As Prison Spending Increases, So Does Violence and Misconduct


A new study by the Equal Justice Initiative on Alabama’s prisons concludes:

  • In the first 10 months of 2019, twice as many Alabama prisoners have been murdered (13) than the entire 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, making Alabama’s current system the most violent in the nation.
  • Spending on state prisons has increased 20% in the last 10 years from $372 million in 2009 to $443 million in 2018. Alabama has budgeted an unprecedented $500 million for state prisons for 2020, a 39% increase from 10 years ago.
  • Since 2018, at least six officers at the rank of sergeant or above—as well as three members of senior Alabama Department of Corrections leadership (an associate commissioner and two wardens)—have been suspended, resigned, or been arrested for allegations of sexual misconduct and physical abuse of incarcerated people, including at least one incident in which an incarcerated person died.
  • The state prison population is rising. After declining 3.6% in FY 2018, the state’s prison population rose 3.3% in the first six months of FY 2019 and is expected to rise dramatically as parole rates have declined sharply.
  • More people were admitted to ADOC custody in 2019—most for drug and property offenses—than ever before.

Prison Homicide Rate on the Rise

Between 2000 and 2009, Alabama reported a total of six homicides in its prison system, which houses just over 24,000 people on average. That’s an average annual rate of 2.5 homicides per 100,000 incarcerated people.

From 2010 to 2019, prison homicides increased tenfold to 60 and the average annual rate is now approximately 62 homicides per 100,000 incarcerated people. This is nearly nine times the national average for state prisons, according to the most recent data available from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In the first 10 months of 2019 alone there have been 13 homicides in Alabama prisons. That’s more than the total yearly homicides reported in 34 other states combined. Nine of the 13 people killed this year in Alabama prisons were in medium security facilities.

State officials have argued that Alabama’s prisons are more violent because—as a result of sentencing reforms that have reduced the number of nonviolent offenders in state prisons—they house a higher proportion of violent offenders than other states’ prisons. But this explanation falls short. Alabama actually has a slightly lower proportion (53%) of people incarcerated for capital murder, murder, sexual assault, robbery, or assault than the national average (55%).

Overcrowding Is Getting Worse

In 2017, EJI reported that Alabama’s prisons were the most overcrowded in the country. Sentencing and parole reforms at first seemed to alleviate overcrowding, but recent policy changes have driven the prison population up further.

The state’s prison population declined 3.6% in the 2018 fiscal year, but those improvements were erased when the population rose 3.3% between October 2018 and April 2019.

The prison population continues to climb. In 2019, more people were admitted to the Alabama Department of Corrections’s jurisdictional custody than ever before. The number of revocations of non-prison sentences increased from approximately 1,200 in 2015 to approximately 4,500 in 2018 and the rate of parole has dropped by 40% from a year ago.

Alabama officials have credited sentencing reforms with keeping people convicted of nonviolent offenses out of prison. But the majority of people entering the state’s prisons are nonviolent offenders. Most of the people admitted to ADOC custody in 2016 and 2017 were convicted of drug related offenses, theft, receiving stolen property, or forgery.

In fact, Alabama’s controversial and excessive sentencing policies have created one of the largest permanent prison populations in the world. In 2018, the state incarcerated 946 of 100,000 Alabamians and nearly 1 in 4 of those incarcerated in Alabama was sentenced to death or life in prison. Only Louisiana has more people incarcerated under such punitive sentences, the Sentencing Project and Prison Policy Initiative found.

More Spending May Not Be the Answer

State leaders are debating whether to build privately-owned prisons in response to the overcrowding crisis. But mounting evidence confirms the underlying problems are cultural, not structural.

Since 2018, at least six officers at the rank of sergeant or above have been arrested on allegations of corruption or violence against incarcerated people, including at least one incident in which an incarcerated person died.

Several senior ADOC officials have resigned in the wake of recent investigations. Three were removed after allegations of misconduct. Associate Commissioner Grantt Culliver, reportedly the subject of ongoing investigations, was dismissed in 2018. St. Clair Warden Cedric Specks was dismissed in May 2018 after an investigation found he “abused his authority” by engaging in “predatory sexual exploitation of subordinates.” And Limestone Correctional Facility Warden Dewayne Estes was placed on mandatory leave “due to the nature of the allegations against [him].”

ADOC has not improved conditions or public safety despite rising resources. The state’s prisons remain in crisis while ADOC is budgeted to get more than $500 million from the state general fund in 2020, up from $443 million last year and $372 million in 2009.

On top of its allocation from the general fund, ADOC’s revenue from prison canteen sales has risen from $18,213,000 in 2008 to $25,725,000 in 2018. And ADOC continues to profit from private contracts for services, including $3.1 million in kickbacks from private phone carriers.