How bad is it? Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told AL.com this week that Alabama has “major, major problems” if the abuse allegations are true. “We know we’ve had problems with our prison system. But they’re much deeper and more systemic than I realized.”
Remember, the Department of Justice already was investigating reports of alleged sexual abuse at Julia Tutwiler Prison, which houses the state’s female inmates. Now a report by the Equal Justice Initiative says inmate abuses have taken place at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore County, Bibb Correctional Facility in Bibb County and Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County.
The accusations are graphic. According to the EJI, “At Donaldson and Bibb correctional facilities … male correctional officers forced young male inmates to perform sex acts and threatened to file disciplinary charges against them if they refused or reported the abuse. In several cases, incarcerated prisoners were forced to perform oral sex and were subjected to other forms of sexual abuse by correctional staff. Biological evidence supporting the sexual assault allegations has been turned over to (Alabama Department of Corrections) authorities.”
If the abuse occurred, Alabama’s prison system would deserve a total reconstruction, including its leadership structure and oversight.
Fairness is vital here. The EIJ is a nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners. It is not affiliated with the state. It’s no surprise that Kim Thomas, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, is disputing some of the EIJ allegations. If they are untrue or misrepresented, it’s imperative that the truth is known.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to view most, if not all, of the alleged incidents as worthy of concern considering the bloated prison population. Earlier this year, Alabama’s were at 190 percent of their 16,000-prisoner capacity. At facilities all across the state, Alabama’s prisons house 31,000 inmates, creating a nightmare scenario for prison officials that few states can match.
Here we will repeat one of our concerns: What happens if Alabama’s prisons are forced by court order to reduce overcrowding through prisoner release? That happened in California in 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that state to reduce its inmate population by 30,000.
In truth, Alabama is getting what it sows. Its conservative politicians — governors, legislators, judges — adhere to a rigid jail-’em-all style of criminal justice that limits judicial options and fills jails and prisons well past the limit. Recent efforts at sentencing reforms for non-violent and non-sex-related crimes have yet to undo much of the damage of decades of harsh sentences.
The result is a prison system too crowded to operate safely. What’s needed are answers and, if applicable, swift action. A state that allows prisoner abuse is a state deserving strong condemnation.