Political Adversaries Work To Reduce Alabama's Prison Population

Steve Inskeep talks to Republican State Sen. Cam Ward and Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Maria Morris about efforts to work across political lines to reduce the state prison population.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last year alone, dozens of states adjusted their sentencing and corrections practices. A think tank called the Vera Institute finds that many aim to reduce prison populations. One state now debating change is Alabama, and the drive to keep fewer people incarcerated there has brought together two people with very different politics - Maria Morris of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama State Senator Cam Ward.

CAM WARD: I'm a conservative Republican, have been all my life, represent a - kind of the suburbs of Birmingham and a heavily Republican district. I'm socially and fiscally conservative.

MARIA MORRIS: I am a liberal Democrat. I am a civil rights attorney. I am quite liberal for anyone in Alabama, certainly.

INSKEEP: What is the basic problem you're trying to address?

WARD: Well, first, I'll start off, I guess, by saying you'd have to be blind, whether you're politically right or politically left, to not recognize that 192 percent capacity in your prison facilities is a problem. I mean, there's just no other way around it. That's a problem. And also, that overcapacity, in my opinion, creates a whole host of other problems. And I think anyone who can't see that, regardless of their political thoughts, they're just not looking at a reality.

INSKEEP: Maria Morris, how would you define the problem?

MORRIS: I would largely define it the same way. The extent of the overcrowding leads to an enormous number of problems, including a lot of Eighth Amendment violations, particularly around medical and mental health care.

INSKEEP: Hasn't the Southern Poverty Law Center of which you're a part filed a lawsuit relating to that?

MORRIS: Yes, we recently filed a lawsuit regarding the failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care as well as the failure to accommodate people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

INSKEEP: Senator Ward, has this lawsuit influenced your thinking on this issue?

WARD: This would be the one area that - I don't want to say we disagree because I think there is a real challenge in our system. And I think we've got a lot of problems. I'm not sure the health care and mental health care being provided meet the threshold of being unconstitutional yet. That being said, over half of Alabama inmates have some sort of mental health disorder. And of that half, 73 percent of them have some sort of substance abuse addiction. So you've got to look at that and say, this is a problem. If they go into the facility and if they don't receive adequate treatment, they're going to eventually go back out. And if they have the same mental health disorder or the same drug addiction as when they went in, you're just spending a lot of money, and you're not actually doing anything at all to enhance public safety.

INSKEEP: So how widespread, then, is support for doing something about this issue in your state?

WARD: It has grown. I would have said 10 years ago that this, you know, this was the third rail of politics down here. You just wouldn't talk about it or touch it. I think it's grown tremendously for a couple reasons - one, I think media reports of officers abusing inmates, female inmates. And then on top of that is actually a financial burden because what people are seeing now is states are having tight budgets. And now everyone's saying, well, we can't afford to keep running a system like this and it be broken as well. And everyone realizes that should there ever be a federal receivership placed over our system, like as in happened in California, it would bankrupt our general fund budget. So I think money helps drive this too.

INSKEEP: And now, you say federal receivership. Let's describe that for people who are not familiar with it. You're saying there is a possibility that if the prison system gets enough out of control, you effectively have a federal takeover and lose control of the prison system in Alabama.

WARD: At 192 percent capacity, we're hands-down the most overcrowded system in the country. I don't know if we're there yet or not, but I can tell you this. If we keep ignoring like we have, you'll eventually get there.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm trying to think from the outside of the possible solutions here. I guess you can let more people go. You can put fewer people in in the first place, or you can build more prisons. What solutions are on the table in Alabama?

MORRIS: I'd like to add one option, which is reduce the length of time you're sending people in for.

INSKEEP: All right.

WARD: I think you're looking at a combination. First of all, at some point you're going to have to have some new construction, although I don't believe that helps your capacity level very much - mainly new construction to replace these facilities, some that were built as far back as 1942. Second is what other kind of alternative programs do we have out there that maybe reduces those who are going into the system? Drug courts, mental health courts, veterans courts - are we utilizing them to the best of our ability? Probably not, we need to use them more. And then finally, I think you look at what can we do with community corrections? It allows an inmate to go into a facility. They're usually - they're always a nonviolent offender. They work during the day, and at night they stay in this minimum security facility.

INSKEEP: Senator Ward mentioned that this used to be the third rail of politics in Alabama, something you just couldn't touch. Maria Morris, what solutions just cannot be on the table in this situation?

MORRIS: To me, I think a very bad solution to the overcrowding problem would be building additional facilities. We need to be providing appropriate care and appropriate staffing for all of the people in the prisons. And those are things that cost money, and Alabama can't afford that.

WARD: She's so right about that. You know, and that's one thing that I totally agree with her on. There's been this notion, somehow, why don't you build your way out of it? Well, we have a $1.6 billion general fund budget. Out of that $1.6 billion, we currently spend $160 million on prisons. We would have to spend over a billion dollars of our budget just on corrections. And that's - not only is that fiscally impossible, but that's also stupid because if we did that, 10 years from now, we'd be back in the same spot again. So I agree that you just can't build your way out of the problem.

INSKEEP: Alabama State Senator Cam Ward and Maria Morris of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thanks to you both.

MORRIS: Thank you.

WARD: Thanks for having us on.

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