Ticking time bomb

5th December, 2002
The Birmingham News

State must deal with overburdened prison system

It's understandable that Bob Riley would want to delay the adoption of any plan to ease overcrowding at the Tutwiler prison for women until after he takes office as governor next month. As his spokesman says, meeting the Dec. 30 court-imposed deadline would lock the incoming Riley administration to a plan hastily put together by the outgoing Siegelman administration.

However, the prison crowding problem simply can't wait until the new administration gets its feet wet. Conditions at Tutwiler are so bad they require immediate action.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who set the deadline for prison Commissioner Mike Haley to submit a plan, called Tutwiler a "ticking time bomb" and said that conditions there are "unconstitutionally unsafe."

Indeed, numbers alone paint a dire picture. The state's prison for women was built in the 1940s to accommodate a maximum of 364 inmates, but more than 1,000 are crammed into it. A lawyer for inmates who sued over conditions at the prison says the overcrowding and understaffing are a "recipe for violence."

Of course, that can be said of not only Tutwiler, but for the entire state prison system men and women. While Thompson waits for a plan to fix crowding at Tutwiler, another judge, Montgomery Circuit Judge William Shashy, is weighing whether the state is making progress toward relieving prison overcrowding systemwide.

Shashy has ordered the state to transfer state inmates from crowded county jails to state prisons within 30 days of their sentencing. He's fined the state and held it in contempt of court for not meeting earlier deadlines to move the prisoners.

The problem, though, has been that state prisons are even more crowded and understaffed than the county jails. The prison system is packed with more than 27,000 inmates, even though it was designed to handle only about half that number.

To try to meet Shashy's order, the Alabama Corrections Institute Finance Authority decided this week to renew an old bond issue that will allow the state to build a $4 million men's prison to house about 400 inmates.

It's a good step. But no such relief is planned for the women's prison. Though state officials have talked about building a new prison for women, Gov. Don Siegelman isn't treating that as an option. "I would much rather spend money to build schools than prisons," he said Tuesday.

That makes a good sound bite but doesn't solve the problem.

Siegelman also said he wants to transfer nonviolent women offenders into community corrections programs. That will help, but isn't enough to eliminate overcrowding. At least he promised to work with Riley to figure out how to deal with the two court orders.

The two men and other officials in their administrations must make a commitment to find real solutions to prison overcrowding, both short and long term. The state can no longer put off dealing with the problem.

Decades of neglect and inadequate funding led to this crisis in our prisons. More neglect is no way to defuse this ticking time bomb.