Will ALEC Reinstate Slavery in Alabama by 2014?

Conservative governance has never made Alabama a land of opportunity. The state ranked 47th in a recent study of economic mobility by Opportunity Nation and the Human Development Project. But hey, the “real” conservatives are in charge of Alabama now, and they have a solution: they’re going to bring back prison labor.  Alabama’s law-abiding citizens complain about competing with Chinese prison labor now — wait til they have to compete with Alabama prison labor.

Its nice to see Republicans creating jobs in Alabama — heck, my favorite thing about Greg Canfield’s appointment to head the Alabama Development Office was that such a nice man should actually get to create a job, for once — but getting arrested shouldn’t be a condition of hiring in the industries he gets to recruit.

There are actually two identical House versions of the bill, HB 30 (.PDF) and HB 36 (.PDF). Both are sponsored by Jim McClendon (pictured right). Parts of the text of this bill are nearly identical to model legislation (.PDF) from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This model legislation is appearing all over the country, but its consequences will be worse here than elsewhere.

That’s because a 1939 law gives Alabama sheriffs near-complete control of leftover funds. Lack of oversight has led to abuse before. Just two years ago, Morgan County’s sheriff was put in jail for starving his inmates to line his pockets. Nothing in any of the three identical versions of this bill will change that snippet of our state’s extensive code. Did I mention that Alabama is also one of the most corrupt states in the country, ranked 4th in 2007 by Corporate Crime Reporter?

Now that the “real” conservatives are in charge of the state, their solution is to pass legislation written by the prison labor industry. Which is where things get strange, as in Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who recently spoke about the state’s overcrowded prisons:

While releasing some prisoners could ease beleaguered state budgets and prisons, Strange said, it would be politically unpopular and must be packaged with some stricter crime laws to gain support.

“We have a … (prison) population that’s about 195 percent of the designed capacity, so we understand the problems,” Strange said.

[...]

One way around this problem, Strange said, is to package statistically based prisoner releases with mandates that death row inmates be put to death sooner, guarantees that those likely to re-offend will serve their full sentences, and other measures widely seen as tough on crime. (Emphasis mine)

Symbolic punishment is not a bug in HB 30/HB 36/SB 63, it is a feature. No politician was ever run out of office for advocating tough love on prisoners. Of course the people who take the hit will be Alabamians who work for a living; but Wal-Mart can save their families money on the plastic crap prisoners are punished making. See how that works?

I kid, though, because the taxpaying shopper is actually going to get the shaft. These prison-profit schemes somehow never actually pan out in saved money, as Max Shelby reminds us:

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has been slithering in and out of Alabama to some degree since *the late 1990′s when Hal W. Bloom, Jr. (The Bloom Group) lobbied briefly for the corporation. Fine & Geddie were next in 2006. In 2011, new players Roth & Hagood are entering the ‘incarcerate for profit’ game– CCA is back, and possibly positioning themselves to profit from the “meanest immigration law in the country.”

Alabama tried this private prison idea before in Perry County with bad results. Less than a year into the contract, Alabama had to buy the facility back from the LCS Corporation and wasted $60 million dollars in the process. The state seems poised to take another bite at the private prison poison apple, and this time they couldn’t have picked a more unsavory corporate character than CCA.

But one cannot call it unethical — at least, not in the world of people who insert the book of Rand between Romans and Revelations. In their universe, all of this is a matter of rational self-interest. Indeed, HB 63 has the enthusiastic support of (surprise!) a Koch-funded policy chop shop called the Alabama Policy Institute, which offers a nice report (.PDF) promising that taxpayers will save ten percent on operating costs by using private prisons.

We’re the perfect state for this scheme, too. Our rich history of peonage and slavery by another name make Alabama the perfect location to try new corporate innovations that closely resemble those hallowed institutions of yore. If the party of Lincoln tries really hard they can reinstate our 1903 vagrancy law in time for the next election — if there’s profit in it, why not?

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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