Prison Construction Bill to Have Strong Debate

MARY SELL, DECATUR DAILY

MONTGOMERY — Alabama Speaker of the House Rep. Mac McCutcheon said he’s not sure where the 105-member chamber stands on Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million prison construction plan.

“It’s too early to say,” McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said after a Joint Legislative Prison Committee on Monday.

He said he expects a healthy discussion, including questions about how the massive contract would be awarded, what will happen to the state’s current prisons and where the new ones would be built.

McCutcheon said the location question is important to some lawmakers. It wasn’t answered last year when the prison plan died in the Legislature, he said.

“It will be an economic impact on some of those districts, and because of that, they want to take care of their districts,” McCutcheon said.

But Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said identifying where the four mega-prisons will be built could hurt the legislation’s chances of passage.

Lawmakers asked Monday what would become of the shuttered prisons and were told some communities have expressed interest in taking over at least some facilities.

One of the prisons that could be affected is the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, which opened in 1984.

Last week, Bentley said more lawmakers were buying into his proposal to borrow the $800 million and pay back the loan with money saved by closing outdated, crowded and understaffed facilities. The bill is expected to be a priority in the session, which starts Tuesday.

McCutcheon said the legislation will be taken up early in the session but not rushed. He said he hasn’t decided how he will vote.

Bentley and the Department of Corrections have been working on data to prove the prisons are needed and that building four at once under one contract will save money.

DOC recently paid an engineering firm to conduct an architectural and engineering study on 17 prisons. The full report, said to be more than 1,000 pages, has not been made available. The department said a public records request would be needed to obtain it.

Information presented recently by DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn states needed improvements to the state’s 17 existing prisons would cost more than $440 million.

Seven of the 17 prisons were recommended for closing, based on their age and extent of needed repairs.

Meanwhile, $109 million “could extend useful life” of three newer prisons, including Limestone Correctional Facility.

According to the DOC, the new prisons would save the following each year:

• $17 million in reduced staffing. The new facilities would allow for a 6 percent reduction in security staff and 19 percent reduction in support staff, including administration, food service, accounting and transportation.

• $21 million reduction of overtime. The department spends about $30 million in correctional officer overtime per year.

• $10 million in consolidation of health care delivery.

• $2 million in other consolidation of services, including food services and utilities.

Ward said another corrections-related bill coming up in the Legislature will have Medicaid pick up more medical costs of eligible inmates in county jails, including mental health treatment costs.

Currently, county jail inmate’s Medicaid care is terminated when they enter jail, and it takes about three months to reinstate coverage when they leave jail, Ward said.

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