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For prison problems, past is prologue

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Severe crowding, extreme violence, insufficient mental health care and a lack of overall resources. That’s the Alabama prison system as we find it today, but also as it was in the 1970s before it was taken over by the federal government for 13 years. 

Spanning three governors, that takeover ended in 1989. Thirty years later, state officials are grappling with the same problems while trying to avoid another federal intervention.

“You could take the year 2019, and substitute it for the year 1989 and it would be the same story,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who is a member of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, told Alabama Daily News. He’s been a lead lawmaker on prison issues for the last several years.

Practically all of the problems listed in federal District Judge Frank Johnson’s order in 1976 can be seen in the Department of Justice investigation report from April of this year.  

Both reports depict examples of gruesome violence and an overall unsafe and disorderly environment in state prisons that lack the necessary resources and staffing to properly protect inmates. Similar to the April report, Johnson deemed that Alabama prisons in the 1970s were violating inmates’ constitutional rights. 

Crowding issue persists 

Litigation at the center of the 13-year takeover was  Pugh V. Locke. Jerry Pugh was an inmate at G. K. Fountain Correctional Center and sued ADOC for failing to adequately protect him and other plaintiffs from violence by other inmates. Ultimately, Judge Johnson issued a memo order finding for Pugh. 

Johnson said in his order for Pugh V. Locke that there were clear violations of inmates’ eighth and 14th amendment rights. His order detailed 11 specific areas of deficiency that Alabama needed to address, but that the crowding problem “is primarily responsible for and exacerbating all the other ills of Alabama’s penal system.”

The 11 areas were staffing, classification, segregation and isolation, mental health care, protection from violence, living conditions, food services, correspondence and visitation, education and reaction, and finally the physical facilities themselves. 

Johnson’s order was very specific in certain respects, like demanding that each inmate must have at least 60 square feet of living space and that inmates be given supplies for five letters a week, free of charge. 

At the time, the state’s four main men’s prisons, Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women and a center for young men had more than 5,000 inmates. The facilities were designed to house just more than 2,000 inmates. 

In July of this year, ADOC’s prisons held 20,763 people in facilities originally built for 12,412 inmates. That occupancy number does not include additions to facilities.

Leaders pushed back

When Johnson’s order was released, then-Gov. George Wallace was in the middle of his second term and immediately said the state would fight the order, arguing against making conditions better in Alabama prisons. 

“We’re going to appeal this order because the effect of it is the people whose goods have been stolen… or have been robbed or mugged or raped or maimed… must create a hotel atmosphere with a catering service, a vacation resort (for criminals),” the Montgomery Advertiser reported Wallace saying.

Despite other state officials and attorneys agreeing with Johnson’s order, Wallace was not willing to appear soft on crime.

“A good vote for George Wallace might give a good political barbed wire enema to some of these federal judges,” he said.

But prison improvement measures did begin as early as January 1976. Wallace announced $400,000 to expand and renovate five road camps where inmates performed highway maintenance tasks. They would hold a total of 400 inmates.

When Gov. Fob James was elected in 1979, he was appointed as receiver of the prison system just two weeks after being sworn into office. 

James’ approach to fixing the system was overall less confrontational than Wallace and was more willing to comply with the federally mandated orders. 

As receiver, James could make any decision he wanted regarding the prison system and it gave him the power to hire and fire any prison employees or officials. He appointed Robert Britton commissioner of ADOC. Britton is credited as the driving force for improving the prison system at the time. 

One noticeable measure Britton proposed was a five-year spending plan that would bring the prison system within federal compliance by 1985. The spending plan involved appropriating $339 million from 1980 to 1985, most of it for new prisons and security personnel. 

In the early 1980s, there were also a series of federal mandates to release some prisoners.

Charles Graddick was Alabama’s attorney general at the time and tried to stop the releases, citing concerns for public safety.

According to a Montgomery Advertiser story, Graddick said he anticipated “murders, rapes, robberies…Anything you can think of…These are bad people.”

Graddick is now the executive director of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey earlier this year. Graddick was unavailable for an interview for this story. An office spokesman told Alabama Daily News that questions about the former attorney general’s role in prison issues from decades ago were not relevant.

At one point, Graddick blamed James for the mass release saying, “we have lost the battle simply because the governor says these people are not a danger.”

