Sweet Home Politics

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017   |   Español

Welcome to Shawshank: Prison Reform in Alabama

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We can’t talk about prison reform without a quote from the iconic Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. If you’ve ever watched TNT on any given weekend, you’ve seen it. So here’s a fitting quote from Morgan Freeman’s character, Red:

“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

Alabama’s prison system has been the subject of investigation and debate the past several months, starting with Julia Tutwiler prison for women in Wetumpka. Recently, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, Kim Thomas, stated Alabama spends $43 per day per inmate to house prisoners. This is well below the national average of $70 per day. With only $43 per inmate per day to work with, Thomas said that leaves no room to fund rehabilitation programs to help prisoners assimilate into society as law-abiding citizens after their release.

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice released investigation results which found Tutwiler prison’s conditions were in violation of the Constitution and cited “a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuses and harassment.” Not to mention Tutwiler prison currently houses almost 300 more inmates than it was designed to hold. This is deplorable in the fullest sense of the word.

Without opportunities for rehabilitation prisoners go back into society at a huge disadvantage and much more likely to end up back in prison. If they have no skills and haven’t been counseled on how to get their life back together after prison and obey the law, they will – just like Red on Shawshank said – eventually depend on the walls of prison because it’s all they know. It’s not that all these ex-cons want to keep breaking the law — though I’m sure some do — but for the most part they need someone to show them they care and that there’s a better way to live.

Ministers and volunteers can only do so much. We need more education, rehabilitation, and better conditions for our state inmates. I’m not suggesting we give inmates a pillowtop mattress, plush bath robes, and concierge service. I’m talking about basic human dignity and basic human living conditions, which we are not currently meeting.

Prison reform is not a “sexy” issue for politicians to work on. It’s not a big vote-winner, either, and it requires upsetting some people as a result of diverting more funds to prisons and away from other things. This could be why so many legislators only give the need for prison reform lip service – “Oh yes, prison reform is definitely needed. Next question.” But, thankfully Senator Cam Ward is one of the few in our legislature to step up to the plate and be an advocate for this issue.

The Alabama State House is not known for being a showcase of our brightest and best, but Senator Ward (R – Alabaster) is an exception, bringing a refreshing combination of competence and good sense to a body badly in need of both. He has become the legislature’s “face” on this issue, which is encouraging as reform might actually happen with his leadership. Senator Ward said recently it will take more than him, though, for real change to take place, noting that public support must be present for it to really be successful. He also noted if we do nothing the federal government will fix our prisons for us.

We certainly don’t want the feds messing with our prisons… that would be a disastrous and an unconstitutional overreach of this increasingly-tyrannical federal government (that’s sarcasm). Governor Bentley’s inauguration speech in 2011 included a “screw Washington”-type passage, including the quote, “I will defend our right to govern ourselves under our own laws and to make our own decisions without federal interference.”

Ok, that’s great. We want to be self-sufficient. We should want that. “We dare defend our rights,” as our state motto says. Why is it, though, states like Alabama (which was recently ranked 49th out of 50 for most federally dependent states) are the most vehemently anti-Washington? If Washington, D.C. said “no more funding for you, Alabama,” we would quickly fall on par with third world countries.

So this basically has two points. First, we should reform our prisons on our own, and thankfully, we have some competent leaders working on it. However, we still have a long way to go. Second, we should chill with the anti-Washington rhetoric, lest we be reminded how poor we really are when on our own. If Governor Bentley and our legislators really want to demonstrate that we don’t need Washington to help us run our affairs, this is a prime opportunity for them to put our money where their mouth is.

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