Lawmakers Support Governor's Prison Plan

By Mike Cason, AL.com

The chairmen of the Alabama Senate's General Fund and Judiciary committees say Gov. Robert Bentley's ambitious plan to overhaul the state's prison system is promising.

Bentley is expected to announce during his State of the State address tonight a plan to tear down the state's aging prisons and replace them with four larger, modern facilities.

The project would be funded with a bond issue of up to $800 million. The bonds would be paid off with money saved on maintenance and other expenses associated with the state's aging, overcrowded prison facilities.

"It's a good plan," said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, chairman of the Senate's Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee. "It's a plan that merits serious consideration and support once we verify all the details."

Pittman said factors that could make the plan work include low interest rates on borrowing the money, the potential savings on maintenance, the ability to manage inmates better with relatively fewer corrections officers and to make prison more conducive to education and workforce training.

"It sounds like it's feasible. We just need to double-check and verify the costs and numbers and timelines," Pittman said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the state's prison reform task force, said he learned about the plan about a month ago and supports it.

Alabama's newest major prison is Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent, which was opened in 1997. Many of the state's 15 major prisons are much older than Bibb.

Maintenance costs are a major drain, he said.

"What's going on is it's just chewing up our corrections budget," Ward said.

Ward said prison design has advanced significantly. He said significant savings can result from streamlined cafeteria and health care facilities in larger prisons that are divided into pods for different levels of offenders.

"It's a much more efficient use of space, much more modern and safer," Ward said.

Ward said the plan for new prisons would complement the reforms passed last year that were intended to reduce the problem of prison overcrowding.

Those reforms included lesser sentences for some nonviolent property and drug offenses and increased probation, parole and community corrections programs to keep offenders out of prison and from returning to prison.

"No matter what we did, we were going to have to have some construction take place," Ward said.

He said the Bentley plan could result in an additional 2,500 to 3,000 prison beds.

The Department of Corrections will spend $400 million from the state's $1.75 billion General Fund this year, the second largest amount of any agency behind Medicaid.

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