Alabama has a prison problem. The state has an incarceration rate of 946 people for every 100,000 people. That rate is nearly a third higher than the United States and is nearly nine times larger than the rate of the United Kingdom, the rate of Canada, France, and most of the developed world.
106,000 Alabamians are currently under some sort of supervision by Alabama’s corrections system, a number that includes people in jails, prisons, probation and parole. That’s 1 out of every 50 people in Alabama.
And that’s just the people directly affected. That number doesn’t reflect the number of friends and family affected by our prison system. Or the number of people who have previously come through some form of supervision and are now out.
We send an overwhelming number of people to prison in the South. And what’s it like when they get there?
This week on the Reckon Interview, we’re examining our broken justice system. Dr. John Giggie, an historian at the University of Alabama and director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South, outlines how the roots of today’s problem of mass incarceration can be found in slave patrols, mass lynchings, and convict leasing. And Beth Shelburne, a journalist who has dedicated her career to covering the ins and outs of the prison industrial complex, walks us through the unique issues plaguing Alabama’s prisons — one of the most dangerous prison systems in the country — as well as problems similar to all prisons across the South.
Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Beth Shelburne. You can find excerpts from our discussion with Dr. John Giggie here, and you can listen to the whole episode here.
Beth Shelburne on Alabama’s prisons
I think we have some things in common with other prison systems in our neighboring Southern states that aren’t unique, like prison overcrowding. And that’s an issue outside the South as well. California is unconstitutionally overcrowded.
We have old facilities. And that’s not a unique problem. Many prisons around the country are crumbling and have failing infrastructure. I think, sadly, society has kind of accepted that’s part of incarceration. “It’s not a country club. You’re supposed to live in bad conditions.” I don’t agree with that but that seems to be the general consensus among the public.
What makes our prison system uniquely awful is the level of violence we have seen uptick in the last decade. I think it’s been caused by a combination of overcrowding—which has always been the case in our prison system. In the late 70s and early 80s, we were overcrowded when we had 4000 people in three prisons. We’re still overcrowded with 20,000 people in 13 prisons. The scale of it has just increased.
But a combination of overcrowding and understaffing which has happened in the last decade. ADOC has really hemorrhaged staff. So those two things along with a culture inside our prison system that is really overrun with corruption. Contraband, drugs and phones are common.
Many staff members are tied up in all of this and it’s just created this powder keg where runaway violence is just an everyday part of life inside Alabama prisons. We have the highest homicide rate and the highest suicide rate of any state prison system. We also have unconstitutional excessive force. The violence isn’t just “inmate on inmate” violence. It’s also staff on inmate and it’s pervasive.
And I think the state has this sort of defiance in addressing this problem, historically and in our current situation.
Beth Shelburne on who is in Alabama prisons
The majority of people in our prison system and every prison system around the [country] are people who have been convicted of crimes defined as violent. A lot of politicians in Alabama will say, after the 2015 sentencing reforms were passed, Alabama’s prison population became more violent.
That’s not necessarily true.
The percentage of people convicted of violent crimes—statutorily defined as violent—did increase because property crimes and some drug crimes were diverted out of prison. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the people in our prisons are more inherently violent than the people in Mississippi’s prisons or Georgia’s prisons or California’s.
Alabama has a very broad definition of what constitutes a violent crime. You don’t have to physically injure someone to be convicted of a violent crime. We have 51 different offenses that are defined as “violent.” Those include things like extortion, drug trafficking, even third-degree burglary, which is stealing something out of an unoccupied building.
If I go and steal a lawnmower out of a shed, the state calls me a violent offender. And they label you a violent offender the minute that you are convicted of one of these offenses. And you carry that for life. When you go up for parole, if you have an offense from 30 years prior that was defined as violent, but you’re currently incarcerated for drug possession, they’ll call you a violent offender. That’s how they’ll see you.
I think that it’s about a 70-30 split in our prison system currently. But I always tell people that caveat. Keep in mind that if we compare prison populations to each other, they’re all pretty much the same. Alabama has a much broader definition of who is violent than other states and the federal government.
Beth Shelburne on Gov. Ivey’s new prison plan
What she wants to do—and this is a holdover from Governor Bentley’s days. He was the first to present this idea of building three mega-prisons, regional mega-prisons in the state. That idea did not pass the legislature twice. And now what Governor Ivey has taken the idea and basically circumvented legislative approval by doing this public-private partnership.
It would be a design, build, lease deal. Private companies—and she’s now named who those companies are. CoreCivic is one of them, one of the largest private-prison companies in the world—would design these facilities, build them, and the state would lease the facilities for $88 million a year for up to 30 years.
We would essentially be the renter of a privately-owned and designed mega-prison. At the end of the lease, the state owns nothing. What do we do at the end of the lease? We renegotiate and they [increase] the $88 million a year rent to what? $100 million? I think it’s fiscally an insane idea to propose spending that much money to build even more prisons to incarcerate people.
Beth Shelburne on the root of Alabama’s prison problem
The Department of Justice has told us that our prisons are unconstitutionally overcrowded. Overcrowding is the main problem that can be addressed in our prisons. It has led to all of the runaway violence, the suicides and the understaffing. It’s very hard to work in an environment like that where you’ve got people sleeping cheek-to-jowl in in these warehouse rooms.
The problem that I have is the new prisons might create a better environment and some shiny new buildings that we can incarcerate people in, but it creates no incentive to address the overcrowding problem. And that is the root of all of our problems in Alabama.
Beth Shelburne on how to address prison overcrowding
We go about it by instituting some real sentencing reform. What we’ve done historically—including with the 2015 legislation, which was lauded as historic—was really nibbling around the edges. We really need to get to some of these draconian policies that have led to our prisons being at 180% capacity on a good day.
The Habitual Felony Offender act is one of them. Our three strikes rule. Twenty percent of our prison population is serving an enhanced sentence under our Habitual Offender Act. [That’s] a longer sentence than they would be, were they not prosecuted under that law. We have other options on the books now. We passed presumptive sentencing guidelines in 2013, but prosecutors can still invoke the habitual offender law if they want to. And they still do.
To hear more about effective prison reform, listen to the full episode here.
Reckon Interview Season Three
- One: The fight for the vote and how to ensure your vote counts
- Two: How the South created modern politics and what’s at stake in 2020
- Three: How the South nearly blocked women’s suffrage
- Four: To live here, you have to fight: Coalition building in the South
- Five: A system broken by design: The politics of health care
- Six: The death of ‘stick to sports’: The politics of football
- Seven: Can the South handle another recession?