Gov. Kay Ivey and Republican lawmakers called approval of a plan to build two 4,000-bed men’s prisons a vital step in reversing years of inattention to an overcrowded and understaffed system facing warrants federal courts and Department of Justice allegations.
During a ceremony at the State Capitol to sign the legislation, Ivey said the state still had work to do to reform its prison system. But the governor said the new prisons, which will replace others that officials say are obsolete and irreparable, are a key starting point for making employees safer and expanding rehabilitation programs for inmates.
“The signing of the bill today on the construction part of this problem is a big step forward,” Ivey said on Capitol Hill.
The legislature gave final approval to the package of three bills today, plus a sentencing reform bill. Ivey signed all four at the ceremony.
Representative Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who sponsored the plan, said construction is expected to begin in the first quarter of next year and last for about three years.
Clouse called the plan a key step towards resolving decades-old problems that are the consequences of chronic underfunding of prisons.
“This is one of the problems that caused all of this, because in the last 40 or 50 years we haven’t maintained our prisons,” Clouse said. “It always comes at the bottom of the barrel.”
Alabama has not built a prison since Bibb Correctional Facility in the mid-1990s. The average age of the 14 prisons is 44.
Clouse said new prisons would be safer and help the Alabama Department of Corrections deal with a serious staff shortage by providing better working conditions. He said the fundraising plan will allow the legislature to set money aside for capital maintenance and improvement projects to help prevent another crisis.
A 4,000-bed men’s prison in Elmore County will specialize in medical and mental health services as well as addiction education and treatment programs. A second 4,000-bed prison will be built in Escambia County.
The $ 1.3 billion plan will be funded by a $ 785 million bond issue, $ 400 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, a coronavirus relief bill passed by the Congress, and $ 154 million from the General State Fund.
The plan allocates $ 19 million of that General Fund money to purchase the Perry County Correctional Center, a vacant private jail in Uniontown. The Pardons and Parole Office plans to use the 700-bed prison to house and deliver drug addiction programs to short-stay parole offenders in an effort to help them avoid going to jail.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn attended the signing of the bill today.
“It was an essential part of many critical elements,” Dunn said. “I’m just thankful that everything has come together to get us to this point. We have a lot of work ahead of us. There is a lot of work to be done. But today is a day to celebrate a bit and then Monday the work begins.
Dunn mainly deflected questions today about how the new prisons would help solve the problems the DOJ alleged in its lawsuit against the state – violence, weapons, drugs, excessive staff strength and mismanagement.
“Transforming the Department of Corrections is the right thing to do, and that’s why we are doing it,” Dunn said. “We think this will help us with the DOJ and other disputes. But the main reason is that it is the right thing to do and that is what our state needs. And that’s really what we’re focused on. And the impact there will be what it is. But we are optimistic that it will be positive.
Ivey and legislative leaders drew up the plan to build the prison over the summer after his plan to rent and operate private prisons collapsed because the developers couldn’t secure funding.
Support was almost unanimous from Republicans in the House and Senate, and the GOP holds nearly three-quarters of the legislative seats. Most Democrats in the House opposed the plan.
Representative Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville, called the plan a band-aid that does not address the broader issues of criminal justice reform.
“I have a feeling we’re going to end up in the same situation three or four years after these prisons are built, unless we really focus on reform efforts to try to free some of these non-violent offenders.” who have been in prison for some time. Laurent said.
Ivey included two sentencing reform bills in his call to the special session, but only one passed.
The bill that was passed will require inmates to spend a period of time at the end of their prison sentence before their release under the supervision of the Alabama Pardons and Parole Office instead of remaining in prison until. last day. The period of supervision would be from three months to one year, depending on the length of the sentence. The aim is to help inmates adjust to life outside prison and reduce the chances of them returning to prison.
The failed sentencing bill would have allowed non-violent offenders convicted before October 1, 2013 to seek new sentences in accordance with guidelines that came into effect on that date. Up to 700 offenders could have been eligible to seek shorter sentences under the proposal, who died due to opposition from Republicans in the House.
Prison building legislation provides for the closure of three prisons within one year of the completion of the two new prisons – Elmore and Staton Prisons in Elmore County and Kilby Prison in Montgomery County. The St. Clair Correctional Facility would also close at a time determined by the Ministry of Correctional Services.
A second phase will begin when the first phase is at least 60% complete and after government officials certify that funding is available. It would include the renovation of three prisons and the replacement of the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison. Some Democratic lawmakers have said Tutwiler should have been replaced in the first phase.
JaTaune Bosby, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, criticized the prison plan in a statement today.
“The actions of the Alabama Legislature this week have been disappointing and reflect how remote many of our elected officials are from our state’s issues,” Bosby said. the state in billions of dollars in debt to build prisons, while voting against even the smallest of sentencing law reforms that have contributed to this simply outrageous crisis. It is now up to every Alabamian to speak up, come forward and make sure your representatives are held accountable, especially when they run for office in 2022. The future of our State depends on it. “
Lawmakers and state officials supporting the use of federal bailout dollars have said it is appropriate and permitted by federal guidelines.
Alabama will receive a total of $ 2.1 billion for state government purposes as part of the bailout, passed by Congress in March. The state has received half of its allocation and will get the other half in May.
As with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress last year, the legislature must appropriate the bailout money. Lawmakers have until the end of 2024 to commit the bailout funds. The money must be spent by the end of 2026.
While there are restrictions on how states can use the money, the law allows states to use some of their allowances to replace income lost due to the pandemic. Officials say states have flexibility in how these replacement dollars are used.
The Legislative Services Agency said Alabama lost $ 537 million in revenue during the period ending Dec.31, 2020 under rules and a formula required by the Treasury Department. The $ 400 million comes from that amount.
The legislature will appropriate the remaining $ 1.7 billion in bailout funds later, possibly in a special session or the regular sessions of 2022 and 2023.
“It’s a very smart way to use these resources,” Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper said. “There will be billions of additional dollars that the legislature will be responsible for allocating that will go to all kinds of different needs and we are very aware of those needs and recognize how important they are. I don’t think anyone can say that the prison problem in the state of Alabama is not a great need. It is a decades-old problem. “