MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Gov. Robert Bentley’s 2017 State of the State address given Tuesday. Remarks as prepared:
Lieutenant Governor Ivey, Speaker McCutcheon, President Marsh, members of the Alabama Legislature, members of the Alabama Supreme Court, Constitutional Officers, distinguished guests and My Fellow Alabamians.
Last August millions of Americans joined with the world in watching one of the greatest demonstrations of human achievement with its origins dating back to 8th Century Greece. The Modern Olympic Games are a captivating display of strength, endurance, speed, tenacity and perseverance.
With each Olympiad we marvel at the incredible feats of physical strength on display. In those two weeks we see the results of what was years, even a lifetime in the making.
Athletes train a lifetime, for what may be a few seconds of action. All their work, all their sacrifices are bundled up in one singular moment to feel the thrill of victory – or the agony of defeat. So much time, work and sacrifice is poured into the race. It must be run with precision, with determination, with eyes laser focused on the finish line, the ultimate goal.
Each course, each race has a distinct beginning and a distinct end. And even the slightest distraction from the course laid out before them, can result in a world-class athlete’s crushing defeat.
For the last six years I have had the honor of a lifetime serving you and this Great State as Governor. Six years ago I solemnly took the Oath of Office to uphold our State’s Constitution. And six years ago I personally made a commitment to the people of this State, to submit myself a humble servant to the men, women and children who proudly call Alabama home, to help create well-paying jobs so they can support their families, to make sure every child has the opportunity to receive the best education, to support our most vulnerable – the disabled, the elderly, the forgotten and the unborn.
I committed myself to the careful consideration that all men, all Alabamians, are created equal regardless of race, political party, gender or economic status. I vowed never to accept a salary until every Alabamian who wants a job can get a job.
The course laid out before us six years ago was filled with uphill obstacles of soaring unemployment, bleak state budgets, an unprecedented environmental disaster and a natural disaster that would go down in history.
Facing those obstacles head on, this race is still being run today with every bit of tenacity and endurance as when we left the starting gate.
More people in Alabama are working than at any time in our Administration.
Alabama’s labor force is the largest it’s been in five years.
And tonight we can proudly announce we have now reached the milestone of two million Alabamians in the workforce.
Running full sprint toward our goal of Full Employment, we are intentional with our mission to Put Alabamians Back To Work.
When coal miners in Walker County or Steel workers in Birmingham were laid off, when maritime workers were needed in Mobile, the Alabama Department of Labor held a series of successful job fairs to connect jobs with our people.
Five hundred employers ready to hire have participated and lines of job seekers often stretched out the door and down the street.
As a result of those efforts, today approximately 1-thousand more Alabamians have a job. Alabama’s manufacturing industry is growing with more Alabamians working in the sector than before the 2008 Recession.
Since taking office in 2011 my Administration has sought, recruited, announced, broken-ground and celebrated over 92-thousand well-paying jobs for the people of this state. There is little that is more gratifying to me at this point in our Administration than to see the seeds of economic development planted in a community, take root and come into the full bloom of well-paying jobs that feed and support families. The world took notice of Alabama in 2012 when we welcomed Airbus and the aerospace industry to Mobile. Springing up from an empty field, and by the skilled hands of Alabamians came a $600-million manufacturing facility where world-class jetliners are now built and produced. The first Alabama-made Airbus jetliner took flight in last July, built by thousands of the hardest working people in the country.
Companies and industries have poured over 24-billion dollars of investment into Alabama, in our people and in the belief that their products will be made best when they are Made in Alabama.
