We Must Solve Alabama’s Prison Crisis

By Larry Stutts

There is a crisis in Alabama’s prisons today and there has been for years. Currently, our prison facilities are dangerously overcrowded. The Department of Corrections says the prisons are at 182% capacity – the highest in the country.

This situation has made it difficult for correctional officers to effectively manage the inmate population. Just last week, inmates at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore stabbed the warden and a corrections officer, and seized control of a dormitory for hours before order was restored. What’s even worse is the fact that a mere 17 corrections officers were overseeing more than 900 prisoners at the facility at the time.

Violence is always an inherent danger at a prison. But when a facility is overcrowded, it dramatically increases the danger for corrections officers and inmates. Stabbings, assaults, and riots have occurred and more violence is probable unless we act.

Governor Robert Bentley has proposed a plan to build four large, modern prisons (three for male inmates, one for female prisoners) to replace more than a dozen of Alabama’s oldest corrections facilities, financed by an $800 million bond. Building these new prisons will help solve the problem of overcrowding, making our prisons better organized and easier to manage for prison officials.

Governor Bentley’s plan should also save money over the long run, as the state can shutter antiquated prisons that require extreme amounts of yearly maintenance. Also, consolidation into larger, regional prisons will streamline the delivery of medical care to inmates. The Department of Corrections says it will spend more than $100 million on medical care alone for inmates this fiscal year. It estimates savings of up to 10% on just this one line item if the Legislature takes the bold move to consolidate and update Alabama’s prisons.

Further, the Department of Corrections has been involved in lengthy legal disputes arising in part from criticisms that overcrowding has compromised inmates’ constitutional rights. In 2015, the federal Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, alleging that conditions at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and inhumane punishment. Though the lawsuit was later dropped, it is probable more litigation will occur unless Alabama moves to modernize our prison system. High litigation costs represent one more burden of our aging prison system.

In my view, prisons have a threefold purpose: protect law-abiding citizens, punish criminals, and then rehabilitate those criminals so they can be assimilated successfully back into society. I have listed these in order of importance, and I believe modern, efficient prisons can achieve all three goals.

Governor Bentley’s prison consolidation plan will achieve significant financial savings for Alabama’s taxpayers, provide a safer environment for inmates and guards and protect the state and taxpayers from costly civil rights-based lawsuits. It should be an urgent priority for the Alabama Legislature in the remainder of the 2016 session.

Dr. Larry Stutts represents Senate District 6, comprised of all or parts of Marion, Lawrence, Lauderdale, Colbert, and Franklin counties, in the Alabama Senate. He and his wife, Jackie, make their home in Tuscumbia.