Embattled prisons get two overseers

Thursday, February 16, 2006
News staff writer

Gov. Bob Riley on Wednesday tapped a pair of Montgomery lawyers with no prison experience to lead the Department of Corrections, a sign that change is afoot for Alabama's embattled prison system.

Richard F. Allen, who was chief deputy attorney general under three Alabama attorneys general, took over immediately as corrections commissioner, spending the afternoon in a brainstorming session with departing prisons chief Donal Campbell.

Vernon Barnett, Riley's deputy legal adviser and his point person on prison and sentencing reform, will hold a newly created position of chief deputy commissioner of corrections.

Allen replaces Campbell, a career corrections veteran from Tennessee who resigned Friday after butting heads with the Riley administration over the direction of DOC. Campbell repeatedly called for new prisons, while Riley increasingly has pushed for prison alternatives.

"This is a big agency with a big budget and big problems, and what more would a person want to test themselves?" Allen, 64, of Prattville, said in an interview. "This is a challenge that was too delicious to pass up."

Allen, most recently with the Montgomery law firm of Capell and Howard, takes over a system plagued by lawsuits, crowding, medical mismanagement and escalating costs.

DOC locks up more than 27,000 people in space built for 13,000. Its budget has grown by 60 percent in five years with no new prisons built.

Why would a successful lawyer want to take on such a bureaucratic behemoth? "What do the mountain climbers say when you ask `why did you climb that mountain?'" Allen asked. "They say, `Because it's there.'"

Riley has given him five priorities and 30 days to present a plan to fix the department. He listed the priorities as public safety, safety of officers and staff, providing humane and constitutional conditions in prisons, providing education and job training, and ensuring that prisoners' spiritual needs are met.

Revolving doors:

The restructuring at the top smoothes the way for the prison system to adopt the reforms proposed by Riley's Task Force on Prison Crowding. The 2005 task force report scolded the state for its sluggish approach to community corrections and sloppy prison drug treatment.

Overall, it emphasized stopping the revolving prison door by creating or expanding intensive rehabilitation opportunities and alternatives to locking up low-level offenders.

"The governor is very, very determined that the reforms be made and he's sending us in to make sure they get done," Barnett said Wednesday.

"A huge percentage of our prison population comes from recidivists," Barnett said. "Right now, instead of being rehabilitated (in prison), they're becoming more accomplished criminals, and we intend to stop that."

He specifically mentioned the University of Alabama at Birmingham's TASC, which stands for Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities. He called it "an incredible program that hasn't been utilized by the department."

TASC designs individual treatment plans involving electronic monitoring, case management and drug testing. Its goal is to keep addicts out of prison.

Barnett acknowledged these priorities could make Riley appear soft on crime.

However, Riley's plans follow those of several Republican governors, including those in Kansas, Utah and Nebraska, according to a national expert on prison and sentencing reform.

Money and results:

"What the governor is doing is very much consistent with what we've seen other Republican state leaders across the country do, which is basically to recognize increasing the number of prison beds does not necessarily increase public safety," said Dan Wilhelm, director of State Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York think tank that advised the task force.

With Republicans able to link prison reforms and fiscal accountability, alternatives to the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approaches become more palatable. "You're spending enormous sums of money and your outcomes are not especially impressive," Wilhelm said, referring not just to Alabama.

Allen also brings military experience to the job. He served seven years in the Army, retiring as a major to attend law school. In 1993, he retired as a brigadier general from the Army Reserve.

Wednesday, he described his immediate plans for corrections as an "attack on several fronts."

Task force plans for parole transition centers and alternative housing for parolees who violate conditions of parole should come online soon.

"We're here and we're on the job," he said.

E-mail: ccrowder@bhamnews.com

 Capell & Howard P.C. Attorneys At Law   This tells mostly about his military accomplishments.........so, we will have to see where he stands.

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