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July 8, 2014

Solving prison issue will likely mean new facilities, inmate releases

The next legislative session is likely to determine whether Alabama solves its prison overcrowding issue or faces federal government intervention.

With the state’s widely outdated prisons housing inmates at nearly 190 percent of capacity, Gov. Robert Bentley has appointed a task force to report back with a broad range of recommendations to solve the problem. State Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, said the task force needs to have its plans ready for the start of the new legislative session in March.

“We’ll have to see what the task force comes back with, but we will need something that includes a work release program under a controlled environment,” Bussman said. “I think you will also see the need for a building program. Even with a release program the state doesn’t have enough room to house the inmates that need to remain incarcerated.”

Compounding the financial strain on the state Department of Corrections is a whopping overtime bill, which in 2013 came in at $20.8 million, according to a report Monday published by Associated Press. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Jefferson County, received just over 10 percent of the overtime pay at $2.9 million.

Associated Press reported that Donaldson, which has many repeat offenders, typically has the most overtime of any prison in the state.

Bussman said the state is losing many corrections officers through retirement or jobs at police departments.

“It’s a tough environment for the guards. One guard may be watching over 100 to 150 inmates at one time. We need to do more to protect them, and that’s what could happen with new facilities that could incorporate better technology in their roles,” Bussman said.

Alabama’s prison growth coincides with a legislative push dating back to the 1980s to toughen sentences on those convicted of crimes. As a result many non-violent offenders are sitting in prisons under habitual offender laws.

While the political officeholders were pushing for more incarceration, spending at the state level to accommodate the increased population did not keep pace.

“In other states, they saw the need to build prisons and we didn’t here. I don’t know what the price will be but it looks a combination of recommendations are needed to solve the problem,” Bussman said. “We may be better off tearing down some prisons and building new ones in the same locations to avoid all the problems that come when you try to find land for a new prison.”

California ran afoul of the federal government several years ago and was forced to release some 30,000 inmates. State officials want to avoid a similar situation, but the pricetag could be steep. The prison system is financed by the General Fund, which literally has no revenue growth because of Alabama’s tax structure. Medicaid programs gobble up the majority of the General Fund, followed by corrections and judicial services in the state.

“The task force will likely have to propose a bond issue to fund a lot of what is needed. But whatever proposals they come back with need to be done with some smarts. Even if you begin to release inmates, you don’t want to just set them free without some type of effective monitoring system,” Bussman said. “I don’t think the feds will make any kind of move until they see what the task force brings to the table and how the Legislature reacts to it.”

The state spends around $437 million per year on the corrections system. The correctional facilities were designed to hold roughly 14,000 inmates and that number has nearly doubled for actual incarcerations.

David Palmer may be contacted at 256-734-2131, ext. 116, or dpalmer@cullmantimes.com.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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