Companies like Polaris, in Huntsville, are building and producing ATV’s and hiring 17-hundred Alabamians and creating hundreds of positions for technicians, programmers and welders. GE Aviation is investing more than $200 million to build two factories in Huntsville and is expected to employ up to 300 people. And it’s not just our larger cities with new well-paying jobs. With an intentional focus on bringing jobs to rural Alabama we bring industry to our smallest towns. Moller Tech is building a 46-million dollar flagship facility in Woodstock, in Bibb County, supplying Mercedes and hiring 220 Alabamians. Alabama’s auto industry hit another record high in 2016, as workers at Hyundai, Mercedes and Honda rolled out over a million Alabama-made vehicles. Montgomery’s new Hyundai Santa Fe, Lincoln’s new Honda Ridgeline and Tuscaloosa’s four Mercedes models are all taking center on the world stage. Besides receiving awards for some of the best vehicles on the market, they all have one important thing in common – their Home’s in Alabama. We opened Alabama’s newest Interstate – I -22, not just providing convenience and safer travel for our people, but paving the way for greater economic development in financially-strapped Northwest Alabama. There is simply no place like Alabama’s beautiful Gulf Coast, and the incredible Gulf State Park Project is well on its way to becoming an international benchmark of economic and environmental sustainability. On track to open next year, the Gulf State Park Project will be the pride of our state for outdoor recreation, education and hospitality. Economic opportunity grows and thrives in our state, especially for the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our state and our country, yet ask for so little. Alabama is the proud home of over 420-thousand Veterans, and through the Alabama Executive Veterans Network – or AlaVetNet, and the Alabama Small Business Commission we are making sure veteran owned businesses succeed and prosper. And today Alabama’s Unemployment Rate for Veterans stands at 4.1 percent – lower than the overall state and national rate.
Listening to and focusing squarely on the needs of our counties and cities, in 2012 we launched the state’s largest investment in roads and bridges in the history of Alabama.
The Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, or ATRIP is a resounding success. The First-of-its-Kind Infrastructure program is a hallmark of this Administration and the tremendous cooperation we enjoy between state and local governments.
Since the first project began five years ago, you’ve seen across our Great State hundreds of roads improved and dangerous bridges replaced. Those orange barrels on county roads, asphalt pavers on highways and Alabama workers manning equipment to replace crumbling bridges are the results of ATRIP, Alabama’s Infrastructure Success Story. There are over 11-hundred ATRIP Projects, totaling nearly 1-point-2 billion dollars on schedule for your local communities. These are projects specifically requested from local governments. Already over 700-projects have been completed. And the effects of ATRIP reach beyond the pavement – 94% of all ATRIP projects have been won by Alabama contractors. Now in its Fifth year, ATRIP is the Number One reason some of those contractors were able to stay in business. When bureaucracy grinds government to a halt, ATRIP has been an answered prayer for communities. Just ask Marshall County about the Redmill Bridge. The dangerous bridge was the site of fatal car crashes. It was an impediment to the local economy heavily dependent on local poultry farms. Chicken trucks couldn’t even turn on the road, blocking access to farms and serving as an obstacle to greater overall economic development. Like many of you have seen in your local districts, it was one of those projects everyone wanted and the community desperately needed yet no one in Marshall County thought they would ever see in their lifetime. Beginning in 2015, our Administration joined with the locals and together last month we celebrated the completion of the largest Marshall County project ever.
When there is an obstacle along the course of this race we run, we will “find a way or we will make one”.
When this race began, we launched an ambitious effort to save Alabama taxpayers money.
It was an uphill climb, Alabama was essentially broke, savings accounts had been wiped out and federal stimulus dollars were gone. But we knew there were opportunities to find efficiencies, to consolidate, to cut and to trim the size of state government and ultimately save taxpayers millions of dollars. That is exactly what we did then, and exactly what we continue to do even to this day. We launched an ambitious plan in 2012 with a goal to save one billion dollars by the end of our Administration. Not only did we reach that goal, but we accomplished it much earlier than expected. Alabama led the nation in our Road to A Billion Dollars in savings. And I am proud to tell you tonight, that Alabama Taxpayers have now saved a stunning $1.2 Billion annually. This Administration worked so fast and so efficiently that of the 26 new governors elected nationwide in 2010, we reduced the size of our state’s bureaucracy at the third fastest pace. While we’ve seen these successes along the course we’ve run, together we have shared our struggles and setbacks. Alabama is certainly no stranger to severe storms and deadly tornadoes. April 2011 left us devastated, crushed, heartbroken and nearly defeated. But instead of being blown off course by those tornadoes in that tragic statewide devastation, we saw an enormous spirit of love, cooperation and kindness like we’ve never seen before. And we came back stronger. Neighbors across our state gave their time, their donations and their own money to help one another. You saw it in your district. And I saw it face to face in every county I visited. It left such an indelible impression on me, and I have never forgotten those days. Resolved to do everything we can to protect the people of this state, from that historic disaster we commissioned the Tornado Recovery Action Council, and now have in place 13 of 20 recommendations made in the TRAC Report. And we’ve dedicated ourselves to making our communities safer. Today there are now 275 community safe rooms across Alabama, and 4-thousand more individual safe rooms. In Pickens County, Jackson County, DeKalb County, Winston County, Houston County, we’ve grieved this last year with our neighbors in their loss, we’ve thanked God for his protection. We’ve held each other’s hands, and come along beside and carried our fellow Alabamians in their darkest hour.
