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Prisons aren’t typically the stuff of dinner party conversations or light summer reading. Yet when AL.com and The David Mathews Center for Civic Life partnered last year to engage Alabama about the problems facing Alabama’s prison system, hundreds of people responded, attending informational meetings and deliberative forums across the state.

The number of voices climbs into the thousands who you consider the people who respond to calls to share their insights with AL.com and its partners in the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab — whether that be detailing their experiences with the prison system or offering suggestions for reforming it.

The community’s involvement and commitment has drawn notice from regional and national journalism associations. And it is undoubtedly a factor in the progress that state officials have made toward system transformation and reform.

Many key moments have brought the state to the place that it can now consider funding for improvements and reforms it has already endorsed.

The problem blows up

On Jan. 17, 2014, the Department of Justice issues a report describing grim conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Among the abuse, it tells of prison staff members raping and fondling inmates, and of officials failing to investigate inmate allegations, or stifling them. “The women at Tutwiler universally fear for their safety,” the report states. The Justice Department says the inmate stories are well-corroborated, even by paternity tests. Corrections system leaders say that the findings are off-base and unverified.

Lawmakers on their heels

The Justice Department report sets off alarm bells at the Legislature.  “We all know there is an issue with the prisons. There is overcrowding. Something has to be done,” says Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. “Hopefully, this DOJ report will really wake everybody up,” says state Sen. Cam Ward. Earlier, he has warned: “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite in our prison system.”

Citizens shape the story as AL.com investigates

AL.com launches a collaborative effort with the Center for Investigative Reporting and public radio that highlights audience engagement and in-depth reporting on significant issues facing the state. The culture of abuse and lack of accountability in Alabama prisons is the initial focus of the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab, which aims to involve readers in the reporting process and examine their experiences to help guide the investigation.

Ex-inmates speak out

In interviews with AL.com, former Tutwiler inmates begin to share their stories of life behind the walls. “It’s not meant to be the Hilton. But you should still be able to not have to take a freezing cold shower in the dead of winter, still be able to have more than one blanket or two blankets, be able to eat something besides food that’s not even fit to make dog food out of,” says Nicole Brooks, a one-time nurse who’d served time in 2006-07 after being linked to a robbery.

Rising national scorn

In March, The New York Times decries conditions at Tutwiler, writing “there are few places worse.” Cosmopolitan weighs in, calling Tutwiler horrific. In early spring, about 13,000 people sign a petition calling for prosecution of those involved in sexual abuse at Tutwiler.

Bentley gets involved

On March 6, Gov. Robert Bentley tours Tutwiler and announces plans to hire the well-regarded Moss Group consultants to analyze the prison and recommend a plan of action. Four days later, he addresses the state in a news column, writing “I want Alabamians to know that custodial misconduct in our correctional facilities will not be tolerated, especially when it comes to female inmates.” He explains that new funding will open the way for the installation of a Tutwiler camera system and the hiring of 100 security officers systemwide. He pledges that the state will recruit more female officers at Tutwiler.

Ex-guards open up

Former prison security officers, contacted by AL.com, begin to tell of their experiences. Herman Boleware, who worked at Tutwiler, spent five days in jail himself for assaulting an inmate. He tells AL.com, in a story published March 25, that prison staffers were cruel “from the top on down.”  He says, “As far as the conditions, it’s just like you’re locked up, too.”  Inmates, he says, “are really treated like animals.”

‘Culture of abuse’

In April, former Tutwiler psychologist Dr. Larry Wood weighs in: “The facility is archaic and overcrowded, and a pattern of mismanagement and abuse dates back for decades. … Tutwiler represents a culture of abuse that will be difficult to turn around.” Meanwhile, a new survey shows that the mentally ill population of the state’s prisons leaped from 5 percent in 1971 to 20 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, says the survey sponsor, the nationally known Treatment Advocacy Center,  Alabama is “among the states spending the least on public psychiatric treatment programs.”

DOC’s new tone

“I’ve told the Legislature the past two years that just getting by is not good enough,” Corrections Commission Kim Thomas says in early June. He adds, “It’s satisfying finally to see that people are discussing these problems and the public is concerned about them.” He says, “If you want to incarcerate people, there is a cost associated with it.” Days later, Gov. Robert Bentley’s office says that he is calling in the services of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a national program that helps states improve their criminal justice systems. This is a program offered by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Claims of cruelty

The Southern Poverty Law Center issues a June report, laden with jarring anecdotes, maintaining that medical care in Alabama prisons is cruel and unconstitutional. The report declares that the corrections system is “deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs of the prisoners in its custody.” The Department of Corrections rejects the grisly claims. Kim Thomas, the corrections commissioner, says the agency’s level of care is “better than health care given to most uninsured Alabamians.” The SPLC, however, soon files a lawsuit

Task force gathers

At a first meeting of the state’s new Prison Reform Task Force, in June, its members learn that Alabama’s prisons, holding slightly more than 25,000 inmates, are at 190 percent of their designed capacity. “There’s no way you can build your way out, but you can’t expect to solve this problem without new construction,” says Sen. Cam Ward, who had warned in January that prisons were “a box of dynamite.” He is serving as task force chairman.

Digging into wardens’ pasts

An AL.com analysis of hundreds of personnel documents shows that the state’s prison wardens can flout the rules, take a slap on the wrist, return to work or transfer to other prisons, according to its story published in June. Records show that some wardens were promoted to their positions even after serving suspensions as lower-ranking officers for beating inmates or covering up beatings.

