By Tom Gordon
When Cam Ward was not quite old enough to go to kindergarten, Alabama’s prisons were a major public issue. On Jan. 13, 1976, two months before Ward’s fifth birthday, U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. issued a sweeping order in which he said conditions in the prisons violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Among other things, he required state officials to reduce the overcrowding, clean up cellblocks, overhaul the classification system that determined where inmates were assigned, and give prisoners more and better job training and educational opportunities.
“The conditions in which Alabama prisoners must live, as established by the evidence in these cases, bear no reasonable relationship to legitimate institutional goals,” Johnson’s order stated.
Fast forward to today. Overcrowding, violence, sexual abuse, and other issues have put Alabama’s prisons under an uncomfortable glare yet again. Ward is now 43, a state senator from Alabaster, and he is chairing the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force. In June, Gov. Robert Bentley established the task force, charging it to oversee a study called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative “to examine the criminal justice system in order to reduce prison crowding and increase public safety.” If the state does not take meaningful steps toward reaching those goals, Ward says it could find itself again following orders from a federal judge.
He’s not been shy about discussing the issue. On July 15, while SEC Media Days were drawing scores of reporters and football fans to Hoover, Ward was in Washington, testifying on prison reform before a U.S. House subcommittee and saying Alabama “faces the most serious challenges of any state in the union with regard to our Corrections system.” With an inmate population nearly twice the number its facilities were designed to hold, Ward said the system is the most overcrowded one in the country.
A week later, Ward said the hearing room in Washington was full during his testimony, but the setting could not compare with what was happening at Media Days. “I can’t imagine anything politically in our state, whether it’s the election for a governor, or prisons, that’s ever gonna draw the kind of attention Media Day does,” he said. And while Alabama and Auburn fans are eyeing pre-season polls to see where the Tigers and Tide are ranked, Ward says he would rank Alabama’s prisons as the state’s number one problem.
So why should we care? A big reason is that together with Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for low-income people, money for corrections makes up most of the state’s general fund budget, which funds most state programs outside of education. If the prisons fall under federal control, Ward says the system will likely have to release large numbers of inmates and have to come up with a lot more money to improve conditions for those inmates it will continue to house. In a state where most politicians run on a mantra of no new taxes, such a state of affairs will have a lot of folks kicking and screaming.
There was certainly some of that when Frank Johnson issued his prison reform order in 1976—then-Gov. George Wallace suggested the judge needed “a barbed wire enema”—but things changed. More prisons were built, work release centers were added, staffing was increased, a training academy was set up for prison correctional officers, and more inmate-oriented programs put in place. And yet, nearly 40 years later, here we are again.
Ward has heard colleagues and constituents say they’re not sympathetic to criminals or that he is going to be portrayed as being soft on crime. But he says they’ll often nod in agreement when he tells them there are ways to improve the system without spending money and while giving inmates a better chance to stay straight when they get out.
Ward’s top priority is a statewide community corrections system, in which inmates needing minimum security will be confined—but not in a prison—and work at jobs, gain skills, and get additional education and mental health or drug rehabilitation when necessary. About 3,700 inmates are now in community corrections programs that exist around the state, but he says the number could be doubled “at very little cost.”
While the prison issue is like the proverbial elephant in the room, most Alabamians will soon be paying closer attention to the elephants and tigers on the gridiron. “There are sexier issues out there,” Ward said. “Prisons are not something that’s fun politically.” But more than once, someone who has his ear has told him he is not in Montgomery for fun. “As my wife tells me, ‘If you’re gonna be down there, do something,’” Ward said.