The Theological Doctrines of the Alabama State Legislators

We live in a country that was founded on the notion of religious freedom in the broadest sense.  Unlike the Diet of Torda in 1500s Transylvania, religious freedom was extended not just to the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians but to all expressions of faith and non-faith. This country early on determined that there was to be a wall of separation between the government and the people in regards to the practice of religion.  The government was not in any way to endorse or promote a specific religious belief above all others.

Welcome to Alabama.  Where our elected officials flout their religious doctrines as supreme above all others.  Chief Justice Roy Moore has made it a quest to make Alabama and the United States a Christian nation branded with his version of Christianity.  He has not once but twice in his terms as Chief Justice promoted his brand of Christianity in the State.  The first time was his insistence to have a statue of the Ten Commandments in the State Court House.  He was removed from office for that battle.  He is now, once again at odds, with the federal courts regarding his refusal to honor a Federal Court order to commence same sex marriages in the state.  Based on his past flagrant disregard for Federal Court Rulings, I predict he will continue his ban on same sex marriage in the state if the Supreme Court rules that the ban on same sex marriages is unconstitutional in June of this year.

He has support for his actions in the State House.  The Republican controlled house has submitted bills and resolutions that suggest that the Alabama State Legislators are operating on a Theological doctrine of how they view not only their role as legislators but also how they view the people of Alabama.  Last year the Health Committee passed a resolution that they believed that Life began at Conception and therefore the bills they were going to pass would reflect that belief.

This is a theological statement.  It is a religious doctrine of a specific sect of Christianity.  It is not a universal belief across Christianity nor across other religions. Jews, for example, teach that life begins at birth, the moment that the child draws their first breath akin to the breath of God that was breathed into Adam.  So here we have one example of the State House imposing their religious doctrine unto the citizens of the state.  Recently a public hearing was heard on House Bill 405, a bill that last year passed the house but did not make it through to law, makes it a criminal Class C Felony if a doctor performs an abortion without determining if the fetus has a heartbeat or if the doctor performs an abortion of a fetus that has a heartbeat.  When does a fetus develop a detectable heart beat?  Around 6 to 7 weeks.  When do most women learn they are pregnant?  Around 6 weeks.  The fetus is still in embryonic stage meaning it still looks more amphibian like rather than human.  Given that most women receive confirmation that they are indeed pregnant around 6 weeks, their decision to abort the pregnancy is one of urgency under this bill.  This means that if the woman was raped and becomes pregnant, she may have to live with the painful reminders of that rape for a long time. And in Alabama, the rapist has the right to demand custody and visitation rights.  This bill would negate anyone’s religious belief that life begins when the fetus can be viable outside of the uterus. In fact it declares their religious belief as a false doctrine.

There was another public hearing on House Bill 491 which authorizes health care providers to refuse to perform services that violate their conscience.  This means that a health care provider can refuse to perform an abortion but it also means that if they have an aversion to Transgenders receiving treatment enabling them to live in a body congruent with their gender, they can refuse to serve them as well.  This bill allows for shaming and discrimination against women and transgenders who claim the inalienable right to have control over their bodies. Rights that are taken for granted by cisgender males in our society. Again, it is a very narrow slice of Christianity that sees women’s bodies as not their own but their husband’s as the head of household.

In the state of Alabama, we do not yet have a personhood law that states that the fetus has all the rights and protections that other citizens have but this is the direction the State House is headed and it is a matter of time for such a law to be presented and passed.  HB 405 is the closest to making this claim and it would restrict further the ability for a woman to receive a medically supervised abortion in the state of Alabama. Personhood laws in other states have resulted in manslaughter charges if the woman is addicted to drugs and miscarriages or is unable to access prenatal care and miscarriages.

The doctrinal belief of the Alabama State House based on the bills they have passed and are proposing regarding human life is as follows:  Life begins at conception. Regardless if the conception was through an act of love or through violence, it must be protected at all cost. Any attempt to choose an abortion, regardless of the reason–life threatening to the woman, life threatening birth defect, rape, economic viability–is inconsequential to the shaming and shunning bestowed on the woman by medical providers because their personal religious beliefs trump the woman’s circumstances.  Any attempt by providers to perform an abortion that does not adhere to this doctrine are to be punished with a Class C Felony branding the provider as a criminal to be shunned and faces loss of career.  While not all of these reasons are currently codified as forbidden by law, this is the direction the State house is going and with each passing session they move closer to their goal of enforcing their doctrinal beliefs on the rest of the state. This is akin to the coercive moves the Taliban and Isis have taken where they are in control, though done at a much slower pace so as to be imperceptible to the populous until it is too late. Alabama State House is not afraid to spend millions of dollars of taxpayers money to defend their doctrinal stances, in fact they are poised to do so at every turn and then cry poverty after wasting taxpayers money.

