Initial Response to Governor's Prison Plan Positive

MONTGOMERY — Statehouse GOP leaders and several local lawmakers offered initial support for Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to borrow an estimated $700 million to $800 million to build four large prisons.

“I think it is very feasible,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, a member of the Senate General Fund Committee. “I think it can work because they have crunched the numbers.”

He said the Alabama Department of Corrections can use its annual appropriation from the state to service the bond debt while saving money from closing old prisons.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the plan calls for closing 14 of the state’s 16 major correctional facilities. It isn’t known which prisons would close, or if the Limestone Correctional Facility is on the list. The plan would not impact DOC work centers such as the one in Decatur.

Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, was enthusiastic about the proposal.

“I may be disappointed, but I think people will praise the governor for saying we have to do something,” Greer, who is on the House General Fund Committee, said. “We either have to build some prisons, or have the federal government come in and take over.”

Crowding and safety issues have plagued the state prison system for years. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has led a commission to reduce crowding.

“By doing the consolidation and construction at the same time, you can pay off the bond issue in 10 years through the savings,” Ward said. “We’re spending tens of millions of dollars a year just on repairs and maintenance on current facilities because they’re so old. Some were built during World War II.”

Ward said consolidated cafeteria and health care services, some of the biggest prison costs, would also save money.

Combined with reforms passed by lawmakers last year, Ward said, the system inmate capacity would be fewer than 135 percent. “That’s remarkable,” Ward said.

The system is currently at nearly double the capacity it was built to house.

Democrats are more skeptical.

“I just think it’s real ambitious, when they’re saying we don’t have enough money to fund the General Fund (budget),” said Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia. “I’d have to look at the numbers on how we’re going to repay that. I’m afraid we’ll be saddling our children and grandchildren with massive debt. That’s something we’ll have to look at.”

Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, said given the fiscal condition of the state and cuts to agencies and programs, it’s “ridiculous” to propose a massive bond.

He said he hears from district attorneys in his area who can’t get evidence processed quickly at the state forensic lab because of budget cuts.

“Trials are being delayed,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the plan doesn’t call for more money from the state’s General Fund. He called the plan aggressive but doable.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, who’s also on the General Fund committee, said he sees the potential for savings.

“I could certainly be in support of it if the numbers make sense when we look at it,” Stutts said.

Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the state has been patching its prison program for too long.

“Now is the time to solve it,” he said.

Two Senate General Fund committee members from north Alabama, Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, and Tim Melson, R-Florence, said they need more information about the proposal.

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