Including APAEP in our Prison Crisis Debate


By John Sophocleus

My last column for the Opelika Observer offered kudos to State Sen. Cam Ward for blocking legislation to undo anti-corruption legislation which helped discipline Mike Hubbard type felonies. Ward has been the most informed and reasonable in the Alabama Senate, Rep. Chris England has been the rising star on this issue in the House. Hope my ‘rookie’ Representative (Jeremy Gray) will consider following this fellow House member instead of those he appears to be seeking as mentors. Incentives/wealth transfers for BCA, et al architects, contractors, input owners, etc. to build the ‘super prisons’ are obvious. Those in play want to make the prison situation as bad as it takes to facilitate redistributions to politically connected recipients of tax dollars. The anguish and danger they bring to correction officers and prisoners doesn’t matter to them. The biting observation of England is simple, under the current proposal, the ‘super prison’ solution will not impact the capacity result triggering the crisis with the Department of Justice (DOJ).
I propose the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project [APAEP] as an integral part of a sincere solution to show a good faith effort to get out of this mess. Smaller prison facilities will be left idle, negatively impacting many of the local surrounding areas – especially in more remote parts of our state. This is what economists call ‘creative destruction.’ Super facilities can be designed to address our worst criminals who belong behind bars with no indication(s) of being worthy to return to society. Those who do show promise to return as productive responsible citizens are negatively impacted by exposure to the worst in our prison populations. Victimized by ‘one size fits all’/feel good type sentencing mandates, individuals without access, connections and wealth to avoid imprisonment who screen with an aptitude to complete a degree can be disaggregated to these smaller existing facilities requiring less staff and oversight.
APAEP was not formed on a particular day in the past. It was and continues to be an evolving program fueled by a dedicated group of artists, researchers, scholars and writers who’ve witnessed knowledge and creative development can change someone’s life. I’m not in any way a spokesperson, but in full disclosure I am an APAEP instructor. As I bring my 30 years to a close at Auburn University, I would consider being part of a pilot program where I’m a corrections officer and instructor with outstanding student prisoners as the APAEP assigned me to teach economics last summer. This could help with officer/prisoner ratios. Ward clearly understands the benefit/return to programs of this sort in the long-run via reduced recidivism and department of corrections expenditures.
From all I’ve observed, Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Jefferson Dunn understands APAEP could be an integral part of responding to our prison crisis. I pray the commissioner and legislators will reach out to Kyes Stevens to shepherd our State to a more effective response. Stevens is founder and director of APAEP at Auburn University, a program serving 10 Alabama prisons through pre-college and college classes. Through this program, the first bachelor of science degree for the Alabama prison system was launched in 2016. Stevens has received awards for her role as an influential woman in Alabama and has been invited to participate in numerous White House discussions about the role of higher education in criminal justice reform. I know it is unusual to say Alabama was ahead of the curve on this one and was giving consultation and input to other states smart enough to see this result. The harsh reality is many of the well-connected in our state do not want some of these individuals imprisoned in the economy competing with them and those they want to shield from competitors. So those who would be in school and getting education are not being served by the ETF and putting more pressure on the general fund to be a holding place for some prisoners who really do not belong behind bars and could be talented productive participants in our state’s economy.
There’s no doubt public servants espousing feel-good campaign promises to be “tough on crime” now find themselves struggling to pay for a criminal justice system which (to achieve the purpose of stifling competition) emphasizes a strategy of mass incarceration. Alabama’s criminal justice system has skewed toward this model for decades. Over reliance on mass incarceration proffered this expensive system, oft counterproductive, serving as a ‘training ground’ for hardening criminals instead of a public safety asset (to separate dangerous individuals from society) to establish a well-defined course toward redirecting and rehabilitating those worthy of a second chance. The prisoners who CAN be successful, if allowed, are less likely to return to incarceration and increase the burden on taxpayers.
