The drone touched down in the prison yard at night, like a four-rotor, remote-controlled omen. When they found it, the guards knew it foretold chaos.
Prisoners in Alabama had outpaced their jailers, using new technology to smuggle in phones, weapons, drugs and money. Meanwhile the state’s antiquated, overcrowded prisons grew increasingly unmanageable.
All the worst factors converged, according to Bob Horton, spokesman for the state department of corrections: “Overcrowding. Staff shortages. A lack of modern technology. A propensity for violence,” he said. Something was bound to erupt.
It came in the early hours of 12 March in the form of a Facebook post, like a flag run up a digital flagpole, announcing that Holman prison, outside the town of Atmore, no longer belonged entirely to the state of Alabama.
“It’s going down in this bitch,” said the narrator of a video published there. He shot the footage on a contraband phone, and wore a white towel to cover his face.
Inmates had stabbed a guard. They had stabbed the warden. They were setting fire to the dorm, and they appeared to be carrying swords.
The warden and guard survived the attack, and special security squads swept in to quash the riot. But a few days later, on Monday, another riot flared up, and one inmate stabbed another. The warden called in the security squads again, and by the end of the week the prison remained on lockdown. Reached by the Guardian at his office, warden Carter Davenport declined to describe the incidents with any greater detail.
All of it shocked Alabama residents scrolling through their Facebook feeds. How did a prisoner get a phone? How did he gain access to the internet? Had the state lost control of a maximum-security prison?
But the riots at Holman were as predictable as boiling water. So predictable, in fact, that the prison may have been understaffed because guards sensed violence was coming, and stayed home to avoid it – in the process making riots even more likely. On the day of the riots there were only 17 guards overseeing 991 prisoners.
“Pressure builds in prisons,” said attorney Lisa Graybill, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s incarceration analysis. Until it boils over, she said, and it forces society to face it.
The last real reckoning came in the 1960s, when lawsuits in numerous states forced prison reform across the country. That’s when the William C Holman correction facility was built, meant to be a model of advancement compared with the nearly medieval conditions of prisons past.
The first warden at Holman was Novy Lee Hale, who toured the prison with his granddaughter, Teresa, as it was being built.
“I remember going through while it was under construction,” she said recently. The prison sits on a vast tract of cotton and peanut farmland, surrounded by two wire fences and six guard towers. “It seemed just massive,” she said.
In the 1980s, though, as the war on drugs escalated, the prison seemed to shrink. “There was a sentencing binge,” said Graybill, the SPLC prisons expert. The trouble was, like elsewhere in the country, authorities didn’t expand the prison to accommodate longer sentences and a rush of inmates on minor charges.
Gradually, Alabama developed into the nation’s most overcrowded prison system. Horton, the state’s prisons spokesman, said on the day of the Facebook leak, Holman’s 991 prisoners were stuffed into a facility designed for 637. Those 991 inmates include some of the state’s most desperate convicts; Holman hosts the state’s executions, and most of its death row inmates.
Statewide, Horton said, Alabama’s network of prisons is designed to hold 13,318 inmates. The population now stands somewhere past the 24,000 mark. It swelled for numerous reasons, including budget cuts to parole programs, which stifled the flow of prisoners back into civilian life, which caused overcrowding, which has created an even larger budget crisis.
The state sees the problem, and is now trying to reduce its prison population. Last year a law was enacted to make sentencing and parole reforms that should – in theory – reduce the number of inmates by 4,500 over the next five years. It only took effect in January, though, and has not yet diminished the population.
On Wednesday the state senate passed a proposal from governor Robert Bentley to shut down almost all of the state’s current medium- and maximum-security prisons, and build four new enormous, state-of-the-art prisons in their place. It would all be funded by an $800m state bond.
The state is already impoverished, but Horton said taxpayers should never feel a pinch from the new prisons. “The $800m will be covered in cost savings,” he said. “We will have better surveillance, and less staffing. We’ll have fewer transportation costs.”
Graybill chuckled at the idea. “That’s some voodoo math,” she said. “That’s assuming that everything goes precisely according to plan. I have never known a government construction project to go perfectly.”
Already, she said, the state’s reluctance to say which prisons will be closed is a signal of trouble on the horizon. “I think it’s because they know that legislators are going to flip out,” she said. “They are going to lobby to keep prisons in their own districts open.”
Likewise, other state employees are aghast at the numbers being proposed. Hale Land, the first warden’s granddaughter, is now a teacher, and took to Facebook when she heard about the proposal.
“Just think about what $800m could do for our educational system. We could have mega-schools with the newest technology for our students, our future community and business members in society,” she wrote on Thursday.
“So, inmates believe that their conditions are horrible because they live in overcrowded prisons, do not have the newest 21st-century technology, and have to abide by rules and regulations. Our students/schools are overcrowded in small classrooms, do not have 21st Century technology due to under funding of education, but are expected to follow rules and regulations, and LEARN!!!!”
She had not warmed to the idea by Saturday. “If teachers rioted, we wouldn’t be rewarded with new facilities,” she said. “We would be tossed out of our jobs.”
Graybill said she disagrees with the idea that it’s a zero-sum funding issue, or that putting money into prisons precludes more funding for schools. But otherwise, she said, the teacher makes a good point.
“She’s right. Ultimately education is the solution to reducing prison populations,” Graybill said. “Unfortunately it’s always harder to persuade legislators to fund prevention than punishment.”
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