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Appleseed: People get out of prison all the time. The question is – then what?

By Carla Crowder, Alabama Appleseed 

People are released from prison all the time. 

More than 4,200 people ended their sentences last year and returned to Alabama communities. That’s an average of 363 people per month.   

About half were released early under the state’s mandatory release law allowing people near the end of their sentences to get out a few months early and submit to supervision by the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles for the remainder of their sentences. It’s been in place since 2015.

This month, news of additional supervised, early releases came to light and, rather predictably, it was spun as doomsday for public safety across the land. Let’s be clear, everyone released – and everyone scheduled to be released in the future under this 2021 law – would get out of prison in a few months anyway. The alarmists seem to suggest that something transformative occurs in those last waning days of incarceration that did not happen in the first ten, twelve, or twenty years behind bars. 

Let’s get real: nothing magical happens in anyone’s final few months in an Alabama prison. 

Recently, my organization worked with a man who spent 20 years incarcerated for marijuana and left prison testing positive for fentanyl. A little later, we became involved with a woman who’d been in prison since she was 16, then was released early with no shoes, no support, and an active meth addiction. More time in prisons choked with fentanyl and meth is not the answer to Alabama’s public safety challenges.

We live in a state where politicians preen about “law and order” and where  “tough on crime” credentials are required to win elections.

For at least the last 50 years, that has meant embracing incarceration as the preferred path to public safety. The problem is, here in Alabama, we’ve failed miserably at operating safe, rehabilitative prisons. People leave prisons with the same problems as when they entered: untreated mental illness, childhood trauma, drug addiction.

Yet, drug treatment, education, and rehabiliative programs inside Alabama Department of Corrections facilities have dwindled by 84 percent in a decade.

“I was on the last stage for taking a GED exam, but my situation being in a hostile environment kept me from that,” wrote a 44-year-old man at Donaldson Correctional Facility in a recent letter to Appleseed lawyers. “I was stabbed 7 times by two inmates which I couldn’t go to my classes because of the long walk through a tunnel with no protection from officers.” 

Would three to six more months of this have prepared him for success?

Homicide, suicide, and overdose deaths have soared to record levels. There has not been sufficient security staff in a decade. Another incarcerated man shared this account: We have prisoners here who are ‘homeless.’ Prisoners who are afraid to to go into an assigned cell because of being raped, set up to be robbed, beat up, and etc. These prisoners sleep in the open day room, some sleep under the stairs, some sleep in the old–not used–showers. … Behind the kitchen on southside is a trash/garbage dump. Some of the prisoners sleep there.” 

The first time Alabama prisons were declared unconstitutional, in 1976, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Johnson described a litany of horrific conditions and concluded, “An inmate required to live in these circumstances stands no chance of leaving the institution with a more positive and constructive attitude than the one he or she brought in. …Further, this Court finds that these conditions create an environment that not only makes it impossible for inmates to rehabilitate themselves but also makes dehabilitation inevitable.” These words were written 46 years ago in the Pugh v. Locke case.   

Next year, Alabama prison conditions will again be on trial. The United States Department of Justice has documented how prisoners in state prisons for men have continued daily to endure a substantial risk of serious harm, including death, and called the unconstitutional conditions “pervasive and systemic.”

It bears repeating. People are released from these prisons all the time. The machinery of criminal justice sentenced 7,100 Alabamians to the ADOC just last year. Some of them will grow old and die there. Most will someday return to the communities from which they were removed.

Many of these communities are lacking in health care, affordable housing, child welfare services, state services that are threadbare because Alabama has sacrificed these needs on the altar of public safety and now the Alabama Department of Corrections is poised to swallow $3 billion of our tax dollars.  

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle castigate this agency as a corrupt, failed, bloated bureaucracy. Yet the Legislature keeps signing checks: $1.3 billion for two new mega-prisons, $1.06 billion for health care, $600 million plus for an annual operating budget. 

What the people panicking about early releases are saying is that this $3 billion system is not capable of changing lives even after ten, twelve, or twenty years of incarceration. 

There is certainly truth to that, given the conditions documented by the DOJ. Trafficking in the unrealistic notion that curtailing incremental reforms and relying on longer prison sentences will make Alabama safer may win votes, but it has not and will not improve public safety, workforce participation, or the prosperity of our state. 

To do that, we must unwind ourselves from the dysfunctional relationship we have with the ADOC by thoughtful investments in public safety outside of the deteriorating prison walls, including robust re-entry support for the thousands of people who exit prison annually, either a few months early or not.

Ten dollars and a bus pass, Alabama’s current re-entry plan, is woefully inadequate.


Carla Crowder, J.D., serves as Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed, a statewide research and policy nonprofit that advocates to end Alabama’s overreliance on prison and punishment. She is a lifelong Alabamian and a graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law.

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