Alabama's prison system is under investigation by the Justice Department after a federal report detailed cases of rape and sexual abuse at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. If some big changes aren't made, the federal government could take over the prison system.
State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is fighting that. He's a vocal advocate of prison reform and chairs the Alabama Legislature's joint oversight committee on prisons. Ward spoke with WBHM's Rachel Osier Lindley about what he believes the legislature needs to do. He begins by explaining how be became involved in prison issues.
WBHM is collaborating with a team of AL.com reporters and the Center for Investigative Reporting to take a closer look at the state prison system. This is part of the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab.
During the 2014 legislative session the Alabama legislature passed a resolution that is creating a task force and that will work with the Council of State Governments on prison problems. What exactly will that task force do?
Ward: "In the past if you look at other states that have successfully navigated through the prison crises that they had, what they did was they had a group â Council of State Governments, which is a bipartisan group of policymakers from around the country â they had that group come in under their justice institute plan and... study your corrections system and make recommendations. It takes about an eight-month study, but they come in and recommend policy, sentencing reform, facilities â everything from A to Z in your system, what you can do to fix it and make it better. But they require you to have a task force of local officials, of local stakeholders to work with them, so the task force we created was to set the stage for them to come in and work with us, to make sure we had a group in place that's going to be very serious about... coming up with some real solutions and real ideas. And I think 2015's going to be the high water mark for sentencing reform in Alabama."
When did the prison issue start becoming a bigger problem in the state of Alabama?
Ward: "10 to 15 years ago as the population of inmates boomed; however, we first really started getting involved in it in the legislature probably too late, probably about two or three years ago. Two years ago was when we started seeing an uptick in the issues. The crowding issue has been growing for many years. We're at 192 percent capacity; however I would say that where it really started coming to a head was the first time we had some abuse allegations in Tutwiler. This was pre-DOJ report. We had some abuse allegations there but we also had some inmate-on-inmate violence in a couple other facilities, Donaldson as well as Elmore... We called a joint oversight committee meeting, met with the commissioner, met with the various wardens, talked to them about the issue. They agreed there were some things that needed to be addressed with the limited resources they have â security cameras, guards in training, just a host of issues â and then about a year ago, I would say when the DOJ started their investigation, we started becoming more engaged as far as touring the individual facilities, looking at... what needs to be addressed... There is one important thing to remember though â the DOJ report was based on a tour they did roughly a little over a year ago. All that's being reported on now, what their study was based upon was roughly a year, year and a half ago. There's been a lot of changes since their report took place."
What do you think it'll take for us to move forward?
Ward: "It took us years and years of neglect and kind of burying our heads in the sand to get here. It's going to take many, many, many years to get back out of it. I don't think it'll be one bill. I don't think there's going to be one budget proposal. I think you're looking at probably 12, 15 different proposals which, over time, will help us get out of this problem we're in. No one wants to be soft on crime. No one's out there saying prisoners are more important than victims; however, there are certain 8th amendment challenges we have that we have to comply with, and if we don't do that then the state of Alabama will suffer the financial consequences for generations to come."
To read more highlights from this interview, check out Kelsey Stein's post on al.com.
~ Rachel Osier Lindley, May 1, 2014