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Sent: Tuesday, February 21, 2006 10:15 AM
Subject: Is lack of experience a con for prison chief?
Is lack of experience a con for prison chief?
By Samira Jafari
The Associated Press
Richard Allen doesn't have the behind-the-barbed-wire experience that has traditionally defined Alabama's prison commissioners -- but some say that's probably a good thing.
Prison chiefs have long been targets of criticism and controversy, at times of their own doing. And past decades at the state Department of Corrections, including long, fitful court cases over inmate treatment and overcrowding, proves that career experience in lockups doesn't guarantee solutions for the complex problems at the aging prisons.
"I think a fresh outlook may actually be useful," said Carl Clements, a University of Alabama professor of psychology who has studied prison overcrowding and reform. "Experience can be a bad teacher as much as a good teacher."
Allen, 64, a former deputy attorney general now working at a Montgomery law firm, was tapped by Gov. Bob Riley to replace Donal Campbell, who resigned Feb. 10, after overseeing the prison system for three years. Allen's position is effective March 1.
Alabama Sheriffs Association executive director Bobby Timmons, who has battled prison commissioners to stop overcrowding jails with state inmates, said Allen's experience as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army, a prosecutor under three attorneys general and an aide to top political figures should help him tackle prison issues -- especially the litigation over jail backlogs.
"I would personally think you would have to have lots of background experience or surround yourself with people who have experience and be able to delegate authority," Timmons said. "I think Richard can do that. ... He's got his legal intelligence to deal with it."
While the future of the prison system is uncertain -- a possible contempt citation looms over Allen in the jail backlog case -- its past is riddled with episodes that drew Alabama largely negative publicity.
Ron Jones, who filled the position between 1995 and 1996 when Gov. Fob James was in office, made worldwide headlines for bringing back the chain gang, slapping leg irons on inmates and forcing them to pick up litter along heavily traveled roads. He also put the shackled inmates to work smashing rocks into gravel, cut back on amenities like coffee and stamps, tried curbing public masturbation by putting offenders in bright pink uniforms, ended a low-cost treatment plan for sex offenders and proposed putting inmates in tents to deal with overcrowding.
A former warden who favored isolation over rehabilitation, Jones ultimately ended his 14-month term when he proposed putting women inmates in leg irons.
Then came Joe S. Hopper, who was prison commissioner during James' first term and worked for private prison security companies before replacing Jones in April 1996. Hopper, who initially favored chain gangs, stopped forcing inmates to break rocks and no longer chained them together in work crews. But federal courts ruled that his practice of shackling recalcitrant inmates to "hitching posts" was unconstitutionally cruel and should be ended.
Alabama since has stopped using the practice as punishment.
Mike Haley, a former warden in the Louisiana prison system, was appointed by Gov. Don Siegelman after he worked for eight years as director of jail services for the Alabama Sheriffs Association. Despite his experience, the last two years of Haley's tenure were marked by a struggle to accommodate and contain rapid inmate population growth -- from 23,300 in 1999 to 28,316 in 2003.
Campbell inherited those problems when he was appointed in January 2003 by Riley after serving as prisons chief in Tennessee. His term was plagued by federal lawsuits over living conditions and health care at the prisons, and he noticeably butted heads with lawmakers and the Riley administration over corrections funding.
His most recent budget request was for a half billion dollars, mainly to build additional prisons -- and it was shot down by lawmakers who urged him to work with other state agencies and seek less expensive solutions.
He also was under the threat of a contempt citation due to the hundreds of state inmates backlogged in county jails.
Riley appointed Allen less than a week after Campbell resigned. It's unclear whether Campbell was asked to step down.
The governor also named Vernon Barnett, his deputy legal adviser, as the chief deputy commissioner of prisons -- a new post.
Like Allen, Barnett has no behind-the-walls experience, but previously served as deputy solicitor general and as an assistant attorney general. He also served as lead adviser to the governor's task force on prison overcrowding, which put together a series of recommendations last fall to improve sentencing and prison conditions.
Jeff Emerson, Riley's communications director, said "several candidates" were considered for the commissioner's post and that "having experience in prisons wasn't a requirement."
When he was appointed on Wednesday, Allen called his new post "the best job in state government" and said the opportunity is "too delicious to pass up." Allen stressed his experience in organizing troops, sorting complex legal issues and working with lawmakers.
What the prison system needs most is adequate funding from the Legislature -- a commissioner who can connect with legislators is key to making that happen, said Lucia Penland, director of the Alabama Prison Project, an inmate advocacy group.
Whether Allen's lack of prison experience will be to his advantage remains to be seen, but changes to the prisons also depend on his "attitude about crime," Penland said.
"If they come in with a lock'em up attitude, we're not going to get far," she said. "We need to do different things, work more on rehabilitation programs."
Clements agreed, saying, "We keep repeating the same mistakes, I think. ... Somebody needs to take a step back and take a big picture view and that might get something done."