By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
The prison construction bill the Alabama Legislature will consider in next week’s special session expressly closes five prisons in the state, but leaves the futures of others up to decision makers at a later date.
Men’s facilities Hamilton Aged and Infirmed Center, Staton, Elmore and Kilby and the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison would be closed under the bill in its current draft form.
The prison plan’s first phase includes two new 4,000-bed prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties and allows the state to borrow up to $785 million for their construction. Phase two includes a new women’s prison, though there’s no dedicated funding for that project in the bill. The Limestone prison and Donaldson in Jefferson County would be renovated or possibly rebuilt, as would either Ventress or Easterling in Barbour County or the Bullock County prison.
The bill does not mention the futures of four other sites — Bibb, Fountain, Holman and St. Clair. Holman houses the state’s death row inmates and execution facilities. Last year, ADOC announced it was moving most prisoners from the site after major failures in the electrical and sewer systems there. St. Clair has been one of the deadliest prisons in recent years.
Their future will be determined later, said Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, who will likely sponsor the bill in the Senate.
Albritton said the closure of some prisons may still be a sticking point in gathering support for the bill. He said his preference would have been not to list any prisons for closure in the bill.
Ventress, Bullock and Easterling prisons are all in Sen. Billy Beasley’s southeast Alabama district. In the past, he opposed proposals to close prisons that employ his constituents and were built decades ago when he said local communities recruited the prisons as economic development opportunities.
He said municipalities with prison systems have invested a lot of money in infrastructure to support them, including water systems.
“They have invested a lot of money to make sure they can provide the services to these facilities and I want the towns to be protected,” Beasley, D-Clayton, said.
He said he’ll bring an amendment to the bill so that municipalities aren’t financially hurt by closing prisons.
Meanwhile, Beasley said he wants Alabama prisons to be safer for inmates and staffers, but he’s not sure building two more than twice the size of what the state operates now is the way to do that.
“I just honestly believe that we don’t need to build mega prisons,” Beasley said Tuesday. More ADOC officers and safety upgrades would be his priority, he said.
The Hamilton facility, with about 76 inmates as of July, is in Sen. Larry Stutts’ district.
“There is going to be some debate over which prisons stay open and which get closed,” Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, said earlier this month.
He said the facility for the state’s oldest inmates and those with serious health conditions is a low risk to the community.
He called the draft bill a good start and said he thinks Marion County would be a great place for a possible third new men’s prison in phase three of the bill.
The third phase of construction under the bill includes an “evaluation of men’s prison facilities based on a current facilities assessment and inmate population trends to determine if additional facility beds need to be replaced.” It also includes the possible construction of a third men’s prison.
Albritton said the prisons not closed under the bill could be kept open or transferred to other entities, including county jails or community colleges.
“There are several options, the question is, what’s going to make the most sense in another six or eight years.”