Carla Crowder: Incarcerating people as cheaply as possible created Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Carla Crowder: Incarcerating people as cheaply as possible created Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

By CARLA CROWDER, Executive Director, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

A few weeks ago, a search dog working for Alabama’s Department of Corrections sadly died after exposure to contraband narcotics.  ADOC leadership, including Commissioner Jefferson Dunn, gathered for his funeral complete with 21-gun salute, an American flag presentation, and media coverage. His name was Jake.  

Over the last two years, at least 22 people in state prisons have also died from narcotics overdoses, primarily synthetic cannabinoid, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report, which suggests ADOC staff who are not screened before entry are likely responsible.  Prison incident reports list these deaths as “natural.”

We don’t know their names.

Why? Because Alabama’s 45-year history of incarcerating vast numbers of people cheaply has produced disastrous results. 

We failed in 1975 when U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson found “massive constitutional infirmities which plague Alabama’s prisons.”  And we are failing now with violence, homicide, and drug overdoses so pervasive that the ADOC cannot keep track of who dies in its custody, as the U.S. Justice Department documented in April after its two-year investigation again found our prisons unconstitutional.   A raft of federal cases and investigations in between reached the same conclusion.

All along, Alabama incarceration rates have remained the fifth-highest in the country, prison spending the lowest, yet our violent crime rates are higher than most every other southeastern state.  Our tough-on-crime ideology is not making us safer. And spending too little is costing us too much: in death, in degradation, and in suffering.

Any other public policy that produced such dismal outcomes would surely be scrapped. 

Instead, the state is talking about doubling down.   Its main plan to address this crisis involves continuing to incarcerate vast numbers of people on the cheap. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership that relies on private corporations to build and own three new megaprisons with the state leasing approximately 9,000 beds. This can be done with no tax increases, state leaders insist, which means Alabama can keep doing what it has always done.

“I am confident that the development of these facilities will be a major step forward,” Governor Ivey said in an announcement June 27 that the state has begun the procurement process for new prisons. 

This proposal is deeply troubling to those of us who have watched the for-profit prison industry overpromise to states and cities for 25 years, create nightmare prisons from Idaho to Mississippi, then rebrand itself as a real estate business. 

As recently as 2012, Federal District Judge Carleton Reeves wrote that the GEO Group-managed Walnut Grove Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi was “a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world” and “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts.”  Will this company be welcomed into Alabama?

In its new role as landlord, CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, failed to repair rusted doors, replace damaged windows, seal cracks in the walls and floors, and patch leaks in the roof, even though maintaining the Hernando County Jail near Tampa, Florida was a requirement in its contract with the county.  The County took over and was hit with $1 million in deferred maintenance costs. Will we lease our largest prisons from them?  

Private construction of just one massive high-tech prison in Pennsylvania, SCI Phoenix, ran nearly three years behind schedule, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.. The state was forced to move prisoners into the facility, touted as a creative public-private partnership, before construction was complete.  Lawsuits abound. 

Already, the State of Alabama has proven its inability to house people humanely.  Adding private companies with abysmal human rights records and a mandate to turn a profit into the mix does not bode well.

It is also deeply troubling when contrasted with the smarter approach of other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina, which are closing prisons and increasing rehabilitative community options without sacrificing public safety.  In fact, since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of more than 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million, primarily in favor of rehabilative options. according to Governing Magazine. 

Alabama has not yet locked down the details of building itself out of this crisis. If we can find the political will, there is a better way.  

The court system touts drug courts, pre-trial diversion, and similar community-based options as alternatives to incarceration, as second chances.  But these programs are an inconsistent patchwork at best, and more importantly, they are not well funded. Instead, poor people are expected to pay thousands in fees — administrative fees, drug-testing fees, treatment fees, evaluation fees, and so on — and spend hours away from work for court appearances.  If they can’t keep up, they don’t graduate, then they become poor people with felony convictions, and usually no drivers licenses. 

Instead of pouring nearly a billion dollars into new prisons, Alabama could shore up these kinds of community alternatives rather than expecting indigent people to pay for them.  Along the way, the State must confront the fact that our bare bones spending on mental health and substance abuse services — 50th in the country — contributes to incarceration.  

Also, we must improve re-entry services for the formerly incarcerated. People usually leave prison with no identification, no job, and thousands of dollars in court fines and fees.  Churches and nonprofits — many ably run by formerly incarcerated people who know the obstacles and solutions better than anyone else — are struggling mightily to bridge the gaps. Again, a fraction of the new-prison money invested into re-entry services would change outcomes.     

Finally, anyone touting new prisons should closely read the Department of Justice report which unsparing makes clear that “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse. And new facilities would quickly fall into a state of disrepair if prisoners are unsupervised and largely left to their own devices, as is currently the case.” 

We cannot build our way out of this problem. Instead, we need to invest in community-based solutions and mental health services that help prevent people from ending up in prisons to begin with, and support them after they come out. Smart investment in criminal justice reform would improve public safety, increase our workforce – something the Governor says is a top priority – and make Alabama more prosperous. Penny-wise, dollar foolish investments like the plan to keep on doing what we’ve always done – lock our neighbors up as cheaply as possible – will most likely result in more of the same horrific results. 

Carla Crowder, J.D., is Executive Director of The Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. She has spent time with incarcerated people in 15 Alabama prisons, as well as prisons in New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri, Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina.