Se­nate ap­proves plan to build up to 3 new pris­ons

Cherokee County Herald - - NEWS -

MONT­GOMERY — The State Se­nate took sig­nif­i­cant steps to­day to solve the long-stand­ing cri­sis in Alabama’s pris­ons by pass­ing a mea­sure to build up to three new prison fa­cil­i­ties. Cur­rently, Alabama’s pris­ons house far more in­mates than orig­i­nally in­tended, with the pris­ons burst­ing to over 170 per­cent of ca­pac­ity. The pro­posal passed to­day, spon­sored by Sen­a­tor Cam Ward (R-Al­abaster), au­tho­rizes the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions to en­ter lease agree­ments with coun­ties to fi­nance and con­struct the fa­cil­i­ties, and es­tab­lishes clear cri­te­ria for how Cor­rec­tions will award the lease agree­ments.

As the se­cond-largest ex­pen­di­ture in the state’s Gen­eral Fund, the bud­get for all non- ed­u­ca­tion state spend­ing, the prison sys­tem is a sig­nif­i­cant and per­sis­tent fis­cal strain on the state. For the cur­rent fis­cal year, Cor­rec­tions alone costs the state $496 mil­lion and con­sumes 22% of the Gen­eral Fund bud­get.

“The state prison sys­tem is close to ex­plod­ing the state bud­get,” said Ward. “We have nu­mer­ous pris­ons that were built be­fore the Viet­nam War and some pre-date World War II. The up­keep alone for th­ese fa­cil­i­ties is a bleed­ing hole in our bud­gets.”

Se­nate Bill 302 pro­tects against waste or cost over­runs by re­quir­ing Cor­rec­tions to hire an out­side project man­ager to over­see con­struc­tion of the fa­cil­i­ties, and lim­its the bond au­thor­ity to $325 mil­lion. Gov­er­nor Robert Bent­ley’s orig­i­nal prison con­struc­tion plan from ear­lier in the year called for the build­ing of four new pris­ons at a cost of $800 mil­lion.

“This plan will dra­mat- ically in­crease safety for our in­mates and our cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers,” Ward re­marked. “There have been too many in­stances over the past year of of­fi­cers be­ing as­saulted and, in some cases, killed. The dor­mi­tory-style of hous­ing at some of our pris­ons is par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous. Mod­ern, cell-block fa­cil­i­ties with high-tech cam­eras and bet­ter lines-of-sight will save lives.”

Alabama’s prison sys­tem is be­set with chal­lenges. Cor­rec­tions is be­ing sued in fed­eral court and faces an im­mi­nent threat of fed­eral takeover, sim­i­lar to what has oc­curred in Cal­i­for­nia, where fed­eral courts have ruled that Cal­i­for­nia’s prison con­di­tions amounted to “cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment,” a vi­o­la­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion’s Eighth Amend­ment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court up­held a lower court’s de­ci­sion to place Cal­i­for­nia in re­ceiver­ship, and or­dered the state to lower its prison ca­pac­ity to a 137.5 per­cent. Since the rul­ing, Cal­i­for­nia’s prison sys­tem has es­sen­tially been run by the fed­eral court sys­tem.

“The threat of a fed­eral takeover is re­duced if the courts see that the Leg­is­la­ture is se­ri­ous about solv­ing the prob­lems our prison sys­tem faces, and get­ting our ca­pac­ity down closer to 137.5 per­cent,” Ward said. “But it took the state decades to get in this hole, and it will take us time to climb out of it.”

Se­nate Bill 302 now goes to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for con­sid­er­a­tion. Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Cam Ward rep­re­sents Dis­trict 14 in the Alabama State Se­nate, which in­cludes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jef­fer­son coun­ties. He serves as Chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

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