Prison Overcrowding and the War on Drugs

This is a condensed version of a longer letter that I sent to Governor Siegelman, Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, my state senator and representative, and several other figures in state politics immediately after Judge Shashy’s ruling was announced. Alabama’s inhuman prison system and racist, violent police force are one of the single greatest barriers to the continuing progress of racial justice in this state. As they always have been; to paraphrase Malcolm X, the white supremacist have traded in the hoods and white sheets (well, *some* of them have traded in the hoods and white sheets!) for badges and blue uniforms and black robes. The letter was published in the Opelika-Auburn News on 24 May 2001.

Editors, Opelika-Auburn News:

This past Friday, Judge William Shashy ordered the state to move to state prisons the nearly 2,000 state prisoners who have been illegally jammed into county jails for more than 30 days. Intense overcrowding throughout the prison system has produced inhuman conditions for the prisoners, and huge headaches for county sheriffs and the Department of Corrections. Our state government has responded to the situation by proposing to spend more of our tax money on newer, bigger prisons and more corrections officers. But why should we keep throwing more people into an expanding prison system, when that’s what landed us in this crisis in the first place?

About one out of every six prisoners in the state of Alabama — over 4,000 inmates — is imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, crimes which hurt nobody but themselves. They’re jammed into overcrowded cells for years, stripped of their civil rights to vote, and made to work like slaves in furniture plants, chemical plants, and right out on the fields through prison labor programs. Worse, two-thirds of the prison population is Black; the racist enforcement of the War on Drugs — a war on some people who use certain kinds of drugs — threatens to take Alabama back to the plantation and Jim Crow.

Prison population has been skyrocketing ever since the introduction of Alabama’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which require judges to put away nonviolent first-time drug offenders for anywhere between three and nineteen years, depending on the drug involved. If you want to solve Alabama’s prison population crisis, don’t throw away more of our tax dollars on new prisons. Instead, release Alabama’s 4,000 prisoners of the War on Drugs and repeal the insane drug laws that created this crisis.

Charles W. Johnson

18 replies to Prison Overcrowding and the War on Drugs Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Wanda Aaron

    I realize this article was printed last year. But I have just now read it over the internet. I just want to say AMEN. I don’t know what some of our politicians (including the Governor and on down and even higher up to the President) are thinking. I know the person locked up is suppose to be rehabilitated while serving time for their crime. But it is actually as you say. I have seen it first hand because I have a family member in prison, from a property crime that caused him to be sentenced under the habitual offender act. The officials say the inmates are not sick (when they are) and are still treated unhumane. This will go on until we have a Governor or whomever has that authority to make changes. Personally speaking, I have been treated like ______, threatened to stop my visits etc., and my last visit my life was threatened. I was asked to come into the Assistant Warden’s office and seated in the chair in the corner while he was waiting on this Captain M____. This Captain leaned against the door until both of them were through interigating me, threatening me and the Captain moved away from the door and told me I could leave now. I was held against my will and was justifiable for filing charges against both of them, but I didn’t. I feel I am a better person than that, than they are. These two officers are the example of those that traded their shield for a blue uniform and badge. I don’t mind if you print this in your newspaper because something needs to be done. If you do, please let me know through my email and I will have you to mail me one.

    PS I couldn’t have put the words together than the author of this article. God Bless Him and you that published it.

— 2003 —

  1. mallory schieck

    i am a woman in prison for murdering 17 men. i would like to get out soon and i think i have a good chance with the overcrowding that is occuring

  2. kyle gallagher

    well first of all i served about 9 months in lee county jail before going to boot camp in childersburg, i think that yea it is wrong and it is over crowded but 3/4 of the prisoners in jail dont learn anything, most of them just talk about what there going to do when they get out, and let me tell it is nothing educational or anything,haha. i mean alot of them just talk about how much they cant wait to get out and smoke a blunt or drind a beer. thank god i learnt my lesson, im in tallahassee fl now w/ my wife and son and i couldnt ask for anything more.

