With a federal lawsuit looming in the background, Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session of the Alabama Legislature to begin Monday, Sept. 27 to address the state’s prison crisis. After her own plan to privatize state prisons failed for lack of funding earlier this year, Ivey wrote lawmakers Sept. 7 asking for an “urgent” resolution.
“If our prison infrastructure issues are not resolved in a timely manner and the state is unsuccessful in court, our budgets will be even more significantly impacted,” she warned. “As Alabama did in past years, we could once again be subject to government by federal court order rather than government by our own elected officials.”
But Ivey also advised, “We have the power to avoid this outcome.”
“Through strong collaboration and hard work from your leadership in the Alabama Legislature … you will receive a plan that will go a long way toward addressing these critical, decades-old issues,” she wrote. “Please consider the opportunity we have in front of us. This is our moment … I stand ready and willing to actively support you.”
Republican leaders in the State Legislature have already drafted a bill aimed at building two new “mega” prisons for men, a new prison for women, and renovating or reconstructing four existing prisons. The proposed legislation would allow the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority to issue up to $785 million in bonds for the project, while the Legislature also expects to use federal funds from the CARES Act to cover a large portion of the estimated $2 billion project. Separately, the state recently learned its general fund ended the fiscal year with an estimated $300 million surplus, so some of that money may be diverted to the project as well.
Ivey’s plan sought private investment to construct the prisons, but offered a 30-year lease plan from the state.
Last December, after years of investigations and reports, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state and Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Federal investigators allege the state fails to protect prisoners from violence and sexual abuse, while correctional officers “frequently use excessive force” on prisoners.
Further, the state’s prison system allegedly fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions for male inmates, while the feds also believe the state “is deliberately indifferent to the serious risk of substantial harm due to” the festering problems.
The legislation acknowledges that “many of the existing prison facilities in this state are well beyond their normal design service life, most existing prison facility infrastructure lacks sustained maintenance, and lifecycle replacement has not been routinely performed on all facilities.”
The average age of prison facilities is 44 years, the legislation notes, and “physical plant conditions have continued to deteriorate in many facilities, and the design and layout of the existing facilities is antiquated and not optimally suited for the delivery of necessary services to inmates or to fully realize the benefits of modern technology. In many facilities, renovation would be uneconomical or cost-prohibitive.”
A phased approach, the proposed legislation calls for the immediate construction of two new mega prisons for men in Elmore and Escambia counties. Each facility is expected to have a capacity of at least 4,000 inmates, and the new prison in Elmore County will provide “enhanced medical, mental and other health care along with substance abuse and education programs.”
Phase 2 can begin as soon as Phase 1 is 60 percent complete, and includes a new women’s prison in Elmore County to replace Julia Tutweiler Prison in Wetumpka. In this phase, the state would decide to either “renovate or reconstruct” four existing prisons: Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Bullock County Correctional Facility in Union Springs and Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton.
Five prisons would be closed under the plan including Hamilton Aged and Infirm Center in Marion County, Staton and Elmore correctional facilities in Elmore County, Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery and Tutweiler in Wetumka.
The legislation would also establish the Alabama Correctional Capital Improvement and Facilities Maintenance Fund, “to be used exclusively for capital improvements or maintenance of the prison facilities.” The state is not obligated to award the bids to the same companies who were awarded the work under Ivey’s failed proposal.
State Democrats have already suggested they will use their influence to attempt to enact criminal justice reform into the bill, as well as a potential effort to address changes within the Department of Corrections itself. Despite some calls for ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn to resign, the Ivey administration and Republican leaders have expressed confidence in his ability to remain at the helm of the Department of Corrections.
State Rep. Matt Simpson of Daphne, a former prosecutor, said he was supportive of the draft plan and looked forward to a resolution during the special session.
“I think this plan is what needs to happen, we can’t keep kicking the can down the road any longer,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to be proactive about this situation. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time coming. It isn’t an issue that just popped up on us yesterday; this has been a problem for a number of years and it’s time we finally addressed it. So I’ll be very happy when we can get something done.”
According to state law, a special session may last 12 days of a 30-day period. With a two-thirds vote, the Legislature may walk-on other issues to tackle during the session, but there has been no indication other issues, such as gambling, will be introduced next week.
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