Graddick was held in contempt in 1983 after he continued to block federal orders to release inmates on early parole. The state faced $551,000 in contempt fines which were eventually dropped by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately lifted a stay and 222 inmates were released in July 1981. 

Fast forward to today, Ward does not want to be in Graddick’s position in the 1980s and thinks that releasing inmates in-mass could be potentially dangerous. 

“You don’t want to get to that point,” Ward told ADN. “If we get to that point then you’re endangering public safety.”

Janette Grantham is the state director for Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) which advocates for the rights of victims of crimes, and thinks that if Alabama was being forced to give out a certain amount of paroles, that would be a “horrible situation.”

“Everyone they release is going to live next door to somebody. If they are violent and are just being released, not because they are ready to be released but just because we have to have an extra bed, that is a horrible scenario and I hope it doesn’t come down to that,” Grantham told ADN. 

Attorney General Steve Marshall agrees that paroles should not be used as a method of decreasing prison populations and that the parole board’s main focus should be on ensuring public safety. 

“Those of us who deal with sentencing and incarceration on a daily basis know full well that offenders who serve any significant time in prison are there because they present a threat to the public,” Marshall said.  “We cannot ever let bed space be an excuse for putting our citizens in jeopardy.”

Marshall also said he believes ADOC has made and is continuing to make many improvements with it’s operations and facilities.  

What changed?

 Inmates at Staton Prison are shown in one of the sleeping areas, Tuesday Jan. 10, 2006 in Elmore, Ala. Staton prison paints a scary but realistic picture of Alabama’s overcrowded prison system, which now houses some 27,000 inmates, more than twice the designed capacity for the state. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

Current state officials may believe that paroles are not the answer to decreasing prison populations, but in the 1980s, it was.

In 1988, the year federal oversight was winding down, the court-appointed committee charged with looking over the prison system was almost satisfied with the state’s efforts. 

There were still concerns about too few inmates being released on parole. 

Federal Judge Robert Varner, who took over the case from Johnson in 1979, threatened to hand over parole powers to the prison commissioner at the time, Morris Thigpen, if the numbers didn’t increase. 

Then parole board chairman, Joel Barfoot, went on to approve more paroles in the first six months of 1988 than in any full year since 1980. Barfoot predicted in a July 1988 Montgomery Advertiser story that they would reach 3,200 paroles by the end of 1988. 

Building new correctional facilities was also a measure that was happening before the takeover began, but was also an idea offered by the prison commissioner and governor as a way to help overcrowding during the takeover.

Some of the facilities being built were work-release centers, others were new in-take facilities, and others the larger major correctional facilities that now hold the majority of Alabama’s inmates. 

During the entire 13-year take over, five major correctional facilities opened that are still in use today according to ADOC’s website. The Staton facility opened first in 1977 followed by Elmore in 1981, then the facility now known as Donaldson correctional facility opened in 1982. St. Clair facility opened next in 1983 and then the Bullock facility in 1987. 

By January 1989, the federal courts had officially relinquished their oversight of Alabama prisons. Then-Governor Guy Hunt said “this is the best news we have received in a long time.”

However, attorneys and prison experts still did not seem overly confident in ADOC’s or the state’s ability to keep in check the prison population numbers. Varner is quoted in a New York Times article in 1989 saying, ”even anticipated new and expanded prisons will ultimately be unable to avoid the constitutional violations which will surely follow.” 

One significant marker that allowed the state to gain back control was the elimination of the backlog of about 1,200 inmates held in county jails because the prisons were over capacity.  There were comments saying that the major prisons were still too crowded, but since the backlog issues were dealt with, that was a good enough sign for the federal judges. 

When the oversight ended, the state’s inmate population was at 12,440, which was about double the amount that it was in 1981. 

Lessons learned?

Current Commissioner Jeff Dunn told ADN that the biggest difference he sees in how Alabama handled the prison situation in the 1970’s and 80’s to now is that state leadership and government is much more involved. 

“I have the sense that there is more desire, more commitment and more interest to address this issue systematically so that we’re not in this same situation five, ten, or thirty years from now,” Dunn said. “That’s certainly my goal.”

Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledges the complexities of the current problem and said she wants to find a long-term solution. She is planning for three new, large male prisons. 

