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Why three ‘mega-prisons’ aren’t the solution to violence in Alabama’s prisons


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Why three ‘mega-prisons’ aren’t the solution to violence in Alabama’s prisons

  • Texas is poised to make it easier to jail people for voting errors

  • The push to end ‘punishment fever’ against people with HIV

  • Google stores vast amounts of cell phone location data and police are using it

  • In Georgia’s prisons and jails, deaths from medical neglect of diabetes

  • Man shot with Nipsey Hussle is arrested on parole violation

  • More possible graves discovered at site of former Florida reform school

In the Spotlight

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]

Stories From The Appeal

Voters cast their ballots at the Rummel Creek Elementary polling place on November 6, 2018, in Houston. [Loren Elliott/Getty Images]

Texas Is Poised to Make It Easier to Jail People for Voting Errors. The legislation is part of a wave of bills across the country meant to criminalize mistakes in the name of voter fraud. [Kira Lerner]

The Push to End ‘Punishment Fever’ Against People With HIV. Advocates say laws that land people with HIV on the sex offender registry are outdated and dangerous. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg]

Stories From Around the Country

Google stores vast amounts of cell phone location data and police are using it: It has become increasingly common for police to seek, and judges to sign, broad warrants seeking data on all phones near the site of a crime. In one murder investigation in Phoenix last year, police obtained a search warrant “that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.” The immediate result was a mistaken arrest that led to a man’s detention for a week before police concluded he was not a suspect. The New York Times reports on how “the warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement.” [Jennifer Valentino-DeVries / New York Times]

In Georgia’s prisons and jails, deaths from medical neglect of diabetes: An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveals at least a dozen people in Georgia prisons and jails “died in the past decade from diabetic ketoacidosis [DKA], a condition that is fatal only when diabetes is left untreated.” Douglas Brown, jailed at Fulton County Jail for failing to pay child support, repeatedly asked for his insulin doses, was ignored, and after 10 days of “increasing pain, seizures, incontinence, confusion and lethargy … was found dead on the floor of his cell with traces of vomit on his face.” The incidence of diabetes is high among those in prison and jails. (A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report stated that it had doubled between 2004 and 2016.) The American Diabetes Association has written policies regarding the care of incarcerated people with diabetes, which have been adopted in the federal system. Nearly half the deaths in Georgia took place in prisons, despite full-time medical directors and other staff. In one case, regarding the death of a man whose blood sugar level was 1,472, “nearly 13 times a normal reading,” the day before he died, the medical director of the prison where he died acknowledged that his death could have been avoided if she and other doctors had payed closer attention to his medical records. [Danny Robbins / Atlanta Journal-Constitution]

Man shot with Nipsey Hussle is arrested on parole violation: Kerry Lathan, one of the two men with the rapper Nipsey Hussle when he was shot on March 31, was arrested on a parole violation last Monday. As of Friday, he was still in jail. Lathan, who is 56, was shot along with Hussle and was wounded as a result. The alleged parole violation is believed to be based on his having been with Hussle. People on parole are routinely barred from fraternizing with others with felony convictions or those alleged to be gang members. A community activist told the Los Angeles Times: “Gov. Gavin Newsom should order the immediate release of Kerry. His arrest sends a horrible message to parolees trying to integrate into society and for [corrections] officials to label Hussle, who was a Grammy-nominated artist entrepreneur, gentrification fighter and philanthropist, as a known gang member is a slap in the face to his family and our grieving community.” [James Queally and Angel Jennings / Los Angeles Times]

More possible graves discovered at site of former Florida reform school: The Tampa Bay Times reported that 27 more “possible graves” have been discovered near what was once the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Fifty-five graves were previously identified on site and anthropologists had unearthed 51 sets of human remains. The reform school’s long history of deadly violence came to light some years ago after now-elderly men who had been imprisoned there as boys began speaking out. They called themselves “the White House Boys, so named for a small, white cinder-block building in which they were beaten bloody by guards with a weighted leather strap.” The reform school opened in 1900. As early as 1903 the school was the subject of an inquiry that concluded “it is nothing more nor less than a prison.” Yet it remained open for more than 100 years after that. It was only after multiple news outlets reporting on “terrible, unceasing abuse and neglect of boys held at the school, and on a number of suspicious deaths” that it was closed in 2011. [Ben Montgomery / Tampa Bay Times]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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