Ripe for a riot

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Picture this:

A prison built to hold 870 inmates is jam-packed with 2,100.

Overworked, underpaid prison guards sometimes find themselves outnumbered by inmates 400-to-1.

A court order says more than 1,200 state prisoners waiting in crowded county jails around the state must be moved to even more crowded prisons by July 14, even though there’s no place for them. A broke state system also is hit with a $2.16 million fine, and its commissioner could be jailed if the prisoners aren’t moved.

With temperatures heating up this summer, so too are the tensions in prisons, as inmates become more squeezed and irritable and guards more stressed and stretched even thinner.

It is a disaster waiting to happen, say prison wardens and correctional officers worried that conditions are ripe for a prison riot. Yet it’s a potential disaster the state has known about for years but has done too little to avert.

For example, for better than a decade the prison population has grown by about 1,000 inmates annually enough to fill a new prison each year. But during that period, the state built just one new prison. The result is a prison system designed for 14,000 inmates now housing 27,000.

Meanwhile, the number of correctional officers hasn’t come close to keeping up. Prisons have about the same number of officers they did 10 years and more than 10,000 prisoners ago. They would have to double their 2,600 officers just to reach the national average.

And what has the state done to head off this catastrophe?

After years of foot-dragging and at the point of a contempt-of-court citation, Gov. Don Siegelman announced a prison reform plan last year to somewhat ease the crowding problem. The plan, in addition to hiring a few more officers and adding space for more prisoners, tries to direct more convicts especially nonviolent offenders into nonprison alternatives such as treatment programs, community work and work release.

As we noted last year, it’s a common-sense approach to prison crowding. Too much of the state resources are spent incarcerating nonviolent criminals when there are workable alternatives as well as opportunities for restitution.

But the governor’s plan is too little, too late. The reforms haven’t stemmed the tide of a rising prison population. The backlog of state prisoners in county jails beyond the 30-day deadline imposed by the court fell to less than 400 in September, but has now grown to more than 1,200. It’s the threat these prisoners will be dumped into their laps with nowhere to put them that prompted wardens and correctional officers to rally Tuesday on the State House steps.

They’re right, and the public should not discount their warning of possible riots and escapes that threaten the public’s safety. With so many prisons so overcrowded and understaffed, it’s just a matter of time before disaster hits.

Alabama has done prisons on the cheap for too long. We house inmates at a bargain-basement price of about $9,000 per inmate per year, less than half the national average. But the dangerous conditions of our prisons are no bargain for the citizens of this state.

The Birmingham News

July 5, 2002