To be clear, religious practice is a very personal and intimate expression of faith that each person has the right to hold but it is not in the purview of any government, federal, state, or local to tell people how they are to practice their faith.  And for the State legislator by passing laws that favor a specific religious doctrine over others is to violate the sacred trust that this country was founded on. In this country where religious freedom is highly valued, no one should have the right to impose their religious beliefs on another.  Not an individual, and especially not any governmental entity or any representative of that government.

It would be one thing if the State House were consistent in their doctrinal beliefs in all of their creation of laws but their doctrine of protecting the fetus at all costs unfortunately ends at birth. Once the child is born, the theological doctrine I have just described is no longer on the table. The actions of the State House are antithetical to the ability of a person to pursue life, liberty, and happiness once the child is born.

On April 21 of this year, the Senate passed a  resolution forbidding the expansion of Medicaid, sentencing up to 700 individuals to death this year because they along with 300K Alabamians fall into the gap between Medicaid and the provisions covered in the Federal Affordable Care Act. Refusal of expanding medicaid will result the closure of some dozen hospitals, many of them located in rural and inner city areas where the majority of Alabama’s poor live.

How our state administers Food Stamps also reflects a conflicting doctrine to their doctrine regarding the sacredness of life.  Federal guidelines include employment requirements such as being registered for work but Alabama places added twists to this requirement. Striking employees, even if the strike is justified for better wages that would lift the family out of poverty, disqualifies the household unless the strike occurs after the household applies for food assistance. Food Stamps are not eligible to undocumented citizens.  This stipulation follows the federal but there is a caveat in Alabama–the income the undocumented citizen brings into the household is counted towards eligibility. Alabama legislators have already spent millions defending its hatred of immigrants. Here is their hypocritical stance, Alabama Legislators hate foreigners unless their presence helps keep citizens off the public dole.   And here is something of a catch-22; Social Security Numbers (SSN) are requested for each member of the household in order to receive food stamps.  The provision of SSN is stated as purely voluntary but not providing them disqualifies that member of the household.  If a SSN is a requirement for qualification, then providing it is not a voluntary act; it is coerced.

Apparently, the doctrinal belief of the State House is that each life is precious until it becomes a burden and then it can be ignored or thrown away or incarcerated for slave labor. Alabama has passed more laws restricting the freedoms of its citizens  Their approach to the welfare of the citizens of this state is one of total disregard of their inherent worth and dignity.

And then we have the infamously named HB 56--in its latest incarnation as a Religious Freedom Act.  This bill was created in response to the striking down of the same sex marriage ban by federal court and the upcoming SCOTUS ruling on same sex marriage.  The proponents state this is not in any way an anti-gay legislation because it merely states that clergy and judges (the current people authorized in the state) can refuse to marry anyone for personal religious convictions and not face litigation for doing so.  They claim this is a save people from litigation bill not a codification of religious discrimination against the LGBTQ community.  Clergy have always had the right to refuse to marry any couple for any number of reasons–domestic violence, couple not of their faith tradition, and yes, doctrinal beliefs regarding what constitutes a marriage.  This bill is really aimed at giving judges the legal right to discriminate against those who do not hold their religious convictions regarding marriage.

There is a difference here– marriages performed before a judge or justice of the peace is not a religious ceremony.  It is a civil union.  Regardless of what a judge may personally believe about religious marriage ceremonies, a wedding officiated by her is not under the auspices nor  blessing of her church. It is not a religious ceremony.  It is merely a legal recognition by the state and federal government of a contract between two people. In the eyes of the Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic god, the same sex couple married by the state is not married. In the eyes of the Presbyterian (USA), United Church of Christ, American Baptist god, the same sex couple is married.

So what is this law really about?  It is about a subset of Christianity imposing their doctrinal belief of marriage onto the citizens of the state. It is declaring their doctrinal belief as supreme trumping all others.  Judges have taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state and federal government and regardless if their personal religious convictions place them at odds with those laws be it officiating a same sex marriage or enforcing the death penalty, they are required to do so. They do not have the right to impose their religious doctrine onto the people as an act of shaming and discrimination.

