After a federal report on conditions at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka found appalling problems, the state's commissioner of corrections promised aggressive changes to address those issues. As the report makes clear, new approaches to managing the state's prisons -- especially Tutwiler -- are long overdue.
But in the long term, management and security changes won't be enough. To have a lasting and truly effective impact on the conditions in the state's prisons, the Corrections Department needs help from the Alabama Legislature and the governor -- help in the form of realistic funding.
A report by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Corrections found wide-ranging problems at Tutwiler. They included a pattern of sexual abuse of inmates by staff members and an atmosphere of intimidation designed to discourage the reporting of such abuses.
In December, Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas started making changes at Tutwiler to address the problems disclosed in the NIC report. He also promised a legislative oversight committee that further changes were coming to make facilities safer.
"Will it be 100 percent safe? I can't guarantee that," Thomas said at a legislative hearing. "But I'll pledge to you my commitment to making sure that we will do everything that we possibly can."
But the NIC report also made it clear that management changes are not all that is needed to address problems at Tutwiler and other state corrections facilities.
The report states: "It appears that the warden has tried to be a champion for women's issues but has been unable to affect changes due to the lack of personal, physical and fiscal resources at his disposal. The age and design of the physical plant, overcrowding, and inability to recruit female custody staff as well as deferred maintenance have all contributed to a very difficult physical environment to manage. The result has been staff frustration, low morale, and a dependence on a 'control management style' to manage daily operations."
In other words, the decades of underfunding, overcrowding and understaffing are coming home to roost in Alabama's Corrections system.
Let me make this crystal clear: I do not believe that funding issues are an excuse for the intolerable sexual abuse and related problems at Tutwiler. Even with the resulting overcrowding and dramatic understaffing of Corrections officers, ways must be found to end those abuses.
But chronic underfunding of the system for decades has helped to create conditions that make managing the system extremely difficult.
Consider these facts from statistics maintained by the Department of Corrections:
-- In September, facilities in the state's Corrections system housed 189 percent of the number of inmates that they were designed to house.
Tutwiler was at 176 percent of its design capacity. Kilby Correctional facility in Elmore County was at 329 percent of its design capacity.
-- The ratio of inmates to correctional officers in Alabama prisons is 11.6 to 1, perhaps the most inmates per officer in the nation.
-- In the first nine months of 2012, there were 58 inmate on inmate assaults with serious injuries and 525 assaults without serious injuries in the system. There were six assaults with serious injuries by inmates on staff, and 232 assaults without serious injuries by inmates on staff. Four inmates were murdered, and one committed suicide.
(Commissioner Thomas points out that the murder rate among the system's more than 32,000 inmates is low compared to the murder rate in many Alabama cities. "You're more likely to get killed in the streets," he said.)
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Take mostly aging facilities that are poorly designed by modern standards, stuff them with almost twice the number of inmates that they were designed to house, and then staff them with half the number of corrections officers that are needed for adequate security. The result? A formula for disaster.
There are some legislators who recognize the need for additional resources for the Corrections Department. For instance, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told WSFA 12 News recently: "This has gone on for decades in Alabama, but it's getting to a boiling point that we need to make sure we do something and step up to the plate, or else it's going to blow up in our face." Ward is chairman of the Legislature's Joint Oversight for Prisons Committee.
While the Legislature has not addressed the funding issue, it did take one major step last year that could help -- but only in the long run. It passed legislation that would strengthen sentencing standard guidelines issued by the Alabama Sentencing Commission affecting nonviolent criminals. The new law is expected to reduce the amount of prison time nonviolent criminals receive by allowing more alternative sentencing.
Sentencing for violent criminals would not be affected.
Currently, guidelines issued by the commission are only recommendations. But the new law makes those recommendations "presumptive," which means judges would be expected to follow them unless they publicly cite aggravating or mitigating reasons for not doing so. The first set of guidelines from the commission recently were released, and would be effective Oct. 1 unless changed by the Legislature.
But Commissioner Thomas points out that any significant impact on addressing prison crowding from the guidelines could take time.
"The guidelines are good, but they are not going to have any immediate impact," he said. He said that along with other community sentencing programs, it will help to "deflect inmates from coming in, but it's not going to immediately be our salvation."
Meanwhile, the crowding and understaffing remain a serious issue.
Thomas said the department is authorized by the state Personnel Board to have 3,575 correctional officers.
"We actually, as of September, had 2,183," he said. "That's 59.2 percent." He cited budgeting problems as the primary reason for that shortfall.
"We have been intentionally forced to staff our facilities with less folks than we desire because of our fiscal appropriations," he said.
He said the department "has been forced to manage with less and less year after year."
"Some agencies can sustain level funding," Thomas said. "We cannot. We take a step backward when we get level funding."
This has not been a particularly good few weeks for the department, with the Tutwiler disclosures and a report by WSFA 12 News on rampant cell phone smuggling in prisons. More than one legislator has cited concerns about federal takeover of state prisons, and one also called for a federal study of all state facilities similar to the one done at Tutwiler.
Thomas said that an NIC study of all of the state's prisons is unlikely because NIC also has budgetary problems. But he said many of the management changes that came as a result of the NIC report at Tutwiler will be implemented at other Corrections facilities as well.
"A lot of the practices and improvements that we are implementing at Tutwiler will also be incorporated into our everyday practices at a lot of different facilities, and I think that in the long run will have a great benefit."
He cited as examples the use of camera monitoring systems and changes in how investigations are conducted.
With all of the challenges facing the system, I asked Thomas if he regretted taking on the job of commissioner. He said he did not.
"I feel like I was put here for a reason, and I'm going to keep on every day," he said. "There are some amazing things going on within the Department of Corrections, there are some amazing staff, and we're going to keep pressing forward."
That certainly is the kind of attitude needed to face the daunting challenges of the Corrections Department.
But the reality is that unless the state finds additional and sustainable funding for its corrections system, many of these challenges will continue to plague Alabama's prisons.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.