Pubdate: Wed, 29 Jun 2005
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2005 The Advertiser Co.
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority


Donal Campbell must feel as if his middle name is Sisyphus. Alabama's 
prison commissioner surely can empathize with that poor soul, whom 
legend has it was punished by being forced to forever push uphill a 
stone that kept rolling back down the hill.

In Campbell's case, the stone is an ever rising prison population 
that keeps growing and adding further strain to an already seriously 
overburdened system. In May of last year, there were 26,465 inmates 
in Alabama's prisons. In May of this year, there were 27,732. There's 
no reason to expect that trend to change.

"I don't know what would trigger that to happen," Campbell told the 
Advertiser this week.

Nothing would -- as long as Alabama operates under its current system 
of incarcerating large numbers of people and pushing them into prison 
facilities that are now at about 200 percent of their designed 
capacity. Significant change has to take place, much of it outside 
the prison system.

Gov. Bob Riley appointed a task force in April that is beginning work 
on possible solutions to prison overcrowding. It is important for 
Alabamians to understand that prison overcrowding is far more than a 
matter of inmate comfort. Constitutional questions on the treatment 
of prisoners are at issue, but this is also a public safety issue and 
a judicial issue.

When the state deprives an individual of liberty, it also assumes a 
solemn responsibility for that individual. The state cannot keep 
shoehorning inmates into prisons indefinitely without facing legal 
action, which it will lose, as the record of the past several decades 
makes clear.

The safety of inmates is compromised, but that's only part of the 
problem. The safety of prison employees, in particular the 
corrections officers who have direct oversight responsibilities for 
inmates, is threatened. The safety of the law-abiding public, which 
is supposed to be protected by prisons, is threatened as well.

Severely overcrowded prisons are filled with potential for danger. 
Wardens have been saying for months that it is little short of 
miraculous that Alabama has not had a major outbreak of prison violence.

Some stopgap measures have been taken, but they are just that. They 
do not address the kind of systemic reforms Alabama needs. Housing 
inmates in a private prison in Louisiana, for example, has reduced 
the overcrowding at Tutwiler Prison for Women and kept the state in 
compliance with a court order in an overcrowding lawsuit. It has not, 
however, done anything about the causes of overcrowding.

An accelerated parole program for nonviolent offenders had the most 
impact on the problem, but only temporarily. Hundreds of such paroles 
eased overcrowding for a time, but as the numbers cited above show, 
the flow of inmates into the prisons soon had the population going even higher.

The harsh reality is that Alabama needs sentencing reform that will 
stop sending to prison nonviolent offenders who do not need to be 
there for the sake of preserving the safety of the public. Certainly 
violent criminals need to be behind bars, but many nonviolent 
property offenders do not.

Until Alabama can start routinely sentencing such offenders to 
alternatives such as community-based restitution programs instead of 
to prison, there is no chance of permanently reducing overcrowding 
unless the state embarks on a massive prison-building program. It 
can't afford that and even if it could, it would be an unwise use of resources.
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