Opinion | Shameless: Alabama asks to use COVID funds to build more prisons

“The Department of Corrections wants federal dollars to build more prisons. The Treasury Department should laugh.”

By JOSH MOON

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

There is no shame left in Alabama. Admittedly, shame has been in short supply here for decades. But whatever miniscule amount remained was shoved out on July 15 — the day Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn sent a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department asking if the state could use COVID-19 relief funds to build new prisons. 

That’s right. In the state with the worst vaccination rate in the country, where rural hospitals are closing like Blockbuster stores and tens of thousands of Alabamians lack basic sewer services, we’re trying to use COVID recovery funds to incarcerate people. 

Not create programs that move people out of prisons. Not provide more resources to underserved communities to squeeze shut the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Nope. Build bigger prisons. 

hat was our ADOC commissioner’s idea. And, as hard as it is to believe, that’s not even the worst part. 

Dunn’s reasoning was essentially: We lock up a lot of Black and brown people, and because we’ve so thoroughly neglected our prisons over the past 50 years and routinely over-crowd them, those “disproportionately impacted” people (minority individuals) are being hurt by the atrocious living conditions that make viral spread much easier. 

He actually wrote this down and mailed it to the Treasury Department. 

(I’m no attorney, but this letter would seem to make it very easy for Alabama prisoners to sue the state and prison system for violating their constitutional rights. I mean, the commissioner has just stated publicly that the living conditions that led to dozens of COVID deaths and even more hospitalizations and long-term illnesses were known to everyone.)

The insanity of the ADOC commissioner stating that “we’re locking up a lot of minority people and not treating them well, so please let us use this virus money to solve the problems that we’ve been unwilling to solve on our own” is off the charts. 

But it’s also a window into the disturbing minds of Alabama’s leaders. 

They know full well that there is a multitude of problems within our corrections system. So many, in fact, that we really shouldn’t be allowed to call it a corrections system, since nothing — including the department’s own ineptitude — is ever corrected. 

Instead, what we have is really, really crappy housing for thousands of people that we fail every single day. 

Most of our incarcerated people never had a shot at anything other than a jail cell. They arrived in broken homes — often the result of the failed “war on drugs” — and went to broken schools. They lived their lives hungry and angry. And they landed in “the system” at an early age. From there, life as a criminal began — for any one of a thousand well-known reasons — and thanks to our utter inability to rehabilitate anyone, there was never an off-ramp on this road. 

None of that absolves any of the prisoners of personal responsibility, of course. But if we’re going to ask them to take responsibility for their failures and their poor actions, then we should damn well be willing to do the same. 

But we don’t. 

We have poured billions of dollars into our prisons, and we’ve produced possibly the country’s worst. Prisoners die at alarming rates. Drugs are everywhere inside of the prison walls, despite the fact there hasn’t been a visitor in one for more than a year. Education programs have been left to rot. And COVID ran wild. 

It’s so bad that the Trump DOJ — that’s right, the Trump DOJ — sued Alabama over its prison mismanagement. That case is still ongoing, and we’re going to lose. 

And now, these incompetents want federal dollars to build more prisons. 

The Treasury Department should laugh. 

Or better yet, it should send Alabama a list of things it could do with its COVID recovery funds to solve its prison issues. Things like establishing more equitable funding for all public schools. And guaranteeing that all Alabama school children have access to broadband. And guaranteeing that all public school meals are free — and that there are at least two meals a day. And ensuring that there are quality afterschool programs and viable community centers. And ensuring that working families can get childcare costs 100 percent covered. And providing competent legal representation for all accused people. And offering — and actually staffing — educational and vocational programs for convicted people. And doing more work to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. And re-establishing Alabama’s top notch mental health network that saved millions of lives. 

We could do all of those things with a fraction of the money it currently costs to operate Alabama’s prisons. 

But those things are hard. They dip into areas of race and class. And they mostly come with few political points for the person pushing them. 

The result of not doing these things, however, we know. We see those results in the hellholes we call our state prisons — prisons that are so bad the ADOC commissioner is out here begging the feds for a little help. 

And we’re begging for that help even as we fight the feds in court over the terrible state of our prisons. 

