1 year ago

Money for nothing: More prisons and more punishment haven’t made us safer

This year, state prison officials are seeking a $42 million budget increase, which would push general fund prison spending to over half a billion dollars for the first time. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn made his case for more money at recent legislative budget hearings, where the specter of federal takeover of Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons hovered.

Prison spending in Alabama has been rising for more than two decades. Appropriations to the Alabama Department of Corrections have swelled by more than $100 million in the last five years alone.

Yet the return on investment for Alabama taxpayers has been weak, to put it mildly. And in a state government defined by reliance on conservative principles, where running government like business is a rallying cry, it’s striking how our prison system escapes fiscal scrutiny.

The reality is that overreliance on incarceration has all the trappings of a big, bloated government program that has failed. Because it’s being carried out in the name of public safety, we go along without demanding accountability.

I have observed, investigated, visited and litigated this system for nearly two decades. I joined former Gov. Bob Riley at Draper Correctional Facility in 2004, as he stared into a sweltering warehouse of incarcerated men with nothing to do all day and concluded: “We’ve got to do something about the number of inmates.”

Federal court pressure was very real then and has continuously been so. For decades, state leaders have been telling us the problem is decades in the making. Indeed. And for decades, ADOC has told us that more money – for corrections officers, for health care, for new locks – is the solution. To be sure, ADOC spending in the early 2000s was ridiculously low. But more money has not fixed the problems.

In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice found the entire prison system for men in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The prisons are out of control, with violence, corruption, contraband, drug use and sexual abuse, according to federal investigators. At least 30 incarcerated men have been victims of homicide inside ADOC facilities since 2015, and hundreds more are victims of physical and sexual assaults every year, according to ADOC’s own reporting – which federal investigators say is unreliably low.

ADOC has failed at the basic task of keeping prisoners safe. And lawmakers’ indifference to this fact, and refusal to do things differently, has contributed to a situation where people leave prison traumatized, broken, often addicted to illegal drugs, then expected to immediately scrape together cash for fines, restitution, parole fees, not to mention basic living expenses.

Last week, retired Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons authored a thoughtful letter providing recommendations for reform from the Governor’s Criminal Justice Study Group, which he chaired.

Recommendations that provide more effective community treatment, mental health care and re-entry services outside of prison are a step in the right direction. Reforms that send fewer people to prison for shorter sentences are desperately needed and the Study Group’s work appropriately starts those policy conversations.

One of the most remarkable parts of Lyons’ letter is the acknowledgment that people are worse off when they leave prison in Alabama than when they entered. Our massive, costly prison system is failing in its most important job, public safety. As Justice Lyons put it, “we cannot sustain a system in which these inmates become more violent in prisons and then commit new crimes upon release from prison only to return to prison.”

Leading conservative voices for criminal justice reform have stressed as much on the national level. “Indeed, there is even a point at which incarceration becomes criminogenic, causing more crime than it stops,” Vikrant Reddy, of the Charles Koch Institute told the National Review.

Sadly there is no shortage of tragic, high-profile crimes here in Alabama. The last few months have been especially jolting and forced communities to come together and ask tough questions about safety and solutions. The response is often – let’s sweep as many more people as possible into prisons and jails.

Law and order opponents of even the mildest of the Study Group’s sentencing reform recommendations will likely offer dire warnings of doom if fewer people are locked up or sentences are reduced for geriatric prisoners with robbery convictions dating back to the Reagan administration.

Alabama has tried more prisons. We’ve tried more punishment. Are we really going to try more of the same thing that’s failing us?

The answer appears to be yes, as Gov. Kay Ivey again touted three new mega prisons as a way to “reinvent our corrections system” and “transition our facilities from warehousing inmates to rehabilitating people,” in her State of the State Address.

Buildings cannot rehabilitate. Without different strategies and changes in policies, additional programs, and specialized staff, new buildings will continue to warehouse. Already, lawmakers are asking questions about where the estimated $100 million per year for the buildings alone will come from.