It’s that spirit of service that is the hallmark of the great, hardworking people of our state.
It’s that willingness to help, to sacrifice for our fellow man that we see every day from our men and women in Law Enforcement, and in the men and women who serve in the military – who protect our country.
For more than 20 years, Army National Guard soldiers have been serving as a force multiplier for U-S Border Patrol agencies to secure the Southwest Border.
Twice in 2016, as Commander in Chief, I had the honor of ordering the Alabama National Guard support to protect and defend the U-S Border with Mexico.
As a result soldiers with the Alabama National Guard and Border Patrol recorded more than 28-thousand apprehensions at the US- Mexico Border, countless border turn-backs and seized over 42-thousand pounds of marijuana and narcotics.
I am proud, and I know everyone here tonight is proud of our Alabama men and women who proudly serve in Law Enforcement and in the Military, especially in the active role of securing and protecting our American borders.
President Trump has already taken decisive and necessary action to enforce our nation’s immigration laws. And let me repeat, what we made clear last week:
Alabama will not support Sanctuary Cities or institutions that harbor or shelter illegal immigrants, and are in clear violation of the laws of the nation.
We will enforce the law.
Tonight, to members of our Law Enforcement community, and to our men and women who proudly defend our nation in the greatest military in the world – We say Thank You!
The dawn of the new Presidential Administration has ushered in a truly remarkable time in our State’s history.
State’s and their Governors are enthusiastic about the Trump Administration because finally WE are being heard, concerns are being met and action is being taken.
States have long decried the overreach of the Federal government, the unfunded mandates, the suffocating and stifling regulations handed down.
From the campaign trail and from this podium you’ve heard me time and again declare my long held beliefs in our great Constitution, the Power and Authority it grants to The States. Our country is made up of fifty sovereign states, and Governors like myself, have stood firm while costly mandates were shoved down our throats, and said collectively “no more.” Now states are finally being afforded the opportunity to have a strong voice in the repair or replacement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I am a physician who cared for all my patients regardless of their ability to pay. Many times I would just get paid in turnip greens and syrup. When I was still practicing medicine, I saw anyone who needed care. I would travel to some of the most impoverished counties in West Alabama and spend a day seeing and caring for patients. If they did not have the money to pay, I would not charge them.
Many times, I would buy medications for those who could not afford to buy their prescriptions. As a practicing physician, I would never want anything to come between me and my patient – especially the federal government. I am licensed by the state of Alabama, not the federal government, and we will always keep it that way. Today as your Governor, I have to be concerned for our state, and the tremendous cost of accessible and affordable healthcare, not just for patients, but on our entire health care system. Last month my Governor colleagues and I candidly presented our plan for replacing the healthcare that hasn’t proved to be affordable, and has yet to prove itself to be a protection for patients. Do we have a problem with accessible health care in this country? Certainly we do. But one size healthcare does not fit all. No one knows better than the states, what it is that states need. Over the course of the next several months, it is states that will lead the way with Congress, with better solutions and affordable outcomes.
The strength of States is what fuels the momentous overhaul in Education Reform that allows us to take back ownership of our Educational rights.
Alabama has taken the lead on the reauthorized federal education legislation known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.
It’s the greatest devolution of federal power in 50 years, and an incredible opportunity to bring together teachers, superintendents, early childhood educators, business and industry.
The new law gives states the ability to keep the decision-making process in education at the local level.
ESSA creates a role for every governor to move his or her education system from federal mandate to state-centric approach.
Alabama wasted no time taking back control, when I became the first Governor to issue an Executive Order ensuring that it is the Educators, District Leaders and parents who help determine a new direction for schools.
