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Alabama’s prison system is broken. Stunningly overcrowded and understaffed, the prisons are a warehouse for the mentally ill who receive inadequate treatment, a sort of fight club for violent inmates, and a petri dish for contagious disease such as COVID-19.
This situation didn’t materialize overnight. The challenges have worsened through the years while state lawmakers hemmed and hawed and wrung hands over what to do.
Meanwhile, the court system stuff more and more inmates into the state’s penitentiaries until they were bursting at the seams.
When the board of Pardons and Paroles began releasing some violent offenders to alleviate overcrowding, the state restructured the board and replaced its leadership.
Twice within 18 months, the U.S. Justice Department declared the treatment of inmates in Alabama prisons unconstitutional, and the federal government has threatened to take over the prison system if the state doesn’t make significant changes.
There is light at the end of the tunnel.
The state plans to lease three new privately built prisons, and Gov. Kay Ivey created a 15-member commission charged with evaluating existing prisons and determining how they’ll be used when the prison lease materializes.
The deadline for the commission’s report is two years out. It’s unclear when the prisons to be lease will be built, or when the state can move inmates into them.
Meanwhile, the prisons remain understaffed and overcrowded, an embarrassment built on years of neglect and indifference.
The governor’s efforts to correct the prison debacle are admirable and, if accomplished, will set a new standard for gubernatorial legacy — assuming the Justice Department doesn’t intervene.