‘Toxic mix of problems’ used to describe Alabama state prisons


In Alabama, prisoners are being stabbed in their cells while sleeping because cell doors don’t lock. Overcrowding, under funding, wardens that don’t care, and drug-dealing guards whom allegedly order hits on inmates if crossed make for a toxic mix.

We have heard it before with prisons in other states, overcrowding, decreased funding, and in Alabama, the fourth highest incarceration rate in the United States all come together to make Alabama’s state prisons one big, horrendous mess. Some prison reform advocates are speaking out.

On June 3 of this year at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama, an inmate went to bed, and during the night, another prisoner sneaked into his cell and stabbed him in the neck with a shank, a home-made weapon. Although the victim, 36-year old Jodey Waldrop was taken to a hospital only 19 miles away, he died an hour later.

What makes this story so so terrible is the fact that Waldrop was the third prisoner to be murdered at St. Clair within the past 10 months, all killed with shanks. Even more unsettling is that this most recent killing brings the total of deaths at St. Clair to five in the past so months. If one looks at the national figures, it will put what is happening at St. Clair in better perspective.

Nationwide, 1.35 million people are inside prison walls. Prisons nationwide saw 52 murders total between 2001 and 2010, based of Bureau of Justice statistics. Based on these figures, St. Clair, with 1,500 inmates has had three killings in just the past year. This leaves many prisoner rights advocates shaking their heads.

Bryon Stevenson, with Equal Justice Initiative, a prison reform non-profit in Alabama thinks the problems in St Clair are the result of a combination of problems, “There is a lot of illegal activity by correctional staff — they’re smuggling in drugs, cell phones, and other contraband,” Stevenson told one reporter. “These officers bring the stuff in and have inmates collect the money. And when people refuse to pay, oftentimes violence is ordered by the officers to make sure that they recover what they’re supposed to get.”

St. Claire is not the only correctional facility in Alabama with problems, although they seem to be horrific in nature. In January, the results of an investigation of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, lead by the U.S. Department of Justice were released. The scathing report accused Alabama’s Tutwiler facility of violating the Constitution, citing what it called “a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuses and harassment.”

The DOJ investigation said the violation of the Eight Amendment right to be protected from harm was just the latest in a list of unconstitutional violations amassed over the past 20 years. The DOJ also informed the state it intended to further investigate the medical and mental health care of inmates as well as other issues.

There is no good answer to Alabama’s prison problems. Kim Thomas, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, participated in a panel discussion on June 17 in Birmingham. He told the audience the state of Alabama spends $43 a day to house prisoners, compared to the national average of more than $70 a day.

The money is just not enough to provide the rehabilitative care needed to keep recidivism down.”We have an obligation to provide opportunities for people to improve their lives, and that takes dollars,” Thomas said.

This latest DOJ investigation is not the first time the feds have been on Alabama’s case. In 2004, a lawsuit was finally settled over medical care for prisoners, requiring six years of court supervision. Now, it looks like there will be another investigation, because two advocacy groups have filed lawsuits against the Alabama State Department of Corrections.

On June 17, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Center filed a lawsuit in federal court in Montgomery on behalf of 40 inmates across the state, alleging that medical and mental health conditions have gone untreated. Commissioner Thomas denied the allegations, saying he was disappointed but not surprised the groups have “chosen to discontinue working with us and instead are insistent upon expensive, time-consuming litigation.”

Alabama Senator Cam Ward is pragmatic about whether changes to the state’s prison system will come about, saying if the public isn’t interested in change or can’t be convinced that change is needed, the federal government will step in and do it for us. “It’s going to be solved,” he said. “Either a federal court will do it for us” or the legislature will fix the problem.

Via  Digital Journal

BY KAREN GRAHAM / EDITOR-AT-LARGE

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