In partnership with the Alabama Department of Education, through a series of public meetings and forums held across the state, Alabama serves as a model for education stakeholder engagement across the country. We’ve asked, and education policy leaders enthusiastically shared their input, and have a clear, strong voice in the development of the plan. States have all seen that through failed bureaucratic policies, costly mandates on taxpayers and federal regulations that cripple job growth – it is not the Federal government that knows best. The Great State of Alabama has stood for decades at the forefront of some of the most pivotal, incredible and inspiring events in America’s history. The great people who proudly have called themselves Alabamians have led the way to greater innovation and scientific breakthroughs. We’ve inspired, encouraged and entertained the world with the unique and rich talent, personal achievement that just seems to grow organically from Alabama soil. We’re resilient. We are resolute. Not a people prone to hand wringing, we courageously confront even the most painful problems and the most overwhelming obstacles. We are a people who courageously take up arms to defend our nation’s freedoms, and a people who courageously yet peacefully, confront injustice when those freedoms are compromised even among our own fellow citizens. Our people are brave, brilliant and beautiful. We’ve run our race well throughout our history. First in medical breakthroughs in 1902, when Dr. Hill performed the Northern Hemisphere’s first open heart surgery on a rural farm in Montgomery.
First in the fight for Civil Rights – when Dr. King birthed and led a movement that signaled a seismic shift in the treatment recognition and respect for all of our people, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of status. And when Man first raced to the Moon – the ones who made it all possible – who dared to dream it could be done – who decided they would heed the challenge of their fallen President – and do things not because they were easy, but because they were hard – They Were Alabamians. We’ve run the race strong. Yet hurdles lie on the course ahead, and we simply cannot, on our watch, allow ourselves to grow faint, to become weary and more tragically to lose our passion for the people we serve. In 2016 we launched an ambitious course of action aimed at fundamentally changing Alabama, opening doors of opportunity, clearing the path to prosperity and solving decades old problems. Alabama’s Great State 2019 Plan is our strategic course of action – to keep us on course – laser focused on the Purpose we’ve been called to carry out by the One who ordained our place of service. Great State 2019 Plan sets its sights on educating and training our people, while connecting and constructing basic opportunities for all our citizens. This bold course of action has guided us, and will continue to be our map for the next two years. Specifically focusing on Alabama’s approximately 55 rural counties, we are directly addressing obstacles that stand in the way of our state’s potential for greatness, in education, healthcare, access to technology, job growth and economic opportunity. Once again in Alabama, we will do what we’ve never done before, not because it is easy – but because it is hard.
The Great State 2019 Plan serves as a Guidepost to remind us that while we gain ground on economic growth, increased jobs and greater control of critical decisions on healthcare and education, we cannot continue to ignore the problems that have persisted in our state for decades.
Problems like the persistent poverty that causes Alabama to be ranked as the sixth poorest state in the country.
Problems that pull us from that “First Place” woven in our great history that we pride ourselves on.
Problems that drive us into dead last place – in educational achievement, and virtually every quality of life category from infant mortality to obesity.
Problems that, over time, have lurked, festered, plagued and overwhelmed our Corrections System.
If too many Alabamians – as I said in 2016 – are under-educated, under-trained, unhealthy and unable to break the cycle of poverty and dependence – Then What Are We Doing About It?
What are we doing to help children who, through no fault of their own, are born into poverty?
What are we doing to make sure they are well enough to go to school, to learn to read at grade level, to learn basic math skills, matching those of their peers in other states?
What are we doing to help babies who are disabled get access to life-changing services?
What are we doing to help our elderly with no means of paying for even the most basic healthcare?
While we court international industry, shake our fists in defiance of costly federal mandates, what are we doing in Alabama to open the doors of opportunity, to practically and intentionally serve the people of our state.
What are we doing to mark our “First Place” in history? What are we doing to join the “great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us” who ran their race so well and came in First Place?
When we reach our Finish Line, will we look back and see that we were blown off course? Did we go over and around obstacles, or did we just stop running altogether?
Will we ask ourselves the words in the book of Galatians “You were running so well, who is it that cut in on you? Such distraction does not come from the One who calls you.”
The day we were elected and chosen, hired and asked by the people of this state to serve them as their representatives – to be their voices in state government – we were not Called for Politics. We were Called for a Purpose.
