#039;Tent City#039; no answer

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Alabama prisons are in crisis. There's not enough space. Not enough guards. Not enough money. Not enough time.

Despite an expensive court case aimed at making the state live up to its obligation to relieve crowded county jails of state prisoners, the state is nowhere close to a remedy.

In fact, the state has been hit with $2.16 million in fines and missed a Sunday deadline to remove more than 1,200 prisoners from jail, which would have sliced $500,000 from the fine.

The bottom line: Something needs to happen, and soon.

It's no surprise then that desperate prison officials are considering a desperate, makeshift solution housing inmates in tents. As a last resort, a tent city could be set up at the prison system's central intake unit at Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, according to Ted Hosp, legal adviser to Gov. Don Siegelman.

A tent city may keep Prison Commissioner Mike Haley out of jail; Montgomery Circuit Judge William Shashy has threatened to jail Haley for contempt of court if the state does not remove the prisoners within 90 days of his June 14 order. But it's no long-term solution.

The state simply must either build more prison space or let out large numbers of prisoners. Since there's no money for a massive prison-building program, expect a lot of early releases. That's not necessarily a bad thing if done right.

Too much of the state's resources is spent incarcerating nonviolent criminals, and the state in the past has made too little use of nonprison alternatives such as treatment programs and work release.

Indeed, the linchpin of Siegelman's plan to relieve prison crowding is to direct more convicted, nonviolent offenders into such alternatives, and to step up the parole process.

But finding money for even those programs in a lean state budget has been a problem. As has determining who qualify as "nonviolent" criminals for early release.

Hosp says there's no definition of violent in state law, and the state Sentencing Commission is holding off making a recommendation on prison Commissioner Haley's proposed procedure for choosing who is eligible until it's told what constitutes a nonviolent offense.

All of this while the clock ticks and court fines mount.

It's time more people in state government namely the Legislature begin treating prison overcrowding as the very real threat to public safety that it is. In just the past decade, theprison population has grown by 10,000 to more than 27,000. A system designed for 14,000 inmates is crammed with nearly twice that number a major prison riot or breakout waiting to happen.

Short-term actions such as a tent city have to be considered; they have been employed in other states. But only in the short term.

Long term, legislators must develop the stomach to find the money to adequately fund prisons. Not just to be tough on crime. But to protect Alabamians.

Birmingham News

July 16, 2002