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The prison inmate shuffle

On Memorial Day, two inmates from North Alabama escaped from a private prison in Perry County. They were apprehended Saturday in North Dakota.

Monday, state Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen announced that the state at the end of the budget year would move its 250 inmates out of the Perry County facility and back into state-run prisons.

But Allen said the decision had nothing to do with the escape, in which some prison employees were apparently negligent and about which the state was not informed for some 12 hours. (The state of Vermont recently moved its inmates out of Perry County because of security concerns.)

Several years ago, Alabama sent women inmates to a private prison in Louisiana because the bid submitted by the Perry County Detention Center, which is operated by LCS Corrections Services, was significantly higher.

This business of moving inmates in and out of prisons (and in and out of state) has a cause. What the state pays the private prisons per inmate per day is less than what it costs the state to keep the inmates in state lockups.

But Commissioner Allen apparently can’t use private prisons unless the Legislature specifically authorizes the money. He can use state prisons even if the cost is nominally higher – though, obviously, some austerity measures must be put into place.

And there’s this: If Allen puts too many men or women in inadequate facilities, he risks the intervention of the federal courts.

The problem is ultimately political. Alabamians want criminals behind bars but don’t like paying to keep them there. Thus, the prisons chief is constantly having to juggle priorities and transport inmates.

Unless Alabamians (through their Legislature) are willing to see a lot more of their tax money go to prisons, all that’s left are alternative sentencing programs.

Those provide some oversight of convicted criminals’ lives without forcing the taxpayers to house, clothe and feed these people and pay their medical bills.

Alabama’s prison system, in short, is forever on the brink, and when you’re dealing with some people – though not all – who may be a threat to society, that’s not a good place to be.

—The Huntsville Times