Using the Great State 2019 Plan as our course map, we will focus on the greatest needs of our state specifically targeting and tackling the most difficult, persistent problems and strengthening and bolstering where there are areas of achievement.
This year we will launch a new effort to help put money back into the pockets of Alabama families.
Alabama is one of only four states with no tax break on groceries, placing a greater burden on low-income families and those on a fixed-income.
A task force made up of experts from fields such as education, healthcare, taxation and revenue, and the economy will study the impact of removing the sales tax on food.
The group will compare best practices from comparable states and deliver its recommendation to me this Fall. I want to remove the state tax on food.
Every family in Alabama should be able to find a good job and feed their families without being overly taxed.
Every Alabama child deserves to receive the best education possible, whether they live in the suburbs of Birmingham or the rural towns of Wilcox County. There should be no barriers to a better education for any child in our state. Technology should know no boundaries, and Great State 2019 targets areas of our state with a bold slate of initiatives aimed at delivering connectivity to even our most remote and rural schools.
Apple spent the last year installing and updating the wireless infrastructure at JE Hobbs Elementary school in Camden. Through a grant every student received an iPad, each teacher and administrator got a MacBook and every classroom got an Apple TV. I was with the students last fall after they had received their devices. Like Christmas morning, all the children were excited. But probably none were as excited as a little girl named Malika.
As we were leaving the school, someone told me Malika had something she wanted to say to me. And I soon realized why this little girl was waiting to talk. Malika was non-verbal, and had been all her life. Her teachers told me she was unable to speak, until the gift of technology changed all that. This non-verbal child could now virtually “speak” through the use of her very own iPad. Technology has opened up her world, and the door of opportunity for a better education.
Opportunity is not out of reach for our children, we just have to make sure we as leaders provide them. We have the greatest ability to do that through what is an absolute Jewel in our state. Alabama’s First Class High Quality Pre K is a proven success.
Each year since I’ve been Governor we have steadily increased funding for Pre-K, we’ve expanded classrooms and most importantly we’ve opened the door to achievement for Alabama’s children.
There is no denying the positive results of children who attend a First Class PreK. Four-year-olds are building on a firm foundation, demonstrating higher achievement at higher grade levels. We’ve seen the results. In study after study, a four year old enrolled in one of our high quality First Class Pre-K Programs misses fewer school days, they are much less likely to be retained, or held-back, in higher grades and most importantly they are ready for Kindergarten.
We studied four year olds when they first enrolled in Pre-K and again when they completed their year. We found that students at the beginning of the year scored below “widely held expectations” for school readiness. By the time they completed Pre-K, over 90% were meeting or exceeding the expectations across the board.
These children were more than ready to start school. That is why by the third grade, we’ve found PreK children, especially those from low-income families are scoring well in critical areas of math and reading. These findings show us what we already know, that First Class PreK supports a strong foundation for school success and school readiness – and most importantly for our state, our families and our future success of our children – it is closing the achievement gap for our most vulnerable children. And that’s why for the last 10 years Alabama’s First Class PreK has been awarded the highest quality rating by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Why then would we just stop with 4 year olds? Why don’t we look beyond the undeniable success of what we can do with our four-year-olds and expand on that success where it’s most needed?
Why then when Alabama 3rd graders fall woefully far behind in reading scores, when as our Superintendent said, we have a “Math crisis” in Alabama, would we not want to extend the gains we are making with the four year olds up to elementary school?
The Alabama PreK through Third grade Integrated Approach to Early Learning will build upon the student success and achievement gap closure by expanding access to the PreK model and will pull the most successful parts of K-3 initiatives to give students up to third grade the chance for success using the PreK model. Jeana Ross Secretary of the Department of Early Childhood Education and State Superintendent Michael Sentance are joining forces and working side by side to align and integrate the most critical and most successful components of the Pre K model with how we educate those in Kindergarten up to the Third Grade. We know based on the success of Pre-K the result will be higher achievement, but most importantly children who can read, who can compete and who have a strong foundation. Once again this year we are expanding the reach of Pre-K so that even more 4 years olds have an opportunity for a new strong foundation, with a $20 Million dollar increase to fund 160 more PreK classrooms. Over 28-hundred more children will have access to a First Class High Quality Pre- K classroom. PreK is truly an Alabama success story, our 4 year olds are thriving, and we are ranked Number One in America. Not only is it transforming how students learn, it’s transforming how Educators teach. I hear from Pre-K teachers across the state who tell me they are amazed with the results they see among their students, they are excelling, they are thriving. And they tell me it makes them better teachers. The success of our Pre-K program wouldn’t be even possible without the strong team of Pre-K teachers, dedicated to our children.
