Nefsa’hyatt Brown, a Mobile native, is a senior political science major at Alabama State University. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Hornet Tribune, Chartering member and Executive Secretary of Alabama State’s chapter of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity Inc., and Executive board member of ASU’s chapter of Democracy Matters
Amid a pandemic and in a moment of public interest in taking real steps to advance racial justice, it should not be not too much to expect our elected leaders to be focused on the same crisis that the rest of us are. Instead, Governor Kay Ivey is moving forward with her plan to construct three mega prisons that will ultimately cost taxpayers $2.6 billion. Despite the Department of Justice informing Alabama that new buildings would not fix the problems that have created unconstitutional prison conditions, it is clear that Gov. Ivey and many other state leaders have no interest in meaningful reform.
As a 21-year-old Alabama native looking ahead at a lifetime of paying for Gov. Ivey’s obsession with building cages instead of reforming our system, I want to say: stop.
Described by Governor Ivey as a step towards overhauling Alabama’s understaffed and violence-plagued prisons, Ivey’s prison plan includes a rare public-private partnership where the state will lease three facilities built and owned by private corporations yet operated by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). ADOC officials say these new facilities will feature increased educational, training, recreational/exercise space, and four times more celled areas. On paper, this sounds like an idea with great potential. Indeed, the average person might assume that Ivey and other state leaders created this plan with both the inmates’ best interest, the staff of these prisons, and the taxpayers in mind. However, knowing the troubled history the ADOC combined with the harmful effects of private prisons, I am not convinced. If anything, I am outraged by this plan.
I would like to see the state invest the billions it will be spending on new prisons for the next thirty years on preventative and restorative programs, especially diversion. From mental illness to addiction to homelessness, the State’s prison system has become a warehouse for people who are often victims of circumstance. Snatched from their communities and placed in a system that prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation, many people who find themselves in Alabama’s prisons would be better off in programs meant to treat their specific needs; specifically, diversion programs like drug court, mental health court, or community corrections.
Diversion programs exist to supervise people charged with or convicted of certain offenses within their communities as opposed to jails and prisons. By allowing program participants to remain in their communities, these programs can help people feel connected to their homes and families while giving them the support they need to make lawful choices. Focusing on holding offenders accountable and offering services to help combat mental illness, drug dependency, homelessness, and a host of other issues; diversion programs have the potential to achieve the goal of rehabilitation much better than our prisons can. But the state has failed to invest in and properly fund or monitor them. As a result, they are user-funded (or “pay-to-play”) which often makes them inaccessible for the people that need and could most benefit from these programs.
The current way we deal with corrections in Alabama is not working. It has not worked for decades, as evidenced by chronic determinations by federal courts that Alabama prisons are unconstitutional. So why hasn’t the Alabama legislature taken the initiative to properly invest in alternatives? And if we spend $2.6 billion on building and renting new prisons, what funding will be left for diversion programs that can truly help decrease our prison population?
Published at Sun, 11 Oct 2020 10:32:00 +0000