News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Poor prison conditions bad for inmates and state

The disciplinary action taken against the warden of Donaldson Correctional Facility last week is a reminder that the state must make the relief of prison overcrowding a major budgetary issue.

Warden Stephen Bullard sent a memo to Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Donal Campbell complaining of conditions at his prison. The effort got him a 10-day leave, and other disciplinary steps are possible.

Donaldson is not unique among Alabama prisons. It is a mess, as are most others in the state.

With a maximum capacity of 1,000, Donaldson holds 1,625 inmates. The overcrowding has overwhelmed the prison's sewage system. Many of its inmates require careful surveillance because they are mentally ill or on death row.

Because of these gulag-style deficiencies, the warden mandates up to 32 hours per week of overtime for prison guards.

The conditions are such that guards are increasingly refusing mandatory overtime by calling in sick or requesting counseling.

This state pays less per prisoner than any other state in the nation. In some state programs, this would be a positive statistic suggesting efficiency.

In the prison system, however, the state's low-budget correctional system is an embarrassment and potential disaster.

In this area, Limestone County's Capshaw prison is already defending a lawsuit. Its lack of medical care and its filthy conditions have likely been responsible for some of its many HIV-positive deaths.

Even for taxpayers who believe the state should have no obligation to provide decent conditions for convicted criminals, there are other reasons to increase expenditures.

When inmates get sick, state taxpayers have to pay for their medical care. When conditions trigger lawsuits, taxpayers must pay to defend them and must pay for any court-ordered penalties.

And possibly most important, overcrowding causes riots. The fear of a riot is one reason that guards are refusing to work extra hours at Donaldson. Riots kill guards and they kill inmates.

The correctional system needs more money. The prisons are a powder keg and the fuse is lit.

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