Tonight it is my honor to introduce you to three of our First Class Pre-K teachers here with us. Chelsi Jones, Angie Dillard and Alicia Koonce are from Coffee County and they are just three of our great Pre-K teachers all across Alabama. We have the Number One PreK in America because of our Pre-K teachers. They are Alabama’s true National Championship Team.
Alabama leads the nation in our efforts to ensure every person has a voice and every citizen is heard.
In the last decade, the number of minorities in our state has grown. Women now make up more than half of our population. The Hispanic population has doubled and the Black community is the second largest group in the state.
I’ve spent time with and listened to many of you, leaders and representatives of our minority communities. You shared with me your needs, your frustrations and your concerns. Out of those discussions came a solution to meet the needs of minorities who have little or no voice in state government.
As part of Great State 2019, last June Alabama became only the second state in the nation to establish a Cabinet-level Office specifically focused on the needs of minority communities. The Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs offers a perspective on addressing minority and women’s issues, and this year we will introduce a slate of initiatives aimed at strengthening these groups. In 65 of Alabama’s 67 counties we have a shortage of doctors, Alabama ranks 40th in the number of physicians per capita and we rank last in the number of dentists. Great State 2019 meets this challenge head on. Last year we took action to stop rising rates of preventable and manageable disease, especially among, rural, low-income counties. By expanding and increasing funding for loan-repayment programs for healthcare providers we have taken action to increase the number of doctors serving in the state’s poorest counties. Having practiced medicine for 35 years, and having seen the needs of patients in some of the most impoverished areas of our state, I can tell you a good doctor in a small, rural community, changes a community and it saves lives.
We will increase funding for Alabama’s low-income children and youth so they may have access to home-based services and treatment of Psychiatric, emotional and behavioral disorders.
In addition, through Great State 2019, we will increase funding for treatment for Alabama’s low-income children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
We are taking bold steps to protect the people of our state from one of the greatest and deadliest attacks in our nation’s history. It doesn’t come from a foreign enemy, the deaths are not the result of an unknown killer, the weapons are not advanced missiles, assault rifles or even bombs. Opioid painkillers have fueled one of the deadliest drug epidemics in our nation’s history, killing 78 people every day. Over-prescribing painkillers has led to a steady increase in drug-related deaths over the last 15 years.
Alabama is the highest painkiller prescribing state in the nation and nonmedical use of pain relievers in Alabama exceeds the national average. This is Unacceptable. That is why in 2016 I joined 45 other Governors in signing the Compact to Fight Opioid Addiction, through the National Governors Association. This marks the first time in more than 10 years that governors have developed a compact through NGA to spur coordinated action on an urgent national issue. In 2012 and 2013 the Legislature passed, and I signed into law several bills needed to fight drug abuse and in particular, opioid abuse.
Last December we created the Alabama Council on Opioid Misuse and Addiction to continue to build on existing efforts to combat opioid abuse in our state and present to me innovative ideas to put an end to this deadly epidemic. The Council consists not only of healthcare professionals but real people who have had real experiences with the devastating effect opioid addiction has on the lives of our people. Opioid addiction is an epidemic in Alabama and across the country. Our state’s potential is too great, our people too precious to ignore. All of our people; The poor, the mentally ill, the addicted and the incarcerated.
Behind the razor wire fences, iron bars and concrete walls of Alabama’s 17 major Correctional Facilities are thousands of men and women who also call our state home.
They are there because of terrible choices made, tragic mistakes, or even intended harm.
Whatever the reason the men and women are serving their sentence of punishment, they are all taking up long term and possibly permanent residence in a cellblock cut off from society, from family, from their children.
But each Sunday a group of people from the largest church in the state, faithfully travel to 14 of these facilities and Worship with the inmates. Side by side – “saint and sinner” tune in to the same church service some of us out here in the “free world” may be attending.
