Pubdate: Mon, 06 Dec 2004
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2004 The Advertiser Co.
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority


It should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the state's prison 
system that Alabama has more overcrowding in its prisons than any other 
Southern state. It also should surprise no one that Alabama has more 
prisoners per corrections officer than any other Southern state.

What should surprise Alabamians is that the Alabama Corrections Department 
has managed to get by for several years without a major violent incident.

According to a recently released Southern Legislative Conference report, 
Alabama last among 16 SLC member states when it comes to prison overcrowding.

October prison statistics indicate that Alabama's traditional prisons, work 
release centers, work centers and boot camps were built to hold 12,388 
inmates, but as of that month the facilities held 23,578 inmates, or more 
than 190 percent of capacity. Other inmates were still being held in county 
jails, helping to bring the total number of states inmates in custody in 

Alabama's crowding easily eclipses overcrowding figures for the other 
states, with North Carolina second at 112 percent of capacity and a 
regional average of 97 percent of capacity.

Alabama also had the highest prisoner to guard ratio with 9.8 prisoners for 
every corrections officer. The regional average was 5.5 inmates per guard.

Either of those statistics should be troubling, but the combination could 
prove just plain dangerous. Crowding far more inmates into facilities than 
the facilities are designed to hold is dangerous enough, but also putting 
far fewer corrections officers than needed to guard them seems a formula 
for disaster.

It is interesting to note that the Southern Legislative Conference report 
shows that North Carolina which was second to Alabama in crowding 
compensated by having the lowest ratio of inmates to guards, with 3.3 
inmates for each guard.

Assume for argument's sake that Alabama continues to ignore its 
underfunding of its corrections system, and that the state is lucky and 
avoids a major incident of violence. It is still only a matter of time 
until the federal courts step in and order some relief from the current 

So what should the state do?

It could build more prisons, but there is no money for either the 
construction of new facilities or for their operation. There also is strong 
competition for available funding from other programs, such as Medicaid or 
health needs. And there appears to be little legislative support for 
additional spending to operate more prisons. It could increase treatment 
programs and expand community corrections programs into more communities. 
But this also takes money, although it probably could be done at lower cost 
than traditional prison time. It should hire more corrections officers. 
This needs to be done regardless of whatever other approach is taken. It 
could modify its criminal laws to lower sentences. This would not be a 
popular solution; the public likes the idea of being tough on crime. Being 
tough is fine, but only if the state is willing to pay for that approach 
with adequate prison funding. The SLC report shows that Alabama's average 
sentence length for inmates of 6.5 years is higher than the 5.1 average for 
Southern states. Alabama's average time served of 3.5 years is also higher 
than the SLC average of 2.7 years.

Frankly, it probably will take some combination of the above approaches to 
bring Alabama's prison statistics closer to the norm for the region. But 
unless something is done, the state will only continue to court disaster.
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