The pro-mass incarceration bent to block those who could be productive competitors takes a disproportionate toll on communities of colour, the undereducated, lower incomes unable to defend themselves and those suffering from mental illness/addiction. Government distortions to promote our modern ‘opium wars’ is fodder for another column, but nonetheless devastating. “Tough-on-crime” public interest rhetoric has indeed been politically effective, such campaign promises and resulting policies have very real consequences on individuals, families, communities, and taxpayers long after a sentence is served. Alabama reportedly has the third highest (Carson & Anderson, 2016) imprisonment rate per capita in the nation. Our prisons have been as high as 195% capacity in 2014 according to 2015 Council of State Governments Justice Center data.
I’ve long campaigned against Alabama’s bent for mass incarceration resulting from habitual minor offender laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and targeted drug laws. Reserving the extreme and costly punishment of incarcerating individuals who endanger society is just and economically sound. Our state prisons and county jails are filled with non-violent offenders, most of whom would more likely benefit from alternate corrections. Mass incarceration is not always the most apropos response, but nonetheless an extremely expensive solution that’s driving the overcrowding and staffing challenges exacerbating recently documented inhumane conditions prompting DOJ intervention. Alabama prisons seem constantly in federal courts for Constitutional violations indicating a ‘petri dish’ for corruption and abuse.
A history of unnecessarily harsh treatment has plagued Alabama’s prison system. In 1875 the State generated revenue from leasing out prisoners to work dangerous jobs. Blackmon’s 2008 work found 45% of inmates in this convict-lease system died in a single year. Alabama became the last State to abolish this practice in 1928. In 1972, following a class action lawsuit brought by inmates, a federal judge found 8th and 14th Amendment violations in Alabama’s prisons due to inadequate medical care and treatment of inmates. Twenty years later the State was sued in another class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates with mental illness – finally settled eight years later, when Alabama finally agreed to major reforms. We were the first State to revive chain gangs in 1995. A lawsuit following the death of a prisoner in 1996 led to an agreement in federal court to stop the practice. The list goes on to the Supreme Court ruling Alabama’s use of hitching posts unconstitutional to DoJ declaring conditions at Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women to be unconstitutional a few years ago, citing allegations of prison guards sexually harassing and abusing female inmates for decades.
According to Alabama’s DOC (2016) only 39% of inmates have a high school degree or equivalent – support of substantive GED education is important and good vantage point to identify top students as candidates for APAEP. Even after sentences are met, former inmates often face huge barriers as they try to rebuild their lives. The majority of those in prison will be released and re-enter local communities. Stevens sees the current system insufficient to provide proper transition and support for successful reintegration; 60-75% of recently incarcerated individuals were unemployed a year after their release according to a National Institute of Justice 2013 report. When a criminal record effectively denies access to employment and community reintegration, former inmates are more likely to return to crime for survival, getting trapped in a revolving prison door.
As explained above, the economic result is a depleted labor pool of some bright, productive individuals that many do not want to compete with, further aiding and abetting continued crime cycles. State and local taxpayer burdens increase due to high rates of recidivism along with community support services required to remedy the collateral damages of mass incarceration. Over reliance on prison is clearly straining our entire criminal justice system. The ‘baked-in’ crisis is much more difficult to address today since Alabama did not follow pathbreakers like Stevens. Other States which had the good sense to put more into APAEP type programs enjoyed the long-run benefit instead of locking into more mass incarceration. I understand this is one of many improvements to consider with more GED classes along with community and specialty courts for minor crimes/first offenders, restorative justice, parole reforms Ward is proposing, better targeted/ streamlined probation process, supervised re-entry, and work-release programs to name a few. APAEP may have outgrown Auburn University, requires more support or can be incorporated into the DOC’s statewide GED program. I understand it will apply to a small group of prisoners with the aptitude and eligibility to be in an undergrad program of this sort, but this is where the highest benefit (especially to long-run taxpayers) appears to be.
Sophocleus is an economist who worked 10 years at Ford Motor Company to completely retire from after 30 years teaching this year; he’s also an Alabama Gazette monthly columnist since 2009 where this full May column is printed and online.


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