The Alabama House of Representatives voted last week to begin addressing the state’s prison crisis. It may not be enough to avoid federal intervention.
The House passed 103-0 for a General Fund budget that appropriates an additional $40 million to the state Department of Corrections to hire 500 additional corrections officers and boost pay for all by 20 percent in order to encourage more people to work in the state’s prisons.
“This is a first step. It’s part of the plan. It certainly won’t be all of the plan to try to address these issues,” said Republican Rep. Steve Clouse, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
It can’t be all of the plan because it’s certainly not enough to satisfy the U.S. Department of Justice, which has threatened to sue the state if it doesn’t do something to drastically improve conditions for inmates in the state’s prison system, which have deteriorated to the point the state can no longer guarantee a safe environment for either inmates or jailers.
Alabama prisons are at 160 percent capacity. In the past two years, at least 26 people, both inmates and prison staff, have died violently within prison confines, the worst rate of any prison system in the nation, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s statistics.
In its threat to sue the state, the Justice Department also cited rampant sexual assaults, contraband and the punishment of inmates who raise concerns.
Everyone knows the state needs greater capacity to deal with its present number of inmates, and most of its current prisons are in such poor shape they need to be replaced.
Gov. Kay Ivey has proposed building three “mega-prisons” to take the place of most of Alabama’s current prison system, and she’s proposed a way of going about it that does an end run around the Legislature.
The Department of Corrections is currently seeking “expressions of interest” from companies to build the three prisons and lease them back to the state for a maximum of $78 million annually, according to The Associated Press.
The mega-prisons would each have a capacity of more than 3,000 inmates, compared to just under 2,100 inmates in the largest of Alabama’s current prisons.
This doesn’t sit well with all lawmakers, some of whom see this as a power grab. It would obligate the state to make lease payments without requiring the legislative approval that would be required to finance prison construction the traditional way, by issuing a bond. Other lawmakers worry the premise itself is flawed.
“Studies across the country have shown that mega-prisons are not the way to go,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, told The AP.
Most Alabamians don’t seem eager to build new prisons. According to a poll released last week by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, 58 percent of Alabamians oppose building new prisons to address overcrowding.
What do Alabamians support? 86 percent support expanded rehabilitation and re-entry programs; 83 percent support moving people with nonviolent convictions back to the community; and 54 percent believe only violent offenders should go to prison.
In other words, Alabamians are far more inclined for the state to reduce its prison population than to continue maintaining one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
According to the PARCA poll, however, 69 percent of Alabamians believe state officials don’t care about their opinions.
It’s time for lawmakers to prove their constituents wrong, and make reducing the prison population the primary focus of prison reform. New prisons are necessary, but they shouldn’t be the be-all of Alabama’s criminal justice policy.