There is a bizarre assumption when it comes to elected Republicans and prisons, especially here in Alabama.
We are told there is a tradition of an ideological component that compels Republicans to reject improvements to our state’s prison system. If you want to know why the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is in such disarray, blame the GOP for its refusal to appropriate money.
Last week, the Department of Justice released a scathing report highlighting deficiencies throughout the Alabama Department of Corrections’ prison system, some of which were very graphic.
One example in the report detailed a correctional officer allegedly kicking and hitting a handcuffed prisoner with a baton. According to the report, the prisoner did not instigate the incident by antagonizing the officer, and he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back.
During the incident in the report, four nurses heard that officer shout, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!”
There is plenty more in the Justice Department report.
It is not a case of a few corrections officers going rogue; it is an institutional problem. Prison guards will tell you they are outnumbered, and such disproportionate shows of force are an effective means of maintaining order among the prison population.
This is a small part of the overall problem. There are severe issues with Alabama’s prison system under the Department of Corrections. Despite numerous warnings from the federal government, the state remains in violation of the “cruel and unusual punishment” provision of the Eighth Amendment. The problems persist.
“It’s the Republicans’ fault!” some will tell you, and technically they are right. Alabama Republicans have been in charge of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government since 2010.
Politically, there are very few on the Republican side of the aisle championing prison reform. No one runs on the Republican ticket for state office as the “I’m going to correct corrections” candidate.
There are GOP voters who do not care about the prisons in Alabama. “If you do the crime, you’ve got to do the time,” they would say. “Prison is not supposed to be a pleasant experience. Why should we spend money on prisons when we have high taxes, underfunded schools and lousy roads and bridges?”
Here is why: If Republicans want to claim the mantle of law and order and being tough on crime, then they have to have a functioning Department of Corrections. If the ultimate goal is to eliminate the criminal element in our society, the Department of Corrections has to be corrected.
As headlines of civil unrest and damage to public and private property dominate headlines in 2020, many in the Republican Party have opted for a pro-law enforcement stance.
That has to begin with a sound criminal justice system, and you cannot have prison conditions found to be violating the law. What message does that send?
“We want to rehabilitate you to be a good follower of the law — but do as we say, not as we do.”
How did we get here? Why have conditions been allowed to deteriorate, which is going to come at a significant cost to Alabama at a time when there is so much economic uncertainty?
Alabama has had plenty of chances. Former Gov. Robert Bentley tried to fix prisons and failed. Gov. Kay Ivey declared it a priority in her 2019 inaugural address.
“Much like our roads and bridges, our prison system, too, has been sorely neglected for decades,” she said. “The poor conditions of our prisons create a risk to public safety and are placing a heavy burden on taxpayers. The status of our corrections system is an Alabama problem that must be solved by an Alabama solution. As your governor, I plan to do so. We are revitalizing our statewide corrections system by replacing costly, at-risk prison facilities. This effort will ensure that Alabama stays committed to statewide prison reform, and we will be announcing more detailed plans in the coming days.”
Those coming days have turned into the coming years.
Last year, the first year of a new quadrennium, the Legislature increased gas taxes and banned abortions, but ran out of time for prisons. But we were told of the possibility of a special session in late 2019 or early 2020.
That never happened.
The 2020 legislative session has come and gone, largely interrupted by COVID-19. Still, no action on prisons. We are told the governor’s office is working on a prison plan and may go on her own without the Legislature’s aid.
Ivey will likely work through a private company that will buy land and build a facility on it, then lease it to the state, which will be staffed by ADOC personnel. It will be much more expensive than if the Legislature had just bonded it out, but there has been no will.
Why? Despite the faulty conventional wisdom, it is not ideological. It is geographical.
A handful of members of the Legislature, some in powerful positions, do not want ADOC facilities in their districts to close. They rely on them as customers to sustain their electric, water and sewer systems. Those facilities employ local people, which is very important to what are, in some cases, beleaguered local economies.
The clock is ticking. The worst-case scenario would be for the feds to say, “You can’t do it, so we will.”
At that point, Alabama’s prisons go into receivership. The feds will fix the problem, which perhaps would mean releasing criminals out on the streets. Oh yeah, then they send the state a bill, which will be exponentially more expensive than if the state had done the right thing to begin with.
Good luck running on that in your reelection.
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