A Dilemma: Overpopulation in Southern Prisons

Bob Powell

Vol. 1, No. 1, 1978, pp. 16-17

"A free, democratic society cannot cage inmates like animals or stack them like cattle in a warehouse and expect them to emerge as decent, law-abiding, contributing members of the community. In the end, society is the loser."

Judge Charles R. Scott

With these words and the stroke of a pen, in 1976 Judge Scott, a Federal Judge in Florida, found the Florida prison system in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution barring cruel and unusual punishment.

It is not an uncommon thing these days for Southern prison systems to be in this predicament. Across the South since 1975, five states have been told to stop overcrowding their prisons and a sixth, Tennessee, is currently a defendant in an undecided case. Chan Kendrick, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee, who filed suit against the facility said the overcrowded conditions at the Transit Building, a converted warehouse made into a makeshift prison, were "simply unbelievable."

The main cause of the Eighth Amendment violations in regard to prison conditions centers on overcrowding. The South's prison systems are the most crowded in the nation. Overcrowding not only means an excess of bodies, but also overused medical facilities and overworked personnel. Funds that could be used for rehabilitation are often used elsewhere.

And despite popular opinion to the contrary, overcrowded prisons are not solving any crime problems. If anything at all, they are creating more. The crime rate continues to go up and recidivism soars.

Five of the top six states with high prison populations in ratio to the general population are in the South. These states, ranked in order from second to sixth, are North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas.

The source of this data, the March 1978 issue of Corrections Magazine, lists four other Southern states as being in the Top Twenty. They are Virginia (12th), Louisiana (16th), Tennessee (17th) and Arkansas (20th).

And who is to blame for this wonderful state of affairs in Southern prisons? Even the administrators, the usual heavies of the correctional system foul-ups, cannot be held responsible for this condition. Prison administrators may be accountable for a lot of the defects of the system, but failing to warn the public about overcrowded conditions in the prisons is not one of them.

According to a New York Times article dated January 24,1976, the prison administrators were trying to warn the Southern Governor's Conference about the overcrowding crunch at that time.

The front page Times article said, "Southern prison officials are recommending a broad program of liberal reform to relieve prison overcrowding that they agree has reached crisis proportions."

The Governors had all sent representatives to that gathering. Surely, at least one Southern Governor heard the ringing words that the Secretary of the Department of Corrections for South Carolina, William Leeke, told his colleagues: "I feel personally we are going way beyond locking up the dangerous offender. It would appear, and I believe most of my colleagues would agree, that in many cases we are locking up people where it is totally counterproductive to our purpose."

Leeke also warned that, "Increased tension and possible violence is the result of all this overcrowding. I know in my jurisdiction we are seeing more assaults of inmates on inmates and inmates on personnel."

"The first thing that overcrowding does is create tension," said Leroi X (Mason), an inmate at the Virginia State Penitentiary.

Mason, a recipient of ACLU's award for defense of the Bill of Rights, said overcrowding also produces crime and theft inside the prison. In Virginia where inmates get paid for the work they do, overcrowding causes unemployment and unemployment causes those inmates without jobs to steal from other inmates.

Despite the warnings, the politicians have found it productive in getting reelected to push for tougher crime laws, longer sentences and mandatory sentencing. In the United States, prisoners are given from two to three times longer sentences than European offenders for the same offense. Plus, they serve up to half or two-thirds of the term, a period considerably greater than the one European prisoners serve for the same offense.

But being rational does not always get the votes. When Federal Judge Frank Johnson of the Middle District of Alabama declared the Alabama prison system in violation of the Eighth Amendment in 1976, Wallace got into his favorite form denouncing liberal, soft-headed judges.

While one expects that from a man who stands in school house doors to block the desegregation of schools, Wallace's next door neighbor, Governor George Busbee, an alleged moderate, pulled one from the same bag of tricks.

In March of 1978, James Moss, a prisoner at the Georgia State Penitentiary in Reidsville was killed in an interracial scuffle. Sixteen others were wounded in the disturbance.

Prisoners blamed the death and injuries on overcrowded conditions. After all, prisoners pointed out, Reidsville was built for 1,500 and now houses, 2,700.

Busbee blamed the killing on that all time favorite Southern bogey man, race. The Atlanta Journal on April 7, 1978 reports Busbee as saying, "The problem at Reidsville is caused by the integration of the sleeping quarters."

In Virginia, a state that ranks relatively low in overcrowded prison conditions, one can still see the headaches that overcrowding is causing for that state.

In the early 1970's, Virginia made plans to close the State Penitentiary in Richmond. Called by its occupants, "the Walls," the ominous structure, partially designed by Thomas Jefferson, was supposed to be closed by 1978. It is still in operation today and its supposed replacement, the Meckleburg Correctional Center, is already filled to capacity.