But this is Alabama– where theocracy is well rooted into the archaic 1901 state constitution.

Privatization of Prisons is NOT the solution

Alabama has a long history of health and safety and abusive issues within its prison complexes.  Julia Tutwiler prison, an all women prison, made national news this past year with federal findings of sexual abuse committed by one third of the employees there.  The over crowding of the prisons in the state of Alabama  is at 190% of design capacity.  Over crowding in any institution is a powder keg for trouble.  There is a trend in Alabama for prisoners to serve longer terms.  Prisoners served an average of 30 month sentences in 2009 and are now serving an average of 43 months in 2014 before being paroled.  Alabama has the 3rd highest incarceration rate and the 8th highest crime rate as of 2012.  Yes, there are major problems within the Alabama prison system.

The mass overcrowding is placing Alabama at risk to have the Federal Government mandate a release of prisoners to bring the prison population to 130% of design capacity.  Anyone who has lived in Alabama for any length of time knows how averse Alabama legislature is to Federal interventions of any kind.

A recent gathering took place in Huntsville, AL to discuss the issues of necessary reforms.  It was the second of four state wide forums conducted by David Mathews Center for Civic Life and the Alabama Media Group.  One of the attendees, John Zierdt, Jr, is listed in the write up about this forum as an “advocate for privatization and suggested the state examine how similar arrangements, specifically with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are working in neighboring states.” 

He went on to state, ” ‘I think they [CCA] offer a very good solution,’ Zierdt said. ‘It’s a good solution for us because you don’t have to do capital expenditures. It’s something I think really needs to be looked at.’  Zierdt said that with privatization there is the possibility to temporarily move inmates to other states where space is available. ‘You can pay now or you’re going to pay later,” he said. “You’re going to play [sic] later when the fed takes over because you’ll still get CCA.’ “

I do not know if this John Zierdt, Jr is the same John Zierdt, Jr who was the President/CEO of Transcor America, Inc.; a subsidiary of Corrections Corporation of America. If it is the same person, then his overwhelming positive endorsement of proposing Corrections Corporation of America as a solution is a conflict of interest as such a venture would overwhelmingly benefit his personal interests.  His threat that CCA will be in Alabama either by choice or by Federal force is an intimidation stance that should not be tolerated by Alabama citizens.

There are serious concerns that suggest privatization, specifically CCA, does not serve the best interests of Alabama. According to Sourcewatch, Corrections Corporation of America ” has been strongly criticized for many aspects of its operations, which amount to two primary critiques: (1) CCA’s lobbying and campaign donations have led to federal and state policies and government contracts that fatten its bottom line, often at the expense of the public interest; (2) CCA’s profit-increasing strategies constitute a vicious cycle where lower wages and benefits for workers, high employee turnover, insufficient training, and chronic understaffing can lead to mistreatment of inmates, increased violence, security concerns, and riots. As discussed below, profit-focused measures that affect inmates, such as withholding medical care or inadequate nutrition, add to the volatility of the situation. This, in turn, has led to dangerous working conditions for correctional staff. CCA’s history also includes allegations of falsifying records, fraudulently billing Medicaid, violating labor laws, and all around ‘cutting-corners. ‘”

Based on this report by Sourcewatch and the long list of lawsuits lobbied against CCA and their subsidiaries, privatization is not going to resolve the horrendous inhumane treatment of incarcerated people in Alabama.  In fact, if CCAs track record continues the atrocities may even grow instead of lessen. A majority of federal and state contracts required a quota of beds filled and payment, a sort of ‘low-crime tax’, if beds were not filled .  Sourcewatch states such contracts place taxpayers ‘on the hook’ for ensuring private prisons profit.

For the moment, let’s take CCA out of the equation here.  What does privatization of the prison system mean?  It places a capitalist model unto a human service venue.   Humans become the product which is immoral on so many levels.  The number one goal is profit for shareholders.   Just as hotels need a certain percent of occupancy to stay profitable, so do prisons.  What is the difference between prisons and hotels?  Humans are not the product in the hospitality industry.  The product in hospitality is the amenities offered by staying in one hotel over another hotel.  Prison is not a hotel, it does not provide amenities to make one’s stay pleasant.  Prison is meant to be punishment for breaking laws.  The problem is that private prisons have ensured that there are increasing numbers of people breaking the law and therefore staying in their prisons.

