He may be the only one who wants one, but Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall seems eager for a showdown with the U.S. Department of Justice over the state of Alabama’s prisons.

No one disputes the state’s prisons are in deplorable shape. The only question is what to do about it, and it’s a question that has stymied governors and state lawmakers for years, largely because lots of money and not a few local jobs are at stake.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan is to have private contractors build new prison facilities that the state would then lease. Her administration is moving forward with that plan while the state Legislature — where some members worry about costs and ultimate control of the facilities — is out of session.

But the Justice Department gave added urgency to the situation last week when it issued a report telling us what we already know: that Alabama’s prisons for men are so bad they amount to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

In particular, the Justice Department said, prison staff routinely subjects inmates to excessive force.

“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of using excessive force against prisoners in Alabama’s prisons for men,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

In one harrowing example, a prison guard beat a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” while the prisoner begged the officer to kill him.

Other correctional officers have pleaded guilty, or been convicted of using excessive force against prisoners, including one incident when at least four officers beat a prisoner to death, the department noted in its report.

State officials have largely blamed the state’s unsafe prison conditions on too many inmates and too few guards, which leads to too little supervision of inmates and overworked, overstressed jailers.

But the incidents cited by the Justice Department go beyond that. There are clearly some jailers on duty in Alabama’s prisons who are not fit for the job.

Still, alleviating overcrowding and understaffing would help, as the Justice Department’s report says: “The severe and pervasive overcrowding increases tensions and escalates episodes of violence between prisoners, which lead to uses of force. At the same time, the understaffing tends to generate a need for more frequent uses of force than would otherwise occur if officers operated at full strength.”

Gov. Ivey’s response was conciliatory, but buried within it was an insistence that Alabama be left to deal with its prison issues itself.

“We all desire an effective, Alabama solution to this Alabama problem, and my administration will put in the hard work and long hours necessary to achieve that result,” she said.

“Alabama solution” is code for saying the state does not want the federal government to take over the state’s prisons, but unless the state makes progress soon, it may not have a say in the matter.

Marshall accused the Justice Department of ambushing the state and of playing politics by setting a deadline for an agreement that would fall “fifty-three days before a presidential election,” apparently forgetting the Justice Department currently is run by fellow Republicans.

“Along with the release of its newest findings today, DOJ officials also communicated to my office that the state has 49 days to agree upon the terms of a consent decree,” Marshall said in a statement. “Presumably, if we do not, the federal government will file suit.”

Rather than posturing, Marshall and other state officials need to take the state of the state’s prisons seriously. If it comes to a legal battle with the feds, the state will lose.

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(1) comment

Walter Bradford

Governor Ivey's position about prison conditions was "conciliatory". That's one trait Governor "Granny" seems to initiate all Alabamian issues from a conciliatory redress. She is a person that likes to "kick the can down the road" in favor off "coaxing" instead of of initiating necessary reforms based upon factual analysis. She just recently did not want to have to tell Alabamians they "must" wear a mask, now it is a law beginning 5pm on July 31, 2020 and only after the state has been brutalized by a catastrophic increase in Viral Infections and related deaths.

I've looked at The US Department of Prisons and The Alabama Department of Safety's own reports on persons incarcerated, by race, and offense. Holy Cow folks! It's a direct proof that Alabama wants anyone in prison for any infraction for the maximum time allowable. It's a joke. Even the Federal Government is more enlightened than Alabama with their implementation of home detention, longer period of probation as opposed to prison sentences, ankle monitors, work release from Home detention. Much shorter sentences for many petty crimes committed by "little potatoes" offenders. There is so much that could be done to lower the jail population I'm surprised that those alternatives haven't been attempted before. Millions could be saved in prison liabilities, building maintenance and construction costs, property purchase and development, hiring of prison staff, even something as simple as an arraignment on alleged charges from a closed circuit monitor as opposed to road travel to and from a court room with guards, usually (2), a vehicle, maintenance of same, it just goes on relentlessly. So much opportunity to put colonialism to bed finally and to get up t date with the rest of America & The World using Modern concepts, solutions and modification of procedures. Oh Alabama the waste of money, the liability, the needless imprisonment of humans and to what end. Seldom is there a positive conclusion involving prison sentences and time served. Recidivism is usually the result of the day, no educational programs of value, just the usual mediocre GED routine. Why not an array of technical courses that non-traditional Inmates could take advantage of from their home incarceration, building construction Men & Women for the whole of their sentence. How about prisoners who are sentenced to traditional prison terms be reevaluated mid-course for a non-traditional termination of prison sentence and house arrest with immediate enrollment in Self Educational & Improvement programs. I even see an argument for the delineation of Minimum, Medium Security Facilities from Maximum Security Units as a means of different supervisory methods at the various levels and the ability to maintain life or worse prisoners under more strenuous monitoring programs. Everything could be negotiable, with modern day vision that keeps penal methods low key but rehabilitation the rule of the day. Do we want to keep sending the same folks back for return engagements in penal colonies? No, of course not, so let's stop doing it. Walter A. Bradford Florence

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