During that church hour some of Alabama’s most hardened and hated convicted criminals are raising their tattooed hands in worship, they are hearing the Word of God preached and they are bowing their heads in solemn prayer.
When church ends and most of us in the “free world” go home to Sunday dinner, these inmates who shared the same Sunday service go back to some of the worst conditions, in the worst facilities of any prison in the country.
Decades old buildings, never intended to house triple the inmates that are packed inside, are literally crumbling.
Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore County was built in 1939 – before World War II.
Still open today, Draper houses double the inmates it can sustain.
The entire kitchen floor has collapsed, repairs to a Depression era facility are cost prohibitive to say the least.
And it’s no wonder – 78-year-old pipes meant to accommodate 600 people are operating at 200-percent capacity.
It’s not just Draper – nearly all DOC facilities are double sometimes triple capacity, infrastructure is collapsing and the tensions created among inmates and officers by the deteriorating facilities and overcrowded conditions have even become deadly. Alabama is about to embark on a complete transformation of the state’s prison system.
The Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative will transform Alabama’s prison system into a national model for the 21st Century.
The initiative will consolidate 14 of 16 maximum custody level prisons into four large scale, state of the art regional correctional facilities – three men’s facilities and one women’s facility to permanently replace Tutwiler Prison for Women.
Combined with recent prison reform legislation that has reduced the prison population, the increased capacity of these 4 larger facilities will reduce the prison population to 125 percent over the next five years.
Four large facilities will help us save tens of millions on maintenance costs for these Depression era buildings, we will save millions on overtime and personnel costs of Officers and staff, protecting not just inmates but our law enforcement officers as well.
And the facilities will be much better able to provide proven and badly needed rehabilitation and re-entry programs for substance abuse treatment, counseling, job training and work release training – so that inmates are able to successfully transition back into our communities.
Better facilities will provide better and broader rehabilitation programs – and that means inmates are less likely to find themselves back in prison.
After all it is a Department of Corrections.
The men and women inside these prison walls are there for just punishment. But they are not there to slip further into a cycle of dependency, crime, violence and hopelessness.
Ask those who hold the church services there every Sunday what they’ve seen. When an inmate has hope for a better life on the inside, there is a greater opportunity for restoration of families, communities and lives on the outside.
Deborah Daniels can tell you that’s true. She served her time in prison. When she was finally released, Deborah, free from iron bars, chose to surrender her life for God’s glory. She thought she was finished with a life behind bars, but God had a different plan.
Nearly a decade later, Deborah is in vocational ministry, serving in Prison Fellowship. She works closely with DOC helping inmates with their own re-entry into society. She is active with Mentoring Children of Prisoners and now trains volunteers to serve in prison ministry.
If you wonder why Deborah would ever want to go back into a prison after serving her time, listen to what she says. ” What motivates me”, she said, “Is that my life is a testimony to others, proof of his amazing grace and the vital role of the Body of Christ in the Transformation and Restoration of sinners.”
And ask Frank Gossett. At age eleven Frank started using drugs, and by the time he was a teenager he was caught in the web of addiction to alcohol as well. His $200 a day cocaine habit led him to a life of crime, depression and attempted suicide. Soon Frank was behind DOC bars serving time for theft.
Once he was released it wasn’t long before he was back in prison. But this time a fellow inmate helped Frank give his life to Christ, and although he was still behind bars, Frank will tell you he was set free of the bondage of drugs, alcohol, suicide, depression, victimizing others and guilt.
He went through faith based counseling and character programs and when he was released, Frank became an Assistant Chaplain at Alabama’s death row facility, Holman Prison, where he ministers to the men who are incarcerated there. Frank received a full pardon four years ago, and in 2015 Frank became an ordained minister.
Deborah – Frank would you please stand so we can honor you for your service to our state.
The Transformation of Alabama’s Prisons will protect our law enforcement officers, overworked and overwhelmed with mounting tensions that have been boiling and building within prison walls.
Overcrowded conditions, understaffed personnel has proven to be a deadly combination.
Corrections Officers outmanned by inmates are stretched to their limits, and for one of our Corrections Officers it cost him his life.
Officer Kenneth Bettis was an Iraqi War Veteran and a dedicated law enforcement officer. Last summer Officer Bettis was attacked by an inmate, stabbed and killed.
