Saturday, March 12, 2005

It's sad that it's come to this

The Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, like many other Alabama prisons, has very serious problems. It's dangerously overcrowded, operating at more than 160 percent of its capacity. It's severely understaffed, with correctional officers forced to work up to 32 hours of overtime apiece each week. Its sewage system is overloaded and its employees are overstressed.

The prison's warden, Stephen Bullard, wrote to state Department of Corrections Commissioner Donal Campbell last week to tell him the troubles were nearing the breaking point. In a March 1 memo, Bullard wrote, "I am concerned that it is going to take a lawsuit, riot, death, or serious injury for anyone to take this crisis seriously. ... It is also my opinion that should an employee be injured or even sue for harassment on unfair ... employment practices, the department would have no legal standing to defend these charges."

They're strong words, and you'd have hoped Campbell would have taken them to heart, or at least have expressed a little sympathy for his underlings' plight. Instead, he placed Bullard on mandatory leave for 10 business days.

Campbell is in the difficult position of overseeing the prison system in a state with a history of underfunding its correctional system. Things were so bad in 2002 that a federal judge ruled that a women's prison in Wetumpka was an "unconstitutionally unsafe" "ticking time bomb," prompting Alabama to send prisoners out of state to comply with his order. The state also has added a second parole board to try to clear the prison rolls, but the number of inmates has remained relatively static.

The situation must be distressing for Campbell, but his frustration never should have led to him behaving that way toward a warden who used internal channels to complain in good faith about the burdens he faces on a daily basis.

The U.S. Supreme Court soon will rule in Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which the justices will decide if public employees can be subject to retaliatory demotions or firings for work-related speech on "issues of public concern." For the sake of both the First Amendment and good government, I hope the justices will bar such retaliation. If state officials keep shooting messengers, I fear they may never get the message.


Blogger Berenjena said...

I've been inside Donaldson prison (as a visitor, not a resident), and inmates I spoke to describe it as "the end of the line" in the Alabama prison system. The Corrections Officers get 5% incentive pay over the same positions at other ADOC institutions, but it isn't worth 50% to me. I, too, was saddened to read about the warden's "leave of absence". Unfortunately, I believe someone will pay a much higher price before this situation is addressed. As long as our legislature has books to ban and vibrators to confiscate, they certainly don't seem concerned.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Berenjena said...

Aerial view of Donaldson Correctional Facility

11:43 PM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

Two good ways to clear the prison rolls would be to pump more funding into drug rehabilitation programs and to reduce sentences for first-time offenders busted for drug possession. Of course, neither of those positions is as politically marketable as a blanket "I'm tough on crime!" statement, so it's difficult to get legislators to take meaningful action in those areas.

6:45 PM  

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