Guest opinion: The most dangerous man in Alabama prisons was not released today
This is a guest opinion column
The most dangerous man in the Alabama prison system was one who was not released today. In fact, he is more dangerous now than when he thought he would be released. More dangerous to the other inmates, more dangerous to the officers, more dangerous to himself.
“Give me one reason,” he says, “why I shouldn’t kill my roommate who’s snoring so loud the bed is shaking.”
“Give me one reason,” he growls, “why I shouldn’t spit in the face of the CO who’s talking about my wife.”
“Give me one reason,” he laughs, “why I shouldn’t spend my last dollar buying crack from the CO who’s smuggling it in for us.”
We used to have an answer for him (and for every inmate). We always told him that his patience and perseverance in tolerating these unbearable conditions would be rewarded. If he obeyed all orders given to him (even the humiliating ones), he would get good timings. If he didn’t fight back when attacked by fellow inmates, or get high on the drugs that are so readily available in prison, he would be able to go home sooner. Maybe even in time to reconnect with his wife, to meet his children, to sit by his mother’s bedside as she died.
You see, what James Baldwin said is true: “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
Alabama’s inmates haven’t always been this dangerous. The theory used to be that prison was a time for reflection and rehabilitation because we fully expected the incarcerated person to return to his/her community. But we gave up on rehabilitation. We gave up the idea of reform and rebirth. Our prison system has sent a clear message to inmates that there is no gain in becoming a better person in prison. No price for patient waiting.
Last year, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles paroled only 10% of inmates who were eligible for parole (even fewer for black inmates). Three weeks ago, Gov. Ivey tightened the “good time” rules, making it even harder for an inmate to even be considered for parole. Ten days ago, Alabama denied parole to a 71-year-old woman who is wheelchair-bound and has end-stage kidney disease. And today, Alabama broke its promise to release 400 prisoners that the Republican legislature chose to release because they had already served a reasonable time. About 300 of those scheduled for release were postponed, but it wasn’t because they did anything wrong. Not because the prisoners rioted or fought or disobeyed, but simply because the Alabama Department of Corrections didn’t do the necessary paperwork.
A person can tolerate quite a lot if they know the end is in sight. When they know exactly what to do to get a second chance at life. But when we take hope away from a person, when we give him good reason to believe that no matter how well he “behaves,” he will never reap any rewards for that behavior, we create a man who has nothing to lose . And nothing is more dangerous.
The crisis of prison violence and the crisis of prison overcrowding are linked. The violence is not the result of overcrowding. Nor is it the result of ailing facilities. The violence is the result of the system we have created that tells people who have made mistakes that their whole life story has already been written. Your fate is sealed, and no amount of behavior can change it now. Why shouldn’t they be violent? What incentive is there to stay alive?
If we want to see less violence in prisons, less violence against prison staff, less violence among inmates, fewer drug overdoses and suicides, we need to restore hope to our incarcerated neighbors. Hope for parole. Hope to be released soon. Hope for life after prison.
Tabitha Isner is Vice Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party. She is also a wife, soccer mom, business analyst and advocate for foster children.