$1.3B Alabama prison construction package moves out of House committees
Rep. Steve Clouse said the plan would be a first step in correcting violence and abuse that has brought a federal lawsuit against the state
By Brian Lyman
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A prison construction plan began moving down the legislative tracks Tuesday, but not before some lengthy debates in two Alabama House committees.
The House Ways and Means General Fund committee Tuesday approved a $1.3 billion to build two 4,000-bed men's prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties, with the possibilities of further construction.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the chairman of the committee, said the plan would be a first step in correcting violence and abuse that has brought a federal lawsuit against the state.
"This is just a piece of the puzzle, and we feel like it's a big piece that is building the foundation, and there's several different pieces there," Clouse said after a public hearing on the bill Tuesday morning. "But we've got to get the foundation fixed first."
Others in the House committees on Tuesday questioned whether new buildings would be enough to address long-term problems with staffing and contraband in Alabama's correctional facilities. Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said neither the impact of the projects on employment nor the effect of new construction on the violence was clear.
"There are still some unanswered questions that if we don't answer them before we pass this bill, we'll be here next year, digging and digging and digging and really cutting resources from other departments," she said.
The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday also approved legislation to make 2013 sentencing reform measure retroactive, as well as a 2015 law requiring mandatory supervision of those released from prison.
The package aims to address rampant violence and abuse within Alabama's prisons. Two U.S. Department of Justice reports in 2019 and 2020 detailed physical and sexual violence within prisons; the use of excessive force by corrections officers and the spread of contraband within prison walls. In December, DOJ sued the state, saying the conditions violated inmates' Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
If the state loses the lawsuit, state prisons could go into receivership, and Alabama would face mandates to improve the prisons. Alabama's prisons fell under federal oversight from 1976 to 1988, which led to improvements in security, sanitation and health care.
Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, who did not attend the meetings on Tuesday, have argued that the state's current prisons are beyond their useful lifespans, are dangerous to employees and inmates, and lack the space needed to run effective programs.
The Elmore facility would provide a wide range of medical, mental and rehabilitation services for inmates.
Design of the two prisons would not be competitively bid, though subcontracting work on the prisons would.
The plan calls for the construction of a new women's facility to replace Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka and renovations to three other men's prisons, though it does not provide a funding mechanism to do so. (Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, offered an amendment to issue a $225 million bond to pay for a new women's prison; the motion was tabled.) The legislation initially planned for five prisons to close - Staton and Elmore in Elmore County; Kilby in Montgomery and Hamilton in Marion County.
Clouse said Tuesday that St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, a prison notorious for violence, would also close under the plan.
Clouse said the state was finding it difficult to address a staffing shortage within prisons because of the decrepit conditions in many prisons. He said the new prisons, built on a pod model, could be safer and require fewer staff members to maintain.
"This will save on the amount of employees we have," he said. "Plus the new technology as far as angles and stuff in the building ... will help in that respect."
Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, said that he didn't think further reforms were possible without new facilities.
"We can't get to that place without adequate facilities, and the ability to manage larger numbers of inmates with less staff," he said.
The DOJ's 2019 report noted issues with existing buildings but said new construction would not address conditions the department considers unconstitutional. Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, noted that the two prisons would be far larger than any extant prison in the state.
"We can't staff 1,000-bed prisons," she said. "This does nothing to address the staffing crisis that has been unmet, even with a federal court order."
Crowder and other opponents of the measure also said that the promises of improved treatment in the Elmore facility would mean nothing if the Legislature failed to provide adequate money for staffing and care.
"The crucial things envisioned by this construction bill, specifically the Elmore facility, the services could easily go unfunded," Crowder said. "We would request that if these new facilities promise actual treatment and rehabilitation, which we need, that we would get answers as to how those necessities would be funded, and how they would be staffed."
There were also calls to address the lack of paroles being issued by the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and to improve programming within the state's prisons. Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, said he had worked with federal and state inmates, and said federal inmates were far more prepared to re-enter society upon release.
"The workforce development I saw going on at Atmore was a table full of leather, where people were learning how to make belts," he said.
Business associations and local governments, many of whom saw the project as an economic opportunity, expressed support for the plan. Tom Layfield of the Alabama Road Builders Association said that members were already submitting bids on construction around the sites. Troy Stubbs, chairman of the Elmore County Commission, said they were committed to working with state officials to ensure the success of the project.
"We look at the economic vitality," he said. "700 jobs, likely to be more, (and) we have construction jobs that would accompany this, and of course the payroll and other ancillary economic impact items."
The package could go to a vote in the House on Wednesday.
The 2013 sentencing bill would allow up to 700 inmates sentenced before the changes to have their sentences reviewed under the law. It would not necessarily lead to their release, and the effect on the prisons would be minor: there were 17,724 inmates incarcerated in Alabama prisons in July.