Despite talks of reform, Alabama’s prisons remain deplorable

Article Originally published here on January 09, 2017 at 3:35 PM, updated January 09, 2017 at 3:39 PM
Inmates sitting on their bunks in a dorm in Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka. (Julie Bennett/
Inmates sitting on their bunks in a dorm in Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka. (Julie Bennett/

By Dr. Larry F. Wood, retired clinical and correctional psychologist

I spoke out on the prison reform issue two years ago after working in Tutwiler women’s prison as a prison psychologist. Even after 25 years of professional experience in prisons, I was unprepared for the immensity of the problems. In particular, mental health and medical care were severely inadequate. The administration of the prison was unprofessional and abusive. Two years ago, I described the prison environment as a culture of abuse.

In the past two years, a federal investigation has continued and a trial is under way. The State of Alabama continues to deny that the conditions are unconstitutional. No substantial improvements or program changes have been announced. Governor Bentley has focused on borrowing money to build more prisons.

I have been disappointed that little seems to have happened over the past two years. State Senator Cam Ward has spoken eloquently on the subject, but there seems to be no political will to address the problem directly.

One core of the problem is the simple overuse of imprisonment to deal with social problems other than aggressive criminality. The most extreme example is mental illness. State hospitals were closed because of abusive conditions and now, most of the seriously mentally ill in our state are in prisons. Many other inmates are intellectually inadequate, socially unskilled, or drug addicted. Many were traumatized by a lifetime of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

Prisons were initially used to control and punish the overtly dangerous. Their role has been expanded over many years to include the chronically disruptive in society. Such people are arrested numerous times and are backed up in county jails, waiting for beds to house them in prison. Prison, as a punisher, is not appropriate or effective for many such inmates.

Simply stated, Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded because too many people are being held in expensive, high security lockups. If our prisons were reduced to recommended population levels, they could be operated safely and professionally. Minimum security facilities with focused treatment and programs would be far less expensive than prisons for most inmates.

Ideally, mental health and social services would be provided in an inmate’s home community. Initially, however, experimental and pilot programs could be established outside the fences on the grounds of existing prisons in temporary, secure modular structures. In a less secure physical setting, more community involvement is possible. Federal funds could provide support for creative initiatives.

The first priority must be a full and honest survey of the problems, classifying inmates in terms of dangerousness as well as need. The mentally ill, the drug addicted, and others cannot be expected to benefit from clogged prisons designed for committed criminals or aggressive antisocial persons.

The conditions I saw at Tutwiler and that have been reported in all of Alabama’s prisons are inefficient, counterproductive, and fundamentally immoral. Both inmates and staff are harmed by a pattern of dehumanization and abuse. Our prisons are called the worst in the country for a reason. They are. However we have the ability to rise above our history and think of better ways.

In January 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report concluding that, “For nearly two decades, Tutwiler staff have harmed women in their care with impunity by sexually abusing and sexually harassing them.” Since then the charges have been expanded to include neglect of mental health and medical needs. Whatever the conclusion of the current trial, the moral responsibility belongs to the people of Alabama. We will have to live with the consequences of what has been done in our name.

Tutwiler prison was built in 1942 as a model of prison reform and was named for Julia Tutwiler, “the angel of the prisons,” who had argued for humane treatment, education and medical care for inmates. Tutwiler would be the best symbolic place to begin to change our justice system into something better.



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