In nearby Powhatan County, Virginia, which has numerous minimum security prisons, the state is putting prisoners in old surplus house trailers. Local jails have become so overcrowded that the state refuses to take any new prisoners.

Powhatan County residents are upset about Virginia's new plans for more prisons there. The residents argued that more jails would turn their county into a "penal colony" where prisoners outnumbered residents.

If that was not enough in Virginia for one year, the Federal District Court for the Western part of the state declared that the Bland, Virginia Correctional Center was in violation of the Eighth Amendment for its overcrowded conditions.

Further South, Alabama was still trying to get around Judge Johnson's court order and reduce overcrowding. But Alabama was


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finding the going rough.

In 1978, attorneys for the Alabama Board of Corrections admitted that, prison construction "planned or currently underway won't keep pace with the number of new inmates."

"The sad thing about prison reformers," says Gene Guerrero, director of the ACLU of Georgia, "is that they know about the direct relationship between jobs and imprisonment. Yet, they tell legislators that through some new gimmick or new prison, they can deal with the criminal problem, while at the same time researchers are finding in Georgia that 75% of the state's sharp increase in prison population is directly attributable to unemployment. Despite knowing this, what they propose is building a new prison."

There were other voices that were warning against locking up prisoners and throwing away the key. One of these was William G. Nagel of the American Foundation, Institute of Corrections, a research group.

On February 9, 1976, Nagel wrote the following letter to Richard Kwartler of Corrections Magazine:

"Any attempt to understand the increase in prison population should start with a study of practices in the South. On December 31, 1965, ten Southern states held 49,435 prisoners. According to your tabulations, the same ten states now hold 86,380 prisoners. That is an increase of 75.5%."

Nagel also pointed out that the other forty states had prison population increases of just 3.1%, but that the crime rate had increased in the South faster than in the North.

Another study by Nagel's American Foundation concluded that a state's rating on conservatism or liberalism had nothing to do with its success in fighting crime.

In a 1977 meeting of the American Correction's Association (ACA), Nagel and the American Foundation said, "There is no significant relationship between a state's rating on liberalism or conservatism and its reported rate of crime. However, conservative states have more people incarcerated."

The key culprit seems to be the law and order philosophy of heavier sentencing, less parole and probation and more time served in jail.

Added to this are stingy legislators who don't want to give the image to the folks down home that they are coddling criminals or putting up money for country club prisons.

On top of all this is the fact that nobody wants a prison near his home, even if the general populace does favor putting all the crooks away.

The most extreme example of this syndrome of wanting more prisons but not in my neighborhood occurred in Morristown, Tennessee where irate citizens tried to dynamite a 40% completed prison.

Depending on your degree of political realism, some may be shocked to know that New South racism has a lot to do with prison overcrowding. To a pessimist, that overcrowding in prisons might be the new wave to fill the void of what to do with Black folks.

There is a disproportionate number of Blacks in prison as compared to their proportions in the general population. For instance, the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond has a 70% Black population but Blacks constitute only 25% of the general population. Reidsville, Georgia has a 70% Black prison population and only a 30% Black general population. Black prison population proportions in the South are usually double their proportions in the general population.

What comedian Richard Pryor called 'justus" often passes for justice: Various studies, including one by the ACA, show that Blacks tend to get longer sentences for the same offense and have more encounters with police. "Those who say prison camps are concentration camps for the Blacks and the poor are quite correct," Guerrero said, "because it is Blacks and the poor who are pushed out of the economy when hard times come."

Perhaps using something of an overstatement, a Black Virginia mother whose son is serving 75 years in a prison there for the alleged rape of a white woman accurately described this kind of Southern prison: "I look around my church and wonder where all the young Black men are. All I see is women and old men. But now I know. They are all in prison."

The extreme insult, after locking all these folks up for years, is that study after study indicates that incarceration is a huge failure.

At the 18th annual Southern Conference on Corrections, back in the Stone Ages of 1973, it was noted in a report that "students of prison subculture have long understood that habitual forms of incarceration will increase the likelihood that convicted offenders will persist in criminal activities after their release from prison."

It's a social merry-go-round. We put people in jail for corrections and punishment and they come out crazier than when they went in.

At the same conference, so called alternatives to incarceration, even "alternatives to court exposure" were called an "obvious future trend."

These alternatives have hit upon hard times. Court room alternatives are now overshadowed by plea bargaining and overloaded court dockets.

Alternatives to incarceration such as half-way houses, work release centers, community work sentences, etc. could be utilized to cut down on the prison population. But the percentage of prisoners in these type of facilities has not increased significantly in the last four years or so.

The choices are clear. Just like the man in the Sunoco commercial says about services to automobiles, "You can pay me now, or pay me later." The same holds true for the prison overpopulation problem. Either society can make a real effort to reduce overcrowding and its root causes, or it can pay later when expensive Federal court cases roll around and when the soaring crime rate and increased recidivism requires more and more of your tax dollars to build more and more caging facilities.