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November 28, 2014

Editorial: Cruel in Alabama: More bad press about prisons

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Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 6:15 pm

“We’re at a fork in the road. We have two paths to choose from and neither one is easy. Those of us on the task force can solve it, or federal courts can do it for us. It’s our choice.”

State Sen. Cam Ward, a member of the state’s task force on prisons, is spot-on correct with his comments. Alabama and its perpetually problematic prisons system can seek widespread improvement or they can wait for Washington to pull the plug.

It indeed is Alabama’s choice.

For now, Gov. Robert Bentley and legislative leaders are giving the impression that they’re spittin’ mad at the situation and determined to fix it. We’ll see. Montgomery’s men have said they were committed to solving the recurring issues of overcrowding, under-funding and inmate abuse for a long time. Too little has changed.

Nevertheless, Bentley appeared Tuesday in Montgomery to announce that the state is participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. That program is operated by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which assists states by determining ways to improve their criminal justice systems.

Here’s an idea: Fund them correctly.

Yes, we know there are those who believe inmates should be happy with three hots and a cot, particularly those convicted of the most heinous crimes. But humanity, along with the federal government, calls on states to house their inmates in a humane fashion, regardless of their crimes.

Historically missing from Alabama’s modern-day prisons is a willingness to pay for them. Lawmakers haven’t heeded warnings from the prison commissioner’s office about the evils of operating these aging and overcrowded facilities on what often is described as a shoestring budget. The recurring stories of sexual and physical abuse at Julia Tutwiler Prison, which houses female inmates, have grabbed the attention of both Alabamians and federal officials, who, as Ward, R-Alabaster, mentioned, could decide to treat Alabama as they did California and take over our prisons system. That would be the ultimate sign of failure.

If it seems like the dam is breaking on bad news about Alabama prisons, it’s because it is. On Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a 24-page report, “Cruel Confinement,” that said, among other things, that “prisoners, including those with disabilities and serious physical and mental illnesses, are condemned to penitentiaries where systemic indifference, discrimination and dangerous — even life-threatening — conditions are the norm.” The state Department of Corrections, according to the SPLC, is “deliberately indifferent” to prisoners’ medical needs.

Alabama lawmakers face critical choices. Their decisions will say much about their kind of leadership.

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