Committee Fields Prison Construction Concerns

Montgomery Advertiser

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, knows the problems that beleaguer the Alabama prison system and the concerns facing the prison construction bill, and he’s not shy about admitting that building four new prisons to the tune of $800 million — or $1.5 billion after 30 years — will not solve most of those problems.

The current prison system is plagued by overcrowding, dwindling corrections officer ranks, increasing levels of violence and a notable lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon, those opposed to the prison construction bill voiced their concerns about the bill: What will happen to local economies that depend on their prisons for revenue? Will the new facilities will be adequately staffed? Will mental health programs be implemented and what if, after all of this, the new prisons are still overcrowded?

Taking the podium to defend the bill, Ward acknowledged the plan’s singular focus of attempting to alleviate the load on an overcrowded prison system that ended 2016 at 175 percent capacity and admitted that not all problems would be addressed by the bill.

“I would love to come in here today to tell you we have a bill that solves all our problems. It does not. It took us decades to get into the hole we’re in, and we’re in a hole. That’s proven by the budget issues we have, by the violence inside the system, by the lawsuits we face. No one bill will solve all that and I won’t pretend to tell you that it will,” Ward said. “Looking at the facilities we have and talking to the experts we have, there’s one thing for certain: You’re going to build at some point. The question is do you build on your terms or do you build when someone has a gun to your head telling you how to build?”

During the public hearing portion, Southern Poverty Law Center Associate Legal Director Ebony Howard raised questions about why the plan has no guidelines for doctor/nurse ratios or medical staff competence, but Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, said the bill "isn't about mental health and the bill isn't about sentencing reform."

"This idea does not solve all of our issues, but it does solve one of our issues," Williams said referring to overcrowding.

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