With more than 26,000 prisoners, including more than 4,000 people doing time for drug crimes, Alabama's prisons are overstuffed budget-busters. Currently operating at 185% of capacity, the state Department of Corrections is gobbling up taxpayer revenues at an alarming rate and chewing up the citizens of Alabama even faster. A decade ago, the DOC reported only 16,000 prisoners, meaning the state has seen its prison population increase by more than 50% in ten years.
On Saturday, dozens -- perhaps a hundred -- people marched on the state capitol in Montgomery to "Shine the Spotlight of Shame on Alabama," according to media and eyewitness accounts. Organized by radio talk show host Roberta Franklin, herself a drug felon, the march included contingents from the Alabama prisoner advocacy group Family Members of Inmates, death penalty opponents, and the Alabama Marijuana Party, headed by Loretta Nall. Also in town for the march was Michael Blain of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Most of the people doing Alabama prison time on drug charges are not kingpins, said Nall, who is running for governor of the state in 2006 on the Marijuana Party ticket and who is facing a possible two-year jail sentence for marijuana possession herself. "They are people like you and me," Nall told the crowd. "Poor white people and minorities, the people who can't afford to defend themselves."
"We are here protesting the draconian drug laws here in the state of Alabama," Blain said. "In this time of fiscal crisis, you can't keep jailing people. Alabama has no more money. Stop locking people up."
Other protesters were less eloquent but equally moving. Four-year-old Aven Mitchell of Montgomery carried a sign almost as large as he was, asking that his uncle, a nonviolent drug offender, be released. Annie Davis of Dadeville was there to plead for the release of her son, Kelvin Lamont Shaw. Convicted of marijuana trafficking and sentenced as a habitual offender, Shaw is serving a life sentence.
For Franklin, who is on probation after a prescription drug conviction, winning the release of nonviolent offenders is going to have to come from the bottom up -- the families and friends -- and not the top down. She pronounced herself "disappointed" in the turnout. "I got more letters yesterday (from inmates) than the number of people here. Unless the family members stand up and say we're sick of what's going on, nothing will change."
But when even a few people start marching in Montgomery to demand freedom for drug offenders, something has already begun to change.
View video of the march online
at one of Nall's other areas of involvement, Pot-TV: