staff, incarcerated people, and the public.” [Equal Justice Initiative]
Instead, EJI highlights several possible solutions. First, “thoughtful and expanded parole remains the most effective mechanism for reducing the prison population without undermining public safety.” In 2018, only 6 percent of people on parole saw their parole revoked as the result of a new arrest.
Second, a package of low-cost reforms including, “effective use of video surveillance cameras, implementation of an internal classification system, skilled management, and other basic management systems” as a low-cost package of reforms that could have near-immediate effect.
Third, a “system for independent review” is a necessary part of any “comprehensive, long-term effort to eradicate the occurrence and tolerance of sexual abuse, excessive violence, and corruption” in Alabama’s prisons. Finally, there are volunteer service providers who could be brought in to provide programming at little cost to the state. [Equal Justice Initiative]
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been engaged in litigation over many years over what a federal judge has described as “horrendously inadequate” healthcare in state prisons, sent a letter to the governor and the corrections department commissioner last week with suggestions for addressing conditions. In its letter, the organization specifically rejected the building of mega-prisons, which would each have a capacity of 3,500 to 4,000. Instead SPLC proposed closing at least two prisons “with the most deplorable conditions” and replacing them with prisons to hold no more than 1,000 people each.
SPLC also highlighted the necessity of sentencing and parole reform: “If ADOC engages in reforms that cut the prison population in half by 2025, the department can gain an estimated total cost savings of almost $500 million. These reforms include changes to the drug, robbery, burglary, public order, and theft statutes.”
Meanwhile, former DOJ officials have argued that any real solution will require federal involvement. Although Ivey has called for an “Alabama solution,” former DOJ Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta and former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance wrote last week in USA Today that “the inhumane conditions in Alabama’s prisons call out for a comprehensive consent decree, a court-approved and court-enforced plan negotiated between state or local officials and the Justice Department.” Consent decrees—the tool former Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to gut on his way out—are particularly suited to address the deep-rooted and wide-ranging issues in Alabama prisons. “In this case—involving 13 prisons incarcerating 16,000 men—the problems are so pervasive and long-standing that nothing short of a consent decree will guarantee that necessary action is taken.” [Vanita Gupta and Joyce White Vance / USA Today]