Governor Kay Ivey has begun reviewing plans for two new Alabama prisons. This effort is going on while more than 100 prison employees and dozens of inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Ivey will consider the proposals for at least six weeks. Building new prisons is expected to take years. University of Alabama Law Professor Jenny Carroll said Ivey’s reform work is a step in the right direction, but it won't help stop the spread of COVID-19 in Alabama’s prisons.
Carroll said that a 2019 Department of Justice report on Alabama's prison conditions suggests inmates may be particularly vulnerable to the virus.
"One of the complaints in the DOJ report was that Alabama did not provide sufficient medical care for inmates, and this is particularly concerning in light of the current public health crisis because we know individuals over the age of 65 are especially susceptible, and we know Alabama has a large population of individuals at ADOC who are over the age of 65," Carroll said.
The DOJ report also found that Alabama prisons are, on average, almost 200 percent over capacity. Critics say there’s no possible way for inmates to maintain social distancing. Most inmates may not have unfettered access to sanitation resources.
There are some local advocacy groups providing resources like masks and hand sanitizer. DeJuana Thompson is the founder of Woke Vote. Her organization is working with “Masks for the People” to provide free masks and hand sanitizer for people in Jefferson County and Birmingham jails. They are also advocating for free COVID-19 testing for inmates.
Woke Vote mobilizes people of color in the South by organizing their political and social power. The group is involved in many justice-related issues. Thompson said the state’s attitude towards incarcerated people affects their response to this crisis.
"The way in which the lives of those who are in these facilities are viewed doesn’t lend itself to what seems to be a practice of ensuring they have a quality of life," Thompson said.
Carroll believes heightened awareness about the effects of COVID-19 in prisons should encourage Ivey to reflect on aspects of the existing system that aren’t working. She said building new prisons gives Ivey an opportunity to change how Alabama incarcerates people.
"It gets to a more fundamental question of how do we want to conceive of our next century of incarceration?," Carroll said. "Everything that COVID-19 has taught us about the jail and prison system isn’t specific to this contagion, it's really offering an opportunity to focus on some of the underlying problems of the system.”
Carroll said Ivey should listen to both defendants and victims about how to reimagine the prison system. She said that Ivey is missing out on valuable input from community leaders by excluding the public from the reform process.
"I think if we open that up, that dialogue, it creates a possibility that we actually reconceive public safety, not in terms of how do we house people either pre-trial or post- conviction, but how do we ensure that these people become productive members of our community, or have the support system in place so that they remain productive members of our community," Carroll said.
DeJuana Thompson of Woke Vote agrees. But she suggested the state take a different approach. She said constructing new facilities is a way for the state to avoid confronting the underlying problems.
"There is more money put into jailing people than...dealing with the root causes that ultimately lead for someone to be in those facilities,” Thompson said.
Thompson suggested the state redirect prison construction funding toward rehabilitative measures. The state could then invest in schools and “root cause practices,” which she said could eliminate the need to build new facilities.
In the meantime, organizations like Thompson’s Woke Vote are doing what they can to protect inmates from a COVID-19 outbreak. But she knows this is only possible because leadership there wants to help. Thompson praised Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway for paving a path to get resources to inmates in a time of great need.
Carroll and other advocates encourage the state to do more to relieve overcrowding. As courts reopen and more people are sentenced, overcrowding could get worse.
"My hope is Ivey will be more thoughtful about that and will push more both for release, for early parole review, for home confinement,” Carroll said.
But she said parole release rates have not increased so far. On May 28, the state held 31 parole hearings. None of the inmates were granted parole. Thompson said safety measures within prisons may be the best bet for now. Time will tell whether the state will do more to protect inmate’s lives. But there isn’t much time to wait.