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Adalius Thomas: Alabama’s prison system must do better. People are watching. 


Alabama is where I got my start in football. It’s where my decade-long NFL career was launched, and I will always be proud to be from Coosa County, Alabama.

But as I follow the constant stream of news about how my home state treats people who are incarcerated in state-run prisons, I’ve grown more and more disturbed, and ashamed.  It seems as if the violence, deaths, and mistreatment of human beings in Alabama prisons is so commonplace, that most people have gotten numb. The mentality is “do the crime, do the time,” which fits nicely on a bumper sticker, but is not a legitimate policy solution.

Just last year, “doing the time” meant dying in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections for 28 people who died from homicide, suicide, or drug overdoses in state prisons. Two of the homicides are being investigated because correctional officers were involved. It appears they beat two prisoners to death.

Already the United States Department of Justice has found the entire state prison system for men is unconstitutional because it violates the protection against cruel and unusual punishment. When the DOJ report was released in April 2019, state authorities were on notice that their prisons were chaotic, corrupt, and inhumane. Despite this national spotlight, Alabama’s inability to get a handle on these problems was excruciatingly evident in the following months, which saw a higher homicide rate than ever before recorded in these prisons.

What is remarkable to those of us watching this from the outside is the proposed “Alabama Solution” – build more prisons.  Losing football teams do not magically improve by playing in a new stadium. It takes much more than a huge stadium and a playing field to win championships.

New buildings cannot fix a mass incarceration system in complete disarray. The Department of Justice said so eight months ago when it told Alabama, “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of [Alabama] prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse.” 

It is my hope that Alabama’s elected leaders realize this crisis is being watched by people beyond Alabama’s borders. That people like myself who once called Alabama home, who still have family we love in the state, desperately want our home state to finally recognize the humanity within all Alabamians, the capacity for change and rehabilitation, and to pass meaningful criminal justice reform that reduces the numbers of people trapped in these wretched institutions.  

The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Reform holds its final meeting on January 14 to share recommendations to address this crisis. There are solutions within reach. Increased mental health and drug treatment, re-entry supports, and sentencing reform such as ending “three strikes” laws, just for starters. 

Anyone who cares about justice in Alabama should pay attention. I know I am. 

As part of my work for social justice with the Players Coalition, I look forward to engaging with social justice organizations in Alabama who are raising awareness about this crisis and fighting for meaningful solutions.  The strong start I received in Coosa County, Alabama, propelled me to places I never dreamed of going as a Coosa Central High school football player. But I have not forgotten my roots, nor the struggling communities across Alabama impacted by these prisons.  We must do better, together.

Coosa County native Adalius Thomas was a linebacker in the National Football League for 10 seasons.

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