By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey plans to call lawmakers to Montgomery for a special session on prison construction Sept. 27, she told them in a letter Friday.
“As I have stated before, this is our moment — this Legislature and this administration — to lead our state in a bipartisan manner to solve a problem that has plagued us for decades and that, if not properly addressed, will continue to set us back for decades to come,” Ivey wrote in the letter.
Only the governor can call a special session of the Alabama Legislature and she said the official call, with details of what can be addressed, will come next week.
Legislative leadership has been meeting with Ivey’s team and Alabama Department of Corrections’ officials since early summer to craft a draft bill that has been circulating among lawmakers this month. The latest plan allows the state to borrow up to $785 million and use several hundred million in federal COVID relief funds to build at least three new prisons and renovate others.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, has been a part of those summer meetings.
“There’s been a lot of hands in this pie, and there’s been a lot of people and a lot of interest, trying to find the path to get here,” Albritton, the Senate General Fund budget chairman, said.
“We’re able to address most of the issues — conditions, space, training — and we’re leaving this open for oversight and review. And we have the means. We found the money to make this work.”
The bill will start in the House, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, and if approved there will be carried by Albritton in the Senate.
Leadership has been counting votes this week and Albritton said the support is there in both chambers.
“But nothing is assured until the votes are taken,” he said.
Clouse told Alabama Daily News that, as of Friday, he was confident he had the votes to pass the bill in the House.
“Things can change and arguments always come up, but at the end of the day we need to come out of the session with a solution to this issue because time is of the essence,” Clouse said.
Alabama’s crowded and crumbling prisons have been a problem for decades and federal pressure for action from the state has reached a point that most lawmakers acknowledge they must do something. Several leaders involved in recent conversations say the Legislature is now as close as it’s ever been to a consensus on the issue.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he thinks the bill is “on the right track” but he still has some areas he thinks need further debate and possible amendments. Those include making sure the bid process for work on the large prisons is open and includes minority companies.
He also said drug treatment and mental health care, as well as reentry programs, need to be a priority outlined in the bill.
“We have to have a comprehensive approach, not just bricks and mortar,” he said.
Advocates for new prisons have said updated, more secure facilities will allow for more education and treatment of inmates.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said the draft proposal is a fiscally conservative one.
“The stakes are high – without taking action on this issue, the federal government could take control of our prison system at a high cost to Alabama taxpayers, and could even result in the forced release of prisoners,” Reed said in a written statement. “It’s time to finally resolve this issue for the people of Alabama.”
The draft circulated last weeks calls for a multi-phase plan that includes:
- Phase I: Two new 4,000-bed men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties;
- Phase II: A new 1,000 bed women’s prison in Elmore County and renovations or demolition and reconstruction to existing prisons in Jefferson and Limestone counties and either Barbour or Bullock counties;
- Phase III: When Phase II is mostly complete, the Alabama Department of Corrections will perform “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.”
The bill also allows for the purchase or rental of the Perry County Correctional Facility. The privately owned prison is currently empty.
The bill would authorize the state to borrow up to $785 million. The annual debt service on the bond would be about $50 million, according to a summary document obtained by ADN.
Special sessions are limited to 12 legislative meeting days spread over up to 30 calendar days. While Ivey selects the priority bills, lawmakers are free to introduce legislation of their own but it requires a two-thirds majority for passage.
Daily News Reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this story.