“The challenges facing our state’s prison system are complex and multifaceted, and therefore the approach we are taking to address the issue is multifaceted. Not only are we moving forward with a prison construction plan, but we are addressing the criminal justice aspect as well through my Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy,” Ivey said. “My Administration remains committed to working tirelessly to find a long-term, Alabama solution to this Alabama problem.”

Dunn does not think the state is on the verge of another federal takeover because of the Department of Corrections’ good faith effort in actively trying to solve today’s prison problems. 

He said the department’s most recent strategic plan for 2019-2020 shows that they are dedicated to fixing every issue that was listed in the DOJ report and wants to address the systemic problems as well. 

Part of their strategic plan is addressing infrastructure problems which include building the three new men’s prisons. 

But again, Dunn says that their purpose in building these new prisons is different than in the 70’s and 80’s. 

“We’re not just building buildings to have more bed space,” Dunn said. “When those prisons were built, they were not built with rehabilitation in mind. They weren’t designed to be centers of rehabilitation, which is what we are seeking to do. With the infrastructure that we have right now, we simply cannot provide the rehabilitative resources and programming that is necessary to give people a chance to be rehabilitated.”

Dunn said that in addition to these new state of the art prisons the department is focused on hiring more staff that work in education, mental health services or rehabilitative services, as well as creating more programing for drug treatment, education and vocational training. 

All of this is aimed at making Alabama’s correctional facilities more about rehabilitation than simply holding inmates until their sentence is complete.

Criminal justice advocates remain concerned that all of the work to improve Alabama’s prison system will simply stop once those new prisons are built. 

Carla Crowder is the executive director for the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and a member of a new coalition, Alabamians for Fair Justice, which advocates for incarcerated people and recommends changes to Alabama’s criminal justice system. 

Crowder told ADN that she is disappointed with the governor’s plan in building the three new prisons because history says construction isn’t a sustainable solution. 

“Even with that investment with state prisons, and it was expensive and took a lot of state resources, 10 years later, things fell into disarray again,” Crowder said. “Which is why it is so disheartening because it’s just a short-term Band-Aid. The state has proven that it is not going to spend the money to humanely incarcerated all of the people that we want to incarcerate.”

Alabamians for Fair Justice believe that instead of looking at buildings, the state needs to focus on measures like misclassification of inmates, mismanagement of staff, investing in community treatment, mental health and addiction services across the state. 

“New Buildings are not going to fix those problems,” Crowder said. “There are systemic problems within the DOC and there has been a historical unwillingness for the state to properly pay for constitutional prisons for all the people it wants to lock up.”

Grantham, whose VOCAL group advocates on behalf of victims of crime, supports the new prisons being built but hopes that the development plans take into account potential future needs. 

“When they are building these prisons, I hope they are planning for the future and what might be needed 10 years down the road,” Grantham said. “With the prisons we’ve got now, no one was looking at that, they were just looking for a place to put these inmates in, and that’s just wrong.”

Ward told ADN that by looking at the history of the 1970s takeover, the state can learn some valuable lessons. 

“History is teaching us a lesson of what not to do,” Ward said. “They tried basically one approach, which was to build your way out. If you do that, we’ll be back here in another 20 years.”

Ward agrees that the new facilities are needed in order to provide the needed rehabilitative services but thinks other actions are also needed if the state is to truly make progress. 

“Building helps provide more services,” Ward said. “Building does very little to help with the overcrowding. You can’t build your way out of this.”

Alabama’s prison population has been declining over the past five years, but since August 2018 those numbers have been on the rise again.

Ward and others have speculated that a special session of the Alabama Legislature could be needed to enact changes from the governor’s study group. However, a spokesperson from the governor’s office said it is still too early to make a decision on having a special session for prison issues. They said the study group is expected to make recommendations to Ivey at the beginning of the 2020 regular session.

Earlier this year, Ivey called a special session within the regular session in order to focus on the gas tax and infrastructure proposal. The 2020 regular session begins Feb. 4. If lawmakers follow 2019’s precedent, a special session could begin as early as Feb. 5.  

You can reach Caroline by emailing her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarolineBeckADN.

Note: this story has been corrected to clarify that a spokesman for Board of Pardons and Paroles Director Charlie Graddick did speak with Alabama Daily News. While Graddick himself was unavailable for an interview, a spokesman told ADN that questions about the former attorney general’s role in prison issues were not relevant. 

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