A Crisis of Overcrowding In Alabama's County Jails

Tensions High as Court Deadline for Moving State Inmates Nears

By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2001; Page A03

LAFAYETTE, Ala. -- At the overcrowded Chambers County Jail -- and at many other county jails in Alabama these days -- the cellblock floors are covered with mattresses laid out for unwelcome state prisoners whom no one else has room for.

As conditions worsened, three "mini-riots" erupted recently, jail officials said. Heavy trash cans had to be removed after inmates began throwing them at one another in frustration.

Angry inmates have broken guard booth windows in one cellblock three times, and several harried officers, who make a starting salary of about $17,000 a year, have quit. Fights have broken out over minor slights, such as a guard's delay in delivering an aspirin to an inmate.

"There's an awful lot of stress around here," said Officer Jason Carson, 21, shaking his head. "It's rough."

The long-troubled Alabama state prison system is in crisis once again, and the county jails, meant primarily to house people not yet convicted of crimes, are suffering as a result.

The clock is ticking toward a June 18 court-ordered deadline that requires the state to remove 2,000 post-conviction inmates who should have been transferred from jails to state prisons long ago. But state officialsappear to have few immediate solutions.

Alabama prisons are packed with nearly 25,000 inmates, and in this chronically poor state, which already has slashed its education budget, there are no plans to spend the millions of dollars it would require to build new facilities.

"It's awful. We're in big trouble," said state Sen. Jack Biddle III (R), who heads the legislature's Joint Prison Oversight Committee. "All these problems take money, and we're broke."

The situation had reached the point at the Morgan County Jail in Decatur that a federal judge, touring the facility in March, compared it to "a slave ship." Two county sheriffs last month became so fed up with housing state prisoners -- for the inadequate state reimbursement of $1.75 per meal -- that they delivered 200 unannounced to nearby state prisons. A quick court order prevented any more deliveries.

In county after county, sheriffs and jail administrators complain of strained budgets, stressed staffs and volatile inmates. Guard turnover, always a problem, has reached a high.

With the deadline and the possibility of heavy daily fines looming if the state prisoners are not transferred, Alabama corrections officials say only that they areseeking an answer. "All I can say is, we are working to comply with the order," said corrections spokesman John Hamm, who referred all questions to the governor's office.

Carrie Kurlander, press secretary for Gov. Don Siegelman (D), said she does not know how "realistic" the June 18 deadline is. "We're looking at decades of neglect, and these are things not alleviated overnight," she said. Kurlander said the governor has asked for recommendations that will be made public before the deadline. "The governor's directive to this group is 'Take nothing off the table,' " she said. "He is interested in exploring anything and everything." 

The Alabama prison crisis has been building since the 1970s, a combination of the eagerness to incarcerate criminals, often despite the nonviolent nature of their crimes, and the reluctance to spend money on a population that has little public support.Alabamians pay the lowest state and local taxes per capita in the United States, and few are suggesting a tax increase to alleviate prison overcrowding.

The state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation -- 571 per 100,000 people, exceeded by only four other states and the District of Columbia -- and a history of court interventions and emergency fixes for its prison problems.

Over the past three decades, as legislators have stiffened criminal penalties and the prison population has swelled, courts have stepped in several times. The state, under fire, would temporarily relieve the situation by releasing prisoners or adding prison beds. But with time, the problems would resurface.

The latest crisis, which many agree is the most serious, has developed steadily over the past couple of years, as the state again fell behind in transferring convicted inmates to state prisons to begin serving their sentences.

But it was a visit by U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon to the Morgan County Jail in March that illuminated the severity of the problems. At the jail in Decatur, 80 miles north of Birmingham, Clemon, the chief federal judge for northern Alabama, found conditions "uncivilized and hazardous," according to his April ruling. He noted that inmates were forced to sleep on the floor within two feet of toilets; that cells were dirty, unkempt and poorly ventilated; that food was inadequate and unsanitary; and that inmates' medical needs went largely unattended.

"To say that the Morgan County Jail is overcrowded is an understatement," Clemon wrote. "The sardine-can appearance of its cell units more nearly resembles the holding units of slave ships during . . . the eighteenth century than anything in the twenty-first century."

Clemon also noted that the state pays the county jails nothing beyond the $1.75-per-inmate meal, while it costs the state $26 a day to house a state inmate. "The Department of Corrections thus has a substantial financial incentive to leave its state prisoners on the barren concrete floors of the Morgan County Jail," Clemon wrote.

At the time, the jail, which was built to hold about 150 inmates, housed nearly 300. Clemon ordered 104 inmates moved to state facilities immediately.

Last month, state Circuit Judge William Shashy entered the fray, setting up the June 18 deadline, which gave the state 30 days to accept the 2,000 state inmates waiting in county jails.

"Alabama may be pushing the limits more than any other state," said Tamara Serwer, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which monitors prison conditions in Alabama and Georgia and filed the class action on behalf of Morgan County prisoners that prompted Clemon's visit to the jail. "You can't hold people in facilities that fall so far below what the Constitution and basic common decency require."

Serwer said the solution may not be to build new prisons, but to make better use of existing ones and devise "more creative" ways to handle nonviolent offenders "so people don't spend 15 years in prison not serving anybody's interest."

About 70 to 80 percent of the criminal offenders in Alabama have alcohol problems or drug use as the basis of their crimes, said Allen Tapley, executive director of the Sentencing Institute, a nonprofit research group in Montgomery that has prepared a list of recommendations for the governor. Tapley said the group has found previously unused sources of federal funding that could be applied toward new treatment programs.

But state Sen. Biddle said the short-term solution is obvious. "It's a terrible thing to say, but we're going to have to release some people, nonviolent people," he said.

For Chambers County Jail Administrator Bill Landrum, some form of relief to the overcrowding can't come soon enough. Here, in this small town about 60 miles east of Montgomery, Landrum is housing 180 to 200 inmates in his 136-bed facility.

"We've got 62 ready to go to state prison," he said last week. "It's depressing. . . . Nobody's getting moved."

The six officers who work each shift are stretched to the limit, he said, and often the ratio of inmates to guards in the outdoor exercise yard is a risky 28 to 1. His guard overtime budget of $40,000 is already depleted. Inmates' tempers are short and fights break out constantly.

Landrum said he has heard that the state is considering sending some prisoners to other states, such as Louisiana, at a price of $25 or more a day per prisoner. "If they're going to pay Louisiana, why not pay us?" he asked.

In Houston County, Sheriff Lamar Glover, one of the two sheriffs who made the impromptu inmate deliveries to state facilities last month, figures that whatever happens, his prisoners will be transferred last. State corrections officials will not even return his telephone calls, he said. In the meantime, he has seven men sleeping in cells intended for two.

"It's been a continuous problem ever since I've been sheriff," said Glover, who has held the post for seven years. "This time, I don't see any movement. I'm sure if they don't get them out by the 18th, we'll be back in court again trying to make them get them out. It's a truly awful situation."