See what I meant about the absence of shame in Alabama? 

Piece originally published on Alabama Political Reporter.

Parole Hearings, Incentive Good Time, Prison Overcrowding & Criminal Justice Reform – An Open Letter to Gov. Kay Ivey

Dear Governor Ivey

I have been incarcerated for 11 years as of November 2020. In my time with Alabama’s Department of Corrections i have seen numerous people with what are considered “violent crimes” be denied parole or not be considered until they have done 85% of their time or 15 years, whichever is less. Most women who are by law considered violent, are not. If you look at the statistics for women who are charged with violent crimes and have been released, the recidivism rate is extremely low.

The Parole Board has some serious issues that need to be addressed. A parole hearing should not be about re-trying our case. The judge has already done that. It should be about our institutional record; i.e. what steps we have taken to keep from re-offending, the classes we have taken to help in our recovery and classes that ADOC recommended, if we have any behaviour disciplinaries and our work performance while incarcerated. These things will tell if we are ready to re-enter society as a law abiding citizen. Our charge/conviction will never change, but we can change if we have a desire to and our institutional record will reflect this.

Prison overcrowding could be alleviated by re-instituting Incentive Good Time (IGT) to people with sentences less than life without parole or the death penalty and placing a cap on life sentences. The IGT was removed by “Michie’s Alabama Code Title 14, Chapter 9, Article 3, Deductions from sentences of Correctional Incentive Time”. Capping life sentences and making good time available across the board would provide a huge incentive for not only good behaviour, but it would reduce the amount of drugs being done in the prison system. IGT can be pulled if an inmate gets into trouble by receiving a disciplinary (such as bad behaviour or dirty urinalysis) so this would be a good incentive to remain trouble and drug free. As it stands now, people with long sentences have no incentive to improve their behaviour except their own moral conviction. This does not work for some people who have served long periods of time and numerous denials of parole, they have lost all hope and need a more tangible reason, such as getting IGT or some hope of making parole in the foreseeable future.

We need a prison system that allows people to work toward achievable goals that are based on our behaviour while incarcerated and not on our crime. We can not change what we did yesterday, but we can change who we are today. Locking people up and throwing away the key will only change people for the worse. That is why our prisons are in the shape they are in today. We must all learn from our past mistakes and that includes the way Alabama views its prison population. Not only do the laws need to be revised, sentencing guidelines re-worked and due process of law examined (which includes plea agreements that are signed by people that do not know their rights or the law, but are convinced by prosecutors that its in their best interest to sign them).

Thank yolu for taking the time to read this and i hope you will take into consideration the above suggestions given by someone who has lived this life for 11 years and witnessed the hopelessness firsthand.

Respectfully.

A female inmate at Birmingham Community Based Facility.

Alabama Department of Corrections ridiculous and arbitrary mail practices that discriminates against women with the lowest custody level at Birmingham Community Based Work Release Facility

There is nothing in the Alabama Department of Corrections administrative regulations that we could find that details what they are doing to the women’s mail at this facility. As mail arrives, it is photocopied, be it letters, birthday cards or photographs, they then destroy the originals and give the women the black and white photocopy.

They claim this arbitrary practice is in order to stem the supply of drugs into the facility, however, despite not having visitation for over 3 months now due to the pandemic, the drugs are still readily available which proves what we all suspected anyway, in that the drugs are not brought in by an inmates family and friends at visitation, but rather its being smuggled in by ADOC’s own staff or via legal mail.

The key dealers in this facility know how to easily circumvent ADOC’s ineffective drug screening and detection protocols, they would rather punish every woman by destroying their mail, even mail that is sent from 3rd party online services, than deal with the culprits effectively.

Morale and self esteem is at an all time low, visitation has been put on hold with no time frame of when it will resume. This work release facility should be preparing women to go back into the free world after years of suffering within these hell hole facilities where they have been deliberately denied even the most basic of human rights, but ADOC is doing the opposite, they are locking down, they are taking away, they are disregarding and punishing those that have already been punished with the loss of their liberty in some cases for decades already, now they can’t even receive a picture drawn by a child to its mother.

We are sick and tired of how they treat our loved ones.