Montgomery, Ala. — Alabama's troubled corrections system was thrown into crisis Tuesday when two sheriffs sent more than 200 inmates from their overcrowded jails to state prisons where cellblocks are already packed.
Armed with a court ruling, sheriffs in Jefferson and Houston counties delivered inmates who were supposed to be in state lockups not in crowded county jails where prisoners have little choice but to sleep on floors and tables.
The transfer is the latest problem in Alabama's decades-old struggle with too many inmates in often squalid jails and prisons. The state has one of the nation's highest rates of incarceration but no plans to build more prisons.
More than 26,000 people are incarcerated in Alabama, or 571 per 100,000 residents; only five states have higher rates.
Gov. Don Siegelman said state prisons will absorb the transferred inmates. But with little extra bed space, he said state lawyers have asked a judge to halt the influx.
"This is not a situation where counties, quite frankly, should be doing what they're doing today," Siegelman said. They should look for alternatives and not "simply wash their hands of the situation."
"We're all in this together as a state and not as individual counties," Siegelman said.
Three years ago, the state agreed to accept inmates who had been in county jails more than 30 days after being sentenced to a state prison term.
But backlogs have built up: In Jefferson County, a jail built to house 620 inmates holds about 1,000. In Houston County, a 200-bed jail has 300 prisoners.
U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon last month described jail conditions in Morgan County as "medieval," with inmates squeezed into quarters so cramped they resembled a "slave ship." He ordered 104 moved to state prisons, a job completed Monday.
While more inclined than other states to lock up offenders, Alabama has been slow to build new prisons to hold them. Prison system spokesman John Hamm said an old canning plant at a prison in Elmore County is being turned into a dormitory with 300 beds, but after it opens later this month, no other building projects are planned.