Prison Construction Bill Faces 'Do or Die' Vote

Montgomery Advertiser

This much is certain: If Alabama is going to build new prisons, it's going to have to commit this week.

Legislative leaders worked last week – sometimes through a marathon reading of a redistricting bill – to develop a prison construction bill that can not only pass the House and Senate but get through a logjam of bills in the four remaining days in the session. The House Judiciary Committee could vote on the measure Tuesday.

“We’re going to know absolutely for sure Tuesday morning where we are on prisons,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the sponsor of the bill. “It’s do or die.”

Budget and sentencing decisions made over the last four decades have created an overcrowding crisis in Alabama’s prisons. While reforms are showing real results -- the custodial population has fallen 10 percent in the last six years -- the Alabama Department of Corrections in February housed 22,688 inmates in a system designed for 13,318. That added up to a 170 percent capacity that contributes to a rising tide of violence within the state’s prisons.

Inmates sit on their bunks at Draper Correction Facility in Elmore County, Ala., on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. Draper Correction Facility is the oldest correction facility in the state of Alabama. The prison opened in 1939. It is currently housing 1059 prisoners, Draper's designed capacity is 656.

Conditions within the state’s facilities range from abysmal to horrific. The state in 2015 settled a lawsuit with the Department of Justice over sexual abuse at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, and state officials expect to lose a federal lawsuit on mental health treatment in the prisons. Corrections officers are leaving the system amid poor conditions and low pay.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn has pushed for the construction of new facilities that he says will improve safety for inmates and staff, save money and provide more programming space that could help prevent recidivism.
Sen Cam Ward in committee at the Alabama Statehouse
“Facilities built to national standards would provide for new medical, dental and mental health care infrastructure designed to meet the needs of the state’s inmate population and address many challenges the department currently faces,” Dunn said in a statement Friday.

But selling the plan to the Legislature and prison advocacy groups has been difficult. Critics have raised questions about the size of the proposed facilities and said a package of reforms passed by the Legislature in 2013 and 2015 need time to work before the state goes into construction. The price tag of the project – which in most iterations runs hundreds of millions of dollars – has also given people pause.

“When we look at corrections officers, their safety and the conditions of the system itself, that’s an issue we’ve got,” said House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia. “Another issue is the bond issue. Members are looking at the amount of the bond the state would be investing in.”

The Senate in March approved a bill that would allow local communities to float bonds to build prisons, which the state would then lease back. \McCutcheon said early Friday morning the House substitute would authorize three new men’s prisons and a new women’s facility to replace Tutwiler.

The speaker said he hoped to see the Judiciary Committee vote the bill out Tuesday, with a possible House vote Wednesday. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Thursday the Senate would treat it as a “priority bill” if gets back to them. Ward, who has led prison reform efforts in the Legislature, rated its chances of passage at 40 percent Thursday.

“You’ve got too many factions,” he said. “(Whether) it were on the first day or the 30th day (of the session), you’ve got too many factions.”

Supporters of the bill warn that if it doesn’t pass, the expected federal court ruling on mental health care in prisons will require the Legislature to meet in special session to address it. The federal court could order major increases in prison funding, which could force the Republican-controlled Legislature – long adverse to new taxes and revenues – to seriously look at the option.

“Why put more duct tape on a broken system?” Ward said. “The problem is that duct tape requires more money in the General Fund.”

But both Ward and McCutcheon said new prisons would only be a step in the thousand-mile journey toward functional prisons.

“The bill we have is not a fix-all,” McCutcheon said. “It’s a piece, a part of this solution we need to be working toward. There are many things we need to be working toward.”

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