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March 2, 2014

Alabama struggling with enduring challenges as tough-on-crime history creates "box of dynamite"

The New York Times today has this notable and lengthy article about the criminal justice reform challenges facing Alabama headlined "Troubles at Women’s Prison Test Alabama." Here are excerpts:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation.  More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.  Now, as Alabama faces federal intervention and as the Legislature is weighing its spending choices for the coming year, it remains an open question whether the recent reports on Tutwiler are enough to prompt reform.

“Yes, we need to rectify the crimes that happened at Tutwiler, but going forward it’s a bigger problem than just Tutwiler,” said State Senator Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite.”

The solution, Mr. Ward and others say, is not to build more prisons but to change the sentencing guidelines that have filled the prisons well beyond capacity. Just over half the state’s prisoners are locked up for drug and property crimes, a rate for nonviolent offenses that is among the highest in the nation.  “No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Mr. Ward said.

Still, in many corners of Alabama, a state where political prominence is often tied to how much a candidate disparages criminals, the appetite for change remains minimal.  The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Gov. Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.

The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner.  He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give corrections officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers....

There is no ignoring the prison crisis.  Even Stacy George, a former corrections officer who is challenging Mr. Bentley in the June Republican primary by promising to be “the gun-toting governor,” this past week issued a plan for prison reform.  It calls for changing sentencing rules, rescinding the “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders, releasing the sick and elderly, and sending low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead....

“It is just a culture of deprivation and abuse, not just at Tutwiler but in institutions across Alabama,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that represents indigent defendants and prisoners.  In 2012, the organization asked the federal government to step in after its own investigation into Tutwiler showed rampant sexual abuse....

“It’s a primitive, very backward prison system,” said Larry F. Wood, a clinical psychologist who was hired at Tutwiler in 2012. He quit after two months, appalled at the conditions and what he said was the administration’s lack of support for mental health services. “I’ve worked in prisons for most of 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We need to back up and look at it with fresh eyes. The people who are running it don’t have the perspective to see what can change.”

March 2, 2014 at 07:16 PM | Permalink

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