The situation in our prison system is dire. A federal judge has ruled that the state is deliberately
indifferent to conditions in the prison system. Many factors impact how we got here. But several things are absolutely clear and the operational issues are pretty straightforward.
One, is there are not enough officers to ensure the security of the facility and the inmates. The poor pay, inadequate facilities and lack of staff are the fundamental sources of the current lack of officers.
Two, there must be sufficient space and support resources to ensure security.
Three, inmates cannot not be merely warehoused like animals in a cage. There should be work for them to do in an appropriately structured environment. The vast majority will return to our communities and most of them in a few short years.
The other huge problem is the national attack on law enforcement in general has caused a shortage across our nation of people willing to even try on this career field dealing with society’s most dangerous and dysfunctional citizens. To attract officers in this time of a booming economy, we must pay a wage commensurate with the danger and responsibilities coupled with meaningful benefits to attract motivated trainable people.
The Calhoun County jail is in the same position as the state prisons. As your sheriff, I am struggling with this issue every shift of every day. I appreciate the support of the County Commission and the public commitment of our legislative delegation to address the crisis. And it is truly a crisis of almost overwhelming size. Overcrowding greatly increases the stresses and conflicts between people in jail.
Putting it simply, people go to jail because they can’t or won’t make good decisions while they are not in custody. Despite claims to the contrary, it is very rare that a first-time offender ever goes to prison.
Stuff a lot of them in a small space and that lack of decision-making gets even worse and often violent.
Almost all productive citizens believe that criminals deserve to be in jail. I along with all other law enforcement see the huge cost that crime places on our communities. Theft, drugs and violence are the product criminals produce.
I have personal experience with the entire criminal justice system. In my 23-plus years in law enforcement, I worked patrol and as an investigator. I also worked as a state probation and parole officer dealing with people after their release. I started my career working the county jail. I now operate the jail, and my 12 years as chief deputy gave me up-close hands-on experience. I talk to
sheriffs in Alabama and across America. Based on my experience, I believe I can reach reasonable conclusions.
Why does this issue matter to you? It matters because almost every one arrested will return to our society. Most have children and increasingly a significant number are women. The vast majority of criminals are drug users; either arrested for drugs, stealing to get the money to buy drugs or doing other criminal acts because of their drug use. More and more are women. Virtually every family has close personal experience with the price of drug use. Never forget they have children or are someone’s child.
There are those who argue we should treat drug use as merely an illness. Here is the truth: under our legal system, you cannot compel people to get treatment for addiction unless or until they have been arrested. While in our custody, they are sober, and meaningful treatment options can then be explored — if they are there to offer. We owe it to ourselves to deal with this issue in the most effective way possible.
We must take immediate action to address the problems in our jail. The problems are well documented on the state and local level. There is almost universal agreement “something must be done.” I can answer that question. We desperately need immediate repair and begin the expansion process of our facility. We must have meaningful improvements in correction officer pay and number of staff.
Matthew Wade is the Calhoun County sheriff.