When Alabama prisoners tried to organize a work strike last month, state Senator Cam Ward, chairman of the joint committee that oversees Alabama’s prison system, tweeted his reaction.
But state Senator Ward is also one of a growing number of Republicans in Alabama, and around the country, who identify as prison reformers. The Prison Complex spoke with Cam Ward to find out why.
What is your view on the state of the state’s prison system?
I see it as a very big problem facing our state. That if we don’t address and deal with, is going to cause a great deal of financial harm to our state in the long run.
In a nutshell what do you think is wrong with the Alabama prison system as it currently stands?
We’re the most overcrowded, underfunded system in the United States today at 190% capacity. The danger we run is that we’re going to be (found) in violation of the Eighth Amendment by a federal court if we don’t deal with the issue of overcrowding. If we don’t deal with the conditions then a federal court is going to come and do it for us. I think California is the poster child for what happens if you don’t address the problem.
What are the problems with an overcrowded prison system?
Cramped conditions, unsanitary conditions, there’s an increase in inmate on inmate violence as well as an inmate on correctional officer violence. It has a host of problems that go along with the overcrowding. You can go down a long laundry list.
You’ve been in politics for a while, where do you think these problems started?
Every state’s been facing this. Every single state has been dealing with this issue in some form or fashion. I think ours is a little bit worse. Where I think it started was probably in the early 90s when there was a large trend nationwide to get “tough on crime” and “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” And while we did get tough on crime I think we weren’t very smart about it. I think that’s what led to the increase in penalties and enhanced sentencing in the 90s which really led to a huge boom in the prison population all across the country.
In your view what can be done to reform the system?
You can’t possibly expect one piece of legislation or one wave of the wand to to fix it. It took many years to get into this situation it’s going to take many years to get out. That being said, I think you have a combination of two things. One, you’ll have to have some sort of sentencing reform going forward. Two, you’ll have to have greater use of alternative penalty programs, such as drug courts, community corrections, and mental health courts. And then finally at some point you’re going to have to have some more construction. That’s going to be a challenge as well as having additional construction at a time when there’s really not a lot of money, but you have to have some facilities to hold the inmates you currently have in place.
For you, what is the purpose of a prison system?
It’s a dual purpose. First of all you protect the public from harm and ensure public safety. Second there should be a rehabilitative aspect to it as well. You have a dual purpose to a corrections system and I think in Alabama we’re failing on both fronts.
What is your opinion of the Free Alabama Movement?
I obviously respect what their opinions are. I haven’t dealt with them really in a direct way. I respect where they come from, what their views are. I don’t necessarily agree with Mr Martin’s (Melvin Ray) recent comments, but he’s entitled to that, he still has freedom of speech regardless if he’s incarcerated or not.
Did you see any of the videos that were posted online from inside the correctional facilities and did anything surprise you in those?
I did, and of course I’ve toured almost every correctional facility in the state of Alabama and I saw some of the comments the inmates made in the video. I’ve seen a lot of things, but I think he did a disservice in a lot of his comments. Because he turned what I think is a growing awareness of the need to reform the system, he turned that into a racial discussion and an issue of how he was somehow a victim. What was neglected was that he’s a convicted murderer. And I’m a big proponent of reforming the system, but for a convicted murder to stand there and give a video interview on a contraband illegal phone… Don’t get me wrong, he’s entitled to constitutional healthcare, he’s entitled to constitutionally adequate food and living conditions, but to say that somehow the purpose of our corrections is slave labor? All he did was use old, outdated political rhetoric which has actually stopped us from reforming the prison system in the past because of those kinds of outlandish statements.
What is your view on the use of prison labor?
There’s a place for it on a limited basis. If you talk to anyone in the corrections system today he will tell you keeping an inmate active, giving him a skill, giving him something to do, is actually very valuable experience, because a bored inmate can be a very dangerous inmate. At the same time you don’t want to exploit it to the point where you’re substituting a private sector workforce solely with cheap inmate labor. There’s a balance to it, but I think there is a role for it. I can tell you the problem with prison reform is that the general public doesn’t like hearing about helping inmates. When you hear someone step forward because they were convicted of murder and they say “I’m mad because you’re not paying me enough” I think what happens there is we start getting into a rhetoric where those people who said all along “I don’t want to reform our prisons” say “why are we helping this guy? Why are we helping this murderer make more money?” It makes selling the idea of prison reform more difficult.
More generally, what do you think is the role for people in prison and formerly incarcerated people in the conversation about changing the prison system?
We need all the information possible because when you look at the Tupwalla situation that the justice department That is a situation that needs to be addressed but we would never have known had there not been complaints from inmates in Tutwiler. So having them speak out is not always a bad thing. Having an inmate talk about terrible unconstitutional conditions that’s not a bad thing, it was the manner Mr Martin (Melvin Ray) did and some of the politically charged rhetoric he used that really didn’t meet the facts on the ground that disturbed me.
