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Prison Reform: "How Texas Did It..."

Alabama’s prison system has been in the news a lot this year, and not for good reasons. Inmate riots, allegations of mismanagement and corruption, and a failed prison building plan in the state legislature have pointed out plenty of problems. The Alabama Public Radio news team has spent the past several months examining what happens as people go into the state’s prison system and what happens when they come out.  I report on one state where prison reform appears to be working…

Alabama’s prison problems are clear. The inmate population is nearly one hundred percent over capacity. Critics says that’s led to violence, including riots and one inmate stabbed to death and a guard injured in the past month. But, Alabama’s not alone. Between 1985 and 2005, Texas’ inmate population had tripled, giving the Lone Star Star the third highest incarceration rate in the nation. But, starting in 2005, things started changing…

“We made Texas safer, but we also did smarter things that basically saved us money,” according to former Texas State House member Jerry Madden. He led the charge to change his state’s prison system.

It all started with a phone call…

“The Speaker of the House called, and he said ‘Jerry you’re going to be chairman of corrections,’ says Madden. "And I said ‘Thank you Mr. Speaker for the opportunity. And under my breath, I’m thinking good God, why Me? What did I do to deserve this?”

Madden’s marching orders were simple. Texas couldn’t afford the billion dollars worth of new prison cells to solve the overcrowding. So, Madden was told to find another way that didn’t cost as much. It was then he looked at the kinds of inmates Texas was locking up. “There are ones you’re afraid of, and there are ones we’re mad at,” says Madden.

The ones Texas was mad at went by another name… “They’re knuckleheads, they just do dumb and stupid things,” he says.

And, reforming knuckleheads could be less expensive. Locking one up costs Texas fifty dollars a day. Allowing that same knucklehead out on probation cost less than a dollar and fifty cents a day. Madden lobbied to spend money to expand a drug treatment program needed to speed up the probation process. Pretty soon a thousand prisoners were allowed out… “So we saved fifteen thousand for each of those thousand prisoners,” says Madden. “We more than paid for that program, with the reduction in the number of prisoners we had, in a very short period of time.”

Texas also spent money on education programs for prisoners. The result was a fourteen percent drop in the inmate population. The crime rate in Texas also dropped by a third. Better yet, fewer prisoners meant fewer cells were needed, so the state closed three prisons. Pretty soon, the world was taking notice. Madden took the Texas plan on the road to Australia, as well as Utah, Nebraska, and Alabama. But before you think Alabama lawmakers are throwing their arms open—think again…

“Their system is much larger than ours,” says Jefferson Dunn. He’s Alabama’s Commissioner of Corrections. “The state of Texas puts more resources per inmate into their system,” Dunn asserts. “And, they don’t deal with the overcrowding to the extent that we do.”

That’s not to say Alabama isn't trying to do prison reform its own way, and even civil liberties groups are taking notice. Last year, the legislature passed Senate Bill 67. It was a bi-partisan bill that calls for inmate rehabilitation like the plan in Texas. Dunn says he hopes it change how he does his job… “It may be a bad analogy,” says Dunn. “But, if it were a baseball game, I’m the catcher. So, I catch whatever I receive.”

And if SB 67 works there may be less catching to do. SB 67 reclassifies certain crimes to try to reduce prison times for non-violent criminals and offers diversion program for non-violent convicts. Dunn likes that part… “That enables me as the Commissioner to do a better job of running the Department of Corrections,” says Dunn. “And giving my officers a little bit more breathing room with respect of the number of inmates that they supervise.”

That’s assuming that SB 67 can actually work.

“There are some holes in that,” says Ebony Howard. She’s the Associate Legal Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. Howard was part of the negotiating process as SB 67 came together. She says the reforms the law calls for are badly needed… “I have talked to prisoners who are enduring horrible conditions. Prisoners who are not getting the medication that they need,” Howard says. “Prisoners who have died since I’ve known them because they aren’t getting appropriate medical treatment.”

SB 67 maybe a solution to that. We say maybe because even supporters like Howard say the jury is still out, so to speak, on whether all sides are serious about making it work. She says there are signs that SB 67 is just sputtering along… “What we’re hearing on the ground is that implementation of it is lethargic,” Howard contends. Specifically, she says district attorneys appear hesitant to charge criminals with lesser types of felonies created by SB 67 that are designed to ease the inmate population.

She says money is another worry… “I think it’s up in the air,” Howard says. “And it really depends upon what happens during the legislative session with the prison construction bill.” Howard is referring to the 2017 session and Governor Robert Bentley’s eight hundred million dollar prison construction bill. You heard criticism of plan in MacKenzie Bates’ feature that aired earlier this month on APR. Howard’s concern is that Alabama can’t afford both the prison bill and the twenty five million dollars a year SB 67 will need between now and 2021 to work.

So for now, Jerry Madden will keep taking his show on the road. He says the biggest surprise in Texas’ prison reform plan was that both liberals and conservatives in the legislature were willing to come together to hash out a plan… “They agreed on eighty percent of the stuff. They had their fringe stuff on the right and the fringe stuff on the left. But, the things they talked about on general operations on probation should work, or what programs we would have, there was a large amount of agreement.”

We’ll see how Alabama’s lawmakers do when funding for SB 67 and the Governor’s prison plan come up in Montgomery next year.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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