In September 2017, at the rear of a dormitory in the so-called “Hot Bay” at the medium-security Bibb Correctional Facility, two inmates stabbed another.
The wounded inmate, far from help, began screaming, hoping that the security staff would hear. No one came. He then crawled toward the front doors of the dormitory, while fellow inmates banged on the locked doors, making a racket to get guards’ attention.Still, no one came.
When an officer finally got there, the inmate was lying on the floor, blood flowing from his chest. He eventually bled to death.
“One Hot Bay resident told us that he could still hear the prisoner’s screams in his sleep,” the summary of the incident reads.
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of a key prison oversight committee, and a longtime advocate for justice-system reforms, describes himself as appalled by the report’s findings. And, from his bully pulpit at the Statehouse, he’s been doing some preaching about it.
In comments to AL.com and to NPR, Ward has wondered aloud how a proud Bible-believing state can countenance such shameful prisons in its midst.
“No one in this state should read this report and just roll their eyes,” Ward said to AL.com. “It’s a disgrace to our state. I know everyone says, ‘They are criminals’ and ‘Who cares?’ We profess to be the most Christian state in the country, but no Christian would allow their fellow man to be treated the way that they are said to be treated. That may not be the popular view, but it’s the truth.”In an April 4 interview with NPR, the day after the DOJ report was released, Ward said, “We pride ourselves on being a biblical state, very Christian state, but yet, you treat your fellow man this way, and that is clearly hypocritical.”
In Alabama, 86 percent of the population professes to be Christian, according to surveys, and nearly half identify as evangelical Protestants. For that reason alone, Ward’s comments would appear to have the potential to stir conversation and reflection inside sanctuaries around Alabama after Christians celebrate its holiest of weeks with Easter Sunday services.
Ward said he’s yet to hear any reaction toward his comments. He suggested that the prison issue was laying heavy on his heart: “From my personal view as a Christian, we should care more about the treatment of our fellow man and speak out on the issue.”
At least one observer believes Ward’s opinions may be a bit misleading.
Scott Dawson, a youth pastor from Birmingham who ran as a Republican for governor last year, said the “eye-rolling” should be reserved for efforts pushed by lawmakers like Ward to spend $800 million or more to build new prisons.“The masses may ‘roll their eyes’ at the conditions of our prisons, but there’s not a group of people involved in prisons greater than Christians,” Dawson said. “The promotion of building $800 million of new prisons causes our eyes to roll, not about the condition of the prisons.”
He added, “The deplorable situations described in Alabama are a result of neglect and irresponsible budgeting from our state leaders. It has caused us to be in this situation and now the church is being characterized as not caring.”
Dawson that Christians who minister inside prisons are often motivated to do more, and that there are many churches participating in those efforts.
“Once a Christian engages with prisons and those who are incarcerated, you are moved to help,” said Dawson. “There are many churches already engaged in weekly Bible studies, worship, and job training in every prison facility in our state.”
Aaron Griffith, postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, said the most illustrative example of this movement was by the late Charles Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon who was imprisoned on Watergate-era charges and served seven months at the federal prison camp at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery.Said Griffith, “It was that brutal experience in the Alabama facility, along with his newfound faith after having a ‘born again’ conversion experience, that pushed him into prison ministry and criminal justice reform activism from the late 1970s until his death in 2012.”
Griffith said Ward’s comments sound “very much like something Colson would say.” Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which has since gone on to become the largest Christian non-profit serving prisoners, former prisoners and their families.
But Griffith said that Alabama’s lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key politics have long hampered any true prison reform.
“Alabama has many evangelicals who want to minister to and help incarcerated people, but it also is a state where punitive politics is the norm and where fiscal conservatism prevents investment in improving prison conditions or programs,” Griffith said. “Evangelicals consistently support the candidates who promote these policies that lead to prison growth and the tragic conditions within them.”
Griffith continued, “Senator Ward is on to something here in that Alabama’s prisons are clearly a disgrace and he’s voicing many of the same sentiments that evangelicals have voiced before concerning the humanitarian plight of prisoners in this country. However, Ward and other likeminded politicians and Christian advocates for reform have to take stock of the fact that it was evangelical Christians who helped build this same system, often with appeals to the righteousness of their cause.”Some recent polling suggest that there’s much public skepticism about Gov. Kay Ivey’s call to undertake a giant campaign ofprison construction.
A gubernatorial spokeswoman said last week that Ivey’s office is “serious about taking action” to the long-standing challenges of the prison system highlighted by the Justice Department’s scathing report.
‘Spoke not a word’
Wayne Flynt, a historian and author of the exhaustively-researched, “Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie,” heard Ward’s interview with NPR and came away impressed.
“I thought Cam’s statement was as Biblically-based as any political statement in quite some time,” said Flynt, a professor emeritus at Auburn University.
Flynt said that Christianity has always struggled with the intersection of religion and politics, but he said that modern white evangelicals are focused more on issues “about which Jesus in the Gospels spoke not a word,” such as abortion and same-sex marriage.Said Flynt, “In short, Christians historically and in our own times, cite only those parts of the Bible which correspond to their secular culture.”
In Flynt’s other book, “Alabama in the Twentieth Century,” he recalls a story about a law school student’s thesis written on tax reform based on biblical and Judeo-Christian beliefs. The student, a relative newcomer to Alabama who would go on to become a law school professor, could not understand how a Legislature with 136 professed Christians out of 140 members could ignore the unfairness of a regressive tax system and the historic neglect for the poor.
Said Flynt, in writing within the book, “The answer … was simple. Like most Alabama Christians, legislators believe that Christian ethics consisted of private moral actions, not creation of a just society.”
There are signs of that criminal justice reform is winning more supporters in Alabama.
According to the same PARCA survey in which a majority of Alabamians frown upon the construction of new prisons, 83% say they approve moving people with nonviolent convictions back into the community. Another 86% support expanded rehabilitation and re-entry programs for prisoners.Evangelical leaders played an instrumental role in the federal bipartisan approval of criminal justice reform, otherwise known as the First Step Act,signed by President Donald Trump a few weeks ago.
The law aims to give prisoners who exhibit good behavior to shorten their sentences, particularly nonviolent drug users.
Dawson said the law also challenges churches to “take responsibility” toward helping a prisoner transition back into society.
“We need to make Alabama churches aware of this initiative and have churches take a more active role in prison reform,” he said.
The Rev. James Henderson, former head of the Christian Coalition of Alabama with 20 years of working in prison ministry, said Alabama needs to extend its work-release programs to more churches, creating ministries he believes can be effective toward reducing recidivism.
“I’ve had inmates come to my church on a Saturday to work and it would turn into a ministry itself,” Henderson said. “Not all were skilled or properly motivated, but most of them were. We had them for a year and it was good thing for us, and a good thing for them. They weren’t used to working in a Christian environment where people respected them and cared about them.”Michael Altman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama, said there is an overall lack of attention to the terrible prison conditions from conservative Protestants in Alabama, which is reflective of “their larger disinterest in criminal justice issues.”
“White evangelicals have been among the most fervent advocates for tough-on-crime policies and ‘law and order,’ especially since the 1960s,” said Griffith. “However, at the same time, some evangelicals have recognized the horrors of prison life and the need for reform.”
The key, he said, is to get more of the church-going population throughout Alabama more invested in prison reform.
“(Evangelicals) who have ventured into the prisons to minister to incarcerated people have regularly been shocked at what they see there,” he said.