During the week of Thanksgiving, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dealt a blow to anyone who may have been optimistic about the prospects of averting a federal takeover of Alabama’s prison system.
The DOJ amended a complaint against the state for alleged Eighth Amendment violations. It described state officials as being “deliberately indifferent” to the conditions within the state correctional facilities.
If you were a believer that the funding for new prisons allocated by the Alabama Legislature in a special session earlier this year would give the feds pause in pursuing a remedy through the federal courts, you were mistaken. This latest gesture suggests the opposite is true.
And perhaps the Biden DOJ is justified in its tack, given it is a situation that has continued to deteriorate despite warnings from the federal government.
The Justice Department laid out a “pattern of violence” within the system, according to a report, that was “pervasive and systemic.” One aspect of the complaint alleged the homicide rate inside the prison system in 2018 was “more than seven times the national average.”
Regardless of your opinion on prisoners and the state of Alabama’s prison system, even the most doctrinaire conservative has to acknowledge our tax dollars allocated for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) are not giving us the most bang for our buck.
It is not a partisan issue, either.
The Republican-led Legislature’s prison construction push is a step in the right direction, it would seem, but the two new prisons will not be opening for at least two or three years.
There was no short-term remedy to go along with the prison construction.
Democrats are just as culpable. They have used this issue to promote so-called criminal justice reform, a nonstarter for Republican lawmakers and voters. That is not a realistic solution given the politics of the state.
There is a political case to be made for Republicans.
As is the case for many Republican-leaning red states, Alabama voters seem to favor a robust back-the-blue stance, meaning they are pro-law enforcement. Rioting and looting is the norm in many Democrat-run cities and states around the country.
Thus, the GOP electorate, horrified by what they are seeing, has taken to pushing back against defunding the police and trying to restore law and order.
It is a simple case to make: If you want criminals off the streets, then you need to support meaningful remedies for solving the problem. Otherwise, the federal government will come in and release inmates.
Ask California how that worked out.
To ensure crime is reduced and decreased, you must keep criminals off the streets. To keep them off the streets, you need a place to put them that will pass the muster of the federal government. That is why a prison discussion is not necessarily a third rail for Republicans.
Unfortunately, we have not heard much about immediate remedies from any of the policymakers in the upper echelons of state government.
The immediate problems must be addressed to satisfy the federal government.
For example, ADOC has locked down facilities to visitors since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, drug overdoses are still occurring within the walls of Alabama’s prisons. Threats are being made from inside Alabama’s prisons via cell phone, demanding payment from a relative of an inmate or that inmate will face violent consequences.
How is contraband like drugs and cell phones making its way into ADOC facilities if they are under lockdown for COVID?
Someone with access to the outside world is bringing it in, which is relatively easy to narrow down, given that few are allowed in and out of these facilities.
Despite a stern warning from the DOJ, inmate-on-inmate and guard-on-inmate violence continues within prisons.
It is like no one at the state level of government is taking the DOJ’s complaints seriously.
Thus, there is no reason to be optimistic the feds will back off their complaint against the state alleging Eighth Amendment violations.
What if one day in 2022, mid-election cycle, a federal judge grants the Biden administration control of the Alabama prison system? Some may welcome the federal intervention, but Alabama taxpayers will foot the bill.
If you are a Republican, all those efforts by the GOP-led Legislature to usher in an era of fiscal responsibility will be for naught. If you are a Democrat, kiss those prospects of Medicaid expansion goodbye if the state must spend money on prisons again.
In October, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a $1.3 billion prison construction plan. Suppose the prison system falls into a receivership situation in less than a year from now, in the heat of gubernatorial and legislative elections. Will she and the Alabama Legislature face political consequences? What did we get for this huge expenditure?
When the Legislature convenes in January, figuring out a short-term solution until new prison facilities are up and running, at minimum, ought to be on the calendar.
Otherwise, the federal government will use the courts. And in case you want to know the score in those, the Department of Justice remains undefeated.
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