Last week the judge, U. W.
Clemon, wrote a blistering ruling ordering the state prisoners removed
by mid-May and the jail cleaned. Judge Clemon's strong language has
shaken up one of the country's most overburdened corrections systems.
"To say the Morgan County Jail is overcrowded is an
understatement," he wrote. "The sardine-can appearance of its
cell units more nearly resemble the holding units of slave ships during
the Middle Passage of the 18th century than anything in the 21st
More than 11 percent of the state's 27,000 prisoners are in county
jails. Though it costs Alabama $26 a day to keep an inmate in a state
prison, the state pays counties only $1.75 per meal to house its
prisoners, the judge noted. Holding inmates in county jails saves the
state more than $70,000 a day.
The Department of Corrections "thus has a substantial financial
incentive to leave its state prisoners on the barren concrete floors of
the Morgan County Jail," Judge Clemon wrote.
His ruling was the latest in a series of federal court orders going
back 30 years that have tried to improve conditions in the prisons and
jails of Alabama, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in
the country, 571 per 100,000 people. . The pattern has become familiar:
a court orders prisoners freed; the state grudgingly builds more prison
beds; the problem recedes until the inmate population builds again and a
new court has to step in.
But this time, lawmakers and prison experts say, the problem may have
reached its most serious level. Alabama's rate of incarceration has
risen unabated as the Legislature has increased drug penalties and
reduced parole. The number of state prisoners — most of them
nonviolent drug offenders — has grown sevenfold since 1970, and the
prison population has been rising by 130 prisoners a month.
Only four states — Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi —
and the District of Columbia have higher rates of incarceration, but
though county jails in other states also have been crowded, few of the
states have had a problem as widespread or as long-running as Alabama's.
The low-tax state has always been among the nation's poorest, and a
decline in revenue has made it hard to find money for new prisons or
Judges are getting angry, and even county sheriffs are threatening
legal action if their jail populations are not reduced. In Birmingham on
Wednesday, Sheriff Jim Woodward of Jefferson County said he would try to
have the state corrections commissioner, Michael W. Haley, cited for
contempt for leaving state prisoners in his jail.
In December, four judges in Houston County threatened to order 118
state prisoners taken from the jail and chained to the fence of the
state prison if the state did not accept them. When other judges around
Alabama started praising the idea, the state quickly found room for
But as unventilated county jails continue to fill up, some people in
corrections say they fear violence or other hazards as the summer's heat
"It's becoming a dangerous situation," said Allen L. Tapley,
executive director of the Sentencing Institute, a private research group
in Montgomery that is a paid consultant to state government on justice
Tamara Serwer, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights, an
Atlanta legal center that took the Morgan County case to Judge Clemon,
said the group would continue its work in other counties with crowded
Inmates are supposed to be transferred from a jail to a state prison
within 30 days of being sentenced, but often that transfer never
happens. Ms. Serwer said many prisoners were kept for months in the
small jails, which were not built for long- term incarceration.
Morgan County's 25-year-old jail was all but condemned in September
by the state fire marshal, who found in an inspection that the fire
alarm and smoke detectors were not working, that there was no sprinkler
system and that the building was so crowded that inmates and guards were
in danger. There have been several small fires in the jail in the last
year, the marshal noted.
Sheriff Stephen L. Crabbe, who is responsible for the jail, refused
to discuss the issue or let a reporter inside, citing the advice of his
lawyer. But several inmates working outside the jail this week said the
reports did not go far enough in describing conditions inside.
"It's a hellhole in there," said one inmate, who would not
give his name. "You can't move, and you don't want to
Inmates said the mattresses that the judge saw were provided a few
days before his tour. Before that, many inmates had to sleep on
concrete, they said.
Judge Clemon spent several pages detailing the violations of the
constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment that he
found, including inattention to medical needs. Finally, he accused the
State Department of Corrections of being "deliberately
indifferent" to conditions in the jail because it was so eager to
In his opinion, the judge said the state prison system had unused
beds, despite the department's insistence that it was full. The most
recent statistics issued by the department showed that its prisons were
operating at 97.9 percent of capacity in February, meaning 412 beds were
empty. The judge also noted that no inmates in state prisons slept on
the floor, and he suggested that they would be better off sleeping on
floors in prisons — or in trailers or tents in prisons — than in
Commissioner Haley would not agree to be interviewed, but his
spokesman, Jack Hamm, said the prison system simply could not take as
many inmates as the judge suggested.
"It's not just a matter of putting beds in," Mr. Hamm said.
"People need to understand that you have to feed them; you have to
launder their clothes and linens; and you have to have the wastewater
facilities to handle their showers and needs. The old facilities we have
just don't have the physical plants to handle everyone."
The department also has a serious shortage of corrections officers,
because of the job's low pay and unattractive image, Mr. Hamm said. (The
system has one officer for every 12 inmates, compared with a national
average of one for four inmates, and the shortage has been blamed for
the escape of six prisoners from a maximum-security prison in January.)
Although the commissioner has repeatedly asked the Legislature for money
for new prisons, Mr. Hamm said, none has been forthcoming. This year's
budget does include an increase for more corrections officers.
Legislators said they wanted to build more prisons but lacked the
money. In February, Gov. Donald Siegelman, a Democrat, cut the state
education budget 6.2 percent, citing the economic downturn.
It is hard politically to vote for prisons when schools are
crumbling. Education advocates have turned to the courts to force
spending for schools, just as prisoner advocates have done to force
spending for prisons.
"Yes, we are really in trouble in Alabama," said Senator
Jack Biddle III, a Republican who is chairman of the Legislature's Joint
Prison Oversight Committee. "Everyone wants all the prisoners
locked up forever, but they don't want to spend the money for it or have
the prisons in their neighborhood. We're just doing the best we can
without any money."
Alabama has the country's lowest per capita state and local tax
burden, and it relies heavily on the volatile sales tax. Church groups
have repeatedly asked the state to consider changing tax laws to bring
in more revenue. In February the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama said the
state's property tax rates were "unconscionably low."
Governor Siegelman has often said he would not consider a tax
increase, but legislators said there had been informal talks recently
about increasing property taxes. One legislator said privately that if
judges started releasing prisoners to ease crowding, the public could
awaken to the situation.
The state has not used the alternative sentencing methods that many
other states use to reduce prison populations. Mr. Tapley of the
Sentencing Institute, noting that three- fourths of Alabama's prisoners
had been convicted of nonviolent offenses like burglary, said the state
needed to build diversion centers and halfway houses like the ones other
states had used successfully. Those programs would ultimately cost much
less than building prisons, he said.
"This is a solvable problem, once people decide to attack
it," Mr. Tapley said. "We can't be the scourge of the nation