Prison overcrowding manageable

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 8, 2002

BNI Newswire

With nearly 10,000 new inmates entering the Alabama corrections system each year, and each of the 18 major prison facilities already at double capacity, state officials are scrambling to find a solution to overcrowding that is spilling over into county jails.

And while overcrowding on the state level is a growing burden, in Pike County officials believe it is still manageable.

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"Corrections Commissioner Mike Haley and John Hamm, the assistant commissioner, work well with me if I have a problem with an inmate or have an inmate that needs to be transferred,"

Pike County Sheriff Russell Thomas said. "We’ve just got to find a way to work with Corrections to allow them bed space."

Thomas said the Pike County facility usually maintains between 70 and 75 inmates at a time. Of those, 20 to 25 are state inmates. Thomas said the jail is currently holding 23 state prisoners.

To Thomas, these numbers are an improvement.

"We were in the mid-90s for a long time," Thomas said.

Still, Thomas will admit that overall, the state is facing an overcrowding problem.

Gov. Don Siegelman is taking steps toward easing some of the congestion by reinstituting pardon and parole hearings.

"The governor not to long ago managed to get $250,000 to get the Thursday pardons and paroles hearings back on track," said Mike Kanarick, the governor’s press secretary. "That will lead to the release of some non-violent offenders, and people who are ready to be released."

However, of the more than 2,000 inmates paroled last year, nearly 50 percent found their way back to prison, according to statistics on the Alabama Department of Corrections Web site.

Thomas said he frequently sees evidence of those statistics.

"We’re seeing property offenders – burglars, theft crimes, things that involve property – being released early in their terms," Thomas said. "They are considered non-violent offenders, but they still cause a problem to law enforcement because in most cases they go back out and commit the same type of crimes over and over again."

The issue of recidivism rates, that is, previous offenders committing subsequent crimes, appears to be a debate of whether "the glass is half-empty or half-full," when it comes to state officials and law enforcement officers.

According to Brian Corbett, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, any offenders paroled who don’t return to the system prevail over those who do return.

"If you have, say, a 20 percent recidivism rate, we consider that an 80 percent success rate," Corbett said.

Tallapoosa County Sheriff Jimmy Abbett, who was forced to ask the Tallapoosa County Commission for a new wing to his jail because of overcrowding, doesn’t see it that way. The sheriff, whose jail currently holds close to 50 state inmates, said the majority of inmates being housed in county jails across the state are parole and probation violators.

"I am an advocate of truth in sentencing," Abbett said. "That way, everybody knows exactly how long someone is going to serve"

Abbett said the number of parole and probation violators has increased over the years, and continues to do so.

For Thomas’ part, he believes the answer comes in using what the state already has in place.

"The solution that I see is not to build new $50 million jails at the expense of the taxpayers," Thomas said.

Instead, Thomas said he would like to see the state increase the size of current facilities

"Several of our prisons were designed to hold between 900 and

1,100 inmates. Because of overcrowding, they have increased that to between 1,300 and 1,500," Thomas said. "But we can do more. The towers are there. The security is in place. The cafeterias are in place. What we need is already there."

Thomas said if 500-bed dormitories were added to eight of the state sites, that would increase the capacity by 4,000 inmates. And he proposes using prison labor to do it.

"Why not use inmate labor with state supervision and build dormitories," he asked. "It makes perfect sense, and we’ve talked with other states to know that it can be done."