Taxpayers need assurances that ADOC will dedicate significant new funds to rehabilitation, education, treatment, and re-entry supports. Otherwise, this troubled agency will receive a blank check to do more of the same.

Alabama cannot punish its way out of drug addiction, mental illness, poverty and other unaddressed drivers of incarceration. But until we separate punishment from accountable, conservative government, it appears we will try.

Carla Crowder J.D., is executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Montgomery.

1 hour ago

Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator taking applications for 2021 class

Startups from around the world are encouraged to apply for the Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator 2021 class.

In its second year, the innovative program, located in Birmingham, seeks early-stage startups focused on emerging energy technologies. Areas of interest include smart cities, electric grid resiliency and sustainability, industrial electrification, connectivity and electric transportation.

The class will run for 13 weeks and include 10 companies. Through their participation in Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator, startups will receive seed investment, business coaching and mentorship through Techstars’ worldwide network of business leaders.

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At the end of the 90 days, the program will culminate in Demo Day, a public pitch event on Dec. 9.

“We had a fantastic first year, made successful through the hard work and creativity of our inaugural class, even during a pandemic,” said Nate Schmidt, Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator’s managing director. “If you have an energy tech startup, you simply don’t want to miss out on the amazing opportunities and relationships this accelerator will provide your business.”

Techstars Alabama is supported by Alabama Power, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, the Alabama Department of CommerceAltecPowerSouth and the University of Alabama. They play a key role in the accelerator process, with the common goal of growing the number of startup companies based in Alabama and making the area a hub of innovation activity.

The application deadline is May 12. For more information, visit the Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator program page at Techstars.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 hours ago

VIDEO: Gov. Ivey extends mask mandate, lottery could be an option as gambling bill languishes, Merrill backs off ‘no excuse’ absentee balloting and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and political consultant Mecca Musick take you through Alabama’s biggest political stories, including:

— Did Governor Kay Ivey make the right decision when she extended the mask mandate?

— Is the Alabama Legislature going to look to move forward with the lottery if they can’t get a more comprehensive gambling bill?

— Why did Secretary of State John Merrill support and then retract his support for “no excuse” absentee voting?

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Jackson and Musick are joined by Matt Murphy of Talk 99.5 in Birmingham to discuss the issues facing the state of Alabama this week.

Jackson closes the show with a “Parting Shot” at Alabama Democratic Party Chairman and State Representative Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) for not following through on his plan to make the party more relevant in Alabama.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN and on Talk 99.5 from 10AM to noon.

6 hours ago

Mo Brooks: Stopping H.R. 1, amnesty keys to winning in 2022 midterms — ‘Then we will be able to neuter Joe Biden’

FLORENCE — With the third month of the 117th Congress now underway, House Democrats have pushed forward in their efforts to pass H.R. 1, which would impose so-called reforms to the country’s voting system.

Also among the priorities for Democrats, who control the White House, House and Senate, are immigration measures that could include amnesty for illegal aliens.

During an appearance at the Shoals Republican Club on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) panned those efforts and said he hoped to stymie the progress of House Democrats on those two fronts.

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Brooks told those in attendance that if Republicans could prove successful in those efforts, it would set the GOP up for wins in the 2022 midterm elections and hamstring President Joe Biden’s push to promote a left-of-center agenda.

“We’ve got to stop H.R. 1, and we’ve got to stop the amnesty and citizenship that Joe Biden has promised,” he said. “If we do those two things, then we’re going to take back the House in 2022. I hope we will take back the Senate in 2022. And then we will be able to neuter Joe Biden over the next two years if we control the House and Senate and set the stage as well for us taking back the White House in 2024 with whoever our nominee may be.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

7 hours ago

2021 Birmingham Heart Walk goes virtual

COVID-19 has forced many nonprofits to shift gears in their fundraising efforts and the American Heart Association (AHA) is no exception. The AHA’s 2021 Birmingham Heart Walk has been reimagined as a digital experience this year to maintain necessary safety protocols due to the ongoing pandemic.

