Today’s guest columnist is Carla Crowder.
The State of Alabama suddenly has a lot of money.
Federal funds are pouring into the state and lawmakers are figuring out right now how to spend this windfall. This is taxpayer money; we should pay attention.
The largest single expenditure of the Covid wealth is going to one place – punishment.
Alabama is the only state in the nation that’s dedicated Covid funds meant for investment in healthcare, infrastructure, and recovery on prisons.
This money will prop up brutal, dysfunctional places while we sacrifice investments in beneficial services and innovation.
It’s a lose-lose – for Alabama communities and taxpayers.
But it’s not too late to do something smarter.
Department of Corrections 21% of Alabama’s general fund
Already, Alabama taxpayers pour over $600 million into the Department of Corrections annually, as approved by the Legislature.
That’s 21% of the entire state general fund.
Last year, lawmakers voted to spend an additional $1.3 billion on two, new mega prisons that will not relieve overcrowding but will only replace dilapidated prisons the state failed to maintain – even during the decade when the prison budget doubled.
Much ink has been spilled, and rightly so, informing the people of Alabama that the United States Department of Justice has declared the entire state prison system for men unconstitutional and is now suing the state over rampant Eight Amendment violations.
The root of the problems: “Culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, sexual abuse,” according to the DOJ.
As a civil rights lawyer, I’d grown almost numb to the steady stream of reports arriving in my inbox about violence, chaos, and death within state prisons.
Usually they are from mothers, desperate to save sons who strayed into trouble and landed in prison. Valid worries, with 37 incarcerated people dying from homicide, suicide, or drug-related causes last year, and more than 100 dying from these preventable causes since 2018.
Now I’m hearing from emergency room doctors, from lawyers with political connections whose generally comfortable lives now intersect with the catastrophic failures at the Alabama Department of Corrections.
“There was a young, otherwise healthy individual delivered to the emergency room recently from Donaldson prison who suffered what I can only describe as severe neglect or torture via exposure while in isolation there and now likely with devastating neuro injury,” the doctor wrote.
And from a family of lawyers concerned about their nephew: “He experienced repeated sexual harassment and reported this on the Hot Line and identified officers involved. One of the officers involved subsequently threatened him. He was beaten twice by inmates and once by an officer. All of his belongings were stolen,” they wrote.
These reports came in the same month that two more incarcerated people died as a result of homicide
In a nutshell, a superhighway of illicit contraband, mostly drugs and cell phones, runs into the prisons stoking an economy maintained by extortion and violence. No one wants to spend most of their waking hours within a prison, so for as long as I can remember, ADOC has been woefully understaffed. Security is non-existent in the drug-filled dorms. People with mental illness are isolated and neglected.
Last month, a federal court issued a 600-page opinion documenting persistent failures in the treatment of incarcerated people with mental illness. The judge emphasized that only about half of the 3,800 officer positions were filled, despite a previous order.
“What was true four years ago is no less true today,” the court wrote. “The absence of security staff prevents people who need treatment from accessing it, stops those whose mental health is deteriorating from being caught before they lapse into psychosis or suicidality, and fosters an environment of danger, anxiety, and violence that constantly assaults the psychological stability of people with mental illness in ADOC custody.”
We’ve got to let go of the myth that people are getting rehabilitative services in prison. They are not. They return to their families and our communities traumatized, addicted, and worse off than when they entered the prison system. Does anyone still believe this is a winning formula for public safety?
Buildings cannot fix this.
We must demand change
But unless the people of Alabama step up and force change, we will all suffer.
Here’s why: The prison system’s colossal drain on state resources–21% of the General Fund–means we don’t invest in critical state functions and services. Public Health received 4% of the General Fund budget. The Department of Human Resources, where abused and neglected children receive care, gets 3%.
The Department of Mental Health will receive $166 million in General Fund dollars in 2022, or 6% of the budget. This means we invest less in mental health care for the entire state of 5 million people than we spent on health care for the 25,000 people in ADOC.
Alabama is a poor state. PARCA, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, recently reported that Alabama has the second lowest tax collection per capita. We simply have less money than other states to provide necessary services.
Yet we get little in return for shoveling billions of these limited tax dollars over to the prison system. We cannot compete nationally and make progress as a state if so much of our public investment is spent to punish people.
Texas saved $3 billion and cut crime 40%
As dire as this situation is, there are solutions. Other southern states have mapped them out for us.
Texas closed 10 prisons in recent years and saved $3 billion thanks to these changes.
Rather than building new prisons, Texas officials invested in 800 new residential substance abuse treatment beds outside prison walls, 2700 new addiction treatment beds within prisons, more than 300 new halfway house beds for re-entry, and capacity for 3000 additional outpatient addiction treatment slots. They expanded diversion and treatment programs to tackle root causes.
Overall crime fell 40%, and the homicide rate inside the prisons is one third of that in Alabama.
Similar examples abound from Michigan to South Carolina.
Federal COVID funds mean the time is now to invest wisely
Federal COVID relief dollars create an unprecedented opportunity to begin to dig our way of expensive prison failures. Congress allocated $2.12 billion for Alabama through the American Rescue Plan. The state received the first half of that money in June 2021 and has $580 million remaining.
The state will receive the second $1.060 billion later this year. If we followed Texas’ proven strategies, we could invest a sliver of this windfall in drug treatment and diversion to keep people from going to prison and re-entry housing to provide safety and stability when people now incarcerated in our dreadful prisons return home.
What is stopping our state leaders from doing so? Yes, Alabama has many urgent needs, but lawmakers decided $400 million in Covid money was just fine to build new prisons.
Clearly, there is federal money to spare. It’s time they hear from us – the taxpayers, their constituents – that our priority is not the black hole that is the Alabama Department of Corrections swallowing money and lives and not making us safer.
We want investments outside the prison walls.
Carla Crowder is a lawyer and the Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a legal and public policy nonprofit. She has represented numerous incarcerated people and won release for six men originally sentenced to die in prison.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham region.. firstname.lastname@example.org.