Prison Construction Bill Clears Senate

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The State Senate took significant steps today to solve the long-standing crisis in Alabama’s prisons by passing a measure to build up to three new prison facilities. Currently, Alabama’s prisons house far more inmates than originally intended, with the prisons bursting to over 170% of capacity. The proposal passed today, sponsored by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), authorizes the Department of Corrections to enter lease agreements with counties to finance and construct the facilities, and establishes clear criteria for how Corrections will award the lease agreements.

As the second-largest expenditure in the state’s General Fund, the budget for all non-education state spending, the prison system is a significant and persistent fiscal strain on the state. For the current fiscal year, Corrections alone costs the state $496 million and consumes 22% of the General Fund budget.

“The state prison system is close to exploding the state budget,” said Ward. “We have numerous prisons that were built before the Vietnam War and some pre-date World War Two. The upkeep alone for these facilities is a bleeding hole in our budgets.”

Senate Bill 302 protects against waste or cost overruns by requiring Corrections to hire an outside project manager to oversee construction of the facilities, and limits the bond authority to $325 million. Governor Robert Bentley’s original prison construction plan from earlier in the year called for the building of four new prisons at a cost of $800 million.

“This plan will dramatically increase safety for our inmates and our correctional officers,” Ward remarked. “There have been too many instances over the past year of officers being assaulted and, in some cases, killed. The dormitory-style of housing at some of our prisons is particularly dangerous. Modern, cell-block facilities with high-tech cameras and better lines-of-sight will save lives.”

Alabama’s prison system is beset with challenges. Corrections is being sued in federal court and faces an imminent threat of federal takeover, similar to what has occurred in California, where federal courts have ruled that California’s prison conditions amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to place California in receivership, and ordered the state to lower its prison capacity to a 137.5%. Since the ruling, California’s prison system has essentially been run by the federal court system.

“The threat of a federal takeover is reduced if the courts see that the Legislature is serious about solving the problems our prison system faces, and getting our capacity down closer to 137.5%,” Ward said. “But it took the state decades to get in this hole, and it will take us time to climb out of it.”

Senate Bill 302 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Republican Senator Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson Counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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