Governor's Prison Study Group Begins Looking at Issues

Bill Lundsford, speaking for the Department of Corrections at today’s first meeting of Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison study group, illustrated one problem with Alabama’s prison system which summed up several others.

The ADOC hasn’t built a new prison facility since the Internet became widely available to the general public, he said. That presents a problem for prison authorities when they try to add computers for inmate enrichment programs to facilities without air conditioning.

The statement crystallized Alabama’s dilemma - prisons too hot for computers, crowded beyond their capacities with inmates, most of whom will eventually return to society needing preparation to gain employment and rejoin productively.

The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, chaired by former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, met at the Alabama State House to begin discussions about issues with the state’s correctional system that go back decades. Lundsford, an attorney who represents the ADOC, gave a talk about the department’s ongoing legal issues and challenges in staffing and infrastructure.

Alabama’s prisons, currently at 164 percent their capacity, have about $750 million in deferred maintenance issues. The department is paying roughly $50 million more for inmate healthcare than it was a decade ago, and has about 1,000 fewer security staff than in 2009.

At the same time, the department is dealing with the settlement requirements of a long-running lawsuit over mental health care for prisoners, and the fallout from a Justice Department report earlier this year detailing an atmosphere of violence in prisons that investigators said violate the U.S. Constitution.

Lyons, speaking for the committee, said it plans to not only look at the ongoing issues, but along broader lines such as policy initiatives to improve prison conditions, reform sentencing, address future needs and reduce recidivism. The committee tentatively plans to tour a prison in August.

Lundsford, speaking to the committee, said a federal takeover of Alabama’s prisons, such as one that occurred in California, seems unlikely because of the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, which specifies how prison conditions may be addressed by court order. Lundsford said California’s case had been much longer in duration than Alabama’s before a takeover. That state had a longer history of failed remedies, and courts can only address conditions by the least intrusive means, he said.

A few committee members raised their eyebrows when it appeared that Lundsford was saying Alabama did not have an overcrowding issue.

“Are you sitting here telling us that we’re not overcrowded in the state of Alabama?” State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, asked. “I’m just dealing with DOC numbers here."

Lundsford, and later Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, said he wasn’t addressing the actual staffing numbers, but a murkier point - the legal definition of prison overcrowding. “It wasn’t from a physical or architectural standpoint,” Lundsford said later.

He also said talks with the Justice Department regarding a settlement following the DOJ investigation are ongoing, but said ADOC disputes the report’s contention that a climate of violence and abuse is rampant throughout the system’s men’s prisons.

Several committee members said the Legislature took a necessary first step in its last session by increasing funding for prisons, partly to raise pay for correctional officers. The Ivey administration has issued a request seeking companies qualified to build three men’s prisons that the state would lease. The new prisons would house about 10,000 inmates, about half of Alabama’s current prison population. Some of the existing prisons would close under the plan.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who previously sat on other prison reform committees, said he felt this time, there’s interest in real action.

“The big difference is the governor is wanting to take the initiative,” Ward said. “The level of commitment she has put forth, the interest in sentencing, the facilities, the conditions.”

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