By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative claims Alabama’s prisons are the nation’s deadliest due to a recent rise in homicide rates.
The recent stabbing of 29-year-old Vaquerro Kinjuan Armstrong in Atmore’s Holman Correctional Facility marked the eighth homicide within the prison system since January. Since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2017, Alabama prisons have seen 19 murders. That puts Alabama’s average prison homicide rate at as much as six times the national average, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
EJI Attorney Charlotte Morrison called the violence an “epidemic.”
“This epidemic of violence has once again created a crisis that requires a more committed and effective response from state leaders,” she said.
The Montgomery-based group is currently suing the state over prison conditions.
The statistics are no surprise to state corrections officials who deal with the problem every day.
Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton said the state “recognizes the seriousness of the problem and is taking steps to reverse this trend.”
The rise in violence corresponds with the well-documented problems of overcrowded and understaffed prison facilities, he said.
“There is a direct correlation between the level of prison violence and the shortage of correctional staff in an overpopulated prison system with limited resources for rehabilitating offenders,” Horton said. “The proliferation of drugs and criminal activity inside prisons also contribute to an increase in violent incidents.
“The Alabama Department of Corrections is developing a long-term plan that will revitalize the prison system’s infrastructure and lead to safer and more secure correctional facilities for both inmates and staff.”
The Department of Corrections is under a court order from U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to improve prison conditions, with better staffing being among the items required if the state wants to avoid a federal takeover.
Commissioner Jeff Dunn told the Associated Press in September the system would need to hire between 1,800 and 2,000 more officers to adequately staff Alabama prisons. That would almost double current staffing levels.
State Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has long-advocated improvements to Alabama prisons, agreed on the points of overcrowding and understaffing being the main causes in the rise in homicides. But Ward went deeper to explain how other factors like the makeup of the prison population and the facilities themselves contributed to the problem.
In some ways, Alabama is seeing unintended consequences of two positive developments: an improving economy and a reduction of the non-violent prison population.
“There are three basic problems: incredibly inadequate staffing, a population that is getting more violent, and facilities that aren’t designed to hold this many people, much less keep them safe,” Ward said.
Recent efforts to reduce the number of those incarcerated for non-violent crimes like drug possession have had an unfortunate upshot: making the prison population more violent.
“Ten years ago, violent criminals probably made up about 65 percent of our prison population. That is easily 86 percent today. So, of course we are going to have problems. You have a population that is more violent than ever before, but we still have the same number of officers.”
Alabama’s historically low unemployment rate also makes it difficult for the state to fill prison guard jobs.
“When the unemployment is eight percent, everybody is looking for a job. When the unemployment rate is four percent or 3.9 percent, you’ve got to pay those officers a whole lot more than what the merit system scale provides for. So, now you’ve got a lot of people thinking ‘hey, that’s a dangerous job, and I could make a whole lot more money being a police officer for a city of county.'”
Ward said he expected prison overcrowding and understaffing to be discussed when the Alabama Legislature convenes for a new term in March.
“I think you’re going to have to adjust the pay scale. Pay them more so we can hire more. Also, at some point, you’ve got to do something with the facilities. Officers will tell you themselves that these facilities do not allow for public safety.
“This is not going to be for free. We’re going to have to pay for it. If we want public safety, then we’re going to pay for it.”