Officer Bettis leaves a widow and children. Today his name is etched into Alabama’s Law Enforcement Memorial as one of state’s Fallen Officers.
I attended Bettis’ memorial last year, and I met his grieving widow. I pray I never have to attend another memorial for another Alabama Corrections Officer.
We cannot afford to wait any longer to solve this lingering, difficult and deadly problem.
It is time to get over this hurdle on this race we are running. It is past time to fundamentally transform the prison system.
The risks are too great. The human toll is too high to wait any longer.
If you think we can’t afford the cost of the transformation, then ask one of our Corrections Officers, ask one of our prison ministry volunteers, ask a former inmate how much their life is worth.
Last fall I had the honor of attending one of these church services inside the prison walls. I was at Kilby Correctional Facility. The church service began, the music played and we listened to the sermon.
At the end of the service, I was truly moved by what I saw. To hear those men, with their deep, gravelly voices repeat the Sinner’s Prayer, to see the transformation happening to them inside the prison and to see how they want to change their lives, made me realize the Department of Corrections, is Correcting.
Still we have to do more.
If we want to truly transform the person, we must first transform the system.
We must run around, over and through any obstacle on this course, and finish this race.
This last year our state has certainly faced obstacles, tragedies and what looks like impossible challenges. But it’s in the quiet crucible of suffering, that God’s greatest gifts are given to us. Through every challenge, there’s always hope.
There’s a young man in Northport who saving a family from a house fire, there’s a State Trooper in Elkmont stopping to deliver a baby on the side of the road, there’s a First Responder in Birmingham risking his own life, rushing to the scene when a pipeline explodes.
There’s a loving community in Rosalie and Rehobeth wrapping their arms around one another when a tornado takes away their friends and family. There’s an elderly woman giving just one dollar, all she can afford, to help storm victims recover.
I see our state, I hear our people, and I know what we are capable of.
In the midst of Alabama’s greatest challenges, I always have great hope for our Great State.
In the year 2019 Alabama will celebrate its 200th Birthday.
That year also marks the 50th Anniversary of the day Alabamians put Man on the Moon.
And I will have finished my service in Office.
I will have finished this race.
If Alabamians can put man on the moon. we can build new prisons.
If we can lead the world in medical breakthroughs, we can stop the scourge of opioid addiction.
If we can win football championships, we can make sure there is a Number One ranked PreK classroom for every four year old.
If we can birth a worldwide movement for equality and civil rights, we can make sure every Alabamian who wants a job can get a job.
We can do it, coming along side, pulling in the same direction.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Derek Redmond was in his final qualifying round to compete for the Gold Medal. Having trained his entire life, Redmond held the World Record in the 400-meter. A world champion, all he had to was finish one more qualifying round before competing for the Gold in his strongest event.
The 400 meter race began, and Redmond was off to a strong start. But within site of the finish line, something went wrong. Redmond felt a terrible sharp pain in his right leg. He collapsed to the pavement, and medical staff ran onto the track.
Redmond, though, stood back up, hobbling in pain. He waved off the medical staff, limping and hopping toward the goal. By now the other athletes had finished, and Redmond saw his lifelong dream begin to fade away.
By this time, someone else was on the track behind him, waving off security and running to Redmond.
It was his Daddy.
He came alongside the injured athlete and held him up. Redmond, still hobbling toward the finish line, weeping, kept covering his face with his hands in shame. Over and over again, his Daddy pulled Redmond’s hands away. “You are already a Champion” he told his Son. “You don’t have to do this.”
Through tears, Redmond said, “Yes I do”.
And his Daddy said, “Then we will finish this race together.”
The crowd stood to its feet and The Father, holding his injured and defeated Son, made it to the Finish Line. Derek Redmond, a world-class athlete, trained all his life just to see it disappear in an instant. He didn’t win the Gold. The injury ended his career. But Derek Finished The Race.
The course is laid out for us in our time of service here. There is a limited amount of time, and many checkpoints along the way. Millions in the bleachers are watching us as we serve, some will cheer, some will mock.
They see our victories, our defeats, our struggles but they also see our determination.
And our people know who we are and what we are capable of, if we just stay the course, and no matter what obstacle we face, We Finish the Race.
God Bless You All. And may God Bless the Great State of Alabama.