Perhaps, the most fitting place to use the tired cliché of “kicking the can down the road” is in discussing Alabama’s urgent need for comprehensive prison reform. The state has known for many years that its prisons were overcrowded and understaffed. Further, it has perennially ignored the widespread abuse and neglect of prisoners in its care. This disturbing and horrible situation finally came to an inflection point in April 2019 when the Department of Justice issued a scathing report on Alabama’s prisons and said the state was in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The report made it abundantly clear that Alabama’s prison system was guilty of inflicting cruel and unusual punishments on those serving their sentences.

Yet, the GOP-dominated Alabama legislature and Gov. Kay Ivey seem to think that just building a few more prisons will magically solve all the problems and get the feds off their backs. Of course, the Republican “Taxed Enough Already” crowd doesn’t want to spend a dime on new facilities. They also don’t seem to understand that the problem is much bigger than just overcrowding and understaffing. In a recent interview with WHNT in Huntsville, AL House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said, “Brick and mortar does not solve the problem. I got an opportunity to visit Donaldson Correctional facility during my time in the leadership of Alabama this year, and I was very surprised. It appears that our corrections system is not correcting.” Daniels went on to say that he’d like to see better access to mental healthcare and other basic services, along with more programs to help prisoners integrate into society prior to their release.

Daniels is correct. Alabama desperately needs comprehensive prison reform, including a major overhaul of sentencing guidelines.

For too long, conservatives have used “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” political rhetoric to get elected. Their “tough on crime” approach originates in a belief system that views people that have been convicted of crimes as intrinsically less than human and incapable of redemption or reintegration. This ideology has led to racially-biased sentencing and draconian mandatory minimums. It explains why they didn’t really care about the reports of abuse and neglect. In their view, “you do the crime, you do the time” means that third-world conditions in prison aren’t inhumane, they’re desirable in a perverse view that thinks it serves as a deterrence to criminality.

Democrats, like Daniels, aren’t arguing for prisons to be like country clubs. However, they do understand that prisoners should be treated with basic human dignity. They also understand that without access to mental healthcare, substance abuse treatment, and job-readiness programs, criminal recidivism is exponentially more likely. Building new, state-of-the-art prisons are necessary, but it won’t solve these other more entrenched and intractable problems.

Rep. Daniels has shown tremendous leadership on this issue by insisting that a legislative special session debate focuses on more than just constructing new prisons. Obviously, the big point of contention will be the price tag for new facilities and for much-needed reforms and programs. Of course, this speaks to the much larger issue of revenue and taxation. On this point, Republicans have their fingers permanently stuck in their ears and think that inadequate funding for public services is a hallmark of conservatism. It’s not, it’s just poor and ineffective governance.

Without comprehensive reform, the problems in Alabama’s prisons will still exist, but in newer, hopefully less crowded, facilities. Legislators on both sides of the aisle should listen to Daniels and use this situation as an opportunity to fix a very broken system. These problems aren’t going to vanish on their own.

Clete Wetli
Clete Wetli is former Chair of the Madison County Democrats and a liberal political activist.