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March 10, 2006 - Montgomery Advertiser (AL)

OpEd: Private Prisons Not Proper Solution For Corrections

By Kenneth Glasgow, founder and director of The Ordinary People Society and co-chair of the New Bottom Line Coalition

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Everyone knows Alabama's prisons are severely overcrowded. The prison system seems to be facing an imminent collapse. One can barely open a paper in this state without finding a story about the failed system and arguments about what should and shouldn't be done to fix it.

The system can hardly continue, and it certainly can't rehabilitate or restore those who are incarcerated. So what will be done? Commissioner Donal Campbell has resigned, and the governor named Richard Allen as a replacement. Certainly, Mr. Allen knows he's walking into a mess: there seem to be a lot of short-term suggestions but few real long-term solutions being put forth to solve this crisis.

Take, for example, what the Department of Corrections has asked for to rectify the overcrowding problem. DOC leadership is correctly supporting the Sentencing Commission's sentencing guidelines bill, which will somewhat help alleviate overcrowding in the long-run. But the DOC is also urging an immediate infusion of funds to create more bed space -- private bed space.

The DOC budget request this year included an increase of more than $220 million, much of which would presumably be spent on building two new prisons. Earlier this year, Commissioner Campbell stated that in order to alleviate the severe overcrowding and to keep the system from collapsing immediately, the DOC needs at least $27 million to lease private prison beds outside of Alabama.

Shortly after he resigned, the state announced plans to send more than 500 male prisoners to a private prison in Louisiana at a cost of over $5 million a year, supposedly to alleviate overcrowding.

These seemingly effective short-term solutions are not solutions at all. We've already gone down the road of sending prisoners to out-of-state facilities. Currently, there are more than 300 low-risk women from Alabama being housed in a private prison in Basile, La.

These prisoners represent precisely those persons who should be sent to existing community corrections programs within Alabama, where they can be close to their families and get the support necessary for rehabilitation and restoration.

Data from the Department of Corrections shows that we spend more than twice as much to incarcerate people out of state than we do to keep them in Alabama in existing community corrections programs. Currently the state spends $3 million a year to keep these 300 women incarcerated in Louisiana, far from their families and communities, and at great taxpayer expense.

Does sending incarcerated Alabamians to private prisons in other states constitute a long-term solution to overcrowding in Alabama? Clearly, the answer is no. It seems the only party to win under such an arrangement is the private prison firm, such as Louisiana Correctional Services, which is holding the Alabama prisoners in Louisiana.

What else could be done with the $27 million that the DOC says recently asked for to lease private prison beds? The Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime program at the University of Alabama estimates that with $27 million, the state can begin reforming the long list of people who were sent to prison for simple drug possession and addiction. These people are in need of drug treatment services that currently are not being provided.

How would this work? With $27 million, the state could:

Contract out drug treatment services to existing treatment providers in the mental health system, expand substance abuse treatment capacity in the community so that people busted for drug use are sent to a treatment facility instead of a prison cell.

Hire a special team of social service re-entry experts to scour the prison system, identifying those prisoners who are approaching parole consideration, and begin composing realistic re-entry efforts and home plans.

Expand the use of and increase the effectiveness of community based corrections programs and electronic monitoring for low risk offenders.

We should see the urgent cry for more beds as a short-term solution for what it is -- a ploy for enriching the private prison industry at the expense of a long-term, viable solution that will benefit Alabamians.

More than ever, we need to advocate long-term solutions: prevention programming for at risk youth, intervention, alternative sentencing, treatment instead of incarceration, secondary and higher education and job training behind bars, effective re-entry programming, and other justice reinvestment programs that are geared towards restoration of our communities.

We cannot afford to focus only on short-term solutions to a long-term problem. We must insist that any short term solution is part of a long-term plan, and we must further insist that the principle of restoration guide our efforts.

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