Full-throated skeptics of Alabama’s abominable oversight of its prisons may believe change isn’t possible. They may be right.
Here’s one reason why.
“It's not something that your constituents call and say, hey, let's fix the prisons. So it tends to be a last priority, behind schools, your health care system, et cetera. So that's the — I think this is pretty much in line with other states. We've just let it go on for so long. We've got to finally, you know, call to action.”
That’s a quote from state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who spoke this week with National Public Radio about Alabama’s self-inflicted prison disaster. Ward is one of the few legislators who seems to grasp the long-standing gravity of this situation. After completing a lengthy investigation about systemic violence and suicides in Alabama prisons, the Department of Justice has given the state less than 50 days to devise a plan to address what’s become a humanitarian issue.
A report in The New York Times this week carried this headline: “Alabama’s Gruesome Prisons: Report Finds Rape and Murder at All Hours.” Prisoners in Alabama, The Times reported, “endured some of the highest rates of homicide and rape in the country, the Justice Department found, and officials showed a ‘flagrant disregard’ for their right to be free from excessive and cruel punishment.”
Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told NPR that “(T)he state has refused to accept responsibility for bringing its population down to a manageable level or bringing its conditions up to a constitutional level.”
USA Today boiled down the plight of prisoners in Alabama Department of Corrections facilities to a single sentence: “Conditions in the state's prisons were so bad the Justice Department concluded they probably violate the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
And yet, it’s Sen. Ward who speaks the loudest truth.
Alabama hasn’t ameliorated this crisis because it’s not politically important. Alabamians by and large don’t care — unless they’re in prison or their loved one is in prison. Politicians earn (or retain) votes when they cut taxes and lower unemployment and support popular legislation, but not when they push for prison reform. And because repairing or replacing prisons is expensive, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers has considered this someone else’s problem — if they’ve considered it at all. Money for schools or money for prisons? In Alabama, that’s usually a terrible either-or choice.
This is what political apathy creates. Former Gov. Robert Bentley tried to build new prisons to lower the overcrowding and lessen inmate violence, but his detail-lacking plan died quickly. Gov. Kay Ivey’s $900 million prison plan may not survive, either. Alabama now faces a deadline. The DOJ has spoken. The specter of an unwanted federal takeover of this state’s prison system is a distinct, if not likely, possibility.
One way or another, this crisis will be solved. It must be solved. Whether Alabama will do so on its own is an entirely different matter. History shows it won’t.