Posts Tagged ‘alabama’
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Previously I noted Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name, a history of the convict-lease system in Alabama. When an Alabama inmate, Mark Melvin, tried to read the book recently, officials at the Kilby state prison seized it, calling the book “incendiary.” Melvin is now suing in federal court with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative. From the New York Times:
Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he was told by an official at Kilby that the book was “too incendiary” and “too provocative,” and was ordered to have it sent back at his own expense.
He appealed, but in his lawsuit he says that prison officials upheld the decision, citing a regulation banning any mail that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” (Mr. Melvin is white.)
So he sued.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not comment.
Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he considered the lawsuit to be less about the rights of people in prison but primarily about the country’s refusal to own up to its racial history.
With state prisons stuffed beyond capacity and no signs of any slowdown in the volume of drug and theft cases that fill court dockets, Alabama’s judges are being asked to rethink the sentences they issue.
The message came last week as all Alabama judges with power to sentence prisoners were invited by Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb to a three-day meeting in Montgomery. Cobb wants to find ways to reduce jail overcrowding and still enforce Alabama’s laws in the face of significant state budget problems.
She has said Alabama’s prisons are operating at 195 percent of capacity … . Alabama has the nation’s sixth highest incarceration rate; state prison costs quadrupled in 20 years to $577 million a year in 2008, and half of all new inmates in the system in 2009 were imprisoned for drug offenses, according to the chief justice.
I had previously noted Sue Bell Cobb’s interest in criminal justice reform a few months ago, here.
The National Association of Sentencing Commissions (NASC) will hold its 2010 conference this August 8-10 in Point Clear, Alabama, which is on the Mobile Bay. Registration info available here. (h/t: Doug Berman)
I had the opportunity to attend some sessions of the 2008 NASC conference in San Francisco and can attest that it’s an informative, thought-provoking event that attracts a wide range of criminal justice professionals from around the country. And based on many childhood vacations, I can also attest that the Alabama Gulf Coast region is a very nice place to visit! (Although it has tragically been hit hard by the BP oil spill.) The conference agenda is available here; the theme is “Sound Sentencing Policy: Balancing Justice and Dollars”:
This year’s conference will offer plenaries, workshops and roundtable discussions on issues relating to sentencing practices and the hurdles sentencing commissions and criminal justice officials must overcome during these times of shrinking budgets and scarce resources, as well as innovative ways that states have faced these challenges. Welcoming the conference attendees will be Alabama’s Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, Federal Circuit Judge, Bill Pryor, former Attorney General of Alabama and leader in establishing Alabama’s Sentencing Commission, and Commission Chair, Retired Circuit Judge Joe Colquitt, Beasley Professor of Law, University of Alabama School of Law.
“What is the oppressor of the poor? I am convinced that is it drug and alcohol addiction and it is in part the criminal justice system that does not help the poor, but instead sets them up for failure,” Cobb said. “Do poor people have money for the best legal counsel? No they do not. Do poor people have insurance so they can get money to pay for drug treatment? No, they do not. Do poor people have transportation so they can go to community service work, so they can go to court, so they can go to drug testing, so they can go get a job like the court has asked them to do? No, they cannot.”
Slavery by Another Name (Doubleday, 2008), by Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon, exposes and meticulously documents the complicity of Corporate America with the efforts of Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War to essentially re-impose slavery via convict labor. Throughout the South, between Reconstruction and World War II, tens of thousands of black men were arrested on trumped-up or minor charges and then leased out as laborers to companies ranging from small-town entrepreneurs to major corporations such as U.S. Steel. The Pulitzer Prize winning book is being adapted into a documentary film to debut on PBS in 2011.
The Birmingham (Ala.) News has this interesting article about the reception of the book in that Southern city. Although Birmingham is well known for its central role in the Civil Rights Movement, the former steel town has yet to fully confront this aspect of its troubled racial past:
Reading the book, Robert Corley, director of [the University of Alabama at Birmingham]’s Global and Community Leaders Honor Program, was shocked to discover something he’d never known about his great-grandfather, Robert Franklin.
Franklin, a constable and shopkeeper in Goodwater, was convicted of rounding up blacks and essentially selling them to a plantation owner. Franklin was fined $1,000. Corley said no one in his family knew the story and they have been struggling to comprehend it.
Franklin continued in business. When he died in 1946, Franklin’s estate was worth about $1 million. Corley said his own ability to go to college and obtain advanced degrees was in some part due to Franklin’s prosperity.
Corley, who helped design the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and was a founding member of its board, wonders about the damage done to the men his great-grandfather arrested.
“My great-grandfather was a real criminal,” Corley said. “These others he arrested were not, and yet he didn’t suffer any real consequences.”
Odessa Woolfolk, the BCRI’s former board president, said more attention should be paid to the period between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Some worry about bringing up the story, but the facts need to be faced, she said.
“We have a tendency to want to sweep unpleasant facts under the rug,” she said. “I hope that there gets to be more public discussion about the book and the history that the book recalls.”