Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Will Alabama Be Sued Over Prison Overcrowding?

with 7 comments

That’s the dire prediction made in this editorial from the Birmingham News:

Actually, it’s surprising someone hasn’t sued already. We’ve known since May the U.S. Supreme Court’s dim view of California’s overcrowded prisons. The high court ordered California to get rid of 30,000 of the prison system’s 140,000 inmates after inmates’ lawsuits contended the overcrowding violated their rights and kept them from getting needed medical care and other services.

Alabama’s prisons are even more jam-packed than California’s, with our state’s 30,970 inmates exceeding the prisons’ designed capacity by 190 percent, according to state data. California’s prisons were at 175 percent capacity at the time of the Supreme Court ruling. While Alabama’s prison conditions aren’t nearly as bad as California’s, Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones expressed the obvious concern.

“California’s prisons are not as overcrowded as Alabama’s are right now,” Jones told the TimesDaily of Florence in a story published Tuesday in The Birmingham News. “I’m afraid that all it’s going to take is for someone to take some of the California lawsuits and change the names of the defendants to Alabama officials instead of California officials and a group of federal judges is going to order that Alabama reduce a bunch of prisoners to reduce overcrowding.”

The California case referred to is, of course, Brown v. Plata, last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding a federal court order requiring the Golden State to reduce its prison population. At the time, for all its importance as a moral statement, I didn’t think Plata would have much practical effect for other states since no other state has prisons as overcrowded as California’s — no other state, that is, except for Alabama. So, it’s not surprising to me that officials there are worried.

I don’t think Alabama has as much to fear from federal judges as this editorial implies. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 was passed specifically to weaken federal judicial oversight of state prison systems. It prohibits federal judges from issuing what it calls “prisoner release orders” — defined as any order that would have the effect of reducing the state prison population — except as a very last resort. California got to that stage only after failing to fix its overcrowding crisis through 20+ years of litigation, and it’s clear that the Supreme Court only upheld the Plata order because the situation was so unique and had been dragging on for so long. Large-scale institutional reform litigation of this type is highly fact-driven, and it takes years. In sum, there’s no reason to think that an Alabama lawsuit would turn out the same as the California litigation did; and even if it did come to a federal release order, that could be decades down the road.

Still, I think Alabama officials are right to think that lawsuits might be filed in the near future — not least because the South has lots of crusading prisoners’ rights attorneys and organizations with plenty of experience with this kind of thing — even if any such lawsuits wouldn’t be resolved any time soon. Last year Alabama legislators considered a slew of criminal justice reforms that didn’t wind up going anywhere; maybe the specter of litigation is what it will take to push these reforms through. It’s hard to disagree with the editorial’s policy recommendations:

State government shouldn’t wait on a federal court to order inmates’ release because of a California-style lawsuit. The Department of Corrections and the Legislature need to do everything they can to ease the inmate crunch by finding ways to get nonviolent offenders out of prisons and into alternative programs such as community corrections, and by doing a better job preparing the inmates it releases to become responsible, productive citizens instead of continuing lives of crime and returning to prison.

Written by sara

January 5, 2012 at 8:07 am

7 Responses

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  1. We already have community corrections and that doesn’t make things better. I feel like anyone who has served 1/3 or more of their sentence should be released( violent or non-violent).People that have been locked up almost 15yrs. or more should be let go.


    January 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    • I so agree. When an inmate goes before the parole board to be considered for parole, they don’t look at what kind of inmate they have been while incarcerated or how they have made use of their time like getting an education..etc. All they look at is the crime they committed. There are so many inmates incarcerated (violent and non-violent) that would be good candidates for parole but they are not given a chance to prove that. The parole board needs to be more open minded to possibilities when it comes to parole.

      Angela Woody

      January 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    • I totally agree!!! My husband has been locked up for 18 years..He has life with possibility of parole,and I think that it is time for him to be one to be released. The Alabama Parole Board is the reason the prisons are so crowded..They are not giving the ones that comes up for parole a chance. There are more committing crimes and they are holding the ones in there that has done 1/3 of their time.We new Parole Board Members.


      January 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm



        January 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm

  2. I totally agree that the Parole Board is not doing a good job. They all need to be replaced.
    I have attended two parole hearings and the Board had made their decision before anyone
    really defended the parole issue since the victim’s family was present. The inmate has completed 85% of their 20 years, model inmate,, never a problem, continued education of 50 + courses, worked whenever work is available, many letters of recommendation to be paroled. The crime happened in 1993 when this inmate was a teenager, now grown and a completely different person. This inmate did not commit the actual crime but knew about it. So if he isn’t rehabilitated by now, when does the Board think that will happen. After all, that is what prison is for – to rehabilitate a person to be able to perform and conform with the real world.

    Nancy Blankensopp

    March 23, 2012 at 3:07 pm

  3. i attend a parole board hearing for now is my husband. they told me they wont let him parole out early. but to be sure that i was there on april 30 2012 at the prison to pick him up. well 2 weeks before he was to eos out. the adoc decided to take his good time away. and make him stay a other 10 years. its not fair. i have heatlh problems and need him home. and he found out that he has cancer. so why let him stay in a other 10 years.he spend almost 5 years in there.

    kathie sheneman-mcdaniel

    May 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm

  4. We will never get this worked out.Putting people in prison is all about money you all need to stop lying to yourselfs.Alot of the people locked up dont deserve to be there keep lying saying they do and one day i pray you are the one caught up in the money making.There needs to be riots at every prison until they do things the right way.Remember people never do the right thing until they are forced to thats why i said fight fire with fire.And for all the ones who are on the side of the prisons i really pray you find yourself in prison soon.


    May 21, 2012 at 7:38 am

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