The Alabama Senate Thursday approved the creation of a new commission that would work with the Council on State Governments to determine the causes of the state’s prison overcrowding problem and present solutions.
The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would create a 26-member body called the Prison Reform Task Force, which would take a broad look at both overcrowding and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons. The task force would work with the Council on State Governments to develop recommendations to remedy both.
“They did this in Texas, they did this in Kentucky, they’ve done this in Arkansas,” Ward said after the meeting. “All conservative, Republican states, but they did it in those states, and those states adopted those recommendations.”
The resolution now moves onto the House. If approved, the task force would be required to make its recommendations by the 15th legislative day of the 2015 Regular Session, which would take place in the middle of next spring. Ward said he expected the task force’s work to last about eight months, and that work would begin.
Alabama’s prison system has been overcrowded for decades. The Alabama Department of Corrections reported in September that its in-house population consisted of 25,340 inmates living in facilities designed for 13,318, for a total capacity of 190 percent. The state also has one of the highest inmate-to-correctional officer ratios in the country, with a 12.1 to 1 ratio that month.
The prison system has come under renewed scrutiny in recent years. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is investigating possible civil rights violations at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, after the National Institute of Corrections discovered numerous problems at the facility, including failure to report sexual abuse of inmates and a “culture of intimidation and undue harshness.” Allegations of physical or sexual abuse of inmates have also been made at Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent; Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer and Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore.
The recurring problems in the system have led to speculation that a federal judge may order the state’s prison system into receivership, also referred to as a takeover. Alabama’s prison system was under federal monitoring of kind or another between between 1976 and 1989.
Ward said he hoped the state could come up with his own fixes, particularly to assist correctional officers. The senator said he saw the problems of overcrowding during a recent visit to St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, which had a correctional officer staffing level of 67.5 percent in September. At one point, Ward said, there were two correctional officers overseeing 85 inmates in a yard.
“You ask any correctional officer who works on the front line, they say anything can happen,” Ward said. “It’s such a tight situation, because those guards are so heavily outnumbered. That’s not public safety, and it’s not fair to those officers if something goes wrong.”
– posted by Brian Lyman