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What prison reform means in Alabama

Stephen A. Cooper
Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. 

Working as an Assistant Federal Defender in Alabama for three years I visited many state prisons. More often than not, the conditions I observed my incarcerated clients in were deplorable. Sadly, when I raised red flags of concern with officials, shoulders shrugged — folks just did not care. Instead, at each turn I was met with an attitude — an attitude that I submit needs dramatic adjustment — especially as Alabamians consider whether investing $800 million dollars to build new prisons is a good idea or not. The attitude goes a little something like this:

We don’t cotton to criminals here in Alabama. We don’t pat them on the head, give’em a stern talking to and send them home with a cookie, saying “go, go, and sin no more.”

This ain’t Germany!

By God, when you do wrong in Alabama, we don’t spare the rod. You learn that at a young age growing up around here — start swattin’ them with a switch when they’re sassy — how else are they gonna learn right from wrong?

We’re not some joke like California. Did you know in California they don’t even put criminals in jail because of overcrowding? Jurors and judges say “go to jail, you thug.” Then some other judges swoop in and say, “nah, the jail is too crowded today . . . . You go on home and from now on, do right!” That don’t play in Alabama. Down here, that makes as much sense as teats on a bull.

First of, jail ain’t suppose to be like a stay at the Renaissance Hotel. If it’s crowded and chaotic in them cells, well find a damn corner and cower you con! ’Cause you can’t blame anyone but your own criminal self — you can’t.

And if it’s hotter n’ two rabbits in a wool sack in them cells, well this here’s Alabama — so you better adjust. And if we ain’t got enough guards to take you outside, well I guess you better save up for one of them reading lights from the canteen — hang that puppy on the wall — and there you go, plenty of vitamin D.

Last but not least: don’t complain about the food. You should be happier than a tornado in a trailer park your crime-committing-self chows down at all.

You know some Yankee counselor from DC once had the temerity to write in a court filing: “All Alabama’s assurances aside, ADOC prison meals do not provide adequate nutrition.” Nothing more than some high-falutin’ hoot n’ nanny! Sure, we’ll build some more prisons, especially if we can keep the courts off our backs. But don’t ask us to be nice or even sympathetic to that criminal element. Don’t expect us to educate these cons or pay a whole bunch for books, effective drug treatment, counseling, programming, or give them any real job training.

But build a few more prisons for 800 million? Sure, why not? Like that saying from the baseball movie Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner, “if [we] build it, [they] will come.”