  3. Veronica Fields

    I have a friend incarcerated that has done nothing but prove he is trying hard to improve himself, has not been in any trouble, all he wants to do is go home, has said this is someplace he has no intentions of revisiting and is doing everything he can to prove this. He has a mother that is 76 yrs. old and this is tearing her apart, he lost his dad 3 yrs ago October, she really needs him home. He is a good person, wants to get back to work and take care of her instead of her taking care of him, sending money, taking care of his home, and everything else, and yet trying to stay strong for him. This is not doing her any good whatsoever. You need to really consider his set up and see about getting him released and reconsider some of the ones that have been released, especially those that have violent crimes. He is not a violent person and he has worked hard all his life and we all make mistakes in our life that we wish we could go back and do all over again the right way, but unfortunately we can’t and have to pay the consequences. I know deep in my heart that he would do right and wants to be home for his mother and has a whole new outlook on life. He does not belong in there and I hope it does not do him more harm than good. Thank you and I really hope he comes home soon.

  4. Kimberley Porter

    I have a friend who was in a work releases facility and was supposed to be parolled in late December. She was working at Kentucky Fried Chicken and her supervisor told her to go to the Walmart and purchase tampons for another employee there. She told him that this was against the rules and if she were caught she would be charged with excape and would lose her parole date. He fired her and she called the prison guard to come and pick her up. When the prison guard got there she was angry because she her lunch was interrupted and she wrote my friend a disciplinary for interfering with an officer in the line of duty. For this disciplinary my friend was put back in lockup and her parole date was taken from her. She had another parole hearing this month but was denied for another year due to this same disciplinary. I really think it sucks that she is being kept in an overcrowded prison for another year and a half because she refused to break a rule.


  5. Janice Johnson

    As with some of the other people who have written, I also have a friend and loved one who is incarcerated. He was arrested several years ago for a small amount of marijuana.He was released and put on probation for 5 years. Unfortunately, he broke his probation. Not by doing anything illegal but simply by becoming tired of the system and not reporting to his PO.So now he is back in prison for the same charge. I am not condoning the usage of marijuana, however let’s take into consideration the amount of people who do smoke marijuana.If they put every person in jail or prison who smoked it, I don’t believe that the state of Alabama would have but about 10% of the free population that it does now.Why not become tougher on the violent offenders. Personally, I was molested as a child and this man has never spent any time in jail or even been put on probation.I have a list with over 15 names of children that he has abused and everyone seems to condone his behavior. What is this teaching our children.That it is okay to abuse other people but not to harm yourself by smoking pot. How much sense does that make.I was told by someone who is much more knowledgable than myself about government policies and procedures that members of the Congress are not required to take random drug screens and we all know that if a government official is busted with drugs it is very easy for him or her to buy themselves out of trouble and publicity. However, when an everyday Joe is caught they want to make an example of him so they incarcerate him for 5 years for a joint.

  6. Kay Miller

    My husband is in Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, AL. He has a Life Sentence because of a 1988 marijuana charge and the Habitual Offender Law. In 2001 he was charged with two misdemeanors and his parole was revoked. If he had not been on parole at the time, he would have been set free after his trial for time served while waiting for his trial. If the Habitual Offender Law were abolished, he would not be on parole – he would not be in prison – he would be home. Can’t someone do something about this stupid law that has caused the overcrowding crisis in Alabama prisons? My husband is 55 and I am 52. We fear we don’t have too many more good years to enjoy our marriage. I need my husband back.

  7. JAMES


  8. Cassie

    I am a Criminal Justice major and through my many years of education, I have seen first hand what problems are truly caused by prison overcrowding. However, there are laws out there to protect law abiding citizens from those who obviously can not live a crime free life. Over crowding has become such an issue, but I do not believe that allowing offenders to commit crimes, and in some cases multiple crimes and repeat crimes to go free. There must be rules and regulations, they may not seem fair, but the answer is simple-don’t participate in criminal behavior and you will not have to face the criminal justice system.

