Abuses Point to Lack of Prison Cameras

The Associated Press By The Associated Press 
on June 23, 2013 at 12:14 PM, updated June 23, 2013 at 12:17 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Allegations of inmate abuse at Alabama's female prison and an inmate being beaten to death at a male prison have pointed to a lack of security cameras in state prisons.

"It creates an environment that is not good for the safety of the guards or the abuse of the prisoners," said Republican Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster, chairman of the Legislature's prison oversight committee.

Testimony about the lack of security cameras came up June 17 in a federal court trial over the beating death of an inmate at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton. Fired prison supervisor Michael Smith is charged with violating inmate Rocrast Mack's rights by fatally beating him. Two others have pleaded guilty to violating Mack's rights, but testimony in the trial revealed that none of it was caught on tape because the overcrowded prison lacks security cameras in high-traffic areas. That includes a prison dorm entrance, where guards have admitted striking Mack repeatedly, and in the prison yard, where Mack ran to try to get away from the blows.

The issue came up earlier at the state prison for women, Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka, after a legal group that helps inmates complained about male guards assaulting, harassing and raping female prisoners.

The director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, Bryan Stevenson, said Alabama is behind most other states in installing security cameras. "It's one reason abuse has been so difficult to prove in this state," he said.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas brought in the National Institute of Corrections, part of the Justice Department, to conduct a review at Tutwiler. Its report, released in January, cited the lack of security cameras monitoring major areas of the prison.

Thomas, who rose through the ranks to the top spot in the prison system, immediately began to push for improvements. In the spring session of the Legislature, Thomas asked the Legislature for $3.5 million for security improvements at Tutwiler, including security cameras, and additional funding to hire guards throughout the prison system. Alabama's prisons are historically understaffed. At Ventress, there are 14.9 inmates for each correctional officer.

The Legislature responded to the commissioner's budget request with a $16.7 million budget increase that Thomas said would allow the improvements at Tutwiler and the hiring of 100 more correctional officers. Thomas said the department has started the procurement process and hopes to get the cameras installed before the end of the year. The department predicts it will cost about $1.4 million for 400 cameras, a central monitoring station and 60 days of memory storage.

The department is also planning to add cameras at a lower-security women's center in Wetumpka. The department has a limited number of cameras operating in some male prisons. The next step in Thomas' plan is to assess what the prisons have and what is needed.

In the view of Stevenson and Ward, widespread use of security cameras would discourage problems for both inmates and staff.

They could help protect inmates from abuse by employees or attacks by other prisoners, and they could protect guards from attacks by inmates and false accusations of abuse from inmates because everyone would know their actions were being recorded.

Ward said adding cameras is not simply a matter of running a few wires. He said most Alabama's prisons are old and don't have the design structure that makes adding the cameras and wiring easy. But he said they are a necessity for safety reasons.

"You are creating an environment where one day a lawsuit is going to force the Legislature on this issue, and that is unfortunate," he said.

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