You’ve said the rhetoric being used by Melvin Ray of the Free Alabama Movement is outdated. One of the things he pointed out was the disproportional incarceration of African American people in Alabama’s prison system. Twenty percent of the state’s population is African American but nearly 60 percent of the prison population is African American. How do you account for that?
That’s nationwide, that’s not just Alabama. Nationwide there is a disproportionate number of African Americans in the corrections system. It’s not just an Alabama statistic, that’s nationwide. For him to say Alabama is all about slave labor and that’s the purpose of prison. What he’s using is rhetoric to inflame to excite some excitement behind the cause, but the issue is he’s convicted of murder. What he’s doing is using political slogans but that’s what got us into a bad corrections system to begin with. But what he does is use that kind of political rhetoric he’s trying to encourage people to have sympathy because he’s the victim, and I’m sorry he’s not the victim in this case. There are a lot of problems in corrections, not just in Alabama but around the country but for him to be convicted of murder being upheld on appeal and for him to continuously to go on about how prisons are nothing but labor camps. I’m sorry for him but he committed a crime, and as long as his constitutional rights are being honored as they should be under the Eighth Amendment, I think the sympathy out there for him is going to be very low.
Leaving aside his specific comments. How do you feel about the over incarceration of African Americans in prison whether its in Alabama or nationwide?
There have been multiple studies done on this all over the country. One, there is disparity in certain sentencing on drug crimes when you look at the disparity in crack cocaine versus powder cocaine there is an inequity in what the penalties are for those crimes. And then also demographics, whether you’re black or white or hispanic, you look at it (and) what you notice, often times they’re poor, or those with less opportunities. (They) often have broken families and have a disproportionate number of family members in the prison population. We’ve all said in the past, we should always strive to make justice blind. Depends on who you ask as to whether justice is blind or not, but I’ll be the first to tell you there are some disparities in sentencing guidelines which can create a disproportionate number of one demographic or another being in the corrections system.
When people think of Republicans they might not think of prison reform, why do you think that is?
When “tough on crime” really became the big issue, in the 80s and 90s it was a Republican agenda for the most part. Again, there’s nothing wrong with being tough as long as you’re smart about it. I think that’s changed dramatically. If you look at states that have taken on sentencing reform some of the biggest reform states are Republican states. Look at the Republican legislature in Texas which had an outstanding sentencing reform effort a few years ago. If you look at the state legislature of Georgia that took on the same issue. It’s one of the few issues you see in Washington that’s actually generated a little bit of bi-partisan compromise. You look at people like Rand Paul and Senator Mike Lee of Utah working closely with those on the left side of the aisle in Democrat states. It’s one of the few issues I see generating genuine bipartisanship in Washington so I think there’s room for both parties to work on it, and it will take both parties working on it too.
Why do you think it is an issue that has brought bi-partisan interest?
I think everyone recognizes the dangers of a broken correctional system, it’s one of the underpinnings of our society. Conservatives look at as how much its going to cost to state budgets by not fixing it. On the other side Democrats look at it and say there’s certain rights being violated for the individual inmates. They look at it more in the way of a social issue. It’s drawn them together for different reasons but there’s no question the fact they have been brought together on it. If that’s what it takes to get it done I think that’s good.
Are you in contact with Republicans in some of those other states you mentioned, like Texas?
Yes absolutely. In fact the Council of State Governments which gave them the recommendations for what they need to do with their sentencing reform, that same group is coming in to help us with our efforts as well.
When you’re talking about prison reform, what kind of opposition do you face, whether its from Democrats or people in your own political party?
It’s political fear. You hear people say “I don’t want to touch that because politically it’s a third rail and its going to damage me politically or it’s going to hurt because you can be accused of being soft on crime, and “why are we helping prisoners- they committed crime?” that kind of stuff. That’s also outdated. In my opinion that’s a very outdated perception and a very outdated reality of what’s going on in corrections. One, its fiscally irresponsible, and, two, we have a constitutional obligation to carry out, to make sure people’s rights are being protected.
What are your priorities for prison reform?
I think there’s two priorities. one updating and upgrading our facilities. two finding alternative sentencing programs, cheaper more effective community corrections, drug courts, mental health courts, and then three, doing everything we can to reduce recidivism. Recidivism has gone down over the years but we still have a lot of work to do and that’s going to require certain programs to make sure we don’t have someone who’s a nonviolent offender leaving prison and turning into a violent offender.
You’ve said this is a toxic issue for some politicians. Are you concerned about your own political career?
This is my twelfth year in the legislature and in my personal opinion it’s the right thing to do. I can argue the merits of why we need to have sentencing reform. What the voters in my district know is not just why its important for our system, but why its important for the entire state. So I feel like I have the facts on my side.