Saturday, May 4, 2024

Alabama can’t build its way out of the prison crisis

  There’s a concept in transportation called induced demand.

  Say you have a four-lane highway running through a city. It’s jammed with vehicles.

  So officials widen the road to six lanes, to ease congestion and driver stress.

  Does that relieve traffic?

  Yes. But only for a time.

  Within a few days or weeks, the roads will be crowded again.

  You can find examples of this going back to at least 1936. When you make a road bigger or build a new one, you incentivize (or induce) people to use the paths laid before them. They just drive more.

  I don’t know how many of our state legislators have heard of this concept, but we can see this in our criminal justice system.

  Alabama’s prisons have been strained for decades. In August 2007, our state prisons were over 194% capacity. There were almost two people for every designed bed space.

  That’s dropped off in the last 15 years. But barely.

  In February, Alabama’s correctional facilities operated at nearly 169% of capacity. All that crowding is contributing to the chaos within our prisons.

  Alabama Appleseed estimates that over 300 people died in the correctional system in 2023. The U.S. Department of Justice has documented the physical and sexual violence in the state’s prisons in brutal detail.

  And there are far fewer corrections staff to deal with the chaos. At the height of the overcrowding crisis in 2007, there were about 2,600 correctional staff in the prisons. At the end of 2023, the numbers had fallen to about 1,800.

  This is a massive crisis. We need our government to pay attention to it.

  But most lawmakers, to the degree they care at all, think we can build our way out of it.

  This is how we’ve ended up spending over $1 billion on a new prison going up in Elmore County. (Alabama Daily News went to the site recently.) Lawmakers thought that money would cover the cost of two new men’s prisons. But when Gov. Kay Ivey and the Department of Corrections told them it would just pay for one, they shrugged.

  Officials are betting that the new 4,000-bed facility will need fewer staffers than the older prisons; will be more secure, and will contain more space for the training and rehabilitation programs that can keep people out of prison. All of that, the reasoning goes, will help alleviate the crisis.

  I’m skeptical.

Adding capacity

  I earnestly hope it will take fewer people to run this prison. The long-term trends for Corrections employment aren’t good. Legislators have tried to improve pay and wages to entice people to work in the prisons, with only middling success.

  And no one who’s serious about improving corrections outcomes can object to offering more training and rehabilitation services to incarcerated people.

  I’ll even give lawmakers the benefit of the doubt and say they’ll really try to fund those programs. Leaning into the “correction” part of the service will improve post-release outcomes and save the state money on future incarceration.

  The problem is that the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles isn’t serious about improving corrections outcomes.

  The parole rate last year fell to just 7% last summer. That may satisfy the board chair, Leigh Gwathney, a former prosecutor. But it’s rapidly undermining what rehabilitation programming Corrections offers. They appeal to incarcerated people by holding out the prospect of reducing sentences. If the state parole board sullenly looks at the completion of programs and decides that they don’t matter, fewer inmates will take advantage of them.

  There’s been no serious discussion of diversion programs this year. Few lawmakers show interest in building on a 2015 sentencing reform package, the one legislative effort in 40 years that showed real success in cutting overcrowding. Even modest efforts at reviewing life sentences get shot down or slow-walked.

  It’s all about building.

  And we know that won’t work.

  Eight of the 14 major correctional facilities currently in operation in Alabama opened between 1981 and 1990. This was part of a building boom that followed a federal court taking over the prisons in 1976 after years of neglect and abuse.

  In May 1981, there were about 6,000 inmates in Alabama custody. 1,400 of them were in city and county jails.

  Lawmakers took some critical steps to improve training and services in the prisons. But the new construction only made the problem worse. By the time Easterling Correctional Facility opened in 1990, our prisons held 15,000 people. We went up to 25,000 before settling to our current level of about 20,000.

  It wasn’t just new prisons, obviously. The state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, mandating longer sentences for multiple felony offenders, helped drive those numbers up.

  But new prisons are to prosecutors what new roads are to drivers: a finite asset to be pushed as far as it can go.

  If lawmakers are serious about solving prison overcrowding, they have to focus on safely getting people out of prison and keeping them out.

  That new correctional facility in Elmore County could be the most efficient prison ever built. But it’s still a prison. It confines people. We can’t handle the confined population we already have.

  And just like a city that tries to reduce traffic by constructing more roads, Alabama is about to learn – once again – that trying to build your way out of a problem just builds up the problem.


  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and has worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector. 

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