Ward takes center stage 

On July 15, state Sen. Cam Ward tells a subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that Alabama has a “failed corrections system.” He says, “Locking them up and throwing away the key is not the solution to our problem.” Next, in an August interview with NPR, Ward says, “You’d have to be blind — whether you’re politically right or politically left — to not recognize that 192 percent capacity in your prison facilities is a problem. There’s just no other way around it.”

Progress and setbacks

In August, the Department of Corrections starts a new training program to help recruit more women. Trainees are even allowed to go home each day during the 12-week session, to take care of families or other obligations. But state health officials announce that the prisons are dealing with a tuberculosis outbreak.

Allegations against doctors

Having sexual contact with patients, exchanging painkillers for oral sex, and impersonating another doctor in an attempt to a fill a phony prescription at a pharmacy: These are some of the allegations that the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners leveled against two doctors who now treat Alabama’s inmates. The findings by AL.com are revealed in a story published in September. In fact, the two doctors were previously barred from practicing medicine in the state for the infractions, records show.

Toilet paper, shower doors

In September, Deputy Corrections Commissioner Wendy Williams says that the prison system is changing its rules so that female inmates receive different clothing than male inmates. Also, feminine hygiene products and toilet paper will be available for all women in bathrooms, rather than being issued individually. That same month, she says that all bathrooms at Tutwiler now have shower doors, toilet partitions and privacy curtains. Also, she says, more than 300 cameras now scan the prison.

Hundreds attend meetings to call for change

In November, in Auburn, AL.com hosts its first public forum on prison reform. Others will soon follow in Huntsville, Mobile and Birmingham. And people speak out. “Soon there’ll be more people in prisons than there are out here working,” says Cathi Adams, whose son is in prison. “We need to stop thinking of justice as revenge,” said Carol Daron, retired Auburn University faculty member.

New leadership required

In December, AL.com calls for new leadership in Alabama’s prison system and appeals to the state legislature to adopt reforms before the federal government intervenes. The leadership must come from outside the current system, as the tenure of Kim Thomas, who rose through the ranks to lead the Department of Corrections, failed to bring about the needed transformation.

Fixing this is hard, but leaving it alone gets expensive

An AL.com analysis reveals that Alabama spent more than $1.86 million on private law firms to fight lawsuits filed against the state prison system since 2011. One of the highest-profile cases was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union over the state’s practice of segregating HIV-positive inmates. After a federal judge rules in its favor, the ACLU initially asks for $2.4 million in legal fees, then settles for $1.3 million plus an hourly rate to cover prison visits. As part of another legal agreement, the state agrees to change the way it distributes razors to inmates. Attorneys had accused the state of giving razor blades to inmates who were known to be suicidal or mentally ill.

State finds a new leader, sends wardens to new posts

In late January, Gov. Bentley confirms the resignation of Commissioner Kim Thomas and taps an Air Force colonel to take over the prison system. Col. Jefferson Dunn is an Alabama native who has served in various education and command staff capacities during a 28-year military career. Dunn takes the reins in March and moves quickly to lobby Alabama legislators to adopt a package of reforms. In February, the state moves 10 Alabama wardens — some that have come under outside scrutiny for allegedly violent conditions — to new assignments within the system.

The more things change, the more some stay the same

In February, the state announces that it will retain its prison health care provider through 2017. That decision comes despite a lawsuit filed by two groups representing inmates who claim that DOC’s failure to provide adequate medical care, mental health care and accommodations for the disabled violates the constitution and federal law.  February also sees another Alabama prison inmate die violently inside prison walls, with a fellow inmate accused in the stabbing death. Two more inmates will die in separate April incidents. A prison officer is assaulted by an inmate in an April incident that sparks a riot that left 15 inmates in need of some sort of medical treatment.

“Significant hurdles” remain

The Council of State Governments briefs the state’s prison reform task force on its findings, laying out a plan that calls for leaving the state’s most dangerous criminals behind bars while adding resources to improve supervision and treatment of offenders in communities statewide. CSG research manager Andrew Barbee warns that Alabama “has significant hurdles in front of it … there are such long-lasting ramifications associated with workforces that have been overworked and overloaded for years, and a lot of entrenched ways of doing business.”

The legislature adopts reform proposals

Measures including new prison facilities, more community supervision, treatment and diversion options, and a change in how Alabama sentences some felony offenders are part of a plan approved by the prison reform task force and introduced by Sen. Cam Ward as Alabama’s legislature opens its 2015 session. The plan promises to reduce Alabama’s prison population from 26,000 to about 21,500 over a five-year period and reduce overcrowding from its current 195 percent of designed capacity to 138 percent. The price tag for reform is estimated at $25 million in new money annually, plus $60 million over five years aimed at facility construction. It takes two months of legislative wrangling,  but Ward and supporters steer the bill to final approval and see it signed by Gov. Bentley on May 21.

Where’s the money?

The state announces on May 28 an agreement with the Department of Justice that promises to address issues at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, keeping the federal government from intervention in Alabama’s system. But that agreement is threatened and the prison reform plan adopted by the Legislature put on hold as the Legislature adjourns without securing a General Fund budget for 2016. Gov. Robert Bentley vetoes the budget bill sent to him as the session ends, one that  would have cut prison funding from current levels and, officials say, caused the closure of two major facilities.

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