Alabama facing prison crisis. We’re next.

By WYATT EMMERICH,

The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) just released a scathing report on Alabama’s prisons. The same could be said of Mississippi’s prisons.

The Alabama governor and legislature are taking rapid action to deal with their prison crisis to avoid a federal takeover. An additional $86 million was appropriated to retain new staffing for medical and mental health services and to reduce the turnover rate of correctional staffing with pay raises.

In a statement earlier this year Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said, “ We must improve the conditions in which we house inmates. ‘Deplorable’, ‘horrendous’, and ‘inadequate’ are words which have been used to describe them. Our existing facilities need $750 million in maintenance alone. Alabama must have new prison facilities because we must have better conditions, we must have better safety, and we must have better programs.

“The Department of Corrections hired a project management team that recommended we build three new regional men’s prisons. Of the three new facilities, one will have additional space centralizing services for special needs populations: the aged, the infirm and those with mental health conditions. Additionally, there will be space in each new facility for educational and vocational training programs.”

News stories on this year’s Alabama legislative session rated prison conditions as the number one issue to be addressed.

Meanwhile, here in Mississippi, prison conditions didn’t even make the bottom of the list in legislative priorities.

A big factor explaining this discrepancy involves two federal judges: Alabama district judge Myron Thompson and Mississippi district judge William Barbour.

Both judges heard similar lawsuits filed by the activist groups accusing their respective states of violating the U.S. Constitution’s ban of cruel and unusual punishment.

Thompson quickly issued a 66-page opinion shortly after the end of testimony calling Alabama’s prison system’s mental health care “horrendously inadequate.” Thompson ruled that the failure to diagnose and treat mental illness violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Thompson was galvanized to action by the suicide of a mentally ill young male prisoner shortly after he testified about horrific conditions.

After Thomson’s decision the Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn has asked lawmakers for money to hire 500 new correctional officers and give correctional staff a 20 percent raise to help with recruitment and retention.

An almost identical lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Southern Poverty Law (SLP) Center and against the Mississippi Department of Corrections and its East Mississippi Correctional Facility.

The case was heard by Judge Barbour in the Jackson federal courthouse. I sat through much of the trial and was appalled by the atrocities: rats, blackout, drugs, rapes, gangs and the like. Basically, the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords were running the place, which was filled with mentally ill prisoners in desperate need of medication.

I was shocked that not a single state leader bothered to attend, even though the trial represented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see inside the belly of the prison beast — $400 million taxpayer funded beast at that.

It was clear during the trial that 78-year-old Barbour, a Yazoo City native and cousin of our former governor, had little appetite for wrestling the beast. And who could blame him?

As a result, Barbour is kicking the can down the road. Last summer, five months after the trial ended, Barbour issued a stay requesting more information about whether conditions have improved. I’ll bet a thousand bucks the answer is no.

Barbour’s delays saved this year’s legislative session from a prison funding crisis like the one Alabama is experiencing, allowing the legislature to raise state public employee salaries three percent and give teacher’s a $1,500 pay raise.

But it’s a temporary delay. The SLP and ACLU will eventually lose patience and threaten Barbour with an appeal to a higher court, which would be embarrassing to him. The law and the facts are overwhelmingly on the plaintiffs’ side.

This will pose a real political problem for our current Republican leadership which has vowed to cut spending, not raise it. They won’t spend enough to maintain roads for law abiding citizens. Drug addicts, crazy people and crooks don’t even register on the radar.

That being said, our state’s leaders must obey the U.S. Constitution. It will be humiliating to have to cede control of our state prisons to the feds because they failed to do their duty as elected officials.

In many ways, it’s like Jackson’s billion-dollar sewer problem. In that case, both the city and the federal EPA agree Jackson is sending untreated sewage to the Pearl, but nobody, not even the feds, has the money to fix it, so it just becomes an endless game of rope-a-dope and finger pointing.

In the middle of all this, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has released a scathing indictment of Alabama’s prison system just in case anybody doubted how bad it is. Mississippi’s prison system isn’t any better.

The 55-page DOJ describes houses of horrors: stabbings, rapes, drugs, gangs, weapons, broken locks, inadequate security, extortion, open sewage, rats, maggots, toxic fumes, lack of medical care. Google “Investigation of Alabama’s State Prisons for Men” for the full report. It’s shocking.

The report orders the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to implement dozens of costly remedial measures: new cameras, new security systems, 500 more guards, segregation of non-violent offenders, outside consultants, warden assessments, centralized autopsies, new screening procedures, new contraband prevention policies, new disciplinary procedures to protect prisoners seeking safety from gang violence, repaired toilets, competitive staffing salaries, prisoner drug testing and more. The cost will be hundreds of millions.

My newspaper colleague Russell Turner, editor of the Greene County Herald, tells me the situation is very bad at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) in Leakesville.

Turner emailed, “Believe it or not, 36-hour shifts are not unheard of. Even the superintendent and two wardens said the gangs are in control. It is a crisis that nobody seems to care about. Everyone inside that facility, employees and inmates, are in real danger and the conditions are worse than you can imagine.” House Speaker Phillip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have toured the facility. They are aware of the crisis. It’s just not a priority.

The feds gave the ADOC 56 days to respond before they file a lawsuit. You can bet federal action against the Mississippi Department of Corrections is not far behind.

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