Meet Cam Ward. Alabama State Senator. Republican. Prison Reformer?

George Lavender

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.

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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