90.3 WBHM Birmingham--Alabama faces a potential $400 million shortfall in the general fund budget this year. And that could leave the state’s already-strapped prison system at a tipping point -- so overcrowded Alabama could face the possibility of a federal lawsuit. As WBHM’s Andrew Yeager reports lawmakers are searching for ways to fix a system bursting at the seams.


Most people probably don’t have first-hand knowledge of life inside an Alabama prison. But we do get a glimpse through a lawsuit filed over conditions at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County.

"Over 620 men were packed into open dorms often supervised by just two roving officers.”

Sarah Geraghty is a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. The organization filed the lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at Donaldson in 2009.

"Inmate on inmate assaults with knives occurred roughly once every 10 days and men were regularly rushed to the hospital with serious injuries."

State prisoners may not be the most sympathetic group, but in this case the corrections officers’ professional organization filed a brief in support of some of the inmate claims. The suit was settled last year. The Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment. Sarah Geraghty says violence has gone down and she’s seen modest improvements at Donaldson. But one underlying factor remains.

"Overcrowding is the cause of most of the problems at Donaldson and in the entire Alabama prison system."

Alabama is far from the only state with prisons beyond capacity. UAB criminal justice professor John Sloan says many states passed “tough on crime” measures in response to a spike in violent crime in the 1980s. Prison populations swelled.

“In effect, what happened was we went on an imprisonment binge.”

That action comes with a cost.

“If you are a proponent of locking people up, you better get out your wallet.”

The Alabama Department of Correction’s budget this year is almost 382 million dollars. A lot of money during tight budget times and the cost could go up. The state projects that under current policies the prison population will continue to rise. That could open Alabama up to what’s happened in another state with severe prison overcrowding.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population and gave the state two years to do it. Options include spending money to build new prison facilities or a politically unpopular inmate release.

California’s system was operating at about 185% capacity when it was sued. Alabama’s system is approaching 200% capacity. That has some state officials worried about a similar federal lawsuit here and one Alabama lawmaker pushing for action.

For several years Republican State Senator Cam Ward has advocated changes to Alabama’s judicial system.

"No one has ever in the history of politics been elected because they said we’ve gotta fix the prison problem. It’s just not one that wins votes.”

Ward plans to introduce a bill this legislative session which could potentially reduce the number of non-violent or first-time offenders heading to state prisons. It affects the Alabama Sentencing Commission. That body makes guidelines judges can use when deciding sentences. In 2006, the commission adopted guidelines that redirected many criminals from state prisons and into alternative programs in the community. Bennet Wright is the sentencing commission’s executive director.

“Those guidelines that we’ve put in place have diverted over 3,000 offenders from prison that otherwise would have been in prison had the judges not had that option unveiled.”

Right now, the guidelines have to be approved by state lawmakers. Under Ward’s bill they’d be automatic unless the legislature objects.

But UAB’s John Sloan is underwhelmed by the plan. That’s because these guidelines are voluntary. Judges don’t have to follow them.

“So then what you end up with is justice by geography. In those counties where judges, you know, are carefully paying attention to the kinds of issues that we’re talking about, those judges would probably be more likely to adopt those voluntary standards at sentencing. In other jurisdictions, that might not be the case.”

Bills to attack prison overcrowding have died in previous sessions of the legislature and Cam Ward says he expects continued opposition from lawmakers afraid to appear “soft on crime.” As for that possible federal lawsuit, UAB’s John Sloan says he doesn’t think it’s inevitable – so long as Alabama legislators make a good faith effort to attack prison overcrowding.

~ Andrew Yeager, February 9, 2012.