Alabama Legislature

PARCA Tackling Research on Alabama’s Prison Problems as Legislature Begins to Meet

Runners, inmates who work at the prison, walk the halls of Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carnes)

The Alabama Legislature will face tough choices this year on solving problems of the state’s crowded, obsolete and under-funded prison system, and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama is preparing a series of briefings to address “a system in crisis.”

PARCA, a non-profit organization that does nonpartisan research on issues facing state and local governments in Alabama, outlined problems that it said could lead to a federal takeover of the prisons system if they are not solved.

Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed the construction of three new men’s prisons at a cost of $950 million as one step toward dealing with the issues of crowding, health care and crumbling facilities.

In a report issued this week, PARCA said the problems can be seen as a capacity issue or as issues stemming from inadequacies in Alabama’s criminal justice system.

“Current facilities are inadequate and unsafe because they were not built for the number of people who need to be incarcerated,” the report said. “Thus, construction projects are the obvious and best way to reduce overcrowding and expenditures.

“A prison construction program would replace inhumane and unsafe conditions for prisoners and guards. New construction could also potentially lead to increased operational efficiency.”

If the issues are viewed as being a result of problems facing the state’s criminal justice system, the report said, “broader criminal reform appears an obvious solution.”

“Current facilities are inadequate and unsafe because the state incarcerates people who should not be in prison,” it said. “Thus, comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system, including amending the criminal code and sentencing guidelines and reclassifying certain crimes, along with bringing practices in line with current research, best practices and other states, is the obvious and best way to reduce overcrowding and expenditures.

“Criminal justice reform would improve inhumane and unsafe conditions for prisons and guards.”

The report described the Department of Corrections as “a system in crisis” for the following and other reasons:

  • Federal courts, the Alabama Department of Corrections, journalists, activists and politicians have recognized that the prisons are “unsafe and inadequate.”
  • Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, with prisons holding about 20,000 people – 533 inmates per 100,000 Alabama residents age 18 and older.
  • The prisons are at 163 percent of capacity.
  • The state has one correctional officer for every 14 inmates, compared to seven per inmate in Florida. A consulting firm hired by the state recommends adding 1,800 to 2,000 correctional officers.
  • It would require an additional $80 million a year to achieve minimum adequate staffing levels and essential physical updates.
  • The state is defending itself in a federal class-action lawsuit over prison conditions, and already has been found to be grossly understaffed and to provide inadequate mental healthcare.
  • The corrections system could be taken over by the federal courts and forced to reduce the prison population and increase spending at levels that would be decided by a federal court.

PARCA said its series of briefs will explore the state of the prison system, summarize recent sentencing reforms, analyze the system as compared to neighboring states, explore alternative sentencing and community-based responses, and pose questions to be addressed.

“As we enter the 2019 legislative session, the only certainty is that inaction by state leaders is not an option,” PARCA’s report said.

“Calls for new construction and demands for continued criminal justice reform are not mutually exclusive. However, they represent opposite ends of a set of economic, philosophical, and political calculations. Both are based on research and assumptions that should be explored and tested. Neither will provide immediate relief.”