The Alabama prison system is broken. Private prisons won’t fix it.
Imagine that you had committed three nonviolent property crimes. On the day of your trial, you walk into the courtroom and hope that you receive a light sentence. However, your hopes are soon demolished when the judge sentences you to life without parole.
This scenario provides a glimpse into what Ronald McKeithan felt back in 1984.
Fortunately, McKeithan was able to be released but he is just one of many inmates who have been sentenced to prison under a strict sentencing law.
According to the Sentencing Project, beginning in the 1970s, stricter sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums, the Three Strikes law, cutbacks in parole release and other laws have caused more people to be sent to prison on longer sentences.
These strict sentencing laws have not only impacted the lives of inmates but have also led to prison overcrowding. Because of this, states started to contract with private prisons.
Private prisons are built and funded by private corporations. Samford sociology professor Dr. Theresa Davidson explained, “The point of private prisons is to contract with the state or a county to save money.”
However, “the drawback of private prisons is that they save states and counties money by cutting services needed to successfully run a prison, such as staff training, facility security, educational and rehabilitation programming,” said Carla Crowder Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
Furthermore, rather than rehabilitating inmates, a private prison’s goal is to make money off incarcerated individuals.
“From my understanding of talking to people in the business world, this is not a good model. This is not a function that should be monetized and based on profit,” said Crowder.
How Does this Pertain to Alabama?
On Feb. 1, Gov. Kay Ivey signed two lease agreements with Government Real Estate Solutions of Central Alabama, LLC and Government Real Estate Solutions of South Alabama, LLC. Both are entities of Core Civic, a company that owns and manages private prisons.
Crowder went on to discuss Ivey’s reasoning behind partnering with CoreCivic. “What Ivey is trying to do is what is called a public-private partnership and it is a lease option,” Crowder said. “The private prison companies would build the facilities based on how they built other facilities and they would maintain them as it pertains to security. But all the staffing (wardens, administrators and guards) would be state employees.
“The reason this is problematic is that we already know that the Alabama Department of Corrections operates the worst prisons in the country, “said Crowder.“There are extraordinary levels of violence, corruption, mismanagement, understaffing and the highest death rates in the country. You have the worst of both worlds with this plan; you have for-profit companies who want to make money by charging the taxpayers of Alabama top-dollar to build and maintain these prisons. And then they will be operated by the most troubled department of corrections in the country.”
Now, while Gov. Kay Ivey is not building a “private prison” per se, it still is troubling that the Alabama Department of Corrections will be in charge of these public-private prisons.
Alabama Students Against Prisons or (ASAP) is an student activist organization that was formed to fight against the state’s prison plan.
ASAP board member Isabel Coleman said that the governor is building these public-private prisons to address the lawsuit that was filed against the state pertaining to prison conditions and the high amount of violence . However, according to Coleman, building more prisons is not going to help these issues.
Coleman also discussed her organization’s solution to problems in Alabama’s prisons. She said, “Obviously, the state has put some resources towards trying to hire better correctional officers, however this will help in the short term but it will not help in the long term. So, what we’re pushing forward is sentencing reform. If the state could repeal Alabama’s Three Strikes law it could help Alabama’s over-incarceration problem. Another thing that would make a big difference is decriminalizing marijuana and applying it retroactively. We believe that by implementing these reforms it will help to decrease over incarceration and prison conditions. ”
Cara McClure, Founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham also offered another solution to overcrowding in Alabama’s prison crisis.
“Instead of building more prisons, they could release elderly people who are there dying or are on life support or folks who are there for non-violent crimes. There are so many people on parole who should be released by now but haven’t been granted parole. There’s just so many things they could do and I just don’t believe that building new prisons is the answer” said McClure.
Crowder also provided ways to keep people out of prison. “What Appleseed has been advocating for is investments in outside the wall services such as more drug courts, diversion programs and drug treatment to keep people from going to prison in the first place,” she said. “We have drug courts and diversion programs in the state but they are funded by participants. So, for example, if I’m struggling with addiction and end up in a drug court, I’m asked to show up once a week, take time off work, to pay thousands of dollars in order to complete the program and have the felony wiped off my record. It
is not as effective as it could be if we were to fund these services instead of locking people up when they can’t scrape together thousands of dollars.”
From high incarceration rates to overcrowding, the system needs to be changed. Building more prisons and partnering with private prison companies such as Core Civic will not solve the problems that Alabama prisons face. Rather, there needs to be major investments in services to keep individuals out of prison.
Private Prison Facts
From 2000 to 2016 the number of people housed in U.S. private prisons increased five times faster than the total prison population. Over a similar timeframe, the proportion of people detained in private immigration facilities increased by 442 percent. (Sentencing Project)
The private prison population reached a peak of 137,220 in 2012; it then declined to 126,272 in 2015, before rising again in 2016 to 128,063.6) (Sentencing Project)
Twenty-one states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons. Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, incarcerated the largest number of people under state authority, 12,516. (Sentencing Project)
The United States has the world’s largest private prison population. (Equal Justice Initiative)
The Justice Department inspector general found that private prisons reported higher rates of assault, more uses of force, and more contraband than facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. (Equal Justice Initiative)
In 2010, Core Civic mismanaged the Idaho Correctional Center so much so that it was nicknamed “Gladiator School.” According to a Washington Spokesman-Review news article, the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults was four times more than all the other seven prisons in Idaho combined. Also, in the same facility, Core Civic had also given control to gangs as a way of saving money on employee wages.
In a Nashville Tennessean news article, a female guard at the Silverdale Detention Center operated by Core Civic, said that she was constantly required to work alone with male inmates who sexually harassed her, groped her and attacked her. When the guard tried reporting the incidents, her supervisor told her to “grow a tougher skin.”
Another instance took place in 2017 with a Core Civic-ran Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility. In this facility, an outbreak of scabies had taken place. Employees of the prison would later file a lawsuit and would allege that they would face retaliation if they spoke out about a problem. Vice versa, prisoners filed a lawsuit which shared that they would face the possibility of being placed in solitary confinement if they even discussed scabies.