The year was 1942. The St. Louis Cardinals defeated the New York Yankees in five games to win the World Series. “Casablanca” premiered in movie theaters. The Alabama Crimson Tide finished the season 8-3 with a 10th-place ranking in the Associated Press poll. Construction on the USS Alabama got underway as the United States entered World War II, following the December 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Also, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women opened in Wetumpka. Today, Tutwiler remains open as the Alabama Department of Corrections’ (ALDOC) maximum-security facility for women. Since 2003, Tutwiler has been under the scrutiny of the federal government and various advocacy groups for inhumane conditions.
Yet, Tutwiler is considered by some state officials to be an Alabama prison “success story.”
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice threatened Alabama’s state government with action for the state of its men’s prisons. According to a letter from Alabama’s three U.S. Attorneys, the conditions were so terrible that they violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which protects against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The underlying message: Get your prisons in order, or we’ll do it for you. Oh yeah, and we’ll send you a bill.
Gov. Kay Ivey has pointed to the prison situation publicly on at least two occasions this year, in her inauguration speech and her State of the State address. It was one of her two named priorities. That other priority was infrastructure, which was checked off the list earlier this year with the passage of the Rebuild Alabama Act. That law that will raise the state’s gas tax by 10 cents and address infrastructure needs, including roads, bridges and the Port of Mobile expansion.
Oddly, we’re halfway through the 2019 legislative session in Montgomery, and there hasn’t been any movement on prisons. There have been no bills filed. With the exceptions of State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, lawmakers have not offered much voluntary public commentary this year.
What gives? With the Feds threatening action and the governor seemingly declaring it a priority, one would have assumed the legislature would have taken a crack at it by now.
In the past, this has been a tough issue for the state’s elected leaders to tackle. Much of the problem has to do with the current prisons in Alabama playing a significant role in local economies around the state.
Imagine you represented a rural district in Alabama and ALDOC was your district’s largest employer. Also, imagine the amount of money the state pays for utilities to local providers. You might be reluctant to agree to any major prison system overhaul because it would be a devastating economic blow to your district.
According to many of the prison reform advocates in the Alabama legislature, that has been the reason for inaction.
Also, since the legislature is controlled by a Republican-led supermajority in both chambers, some self-proclaimed conservative members don’t see spending on prisons as an action that would follow in the footsteps of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman or William F. Buckley.
Here’s the reality: The federal government has made the right action on Alabama’s prisons an issue for conservatives.
Here are a few possible scenarios: One is the state could do nothing and force the federal government to stage a takeover. This option would be very costly, as not only would the Feds dictate a solution, they would make Alabama pay for it.
The next involves Ivey taking an end-run around the legislature. For a hefty price tag of $900 million, Ivey could lease new prisons, which would be built by a private contractor. Then on a year-to-year basis, Ivey and her future successors would pay rent to the private contractor for the use of the facility, which would house inmates and staff ALDOC workers. It’s not the greatest of options, but much better than a federal takeover.
Finally, the legislature could do what other legislatures in previous history have failed to do and pass a plan that would satisfy our federal overlords and do it at a cost savings for the state. The question is, is this legislature capable of pulling it off?
During a radio interview last week, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, offered the first sign this is a possibility by calling on Ivey to call a special session to deal with the problem.
Considering how Ivey and the legislature’s leadership came together to pass a gas tax hike with little opposition and in two weeks, it’s certainly not far-fetched to think this might be the time Alabama fixes its prisons.
As of right now, that might be the most “conservative” approach, as well. Certainly no Republican lawmakers steeped in Tea Party-ism campaign on prison reform. That has traditionally been a Democratic campaign issue.
However, if a special session is called for a holistic approach — new men’s and women’s prison construction and/or improvements, sentencing reform, an increase in pay and benefits for ALDOC personnel and attention given to only the punishment part of the equation but the “corrections” portion as well — conservatives could get the most “conservative” outcome possible.
Also, Kay Ellen “Saban” will earn another trophy for her mantle, which would beg the question: What were Alabama’s past few governors doing?
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