An undated handout image shows knives made by prisoners at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. More than 2,000 photographs that evidence suggests were taken inside the correctional facility in Alabama raise the question: would we fix our prisons if we could see what happens inside them? (Handout via The New York Times) 

Alabama’s prisons are cesspools of violence, rape, black-market commerce, extortion, suicide and mismanagement. They’re understaffed and overwhelmed. Alabamians have heard that condemnation with alarming regularity from journalists, activists and most recently the U.S. Department of Justice. The brutal inhumanity of these overcrowded prisons is hard to describe.

Nevertheless, we’re now hearing it from the inmates themselves.

“No one feels safe here. Not the inmates, nor the officers. No one feels safe here when supervisors up to the warden level stand behind the fence of the barricaded, secure area and tell inmates who have fled there looking for protection that they need to go get a knife. No one feels safe here when there are hundreds of inmates roaming around and not an officer in sight.”

That passage comes from a statement written by an inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility and published this week by The New York Times. The details the inmate provides are disturbing — on which inmates are most susceptible to rape, which are most likely to be assaulted or killed, and the state’s cataclysmic failure to protect the people it imprisons.

“The reason I’ve avoided getting stabbed or raped was God, because I wasn’t a killer, not all that smart, and I’ve never been so lucky. Somebody must have really prayed for me, because I didn’t have sense enough to pray for myself as much as I should’ve.

“Pick out your friends slowly and wisely. Seek out educational programs. Borrow nothing from no one. Don’t make the officers your friends nor enemies. Never overspend on the commissary.”

That’s what an inmate at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer told The Times. His advice on how to avoid what seems unavoidable was a song of silence and conservative behavior: be quiet, keep your head down, talk to as few people as possible, hide. Anything to keep from becoming the next target.

“Every prison I’ve been in makes other compromises that would certainly have evangelicals marching in the streets if local Alabama governments were to condone, encourage, and even promote these activities like Alabama prisons do. Without question gambling, sexual relationships and money lending are the biggest hotspots for violence in prison. They all have a connection to the high expense to live in prison and the absence of paying jobs.”

The embezzlement economy in Alabama’s prisons, says that inmate at Limestone Correctional Facility near Huntsville, is constant and unyielding. It promotes bloodshed. It sustains vice. It corrupts wayward prison guards who earn paltry salaries. And Alabama’s Department of Corrections thus far is incapable of not only of stopping it, but also of slowing it.

These details shouldn’t surprise Alabamians who have paid attention to the rising tide of disgust over this unmitigated crisis. It’s a crisis Alabama has failed the solve for decades. Inmates, though, tell this story better than pundits and politicians. Maybe now lawmakers will listen.