Lawmakers begin special session on building new Alabama prisons

Article by Mike Cason


Alabama lawmakers began a special session today on a $1.3 billion plan to build two large prisons, the first stage of what would be an overhaul of the state’s correctional system.

The House and Senate, limited in what they can do on the first day, met for less than an hour.

The five bills on prison construction, funding, and sentencing reform were introduced in the House and will be discussed in committee on Tuesday.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said he expected the bills to be up for votes in the House on Wednesday. McCutcheon said the plan seemed to have strong support.
 “I think it’s been well thought out,” McCutcheon said. “And there’s been a lot of work into it, and I think members recognize that.”
Efforts to address Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed, prisons are not new. Lawmakers debated but did not pass prison-building proposals by former Gov. Robert Bentley.
Gov. Kay Ivey, who called legislators in for the special session, has pledged to reverse decades of neglect to the prison system since soon after replacing Bentley in 2017. Her administration’s plan to lease and operate privately owned prisons collapsed this summer because the developers could not obtain financing. Lawmakers and the governor’s staff then developed the new plan that the Legislature will consider this week.
Alabama has not built a prison since the mid-1990s. Lawmakers say there is agreement that new facilities are needed.
The Department of Justice sued Alabama last year, saying the failure to protect inmates from violence and provide a safe environment violated the Constitution.
The bill calls for a 4,000-bed prison in Elmore County with facilities for medical and mental health care, and education and addiction treatment programs. It also calls for a 4,000-bed prison in Escambia County. The two new prisons would be much larger than any of Alabama’s 13 existing prisons.
Four prisons would close within a year after the two new ones were finished — Elmore and Staton prisons in Elmore County, Kilby prison in Montgomery County, and Hamilton Aged & Infirmed Center in Marion County. The bill names a fifth prison that will close, St. Clair prison in St. Clair County, at a time to be determined by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Funding would come from a $785 million bond issue, $400 million in federal dollars from a coronavirus relief bill, and $154 million from the state General Fund.
Of the money from the General Fund, $19 million would be used to buy the Perry County Correctional Facility, a vacant, private prison in Uniontown. The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles plans to use the 700-bed prison to house and treat parole violators on short-term stays.
A second phase of the plan would include renovations to three prisons and a new women’s prison to replace Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said he generally supported the plan.
“I do think it’s a very good step in the right direction,” Daniels said. “And I just hope that we continue to commit ourselves on the reform side and focus on reform and focus on rehabilitating.”
Ivey’s proclamation calling the special session included two sentencing reform bills along with the prison construction plan. One would allow nonviolent offenders sentenced before 2013 to apply for new sentences under sentencing guidelines that took effect in 2013. That would address a discrepancy that has left some offenders serving longer in prison than others who committed the same crimes.
The second sentencing reform bill in the governor’s call expands a 2015 law that allows inmates to complete their sentences on a period of supervised release, rather than staying in prison until the final day. The idea is that inmates who receive supervision have a better chance to successfully adjust to life outside prison. The bill expands the supervised release provision to cover inmates sentenced before 2015. The House passed a similar bill earlier this year, but it did not pass the Senate.
Daniels said he would like to see more reforms, including changes at the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has granted fewer paroles over the last couple of years. But he said the two bills Ivey included in her call were a start.
“I think we need to go farther than we’re going,” Daniels said. “But when you get in a race, you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, chairman of the Senate General Fund committee, said he was optimistic the package will pass when it moves to the Senate.
“The need is there, and most of the Legislature knows the need is there,” Albritton said. “I think most of the population knows the need is there. And while we may argue around the edges, we’re going to get this done.”
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said new prisons are needed.
“We have people living in inhumane situations,” Singleton said in a press release. “We definitely need to update our facilities.”
But Singleton said new buildings alone will not fix the problems with the state’s criminal justice system.
“We cannot build our way out of this situation. So, we must find a way to end the revolving door of recidivism, and develop programs to provide non-violent offenders with alternatives,” Singleton said.
Senate Democrats said they expect more reforms to be proposed during next year’s regular session, which starts Jan. 11.
McCutcheon said he believes lawmakers are setting the stage to tackle more reforms next year.
“You’re going to see a more aggressive approach to more reforms,” McCutcheon said.
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