Lawmakers Tackle Alabama’s Persistent Prison Problems

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Gigi Douban, WBHM

Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, and plagued by violence. A federal judge ruled mental health care for inmates is “horrendously inadequate.” There have been 15 suicides in as many months – including one earlier this month. Two inmates were stabbed and killed recently as well. While overcrowding has eased slightly, state lawmakers know there’s more work to do. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager spoke with state Sen. Cam Ward, a leading voice on prison issues, to get a sense of where lawmakers stand during this legislative session.

Interview Highlights

How lawmakers view the prison system currently:

“I think the appetite is more in light of some of the violence you’ve seen inside the prisons … It has a huge impact on it, not only the discussion inside the statehouse but also what some of the things the court has said. The court has clearly said these conditions are no longer acceptable. So I think the court’s order, in addition to the daily publicity of the horror inside the prisons, has changed the perspective of a lot of lawmakers.”

What lawmakers can do:

“Primarily it’s going to be a financial issue. You’ve got to pay for it. None of this is going to be free. You’re going to have to come up with the money in your budget to pay for it and that’s why I think last year we did $90 million additional dollars in the budget. This year we’re going to do another $40 million on top of that. So it’s primarily numbers and hiring the staff necessary to staff the prisons. That’s a big part of our problem right now.”

How he views Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposal to build three regional mens prisons, possibly through a lease:

“I think she has a very good plan and here’s why: It doesn’t require us to take out or borrow money to incur indebtedness. It doesn’t require you to increase the Department of Corrections budget. And what she’s doing is by leasing it back from an entity that builds it, you would in all essence be running and operating prisons the way we do now, just whoever holds the lease to the building would be a different person. It would be run and operated by us, just like we do now. And it would help alleviate some of the security concerns that a lot of officers have in the current facilities, which right now we’re just band-aiding back together … It pays for them by closing older decrepit buildings that are requiring huge amounts of money each year for maintenance.”

 

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