State Senator Cam Ward, who is Chairman of the Joint Oversight for Prison Committee, admits cell phones are a major problem in Alabama's prisons, but there are other issues facing the system that could "blow up in our faces" if not addressed.
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -
Alabama Department of Corrections officials confirm the mobile phone used to post pictures and status updates on Facebook by inmates within a prison facility has been found and confiscated. And they say the investigation continues.
Cell phones behind bars are against the law, and it's becoming a major issue in the prison system. But WSFA 12 News has learned, in a candid conversation with the Chairman of the Joint Oversight for Prison Committee, that's just one of several deep rooted problems.
Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) is well aware of the dangers posed by cell phones behind prison walls. "Criminals can continue carrying out their activities through cell phones," he explained. "Say you're a gang member, you do drugs, you can continue doing your illegal trade right there with your cell phone."
And Sen. Ward stands behind the law passed just last year making it illegal to possess or provide a phone behind bars. "You're smuggling a laptop computer in that's the size of a business card. That gives them a window and an arm to reach outside that wall and hurt someone on the outside. Without that phone they can't do that."
Statewide, the Dept. of Corrections confiscated more than 5,000 cell phones from prisoners last year. That's an average of 13.7 phones per day. That's just the ones officials were able to find and take.
"If they had that many confiscated, they're catching a bunch of them, but still it's a problem," a problem, Ward says, only scratches the surface of the issues facing the prison system.
"We don't have enough prison guards, " Ward says, adding that the numbers are grossly mismatched. "We're roughly at 193% capacity in the prison system. We have the lowest percentage staffing of any state in the country right now. We're at right about 50 percent staff capacity for our state correction system, so if you only have 50 percent of the people to work with, that means the job of those people who are there - they have a whole lot more duties," the senator explained.
Guards are outnumbered and unarmed among violent criminals. And Ward admits some of the guards are breaking the law. "You can't pay them nothing, put them in the worst conditions in the world, and expect them to be the most honest, law abiding folks," he admits. "This has gone on for decades in Alabama, but it's getting to a boiling point that we need to make sure we do something and step up to the plate, or else it's gonna blow up in our face."
But the fix isn't easy, and won't come quickly. "It's gonna be long term changes. One- you've got to look at sentencing guidelines on possession, using your alternative programs, using drug courts, community corrections, work release programs," Ward believes. "They're a lot cheaper using those for your first time, possession, non-violent people. It's a lot cheaper than locking up and throwing away the key."
Alabama spends over a quarter of its General Fund budget on prisons, but still spends less per inmate than any other state in the country. With his plan and recommendations, Ward believes the state could actually reduce the amount of money spent on prisons.
Requests for and interview with Commissioner of Corrections to discuss these issues were not possible. He was unavailable for an interview.