Alabama’s prison problem won’t be solved with a single stroke of a pen. Our state owns some of the nation’s worst prison living conditions, examples of overcrowding and prison violence. Nothing short of sweeping change will alter that.
Gov. Robert Bentley’s appearance Wednesday in Anniston was to attend the memorial service for Kenneth Bettis, a William C. Holman Prison corrections officer who died last month after being stabbed in the head by an inmate with a handmade ice pick. While here, Bentley reaffirmed his belief that the state should build more prisons to alleviate the system’s profound overcrowding problem.
History isn’t on Bentley’s side. For various reasons, the state Legislature didn’t pass Bentley’s $800 million — closer to $1.5 billion when debt service is factored in — attempt to build three new prisons and close older ones during this year’s session. Montgomery lawmakers are so divided on the issue — over cost, concerns about possible prisoner releases, over the politics of such a decision — that hope is tepid, at best, that Bentley can usher the bill through in 2017.
Thus, Alabama’s prison problem remains atop Montgomery’s must-do list of reforms. The 2015 prison-reform bill Bentley signed into law was a positive first step, but it hasn’t significantly lessened the state’s biggest prison issue — a system that’s overcrowded and a fertile ground for widespread violence.
Holman Prison in Atmore, home to the state’s execution chamber, saw a riot break out in March. An officer and the warden were stabbed. Bettis was stabbed Sept. 1 and died two weeks later. System wide, Alabama’s prisons are at 178 percent of capacity thanks to years of get-tough-on-crime sentencing standards that were politically advantageous for lawmakers but packed the prisons with inmates serving life sentences for crimes that didn’t warrant them.
Additionally, Alabama has the nation’s fourth-highest incarceration rate, according to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, but ranks 47th in annual spending per prisoner.
Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, told National Public Radio earlier this year about a 75-year-old disabled combat veteran serving a mandatory life sentence for having 2.5 pounds of marijuana he was using to deal with pain from stents in his heart. Prior convictions from 30 years ago forced his life sentence.
“That’s the kind of sentencing regime we still have in this state,” Stevenson said. “You can talk about reform all night long, you can talk about building prisons, you can talk about all kinds of things. But the truth is, we have got thousands of people in jails and prisons who don’t need to there. And we haven’t found the courage yet to get them out.”
Bentley’s call for replacing Alabama’s old prisons with new ones has merit. But that’s a slow, incomplete fix that doesn’t go far enough. Nothing short of adopting the nation’s best practices on prisons and sentencing will solve this eternal problem.