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Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the nation: More than 24,000 inmates are housed in a system designed for half that number. The violence, overcrowding and actions taken by the federal government pushed state government to action, passing a penal reform bill. But does it go far enough? Jeffrey Brown reports.
Next: Alabama's prison system at a breaking point.
The state currently packs more than 24,000 inmates into a system designed to house about half that number.
Jeffrey Brown looks inside the most overcrowded prison system in the nation. It's part of our ongoing series Broken Justice about new approaches to criminal justice.
The William C. Holman maximum security prison in Atmore, Alabama loud, crowded, and, when we visited just weeks after a riot broke out here, still in partial lockdown.
On March 11, with just 17 guards overseeing more than 900 prisoners, a fight broke out between two inmates. An officer trying to break it up was stabbed, as was the warden. Video uploaded to Facebook by an inmate using a smuggled cell phone captured some of the mayhem.
And it took the prison's rapid response emergency squads to reestablish order. It was a shocking that unfolded here at Holman Correctional Facility on March 11 were, but perhaps more shocking is that no one we have spoken to is surprised that something like this could have happened.
GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY (R), Alabama: Unfortunately, I think things like that will continue. That's why I think it's essential that we solve this problem, that we solve it once and for all.
We joined Alabama Governor Robert Bentley as he toured Julia Tutwiler Prison, a maximum security facility for women outside Montgomery.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Tutwiler in 2014, citing corruption, sexual assault and harassment of inmates by staff, just one of a number of lawsuits accusing the Alabama Corrections System of violating inmates' rights.
The violence, the overcrowding and the federal measures have pushed the solidly Republican state government into action, a penal reform bill passed last year by an overwhelming majority in the Republican-controlled legislature, and signed into law by the Republican governor.
GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY:
I know, in Alabama, just like in a lot of states, it was a three strikes and you're out type thing. And so our prison population has just dramatically increased over the last 20 years. So, we need to look at that. We need to look at a different approach. And that's what we're doing in the state with our prison reform bill.
Republican State Senator Cam Ward spearheaded the legislative effort.
CAM WARD (R), Alabama State Senator: It took many years to get into this mess; it's going to take as many years to get out. We campaigned and politicized it so much, that it was easy to get votes by saying, I'm going to be tough on crime.
It's a lot harder to say, I'm going to maintain a healthy constitutional system. It doesn't quite fit on the bumper sticker the same way that the first slogan did.
Among other things, the new law, which just went into effect in January, creates a new class of felonies for low-level drug and property crimes that keeps offenders out of state prisons.
Alabama was the only state that considered all forms of property theft violent crimes. It's now reclassified third-degree burglary as a nonviolent crime. The law requires the hiring of 100 additional probation and parole officers. It mandates that parole boards create standardized guidelines statewide, give reasons why inmates are denied parole, and reduces punishments for minor parole violations.
For the first time, the new law uses risk assessment to focus resources on those who most need them, and funds drug treatment and mental health programs for those released under correctional supervision.
Ninety-eight percent of everybody who's an inmate in a prison today in the United States eventually gets released. However, what we're not doing is putting the adequate resources there to monitor them when they're on their parole, making sure they're complying with all the stuff they're supposed to be complying with.
We didn't do that. This legislation did.
Are you making this push for budgetary reasons, or for moral reasons?
Interestingly enough, it depends on who you ask who — why they support it. You have some who say, hey, for budgetary purposes.
We just have to do this.
This is the second largest item in our budget. We have got to do something about it.
Then you have those for moral purposes. I would say many of my Democrat colleagues would say it's a moral issue for them. They have had to deal or hear people about this. And then, finally, I would say, myself, I look at it from a legal aspect. You're going to run afoul of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution if you continuing running facilities and a system like we have been.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits punishment considered cruel and unusual and the threat of a federal takeover motivates Ward and many others.
BRYAN STEVENSON, Equal Justice Initiative:
I think it is cruel and I think it's unusual. I think it violates the Eighth Amendment.
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and prison reform activist who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based nonprofit that represents prisoners and indigent defendants. He says the state's reform efforts don't go nearly far enough.
Alabama hasn't done anything that I would call significant reform. We had a prison task force that didn't talk about prisons, didn't talk about conditions, didn't talk about anything related to the prisons. We passed some really moderate, minor even, changes in some of our sentencing schemes.
It's rough when you're kind of elbow to elbow to person.
In Dothan, Alabama, we asked men who had recently been released from prison about the conditions.
It's harder to keep clean when you got all the people in there like that.
Did you have that, Dwight? Was it crowded?
Yes, sir. About every day, there was a stabbing, fighting, cutting.
Every day, you saw things like that?
These men are now receiving help from Pastor Kenneth Glasgow…
KENNETH GLASGOW, The Ordinary People Society:
I'm just now hitting 15 years, after doing 14 years.
… who, after serving 14 years on a drug charge, created the Ordinary People Society, an organization and halfway house to help people transition out of prison.
Glasgow applauds the efforts made by the legislature so far, but is also calling for a more fundamental change to the way people view inmates.
We're not ex-convicts. We're not ex-offenders. We're not ex-felons. Don't classify us. We are people with felony convictions, people that have paid their debt to society. People. People.
Look, it's still legal in this state to impose a mandatory life without parole sentence on someone in simple possession of 2.5 pounds of marijuana, using it for their personal use.
I'm representing a man who's a 75-year-old disabled combat veteran who was found to have 2.5 pounds of pot, because he was using it to deal with stents in his heart. And because he had convictions from 30 years ago in Alabama, the judge had to impose a mandatory life without parole sentence on this man.
And that's the kind of sentencing regime we still have in this state. The metric that matters is the number of people in jails or prisons. You can talk about reform all night long, you can talk about building prisons, you can talk about all kinds of things. But the truth is, we have got thousands of people in jails and prisons who don't need to there. And we haven't found the courage yet to get them out.
We're very proud of how we have taken this facility and done some work in it. It still has considerable limitations.
Even if the new reforms do work, they will only limit the overcrowding. Governor Bentley now wants to take a dramatic next step. He's proposed building four supermax prisons, costing $800 million, to replace outdated facilities like Tutwiler.
The facilities we have right now with 190 percent occupancy rate, almost 200 percent, I mean, this is just unacceptable. And it's dangerous, not only to the prisoners, to our corrections officers, and really to the public, and it's costing us hundreds of millions of dollars.
And so we can modernize the system, and we can try to correct and help those who are here, and that's our goal.
But now the governor faces a more immediate political threat: a state ethics investigation into his time in office, including whether he violated state laws in conducting an alleged affair with a former adviser.
The statehouse, including members of the governor's own party, just moved ahead on impeachment proceedings.
The ethics investigation now, does that have any impact, do you think, on your potential to pass reform, prison reform?
You know, I think that, look, some people will think that, and some people may use that. I really do not. I think that the legislators who understand the seriousness of this will not look at that. They will try to solve problems, just like I'm trying to do.
And how big a priority is this for you?
This is very high. This is — right now is my highest priority.
Highest right now. We're the closest right now to solving this problem that will solve a problem for the state of Alabama for the next 30 to 50 years. And that's major. And we're going from, as I say, the worst in the country, we're going to go to the best in the country.
In the meantime, everyone agrees there's certain to be continued overcrowding and more violence.
From Atmore, Alabama, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."
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Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
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