MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s Senate Judiciary Committee approved a slightly less ambitious prison construction plan on Thursday, one that would build up to three new prisons and renovate others, including the state’s troubled prison for women.
The new plan authorizes a $775 million bond issue to pay for it all. The bill now moves to the full Alabama Senate.
Gov. Robert Bentley had proposed an $800 million bond issue to finance four new prisons. Lawmakers opted to renovate the Tutwiler Prison for Women instead of replacing it.
Judiciary Chairman Cam Ward, the bill’s sponsor, said the revamped plan would add about 2,000 beds to the state’s crowded prison system. That increase in capacity, along with sentencing reforms passed two years ago, should relieve overcrowding to a point that courts have found acceptable, he said.
“You would go under 137 percent capacity which would be constitutional muster and, by the way, be one of the better capacity levels in the country,” said Ward, R-Alabaster.
Alabama has imprisoned 23,074 inmates in facilities built for 13,318, which puts the department at 173 percent capacity. Overcrowding and staffing shortages have contributed to outbreaks of violence. A corrections officer was fatally stabbed by an inmate last year, and three inmates have been killed this year in violence between prisoners.
Committee members also dropped Bentley’s proposal to use a single designer-builder to save money. Smaller contractors lobbied against the design-build concept, fearing being cut out of the work. Ward said dropping the concept would add to the cost, but ease concerns that straying from the state’s usual bid process could lead to malfeasance.
Ward’s bill also would allow cities and counties to spend their own money to build a prison and lease it to the state, although lawmakers doubted if many communities could afford to do that.
Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said he needs to “dive into the details” of the new bill, but said its approval by the committee is great progress.
Crowding is not the only problem Alabama’s prisons face, lawmakers said repeatedly.
“We are fooling ourselves if we ever think that this bill by itself solves all of our problems. It does not. We have re-entry issues. We have to continue fighting recidivism,” Ward said.
Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said Alabama must spend more on treatment and training programs and boost the guards’ pay.
“We need to pay them what they deserve. I’m hoping that we can work on that,” Davis said.
Dunn said new buildings are part of the solution. He said the state’s packed and aging prisons put officers in difficult conditions, and leave inmates without the physical space needed for training programs that might help them re-enter society and prevent recidivism.
“I see it as a building block approach. This is kind of the foundational block that sets the stage so we can build on all those other good ideas,” Dunn said.