The private prison industry has spent over 20 million dollars between 1999-2009 lobbying the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, Office of Management and Budget, and ICE in attempts to influence immigration policy.  A strong draconian anti-immigrant policy translates into profits for private prisons at taxpayers expense. The average bed costs $122 per night, multiply that times the 2 million undocumented immigrants that have passed through detention centers in Obama’s administration alone and you come up with a pretty expensive night’s stay at taxpayers expense.  The private prison industry translates people into cattle.  A fairly immoral and repugnant view of humanity.

Private prisons historically pay lower wages than public prisons.  This is part of the capitalist model.  The belief that private prisons would be good for the economy is a falsehood.  Remember the goal is profit for shareholders and investors.  The average wage for a private prison employee is $8.25 an hour versus Alabama’s public prison employee average wage between $12.55 – 18.02 an hour, depending on region.  It has been established that in order to afford a two bedroom apartment, one must earn $13.34 an hour in Alabama.  Lower wages means less ability to purchase goods which results in a depressed economy.

The comparison of privatizing prisons to the privatization of nursing homes, group homes for the disabled, hospices does not equate.  There has been the argument that these for-profit institutions that house people have done well and in many instances better than government run or non-profit entities therefore  for-profit prisons will also do well is false for this one reason.  These for-profit institutions are geared towards the well-being and comfort of the people they serve.  The people who access them pay for them privately through their own funds or insurance.  The people who access them if they are dissatisfied with the service given to them or their loved ones can and will remove themselves from the institution. Not so in a prison setting.

A prisoner has little recourse when receiving maltreatment.  There is the human tendency to believe that the incarcerated deserve what they get in prison. Whether it is abuse from other inmates or correctional officers, that is all part of the ‘they deserve what they get.’    Private prisons look to cut costs, so fair treatment–adequate nutrition, sufficient medical care–is a cost factor that shareholders cannot tolerate.  But the prisoners, especially in private prisons, are heavily restricted in their ability to sue for better conditions because of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  When an inmate is able to sue, the result tends to be a settled case with no ramification on correcting the prison system itself.

Returning to CCA as the solution to Alabama’s broken Prison system.  Sourcewatch lists six legal cases that allege CCA was negligent in their handling of violence, treatment, and resultant death of inmates and officers.  CCA settled the lawsuits.  One case– CCA’s run Idaho Correctional Center had four times the level of violence between inmates of any other Idaho prison. The suit alleged that CCA employees were complicit in the prisoner on prisoner assaults.  The prison earned the infamous name of Gladiator School.  The findings were so egregious that Idaho cancelled their contract with CCA in 2013.

There were six cases listed at the Sourcewatch site of sexual assault.  One case was at the CCA-owned Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky.  The prison was originally a mens prison but CCA threatened to close it because of empty beds (remember profit is the ultimate goal here not rehabilitation of inmates.) The facility therefore became a women’s prison in 2005 but retained the staffing ratio originally used at the mens prison of 81% male and 19% female employees.  In 2010, six correctional officers, including a chaplain, were charged with sexually assaulting 16 women inmates. The facility also housed 168 women from Hawaii sent there in attempts to save Hawaii money.  Hawaii brought their female inmates back into their prisons as a measure of protection. The prison was closed in 2013.

There were three cases of wrongful death listed at the Sourcewatch site.  One case was the death of an inmate at the CCA-run Kit Carson Correctional Center in Colorado just days before he was scheduled to be released who required a medication to treat a hereditary ailment that cause his breathing passages to swell shut. The medicine was only available in 30 day dosages for a cost of $35.  The CCA medical staff did not want to spend that amount when he was being released in a few days.  [remember profits before people.] He attempted to call for help but the case alleges staff had the practice of turning on the intercom in a vacant cell blocking other calls so as not to be disturbed by the inmates. The case was settled out of court in 2004.

These fifteen cases mentioned at Sourcewatch are only samples of the dozens of lawsuits against CCA and its subsidiaries.  There are many, many others reported by other watch groups such as Grassroots Leadership, and Private Corrections Working Group. All of these lawsuits reveal a consistent pattern of negligence and abuse of inmates across not only CCA but across the private prison industry, which leads to the only conclusion that CCA and other private for profit prisons are not intending to serve the best interests of any citizen except the lining of their own pockets.

So turning to privatization is not the solution to Alabama’s prison woes.  In all likelihood, lawsuits of sexual assault, wrongful death, medical negligence, and instigated violence will continue to plague Alabama’s prisons even after privatization.  The only difference is the State of Alabama can wash their hands of any accountability for these egregious acts within our prisons.