  9. Amanda

    I know that the U.S was built upon rights. I know that until a person is convicted of a crime those rights are still guaranteed, but after that happens a person loses all those rights, not because the system is bad or wrong but because he willingly chose to commit a criminal act and lose his rights as the consequence. I’m sorry, that’s the way it goes, I have no pity for anyone who breaks the law. However, should we bend the law for a few people, the law becomes useless. If we bend the law we might as well not have one. Once a compromise has been made it’s so much easier to make another and another until the only law is against the truly law abiding citizens.

— 2004 —

  1. Kayla Bangs

    i just wanted to tell you all that i am doing a paper in my 12th grade government class on prison overcrowding, and how government could help alleviate the problem. i would like to thank you all for your comments as they will be as much use to me in developing my problem as well as the scope of it. Thank you.

  2. Kim

    I believe there should be some kind of rehabilitation for 1st time offenders. I know people say “dont do the crime if you dont want to do the time” but drugs just take 1 time and you can be hooked. Simply putting a person in prison doesnt help to rehabilitate them. Making rehab manditory with randon drug testing with a person on like a supervised release “THEN” if they couldnt comply with that make them serve their sentence would make more sense to me. If we even had a rehab that people could take “before” they got into trouble. Places like Charter House and such you have to have alot of money to even begin to get any help. My husband wanted to get help at one time and I called all over they place but we didnt have alot of money for those places and they wouldnt even talk to us.

  3. Bernardo Bidiro

    Like Kayla Bangs above, I am researching prison overcrowding, but for debate class, not government. I’m supposed to argue that we need more prisons. I personally am open to alternatives to prison, so long as they encourage offenders not to do it again. That’s the point, isn’t it? Change behavior.

— 2005 —

  1. Justin Schuiling

    I know that this post is a quite bit late. I just read your post about your husband. My heart goes out to you and your husband. There is NO reason he should be in jail for that crime. How is that helping him to rehabilitate? I currently writing a paper on prison overcrowding in the U.S. This is a perfect example of how screwed up the justice system is in this country.

  2. Natalie Watson

    I think we should develop a drug treatment program that judges could sentence 1st time non-violent drug offenders to for two years or more that would provide drug treatment, counseling, and an enviornment that would promote family support. We could make it work release to the offenders could pay their own medical bills as well as learn to become a more productive part of society. This would cut down on the prison overcrowding and also repeat offenders of drug crimes which would save us more money in the long run. We need to do something to fix the problem instead of trying to throw them away in prison where they are forgotten by society.

  3. Robin


— 2006 —

  1. Mike

    What is so hard to figure out if everyone,including judges,is against laws that put nonviolent drug offenders in prison instead of trying to help them why can’t we change these laws? Alot of people fall under “habitual offenders” and must serve manditory minimums for as long as life in prison, while rapists, child molestors, and murderers get out early due to overcrowding because of these laws,and Alabama prisons remain overcrowded.DUH ..I can’t believe they would even think that building new prisons will solve this problem.I personally know of a person who beat a man to death with a baseball bat and was sentenced to a year and a day. His friend who’s idea it was to kill the man got eight years and my friend who the killer had told about the murder almost got ten years but got out of it finally,after almost ruining his life. Now I have a close friend who has a problem with drugs and has just been convicted under this habitual offender law. She is awaiting sentencing but the judge says she will get life in prison and that he doesn’t agree but his hands are tied. This girl has never hurt anyone, and is as nice a person as you will ever meet. I doubt she will make it in prison unless she gets alot meaner…is that justice.If we can’t leave sentencing up to the judges why are they here.If this is fair then anyone who breaks any law should be put in prison.I know that’s not justice but it makes about as much sense as what they’re doing now. Maybe we can build a wall around the U.S. and call it a prison.I feel freedom is a word that is getting hard to define.I don’t know about everyone else but I would rather know that I have a neighbor who is using drugs, than a paroled murderer or child molestor who is free or on parole because his sentence wasn’t a “mandatory minimum”,and is probably only free to make room for someone who had some weed or something.This is ridiculous and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.

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