AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A report this week by the U.S. Department of Justice describes disturbing conditions in Alabama's prison system. It highlights prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, issues of overcrowding and understaffing and the state's highest-in-the-nation rate of prisoner homicides. The Justice Department says there's reason to conclude the conditions in Alabama prisons are unconstitutional, in violation of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. It's given the state 49 days to address the issues, otherwise the DOJ may sue.
Republican State Senator Cam Ward chairs Alabama's prison oversight committee. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.
CAM WARD: Thank you for having me on.
CORNISH: Now, the report recommends some immediate steps be taken - things like identifying broken locks and replacing them, installing cameras and mirrors. Are these things that could have been done before?
WARD: This is an issue I've been talking about for the last seven or eight years. No one wants to invest the necessary money you need to invest to do these very basic things that everybody assumes is in place anyways.
CORNISH: Which of these prisons have you actually visited? Can you describe the conditions yourself?
WARD: I've been to every prison in the state of Alabama - 18 of them. There's a couple in good condition. There's many - one, they're not good for the inmates, but, two, they're not conducive to public safety. Many are built on a warehouse mentality, where you put 400 or 500 people in one big warehouse. You can't have enough officers with that kind of layout and not expect there to be some problems.
The general public also - there's an urban legend out there that all these air-conditioned prisons - no prisons in Alabama have air conditioning. There are no color TVs. I mean, it's truly - it's prison. But if you're wanting public safety, you'll never see a change if you keep doing things the way we have been.
CORNISH: Alabama's governor, Kay Ivey, has announced that she is seeking bids for three new prisons - basically building more capacity. But another huge problem is understaffing; one example is that there was 11 security staff per shift for 800 inmates at one prison. Is there a plan for that?
WARD: The plan put forth right now is to hire 500 new officers each year over the next four years. But the most important thing for us is putting the money there necessary to do it because I'm not sure you can hire that many people in one year.
CORNISH: What are the obstacles?
WARD: When you have an unemployment rate at, like, 3.8 percent, the pay scale for a job as dangerous as that is so low no one wants to take that on. So you're going to have to pay these officers a lot more than we're paying them now, or otherwise, you're just not going to have enough people apply for these jobs.
CORNISH: The U.S. attorney, Richard Moore, has said the failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection on those of us who live and work in Alabama. I mean, what does it say about the state that people in prisons have been mistreated like this for so long?
WARD: I think he's right. I mean, people in some of these state prisons - you treat animals at your house better than that. We pride ourselves on being a biblical state, very Christian state, but yet, you treat your fellow man this way, and that is clearly hypocritical. So it is a blemish on our state.
CORNISH: What are the obstacles politically? Because when we look at the numbers between 2015 and 2017, there were 24 homicides in Alabama prisons; in Tennessee, there were six, and in Texas, an enormous state - right? - not a state's that shy about putting people in prison, they had 10. What are the things people say to you when they say, look, not this year, with the money or things like that?
WARD: The general population looks at it like, if you're going to spend money, spend it on my schools, spend it on my roads. But at the end of the day, we're clearly bumping up on the line to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. And you can't say, I love the Second Amendment, and I love the Tenth Amendment, but I'm going to ignore the other amendments in the Bill of Rights.
CORNISH: What do you think you can do differently this time, as you go forward with this report in hand, that might make a difference?
WARD: I think you'd take this report out, and as bad as it is for our state, this is something we hold in our hand and say, if we don't fix this, they're going to come in and force you to fix it, and that's going to cost you a lot of money. And we're a state that prides ourselves on being a 10th Amendment state, so if we're really that proud of the 10th Amendment, then we need to fix this problem ourselves and not let a federal court or a receivership come and do it for us.
CORNISH: Cam Ward is Republican state senator from Alabama. He also chairs the state prison oversight committee. Thank you for speaking with us.
WARD: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.