Alabama Republican state Sen. Cam Ward gave a candid – even courageous – interview about prison reform, acknowledging root systemic issues and pressing for changes.
He said Alabama has “the most overcrowded, underfunded system in the United States today at 190 percent capacity.”
Ward’s interview appeared as Alabama struggles to address its broken corrections system and criticism intensifies.
In January, the U.S. Department of Justice sent to the state a 36-page letter charging that the Julia Tutwiler Prison violated the Constitution.
The Tutwiler facility houses women.
The DOJ said Tutwiler inmates “universally fear for their safety” and that the prison had “a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuses and harassment.”
Ward expressed gratitude for the female inmates speaking out about the “terrible unconstitutional conditions” at the facility.
When asked about the problem of increased incarceration, Ward said, “Where I think it started was probably in the early ’90s when there was a large trend nationwide to get ‘tough on crime’ and ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key.’ And while we did get tough on crime, I think we weren’t very smart about it. I think that’s what led to the increase in penalties and enhanced sentencing in the ’90s, which really led to a huge boom in the prison population all across the country.”
Ward admitted that the “tough on crime” approach was part of the Republican agenda and pointed out that today the states at the forefront of prison reform are Republican states. Texas and Georgia were named.
“[Prison reform is] one of the few issues you see in Washington that’s actually generated a little bit of bipartisan compromise … so I think there’s room for both parties to work on it, and it will take both parties working on it too,” he said.
EthicsDaily.com articles have repeatedly underscored the bipartisan nature of the prison issue through news stories about federal and state legislation to coverage of the premiere screening of “Through the Door” at Richmond’s Bon Air Baptist Church. A 2013 news brief on conservative icon Richard Viguerie notes bipartisan efforts. A 2014 news piece on the State of the State addresses highlighted bipartisanship.
Yet one of the false narratives across the land is that only Democrats are committed to prison reform.
True, liberal Democrats are squawking about mass incarceration and ending the war on drugs. Yet blue states such as California have a notoriously broken prison system at 150 percent overcrowding.
Yet, Ward’s plain-spoken interview is another illustration of grass-roots Republican leaders’ commitment to addressing the issue.
A member of First United Methodist Church of Alabaster, Ward realistically acknowledges that fixing the nation’s prison system will take years to reform.
Ward sees three necessary reforms. One is upgrading prisons.
Second is “finding alternative sentencing programs, cheaper more effective community corrections, drug courts, mental health courts.”
And third is “doing everything we can to reduce recidivism.”
If he is right and he surely is – that reforming the system will take years, then the question for churches is what they can do now to address the plight of the incarcerated.
After all, Jesus said his agenda was “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). He said visit those in prison (Matthew 25:31-45). He didn’t say wait for government reform before taking initiatives.
A good first step for churches is moral education. And no better resource exists than “Through the Door.”
We are looking for opportunities to introduce the documentary to church leaders, civic organizations, state legislators and correction officials.
We think the church has a constructive role to play inside prisons and to help those released from prison to avoid going back to prison.
As a staff, we’re doing everything we can do to promote screenings of our documentary. If you would like to sponsor a screening, contact us.
Let’s be proactive together.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s Note: “Through the Door” will premiere on Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters, an Atlanta cable TV station, at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, May 8 (Eastern). Encore presentations will run: 9 p.m. May 9; 12 p.m. May 12; 7 p.m. May 13; and 10:30 p.m. May 15.