Study begins on Alabama prison overhaul

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Gov. Robert Bentley and state leaders on Tuesday announced an attempt to overhaul the state’s severely overcrowded prison system, considered at risk of a federal takeover.

Bentley said state prisons are at 192 percent of capacity. “It’s an issue that is not going to wait. We need help,” Bentley said.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Department of Justice, will examine the state system and suggest ways to contain costs without risking public safety. The nonpartisan Council of State Governments will help Alabama through the review.

Bentley requested the assistance after a series of blistering findings about state prisons. The Department of Justice in January sent a letter accusing the state of keeping female inmates in unconstitutional conditions because of widespread sexual abuse at Alabama’s only prison for women.

State Sen. Cam Ward, who will chair the state’s new prison-reform task force, said either Alabama will solve its prisons woes or “the federal courts will do it for us.”

“We are at a fork in the road. We have two paths to choose and neither one is easy,” said Ward, R-Alabaster.

Ward said changes could involve politically unpopular decisions, but the goal is to avoid a mass release of inmates.

“If we don’t solve our corrections overcrowding and the problems we have in corrections, then shame on us. Not because of our political careers but because of the impact on our children and grandchildren. It will bankrupt our General Fund budget,” Ward said.

Bentley said changing the prison system will “absolutely” cost more money, but he did not know how much or where it will come from.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has been involved in reforms in other states, including Texas, North Carolina and Ohio.

While the spotlight Tuesday was on overcrowding, The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report detailing what the group called severe problems with medical care in Alabama prisons.

“The state of medical care in Alabama prisons is truly atrocious,” said attorney Maria V. Morris, who authored the report for the Montgomery-based organization.

Morris said stroke victims have lingered without treatment, mental health care is largely nonexistent and some inmates have liver failure because Hepatitis c has gone untreated.

Bentley said he had not seen the full report and could not comment.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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