Fifteen in 15 months.
Five in the first three months of this year.
That’s the tote board for inmate suicides inside Alabama’s wretched system of prisons. From the steps of our state’s highest elected offices, Alabama politicians baldly claim to be Christian leaders in a Christian state steeped in Christian values, the buckle of America’s Bible Belt. And yet, these same Christian leaders have allowed this festering sore to become so infected, to go untreated for so long, that inmates in the state’s care are dying at unimaginable rates.
Now federal Judge Myron Thompson has stepped in. On Saturday, Thompson ordered the Alabama’s Department of Corrections to immediately install permanent remedies to the department’s “severe and systematic inadequacies” of preventing inmates with mental-health issues from killing themselves.
The threat of further inmate suicides inside Alabama’s DOC, Thompson wrote in his order, is “severe and imminent.”
Yes, Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded and employ too few correctional officers. And, yes, there is a handful of legislators who understand how apocalyptic this situation has become. Gov. Kay Ivey, like her predecessor, has requested a mint of taxpayer money to hire more prison guards and build newer, safer, larger prisons.
But Alabama does not get a pass.
Not the state DOC. Not the state Legislature. Not its governors, past or current. And not Alabamians themselves, who have supported and elected a state government that has for too long seen prisons as warehouses for discarded humanity. In March, two inmates were murdered at Bibb Correctional Facility near Brent, which raised the state’s number of murdered inmates to 13 in the last year. This spring, the U.S. Department of Justice determined that our state “routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse,” according National Public Radio.
The awfulness births even more awfulness. Alabama puts men and women in prison, but Alabama can’t ensure that those men and women receive the most basic of expectations -- to be alive when their sentences are over.
Shame on Alabama. Shame on us.
The fear of federal takeover of the state’s prison system is real. Even with small and recent incremental improvements, Alabama’s prisons are so overcrowded and understaffed that federal officials may tire of the state’s tip-toe reform tactics and assume control of the process. If that scenario happens -- and it may -- blame will rest squarely on the empowered who only now seem concerned about the outcome, now that inmates are dying at rates too extreme to ignore.
A Christian state believes in commensurate punishment for crimes but humane treatment for the incarcerated. The harshest among us may believe inmates deserve what they get, hard time done for the crime. But those who welcome suffering, the threat of violence and a lack of basic care to those behind bars are just as much of the problem as the prisons themselves.