Ward: "We are dealing with a box of dynamite with Prisons."

By- Mike Cason

MONTGOMERY, Alabama --- The chairman of the Alabama Legislature’s prison oversight committee said he expects nonviolent protests at several Alabama prisons to blow over but says they are another sign the state needs to address the persistent problems of overcrowding and understaffing.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said nobody wants plush accommodations for prisoners but said the current conditions make the prisons ripe for violence and federal takeover.

“We’re dealing with a box of dynamite in our prison system,” Ward said.

Ward said he thought the Department of Corrections was doing the best it could with limited resources. He said he would propose a joint resolution during the legislative session to ask The Council of State Governments to come in a study Alabama’s prisons and criminal justice system and propose ways to improve it. He said the CSG did that in Texas and the state adopted many of its recommendations with positive results. He said there would be no cost to the state for a CSG study.

Alabama has already worked at reforms, including the establishment of the Alabama Sentencing Commission in the late 1990s. The commission compiles data and has advised the Legislature on changes in sentencing laws to allocate more of the scarce prison space for violent offenders.

This week, some inmates at Elmore, Holman and St. Clair correctional facilities have refused to do their assigned prison jobs, such as kitchen, laundry or maintenance work, as a way to protest prison conditions and other issues. Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said fewer inmates participated in the work stoppage today.

In an incident unrelated to the protests, a St. Clair Correctional facility inmate was stabbed by another inmate Monday and was in critical condition at UAB Hospital. An inmate was stabbed to death by another inmate at the St. Clair prison in August. An inmate died at Elmore Correctional Facility in October after a fight with another inmate.

Ward said solving Alabama’s prison problem will be a long-term process, involving the use of more community corrections programs, pretrial diversion, drug courts and other alternatives to sending offenders to the state penitentiaries.

He said advocating for programs that will improve prisons is never politically popular. But he said failure to act could result in what has happened in California, where federal courts have ordered the state to release inmates.

“I would rather us as a Legislature deal with it … as opposed to a federal judge coming in slashing and burning,” Ward said.

Legislators begin their annual session on Tuesday. The state General Fund budget, which supports prisons and many other agencies, is expected to be one of the toughest challenges facing lawmakers because revenues that support the fund have not kept up with rising costs.


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