Swollen prisons create crisis
By Mike Sherman
The E Block of Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery is filled to capacity with inmates. Kilby receives 60 - 70 inmates a day.
-- Photos by Tamika Moore, Advertiser
Opinions differ on ways to correct Alabama's prison overcrowding crisis, but ordinary citizens and lawmakers
alike agree that something needs to be done.
The prison problems will be one of several issues addressed in Gov. Bob Riley's State of the State speech
Tuesday night, said David Azbell, Riley's press secretary.
But corrections, Azbell said, is only one of a myriad of problems facing the governor, who is focused on finding
inefficiencies in government and correcting them.
Robert Sigler, a professor at the University of Alabama, said the state's overcrowded prison system is "absolutely" in crisis.
"I think the Department of Corrections is barely holding itself together and doing that only because of really
good employees. There are not enough employees to hold all the inmates, they are facing court orders requiring them to take additional prisoners from county jails, and to reduce numbers now," said Sigler, who has 35 years of criminal justice experience on the university level as well in juvenile and adult corrections.
The state faces a federal court order to reduce overcrowding at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, and a separate state order to more rapidly move state prisoners from county jails.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson has called Tutwiler a "ticking time bomb."
The Alabama correctional system is bulging at the seams, housing about 26,000 inmates and supervising them with about 2,600 correctional officers. From 1992-2002, the system added 10,000 inmates, but only about 400 correctional officers.
"You should never have a 100-1 (inmate to correctional officer) ratio under any circumstances. We have 100-1,
but you must divide that by three shifts and take into account days off and holidays so you wind up with about
600 employees across the system. Divide that by 26,000, and the ratio is very poor. Fortunately, their staff is
well-trained and can hold the lid on things," Sigler said.
Gov. Riley has put Donal Campbell, former Tennessee prison chief, in charge of Alabama's system.
Campbell told lawmakers in recent budget hearings he wants $29 million more this year to cover increased
personnel costs and benefits, more community corrections facilities and unfunded court-ordered mandates.
For next year he wants an increase of $125.8 million more from the General Fund, with the biggest expenses for personnel costs, and $60 million to build a new prison for female inmates.
"The national average for prison operations per inmate is about $60-plus per day. The Southeast regional
average is about $40 and we in Alabama are spending $26-$27," Campbell said in a recent interview.
Kilby Correctional Facilty Corrections officer George Pugh counts his hand and leg cuffs and other equipment
in front on the hospital ward at the beginning of his shift. Kilby is 14 officers short and about 10 corrections
officers have been deployed.
"I am a proponent of cost reduction, cost savings, and reducing operational costs. That was one thing we were
able to do in Tennessee. There may be cost reductions in this department, but they should be diverted to areas
within the department that need additional funding," he said.
How much money Campbell will get remains undecided.
"Finance Director Drayton Nabers and his team is pulling the budgets together now. They understand the severity of corrections' situation, and they will do everything they can to get Donal Campbell the resources he needs to solve the problem. We would like to do everything he needs to comply with the court order," Azbell said.
"Conditions in prisons have a huge impact on our administrators, our wardens' ability to manage. Conditions dictate their successes," Campbell said.
"The more crowding you have, the less supervision you can do. When an officer looks into a cell block, the more beds and clothes there are, the less ability the officer has to see," he said.
Crowding also puts a strain on the quality of food that can be provided, diversions like books to engage inmates, and the ability to supervise exercise, according to Sigler.
"The real risk is riot and an inability to control it, or pull in enough men and women to control it," Sigler said.
Campbell has invited lawmakers to tour prisons to see the problem for themselves.
Freshman lawmaker David Grimes, R-Montgomery, recently visited Staton and Draper prisons in Elmore
County. He described seeing broken locks and staffing so short that prisoners seemed to remain confined by their own consent.
"There has to be new money for prisons, and a fix is almost as important as new money for education," Grimes
Sentencing reform could ease the prison crisis in the long term, Sigler said.
"The problem in Alabama, but not just Alabama, is we decided to get tough on crime. That meant getting tough
on minor offenders, who steal my lawnmower, but don't represent the threat to me like someone who assaults
me. We do the opposite of what we should and put the petty thieves in prison," Sigler said