Prison Numbers Omit New Additions

TIMES DAILY-

MONTGOMERY — Claims that the state prisons are at 160 percent of capacity, frequently cited by lawmakers and the state Department of Corrections as an argument for new prisons, do not take into account housing additions made at the facilities.

The TimesDaily filed a public records request with the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) for its occupancy rates for prisons when housing additions are factored into the equation.

The most recent occupancy rate — 160 percent systemwide and used in the ongoing argument that the state needs new prisons — does not include additions added to the facilities after their original construction. That’s because, the ADOC says, added beds don’t mean added infrastructure.

For example, included in that 160 percent average is the Decatur Work Center. According to an August ADOC report, the center was built for 37 inmates, but housed 331, an occupancy rate of 894 percent, the highest in the system. The Decatur Work Release Center is listed separately from the Work Center in the statistical report, with an occupancy rate of 246 percent.

Those numbers don’t include a 340-bed dorm added to the facility in 2008, bringing the bed capacity to 505.

“Today, the facility reports 525 inmates assigned for an operational capacity rate of 104 percent,” ADOC spokesman Bob Horton said last week.

The TimesDaily requested similar rates for all prisons and was told because of the amount of research required, a public records request was needed.

Meanwhile, Horton and others say the 160 percent occupancy rate is accurate.

“ADOC reports inmate crowding percentages based on the facility’s original architectural design capacity,” Horton said in response to questions last week. “The inmate population percentage today is 160 percent based on an inmate population of 21,306 with a design capacity of 13,318.

"Although we have added additional bed space at some facilities, we do not include those numbers in the design capacity because the facilities infrastructure to support the increase in bed space remained unchanged,” Horton said.

That infrastructure includes things like administrative areas, security, food service, utilities, space for rehabilitation and programing, and health care delivery, Horton said.

“(The occupancy rates have) been a source of debate,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said last week.

He’s chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and for two years has sponsored legislation to allow for the building of new prisons to replace most of the 17 largest prisons, at a significant cost to the state.

Ward said he thinks the reported rates at the state’s maximum- and medium-security prisons – the ones high on the list for replacement -- are correct.

“Most of the state prisons, because they haven’t done any additions in years, are pretty accurate,” he said.

If the ADOC doesn’t expand a facility’s medical care or cafeteria space, it isn’t expanding true capacity, Ward said.

“I haven’t seen one that’s expanded those, which is why we're in so much trouble with the courts,” he said.

A federal judge this year declared mental health treatment in Alabama prisons to be "horrendously inadequate." The state and plaintiffs in the lawsuit are now working through a process to try to correct the problems, which will include additional staffing and space.

Ward expects the fix to cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

Prison plan

ADOC officials earlier this month said the agency is seeking a company to develop a master plan for building new prisons and improving others. All correctional facilities, including work release and work centers, will be assessed.

Gov. Kay Ivey has said getting a private company to build several large prisons to lease to the state is one option to solve the crowding problem. Efforts to get lawmakers to borrow up to $800 million to build several megaprisons have failed in the last two sessions, in part because lawmakers were concerned about the debt.

Ivey has said she’s looking at options that don’t need legislative approval, which would include short-term leases.

Some state lawmakers said last week they expect Ivey and the ADOC to include lease options in prison plans moving forward, even if they don’t have to sign off on it.

“Since prisons are a big part of the General Fund budget and as we look at options, even if we don’t have to pass something, I think we’re going to be part of the talks,” Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said.

He’s on the Senate General Fund and judiciary committees.

Stutts said he wants to see the pros and cons of building or leasing prisons.

He also wants more information about the occupancy rates when additions are included, and how the system went from 192 percent occupancy a few years ago to 160 today.

ADOC officials credit sentencing reforms for a reduction of several thousand prisoners in recent years.

Similarly, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, also on both the General Fund and judiciary committees, said he’d like to see the expanded capacity numbers. He thinks lawmakers will need to see the details of any prison plan that calls for a long-term investment by the state.

“Because we’re going to be funding prisons, I think there should be some involvement by the Legislature,” Orr said.

Crowding issues, low staffing and acts of violence within the prisons have been well documented in recent years. In 2016, a guard was killed by inmates.

The department recently removed staffing statistics from its monthly reports until it completes a new staffing level assessment, which is ongoing, Horton said.

Earlier this year, an analysis of the 17 largest facilities showed a multitude of problems, including fire safety and electrical system reliability.

It also said except at six major facilities, “the perimeter security measures at ADOC facilities are significantly under par.”

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