It’s time to take prison reform in Alabama seriously, By Angela McArdle

If California’s revolving door jail policies are bad, on the opposite end of the spectrum (and just as bad) is Alabama’s prison debacle. For over a month this year, inmates have went on strike, reporting inadequate medical treatment, food shortages, overcrowding, suspended parole programs, and inhumane treatment within Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) facilities.

The reasons for this are simple: When it comes to the state’s prison system, politicians in Montgomery have neglected their responsibility to the people of Alabama—free and incarcerated alike. Year after year, prison facilities have gone understaffed, millions of taxpayers dollars have been wasted, and the state’s parole program has been gutted.

In a state that so deeply values morality, freedom, and fiscal responsibility, fixing the Yellowhammer State’s broken penal system should be a cause that all Alabamians can support, regardless of political party or ideology.

In 2012, Alabama legalized the use of prison labor for private companies. Now, inmates work inside prisons and factories, and are paid far below minimum wage. While many prisoners are content to work laundry and cafeteria jobs, they are not keen on doing so under inhumane conditions, a reality that many of them have faced as the state refuses to hire enough staff to operate its prisons.

Consider that Alabama incarcerates people at one of the highest rates in the country — 39 percent higher than the national rate — and it should be easy to see how matters get worse. Food shortages, overcrowding, and understaffing have sent the mortality rate in Alabama prisons to more than twice the national average. A 2019 Department of Justice report concluded that there was “reasonable cause” to believe ADOC facilities were operating unconstitutionally. Just one month before the strike began this year, the DOJ reported that Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama had exposed people to “deadly harm.” Assaults at Limestone have tripled since 2019, and 86 assaults were reported from January to June 2022 alone.

Despite the DOJ’s findings, nothing has changed. And instead of reforming, Montgomery is planning to use emergency pandemic funds to build more prisons, even as current prisons remain understaffed. In September, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed legislation allowing the state to spend $1.3 billion to build three new prisons, which would include $400 million of Alabama’s funds from the American Rescue Plan. As conservative as Alabama is, such an irresponsible waste of tax revenue should feel more at home in a blue state like California or New York.

And since 2019, the state government has decimated the parole system. The number of people granted parole in Alabama over the last three years has fallen a shocking 83 percent. As Rev. Kenneth Glasglow states, “People are doing everything that they are supposed to do, getting all the certificates, going through all the programs, having no disciplinaries, and still not getting parole.”

Aside from the moral dilemma posed by a broken parole system, parole serves a key function to our criminal justice system. The possibility of being reunited with their families incentivizes inmates to work hard to reform themselves. When this happens, it benefits the rest of society by easing the taxpayer burden and setting an example for other prisoners. Removing this incentive is soul crushing, immoral, and worsens the atmosphere within the prison.

No one is sent to prison to have a good time, but the people of Alabama deserve a criminal justice system that is efficient, ethical, and engineered towards restoring the individual to the community to the fullest extent possible. Libertarians in Alabama like Lieutenant Governor candidate Ruth Page-Nelson have championed this effort, and Alabamians in other parties and walks of life should too.