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Crowded Jails Create Crisis For Prisons in Alabama


May 1, 2001 

The Southern Center for Human Rights

An inmate said the mattresses were provided a few days before the judge's visit.

DECATUR, Ala., April 26 A few weeks ago, a federal judge walked through the doors of the Morgan County Jail in this tidy riverfront city and observed firsthand what happens when 256 inmates are crammed into a jail built for 96.

He stepped around scores of inmates that the state prisons had refused to take. Most were sleeping on the floor next to toilets and on top of shower drains, because they had no beds. He saw the cells that no one cleaned and the linens that no one washed. He breathed the fetid air that the prisoners breathed and saw the small portions of unsanitary food that they ate.

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 century."

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 alternative programs.

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 1,000 prisoners.

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 approaches.

"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 issues.

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 jails.

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 breathe."

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 save money.

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 jails.

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 forever."

May 19, 2001 

Judge in Alabama Imposes Deadline on Prison System


ATLANTA, May 18 In a strongly worded ruling, an Alabama judge gave the state prison system exactly one month today to find room for nearly 2,000 inmates who are now crowded into county jails across the state.

The judge, William A. Shashy of Montgomery County Circuit Court, said the state corrections commissioner, Michael W. Haley, was in clear violation of both state law and a 1992 court order that requires state prisoners to be removed from county jails within 30 days of being sentenced.

As of May 4, there were 1,964 such prisoners being held in jails beyond the deadline, causing "significant overcrowding" across the state, Judge Shashy said in his ruling.

Alabama's prisons and jails have been in a state of crisis for several months. The state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and the prison system says it has no room for all the inmates, and county sheriffs say they cannot handle the backup of prisoners in their jails.

Last month, a federal judge compared the conditions in one stifling county jail to a slave ship. The judge, U. W. Clemon, ordered the state prisoners removed, and some counties have begun leaving their inmates at the doors of state prisons without permission.

Judge Shashy said that the dumping would have to stop and that the prisons would have to find some way of accommodating the inmates by June 18. He did not give any advice to the prison system on where to put the inmates, but he seemed to suggest that if the inmates were sleeping on floors and tables at county jails, they could do the same in state prisons.

"The court is aware that the introduction of such a large number of state inmates into the state system would cause a strain upon the department and its resources," Judge Shashy wrote. "The court specifically finds, however, that the department is in a far better position to handle these state inmates than the county jails."

He set a hearing for June 28 to determine whether Commissioner Haley should be held in contempt of court.

John Hamm, a spokesman for the corrections department, seemed to be caught off guard by the judge's order. Asked how the prisons would accommodate the new inmates, he replied: "That's a good question. The staff has to look at it, and we'll have to look at it for short-term solutions."

The state's underlying problem is that its tax rates, which are the lowest in the country, have not brought in enough revenue to keep up with its eagerness to imprison criminals. The recently passed state budget contained no extra money for building new prisons, and a $10.8 million increase for the department will not provide enough money to fill its vacancies for prison guards.

Judge Shashy was explicit in blaming elected officials for the crisis.

"The real solution must come from the executive and legislative branches of state government," he wrote. "They have the capacity to fund and provide for enough prisons and correctional staff to insure the safety and well-being of the citizens of this state."

Gov. Donald Siegelman, a Democrat, said he hoped the ruling would provide the impetus to bring all parties together to solve the problem, though he did not say how the state would accommodate the inmates or address the problem of overcrowding.


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