February 10, 1997

Alabama Prison 'Hitching Posts' Ruled Unconstitutional

MONTGOMERY, AL -- Denouncing a practice that experts have likened to punishments from Puritan days, a federal magistrate here has ruled that the Alabama prison system should not be allowed to chain inmates to a metal bar for hours at a time, the New York Times reports.

The Times said that according to court testimony, officials shackled prisoners for as long as seven hours to the chest-high horizontal bars, which they call the "hitching post." The officials used the post in the broiling heat of Alabama's summers, the damp cold of its winters and rain in all seasons. Often, prisoners said, they are deprived of food, water and the opportunity to use a toilet. U.S. Magistrate Vanzetta Penn McPherson used strong language in recommending an immediate end to the use of the hitching posts, which some experts told the Times have no equivalent anywhere else in the nation. "Short of death by electrocution, the hitching post may be the most painful and tortuous punishment administered by the Alabama prison system," Ms. McPherson wrote. "With deliberate indifference for the health, safety and indeed the lives of inmates, prison officials have knowingly subjected them to all of the hazards of the hitching posts, then observed as they suffered pain, humiliation and injuries as a result."

Commenting on the decision, Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU's National Prison Project said that harsh conditions like those described in the magistrate's opinion are the "reality of prison life, not the luxuries and 'resort hotel' facilities imagined by politicians" and "demonstrate why prisoners must be allowed access to the courts, a right that Congress and many states have already severely limited."

"Several prisoners," Gainsborough said, "were tied to the hitching post because they said they were unable to work on the chain gang due to illness -- one had suffered a seizure on his way to the worksite, another had a back injury so painful that he could not wallk. "One man was hitched in the direct sunlight for so long that his face was blistered and swollen," she added. "The prisoners were taunted with racial slurs and denied food and water, while being made to watch the guard dogs receiving water."


Gifts for inmates restricted

By Greg McCord --The Andalusia Star-News

Starting this holiday season, if families of Alabama prison inmates want to give prisoners Christmas gifts, they will have to order the gifts from a Missouri company that ships gift packages directly to prisons.

Securepak in St. Louis, Mo., has an exclusive arrangement with the Alabama Department of Corrections to provide gifts to inmates. Corrections Commissioner Mike Haley said a shortage of 366 correctional officers prevents prison officials from performing time-consuming searches of holiday gifts. Some gift packages delivered by inmates friends and family members contain illicit contraband such as weapons and easily concealed drugs like cocaine, corrections officers say.

Although state inmates awaiting transport to prison are frequently incarcerated in the Covington County Jail, neither county nor state inmates in the jail are allowed to received gifts from visitors, a jail employee said Friday. State prison officials say the logistics of package inspection coupled with a manpower shortage makes thorough gift inspections virtually impossible. “You can imagine at Christmas with 20,000-plus inmates, there will be that many packages. In our mail rooms, we have to go through every package," Haley said.

Gifts for inmates must now be ordered directly from Securepak, and each inmate is allowed only one package containing no less than $10 in merchandise and no more than $75 worth. There is a $4 per package charge for shipping and handling. Securepak’s catalog offers most items usually given to inmates as Christmas gifts, such as snack foods, toiletries, towels, underwear, sweatsuits and socks. Securepak takes orders from inmates’ families, packs a box for the inmate and delivers the packages to state prisons no later than Dec. 21.

Correctional officers never have to open the boxes before they are given to the gift recipients. Securepak’s prices are often higher than those in retail stores where inmates' families would normally purchase Christmas gifts:

• The company offers a three-pack of boxer shorts for $8.50 and a three-pack of briefs for $6. (Wal-Mart sells a three-pack of Hanes boxer shorts for $6.96 and a three-pack of Fruit of the Loom briefs for $3.46.)

• Securepak offers a 5-ounce bar of Irish Spring soap for 90 cents. (Winn Dixie sells a three-pack for $1.78 — about 59 cents a bar.)

• Securepak offers an eight-pack of Carnation Sugar Free Hot Cocoa for $2.75, (Winn Dixie sells an eight-pack for $2.18.)

Haley said prison officials have not compared corrections officer man-hour savings to the loss in states sales taxes caused by forcing inmates’ families to buy gifts out of state. Inmates received brochures from Securepak in October which they could send to their families, he said. A spokesperson for an inmate advocacy group says price-conscious families could do better if they purchased gifts for inmates anywhere they want to. “They can't send as much in for their money,” said Lucia Penland, executive director of the Alabama Prison Project.

Some state prisoners and inmates’ family members — upset about being cut back from two packages last year to one this year — have written letters and called state officials about the new policy. Others complained about being forced to buy gifts from an out-of-state company. But prison officials said no Alabama company offered the same service as Securepak. “We had this offer brought to us, and it was an answer to a prayer,” Haley said. The state gets no commission on the gift sales and prices are similar to what inmates would pay in prison canteens, he said.