A group of Alabama judges, legislators, lawyers and law enforcement officials recommended changes in sentencing laws saying they would save millions of dollars by reducing the number of inmates such as in this crowded dormitory at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in St. Clair County. (The Birmingham News/Bernard Troncale) ( )
Some of Alabama’s worst problems are cans dented by decades of being kicked down the road to be someone else’s disposable trash.
The state prison system is one of those cans.
But each time the state of Alabama is dragged kicking and screaming to court-ordered prison reforms, we first revert to an old habit.
We naturally recoil from the possibility the evidence is valid and seek reasons why it can’t be true. We blame the messenger.
A new report this week by the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery highlighted what it called repeated horrendous injustices, including rapes of young male inmates by guards.
It follows a lawsuit filed by EJI in October alleging that poor leadership, inadequate security and unsafe conditions had caused inmate violence to spike at St. Clair Correctional Facility, where six inmates have died in the last 36 months.
We will issue the traditional caveat in such matters. The EJI is an advocate with an agenda. But this is a much-too-familiar refrain for an Alabama prison system that earlier this year drew the ire of the U.S. Justice Department for its abusive treatment of female inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, an issue the EJI first brought to light.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need EJI to intervene. Given the Tutwiler report in January, state government itself would have risen in self-driven, righteous indignation, revealed all the sordid details and pressed forward to repair state prisons.
But given the latest round of allegations, it is past time we know what is really happening in Alabama prisons.
We need independent investigations into conditions and practices, which should lead to a consistent culture of transparency and accountability.
We need neutral eyes in place. AL.com has waited for months to gain access to Tutwiler to verify the improvements state officials say are now in place.
The most recent lawsuit is not merely a legal challenge to a faceless agency. This suit is aimed directly at us — the citizens of Alabama. It accuses us by clear inference of allowing this to happen.
If Gov. Robert Bentley does not realize it, this suit also is aimed directly at him as the lead citizen of the state.
When the courts intervene, we all will pay for the remedy, not only in money but also in civic credibility.
One of every four dollars in the state’s General Fund goes to operate some of the worst state prisons in the country. Alabama puts more of its citizens in prison for longer than almost any jurisdiction in the civilized world.
And, if the suit by EJI is proven, the state is managing snake pits where cruelty is an organized game.
EJI says prisoners have been killed by other prisoners in their cells because dilapidated prison doors have locks that can be jimmied. It alleges that guards routinely order young prisoners to commit sex acts. Prisoners beaten by guards are paraded by senior officials as a warning to other inmates. Guards extort money from inmates and their families.
There is an underlying, relentless, depressing ugliness to the charges.
Equally concerning, the EJI says it has discussed, talked, negotiated, pleaded, and counseled state prison leaders to no avail. The state promises remedies but never delivers, even when the fixes require no money and minimal resources.
The EJI’s condemnation of system leadership rings like a claxon’s warning through the general silence coming from the office of the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Is a substantial reset the only cure with a chance of working? There are too many bad wardens, criminally inclined guards and too much crumbling infrastructure to ignore.
The state should act, but not merely because the federal justice system almost assuredly will do it for Alabama if we don’t.
There’s a much better reason.
It’s the right and necessary thing to do.