Prison Reform: Alabama's overcrowding problem

Oct 14, 2016

Alabama’s prison system has been in the news a lot this year, and not for good reasons. Inmate riots, as well as allegations of mismanagement and corruption have pointed out plenty of problems. The Alabama Public Radio news team has spent the past several months examining what happens as people go into the state’s prison system and what happens when they come out. Today, APR’s MacKenzie Bates hears from critics of Alabama’s prisons are run and how plans to fix things may just throw money at the problem…

If you’ve never been inside Alabama’s Atmore Prison, don’t worry. Back in March, Atmore came to you…

This cell phone video was shot during riots at the prison. Inmates set fires, and attacked guards and the warden. The violence was supposedly sparked by overcrowding. Rufus Ricks knows the problem first hand… 

“At lights out, it would be quiet,” Ricks says.  “People would asleep.  Now it’s not like that no more.  There’s always somebody awake and people are always moving around because it’s so crowded.”

Ricks spent 20 years in an Alabama prison on robbery charges.  He’s been housed in several of Alabama’s 14 prisons during his sentence. So he’s seen a lot.

“First they have two-man cells,” Ricks says.  “And they start putting an extra rack in there so now you have three people in this small area.  And I’ve got my property, he’s got his property, and he’s got his property.  They lock you down at night.  You might need to use the bathroom and we’re dealing with feces.  The smells and all kinds of stuff, it’s terrible.”

In 1979, Alabama’s prisons had about six thousand prisoners.  Today, the Department of Corrections says the state has more than twenty eight thousand people behind bars. Prisons designed to hold about thirteen thousand inmates are more than one hundred percent over capacity.

Take Limestone Correctional Facility for example. The prison near the town of Harvest opened in 1984. It’s supposed to hold just over two thousand inmates.

“We have 2,236 today and we have 2,532 beds.”
That’s Christopher Gordy.  He’s the warden at Limestone. 

Limestone is one of the largest prisons in the state.  But when it comes to overcrowding, it does make it difficult for his officers to do their job.

“When you’ve got double-bunked beds stacked up sometimes less than 10 inches from each other, so it makes it very difficult for officers to patrol the dorms and see everything that happens in the dormitory,” Gordy says.

It’s a hot day at Limestone.  There’s no air conditioning and it smells like it. Fans are used to try and cool the facility, but today it’s not helping. There are so many prisoners gathered in one place, the temperature rises quickly.

“We will become the best Department of Corrections in the country rather than the worst.  I like to be No. 1, even if it’s in the prison systems.”

That’s Governor Robert Bentley. He’s pushing a plan to consolidate Alabama’s 14 prisons into four “Mega Prisons” housing 4,000 inmates each.  Bentley says by downsizing, the state would save millions of dollars.

“You don’t have 14 kitchens, hospitals,” Bentley says.  “It’s efficiencies. Plus the fact that we’re having to repair all of these old prisons right now.”

“Prison overcrowding is a lot of things, but policy is a main driver of it, not buildings.”

Katherine Green Robertson is the Vice President of the Alabama Policy Institute in Birmingham.  She’s a big critic of the state’s plan, where the math doesn’t seem to add up…. 

“I think if you’re going to sell the public on a billion and a half dollar bond issue which is what it is once you add the interest, you better be sure that it’s actually going to solve the problem which there is no evidence that it will,” Robertson says. 

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative agrees with Robertson.  He doesn’t think new prisons are the answer.

“It’s like having a college football team that keeps losing every game and your solution is, ‘oh let’s build a brand new stadium.  That’ll solve the problem.’  It won’t,” Stevenson says.  “You need better coaching and you need better players.”

Stevenson says the riots at Atmore Prison are just one indication of a system with big problems.  But, critics say that’s not the only issue. Alabama’s prison system reportedly spends less per prisoner per day than anywhere else in the nation. Twenty six dollars daily to house and rehabilitate an Alabama inmate, compared to close to seventy dollars in other states. Bryan Stevenson of the EJI says, then there’s the mismanagement… 

“We have people serving life and life without parole for writing bad checks, for being in possession of marijuana, for shoplifting, for very minor crimes,” Stevenson says.  “That’s the biggest problem.  I actually think we can get five, ten thousand people out of prisons next week without any threat to public safety.”

Even Governor Bentley concedes that point.

“Our system is a Department of Corrections, it not a Department of Housing,” Bentley says.  “So we need to try to correct them, help them become productive citizens.  That’s how we’re going to save money but we’re going to save lives, too.”

Bentley’s eight hundred million dollar prison plan received a lukewarm response from state lawmakers. The proposal failed in the General Session this year and Bentley hopes to revive it next year.

The Alabama Policy Institute says the plan needed more thought. And, they’re not the only ones…

“In typical of Alabama Government, we don’t deal with situations until they’re a crisis.”

Chris England saw Bentley’s plan. He sits on the House Judiciary Committee in Montgomery.

“Unfortunately, when things reach crisis level, your remedy is often going to be somewhat ineffective and very expensive,” England says.

Opponents of the Governor’s prison plan say research and preparation are one key concern.
And Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative says these problems starts at the top. 

“Our politicians here have been preaching fear and anger for a half century,” Stevenson says.  “And when you create a culture where everybody is competing with one another over who can be the toughest on crime, you start doing some pretty irrational things when it comes to sentencing.”

One example is Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. Defendants with prior convictions for things like writing bad checks or non-violent theft can be sentenced to life in prison without parole for future crimes. The Equal Justice Initiative says two thousand inmates in Alabama prisons are serving life under this act. Bryan Stevenson…

“And when you take a situation like overcrowded prisons, under-motivated staff, some of whom are engaged in corruption and abusive practices, it’s going to be a really, really bad system,” Stevenson says.

Katherine Green Robertson at the Alabama Policy Institute wants more answers about how and where they will save money and says so do the constituents of Alabama. The concern is that once the $800 million dollar prison plan has been paid off, the final cost will balloon to one and a half billion.

“It sounds like there was a company that was sort of advising the administration, giving them some sort of ballpark numbers and that in simplified terms where the $800 million number came from,” Robertson says.  “I do think in a plan of this magnitude, given Alabama’s very fragile fiscal condition, we still haven’t seen enough data to show how that number was arrived at.”

And so, Warden Christopher Gordy, his guards, and the inmates on his watch remain waiting. The plan would shut down several of the existing prisons but a few would remain open.  He is optimistic Limestone will stay open if the plan moves forward.

“I may be a little prejudice to say but this is a very good operated facility,” Gordy says.  “It’s the largest in the state and the structure of the buildings is pretty good. And I’ve been to the other facilities in the state.  So if I have to be a betting man, we probably have a good chance of probably staying open.”

There could be more at stake than rather or not Alabama can afford Bentley’s plan. Prison overcrowding is an issue nationwide. California, for example, could be an example of Alabama’s future if nothing is done. Prisons in the Golden State were at two hundred capacity, just like in Alabama. The situation was so bad, a federal judge declared California’s prisons violated the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That was followed by threats of a federal takeover. Some in Alabama are wondering how long it will be before this state attracts that type of attention from Washington.