Alabama lawmakers kick off this year’s regular legislative session Tuesday, and one of Gov. Robert Bentley’s priorities is an overhaul of the state’s prison system. He’s clear about what he thinks of Alabama’s prisons.
“We have the worst prison system as far as overcrowding of any state in the country,” says Bentley.
Facilities are also understaffed. There have been outbreaks of violence, including the fatal stabbing of a corrections officer by an inmate. The system faces a federal lawsuit over inadequate mental healthcare for inmates.
To address this, Bentley wants lawmakers to authorize an $800 million bond issue to build four new, larger prisons and close most others. It’s similar to a plan he pushed last year that failed to win approval. Bentley says the bonds would be paid for with the savings that come through efficiency, not additional taxes.
“We then will not be the worst in the country. We’re going to be the best,” says Bentley.
One of the people shepherding the governor’s plan is Republican State Sen. Cam Ward. While the number of inmates has dropped thanks to new sentencing measures adopted a few years ago, he says even with the new prisons the system would still be over capacity. But Ward says new prisons are a necessary first step to solving all the other issues facing the prison system.
“If you don’t upgrade your facilities you’re going to continue to see inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-officer violence,” says Ward. “There’s just no way around it.”
Ward says he believes there is consensus among lawmakers that something needs to be done, but there’s not agreement on what that is. Plenty of lawmakers are skeptical of the governor’s plan.
Not Sold on Bentley’s Plan
Democratic Rep. Chris England wants details.
“It’s going to be difficult to convince me to support any plan that’s not completely laid out,” says England. “[A plan] that tells me exactly what’s closing, what’s opening, where are you building them, how are you building them, how you’re going to bid on them and so forth.”
Democratic State Sen. Billy Beasley says the plan is too expensive, and closing prisons would destroy local economies. He’d prefer to upgrade current facilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the state over poor mental health care for inmates and argues the plan wouldn’t address that problem.
But consolidation could save money, according to Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. That’s because facilities and staffing are the largest expenses. On the other hand, she says larger facilities can make it harder to manage violent inmates, and bigger prisons tend to squeeze out space for rehabilitation such as educational or vocational programs.
“That’s part and parcel of really being able to both ensure that they develop the skills they need, address educational deficits, but also helps to reduce violence within prisons,” says Davis.
At Charlie’s Barbecue in Odenville, a town close to the St. Clair Correctional Facility, few of the about two dozen people eating lunch here have heard of the governor’s plan or know much about it.
Chris Sharp says his next-door neighbor works at the prison, but people drive from all over the area for jobs there. So if it shut down, it won’t be detrimental to the town.
“I don’t think it supports the town per se, but it supports a lot of individuals,” says Sharp
Gary Garris lives about four miles from the facility. He’d hate to see people lose their jobs, but it wouldn’t bother him if it did close.
“Never have felt comfortable,” says Garris. “I mean it’s a maximum-security prison. So they’re in there for bad stuff.”
Garris says he does believe something should be done, particularly with the possibility the federal courts could take over.
Right now, it’s up to Alabama lawmakers to decide if that something is Governor Robert Bentley’s $800 million plan.