Opinion: Fixing prisons problem costly

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 21, 2014

Most native Alabamians are accustomed to being on unflattering lists, ranking near the bottom in education, near the top in obesity rates, and unfavorably in many other measures. So it should come as no surprise that our state prison system is considered among the worst because of overcrowding.

While prison crowding has long been a problem, there is now a threat that the federal government could take over our system, which is almost at double its capacity.

It is inexcusable that we would house people – even criminals – in facilities that practically stack people on top of each other. We have 25,000 people in facilities designed for half that many.

Even worse, the Department of Justice determined what has long been rumored is true – there is widespread and systemic sexual abuse in Tutwiler, Alabama’s only women’s prison. Coupled with overcrowding, that’s an unconstitutional environment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has charged that the state is failing to provide “a humane level of medical and psychiatric care to inmates.”

We are not advocating a soft, easy road for prisoners. However, we are charged by our U.S. Constitution – which most of us like to cite when we feel our own rights are violated – with treating all humans with dignity.

Correcting the problems of Alabama’s Department of Corrections will be expensive, and some of the solutions might be distasteful to some of us. The solutions may lie in alternative sentencing, in community-based correctional programs, or in the expensive construction of new prisons.

To date, the current Alabama legislature has not been willing to pass any new taxes, not even on carcinogens like cigarettes.

If we aren’t willing to pay for new prisons, we must make drastic changes to our laws and seek alternative sentences that don’t involve incarceration.

It is a tough choice, to be sure. The third choice – the one our state has chosen so far – is to ignore the problem. As a state that has historically fought the control of federal government, it is ironic that we would do nothing and depend upon the feds to fix our problem, just as we did in the 1960s.

Gov. Bentley took the first step when he acknowledged the problem and appointed a task force to offer solutions. Whatever those solutions may be, it is far better that Alabama should do the responsible thing and fix Alabama’s prison problem.