Alabama state Senator Bobby Singleton sounds off on prison reform and DOJ lawsuit
Between the nomination of Alabama-bred General Lloyd Austin III for U.S. Secretary of Defense, the appointment of the first Black chief clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives, and a major startup recruitment win for the Alabama Futures Fund, Alabama has enjoyed positive press on a national scale during the last month of the year. Unfortunately, a recent federal lawsuit levied against Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections is threatening to disrupt the streak of good news coming out of the “sweet home” state.
The lawsuit, filed on December 9th by the United States Department of Justice, alleges that “the conditions at Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Constitution because Alabama fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.”
This is not the first time the Department of Justice has complained about Alabama’s unsafe and overcrowded prisons. In a separate, 2019 filing, the DOJ cited the state’s prison population as being “at serious risk of death, physical violence, sexual abuse and death at the hands of other prisoners.”
Our360 News recently spoke with Senator Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro), an outspoken voice in the ongoing saga surrounding Alabama’s beleaguered prisons. Over the course of his legislative career, Singleton has been a staunch supporter of prison reform and judicial equity. During Alabama’s 2020 legislative session, Singleton sponsored legislation to decriminalize some marijuana-related drug offenses and sponsored a resolution to create a study commission for pre-trial services and alternative courts.
Our 360 News: From your perspective, Senator, what is the source of the problems occurring inside Alabama’s prison system?
Senator Singleton: The culture inside of this system is horrible. The leadership is not there. One of the problems is that the department commissioner (Jeff Dunn) is not trained in corrections. I think a different type of leader is needed. Although he has a military background, I don't know if he is best suited for the job. We need a leader with a special skill set that knows how to deal with the challenges that come with this kind of work.
But I will also say that it’s not all on the Department of Corrections, because the legislature has to do its part too. There are some areas of this that are on us and we have to provide the kind of leadership and direction to help change the culture as well.
What do you see as the responsibility of the legislature in prison reform efforts?
For one, the legislature works with budget funding for departments each year, including the Alabama Department of Corrections, so we need to think about how those dollars are spent. The workers in our prisons are not paid well enough for the workplace risks. Correctional officers have a starting salary of just over $30,000 and there’s a relationship between that kind of pay and morale, the low morale and high turnover rates.
We at least need to start in the direction of preparing to make some cultural changes through things like GED programs, welding and carpentry classes or brick masonry for these prisoners. We need to be preparing these individuals to have a trade once they are released. These are trades that can turn into businesses.
Most reports coming from the state focus on the plan to build 3 new prisons as part of reform efforts, but you are mentioning working toward rehabilitation and skill building for incarcerated individuals as a path toward reform. How will more prisons impact the existing problems in the system?
Yes, the state is concentrating more on the physical plant. They are concentrating on facilities instead of on the inmates. What is happening inside of Alabama’s prisons speaks to how little we care about the inmates themselves.
And we do have deteriorating systems with lack of maintenance over the years. I hear stories of raw sewage running onto the floors. And I get calls from inmates and their families.
One inmate held his phone up to the window and I could hear the wind blowing.
So I agree we need new facilities, but new facilities will not change the culture itself. We can build as many brand new, shiny facilities as we want but we will be dealing with the same problems in a new facility if we don’t change how things are done.
One of the key points of the federal lawsuit highlights the danger of physical violence against inmates and staff in Alabama prisons. How should the state approach resolving these issues?
A big issue is that we warehouse our inmates as opposed to having them in individual cells. There is no real segregation of inmates on a daily basis. So when bunks are only feet apart and we have over 120% overcrowding, you can expect violence, you can expect criminal activity. And that situation is difficult to keep a close eye on.
We have been seeing record deaths, assaults, and sex assaults at numbers that we have never seen before inside ADOC. We have issues with illegal cell phones and they are being used for illegal activies inside the prisons.
There is an overcrowded system, the officers are overworked and underpaid to risk their lives on a daily basis and the prisoners and the officers are tempted to break the rules. The bottom line is we need more safety for the inmates and the guards as well.
You can’t build your way out of this problem. And at the end of the day, what’s most important is the leadership. Part of strong leadership is steadying the ship and turning it around. We haven’t seen a plan for a turnaround or plan for change in the system.
Are there other specific change initiatives you would like to see coming from the executive leadership in the state, the Alabama Department of Corrections, or the legislature?
The Alabama Department of Pardons and Paroles needs to change some things. We have elderly inmates, in their seventies and eighties, that are bedridden and couldn’t even get out of the bed to commit a crime. And these people remain locked up. They don’t pose a threat to anybody. They add to a system that is already having trouble.
Another issue is that some of the attitudes of decision makers in this state is the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” philosophy. As a state, we need more 2nd chance programming. We need to give prisoners the chance to contribute back to society. And stop the revolving door.
What is the state of communication between the executive branch, the legislature, and the department on the issue of prisons?
It could be better. The Alabama Department of Corrections could communicate with the legislators more on this issue. If we heard from them more we could do things like collaborate on educational programming for prisoners. They just need to let us know what they need. They ask for more money each year from us but we are not getting the results. More murder, more drugs, more DOJ reports. Now we get this new lawsuit from the DOJ.
And if the state loses the lawsuit, the federal government would run the prisons as they see fit at the state of Alabama’s expense.
The state has to understand that you can’t build your way out of what is happening with our prisons. A brand new shiny facility won’t do anything if we don’t fix the systemic problems. We have to incentivize incarcerated folks to get off their bunks and prepare themselves for when they get out.
But at the end of the day, we all have some fault and some responsibility on this issue.