Extra: Prisons In Peril
This year alone we’ve seen a big increase in violence across the Alabama prison system.
Video was taken by inmates in March and posted to YouTube from inside Holman Prison in Atmore.
A correctional officer and the warden were both stabbed before roughly 100 inmates took over a section of the facility.
Later in the year another officer, Kenneth Bettis, was stabbed at Holman and died two weeks later of his injuries.
Closer to home, an inmate was stabbed at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore county in October.
“You walk into a area, gate shuts behind you, and you’re in there with every kind of individual there is,” said William Scott.
Scott is a former correctional officer who worked across the system for over a decade, including at Holman.
That was his very first assignment on the job.
He quit the job about 10 years ago because he saw the situation getting out of hand.
He’s not surprised by the violence this year.
“I think when society puts them in prison they get out of sight out of mind, and they forget how dangerous they really were. The officer on a day to day basis has to deal with that individual. Usually its on a one on one basis, or one on ten or however many inmates. So it’s very dangerous,” said Scott.
“If you put that many people in that small of a space, it’s going to happen,” said State Senator Cam Ward.
Sen. Ward has pushed prison reforms in the legislature for the last two years.
Those changes have helped decrease overcrowding.
It’s down to about 173% capacity this year as opposed to 194% in 2008, but the problems still exist.
Things are so bad that the United States Justice Department has opened an investigation into conditions in Alabama men’s prisons.
The DOJ is worried inmates aren’t safe and adequately cared for.
While that sounds dangerous for inmates, it could be dangerous for you at home too.
“If we lose that investigation in court in a court case, the federal courts have the ability to mandate we do a mass release of inmates. That would be the worse possible scenario for public safety in Alabama. I think everyone agrees allowing thousands of inmates to go free, mainly because we haven’t dealt with the conditions of the system would be terrible for Alabama,” said Ward.
The danger is also very real for the men and women who work in the prisons every day.
A recent study of our facilities shows that not only are the correctional officers outnumbered, there also understaffed.
Some facilities are only working with a little over half their full staff.
“Just try to remember those officers have families. They want to go home to their family just like any other job you go to,” said Scott.
The governor unveiled a plan this year to build new prisons to replace aging facilities like Holman.
Many prisons across the state are so old they don’t even have any cameras, and lawmakers say they would be too costly to install.
The governor’s plan looked very different after lawmakers got through with it, but it still didn’t pass.
“Just was seconds away from passing the house at the end of the session was very fair. It was more of a slow draw up to any construction to make sure we’re spending the tax payer dollars right and there’s more oversight to how the money was being spent. I think that’s probably going to be a good starting spot for us when we come back in,” said Ward.
Lawmakers are coming back in February. That’s where any real solutions to this problem have to start, if the state is going to fix things itself.
Some states like California are still working with federal mandates after failing to correct their own overcrowding problems.
In addition to the Department of Justice investigation, there are several court cases that could lead to the same thing in Alabama.