Alabama owns a sordid past when it comes to the care, feeding and attempted rehabilitation of inmates.
In the present, federal officials informed state leaders of something that’s been obvious for a very long time: Conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women are “dehumanizing.”
The list of staff abuses cited by federal investigators (based on a 2013 visit) include sexual misconduct, excessive force, overcrowding, lack of health care and discrimination.
“We conclude that the state of Alabama violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution by failing to protect women prisoners at Tutwiler from harm due to sexual abuse and harassment from correctional staff,” federal officials wrote in the letter to Gov. Bentley.
It now falls to Bentley, Marsh and Hubbard to make fixes, to get actively involved in providing the resources the state Department of Corrections needs to repair and reform Tutwiler and the rest of its facilities.
Given an opportunity to assess Alabama’s condition last week in his State of the State speech, Bentley failed to mention the deplorable conditions and 2-to-1 overcrowding at state prisons. Shocking. He did find time to brag about cutting $1 billion from state spending. It’s not a stretch to connect the two — budget-cutting with a growing crisis in the state’s public-safety apparatus.
Saving money at the expense of overcrowded prisons, understaffed courts and overworked crime labs isn’t really saving. This unwise cutting comes with many potential costs — a federal takeover of state prisons, reduced criminal sentences because of overcrowding, a growing crime rate and the pursuit of justice slowed to a frustrating crawl.
The challenge before our leaders on Goat Hill is obvious. Step. 1: Be leaders. Accept that these problems are your responsibility to fix. Step 2: Forget there’s an election this November. Fixing state prisons may be expensive and remedies may displease powerful, monied interests in the state. Too bad, this problem won’t wait for an election cycle. Step 3: This is no time for fed-bashing. We heard enough of that last week from Bentley. Step 4: Get moving. This is a crisis. Our prisons are a ticking time-bomb. The pursuit of fixes should begin in weeks and months, not years.