Through the event design, AHA is striving to get more people moving in Birmingham while continuing to raise life-saving funds and keep participants safe in the process. The Birmingham Heart Walk is Saturday, June 12, from 9-11 a.m. and participants can walk from anywhere.

Leading up to the event, participants are encouraged to track their activity through the “Move More Challenge” using the free Heart Walk activity tracker app that can be downloaded from Apple or Google Play. Once registered, users have 30 days to log minutes, and any activity counts. Top movers and fundraisers will be recognized on Heart Walk day.

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“The American Heart Association holds a special place in my heart,” said Southern Company Vice President of Technology David Coxwho will chair the walk for the second time. “They have done so much for my family and for my daughter, Emily, who was born with multiple congenital heart defects. I’m pleased to partner with this outstanding organization in their efforts help our community connect and stay active as we adapt to this virtual world.”

More than 600,000 Americans die each year from heart disease, and the risks have only been compacted by the pandemic. Among COVID-19 hospitalizations, 40% are heart or stroke patients, so this year, donations from the Heart Walk will help fast-track COVID-19 research and train front-line workers in addition to the many other research projects and resources funded by the AHA.

Fundraising and activities for the Heart Walk are beginning to ramp up as the warmer months approach.

“Now is the time to sign up, lace up and start fundraising for the 2021 Birmingham Heart Walk,” said Hannah Carroll, Heart Challenge director of the Birmingham AHA. “Signing up now ensures you won’t miss any of the fun this year, like Rally Days and our new activity tracker.”

On Feb. 18, Cox hosted a virtual kickoff for business leaders in the Birmingham area who will be fielding teams at this year’s Heart Walk. He encouraged counterparts to begin their fundraising efforts by saying, “We’re here for a reason – to fight for a world of longer, healthier lives.”

To view Emily’s story, click here. To learn more about the 2021 Birmingham Heart Walk or to create a team, click here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 hours ago

Schoolyard Roots growing stronger, smarter kids in Alabama

When kids participate in the life of a garden, they see the complete cycle of growing food, cooking and preparing it to eat. School gardens are exciting places for kids to learn basic academic subjects, too.

The Tuscaloosa community came together more than 10 years ago to develop a garden-based learning program called the Druid City Garden project, now called Schoolyard Roots.

Schoolyard Roots employs a full-time teaching staff that provides garden lessons for students, as well as professional development training for teachers. The school gardens provide an outdoor experience rare to many students. They are more likely to make healthy choices and try new foods. Students gain a sense of responsibility, to collaborate and work together as a team.

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“When we see a child’s health and education improve, we know that we’re not only investing in that child’s life today – we’re helping them build a better future,” said Nicole Gelb Dugat, interim executive director. “Schoolyard Roots builds community through food. By increasing access to fresh, locally grown produce, we empower our community to make healthy and sustainable food choices.”

In March 2020, the impact of COVID-19 significantly affected the teaching community. Almost immediately, the Schoolyard Roots team began distributing produce from its gardens directly to local families. By the end of last year, the program had distributed more than 750 pounds of fresh garden vegetables to the community.

“We stewarded our gardens as fresh-air sanctuaries, where children and adults could relax, refocus and reconnect,” said Dugat. “Through it all, we shared vegetables and flowers. We cultivated moments of peace and learned together. We could not have done any of it without our incredible community of supporters.”

They found hope and inspiration in the small miracle of seeds planted by the students. Gardens bring joy, peace and courage in times of struggle. And gardens remind us to have hope for new growth and what is to come.

Schoolyard Roots partners with Tuscaloosa-area elementary schools to bring learning to life through teaching gardens. The nonprofit works in 11 elementary schools across Tuscaloosa County.

Its mission is to build healthy communities through food with the Gardens 2 Schools program.

Gardens support and encourage healthful eating as a key component of children’s physical wellbeing, which can aid their academic and social success, too. The garden is woven through many aspects of a school’s curriculum and adapted for different grade levels.

“The Gardens 2 Schools program cultivates curiosity,” Dugat said. “The program teaches the students how to work together (and) learn self-reliability and compassion.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)