By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Legislature convened at the State House Monday for the start of a special session to consider a plan to build three new prisons along with two sentencing reform bills.
The meeting is the latest attempt to fix the state’s crowded, crumbling and chaotic prison system that for decades has been the target of federal investigations, lawsuits, court orders and threatened takeovers.
The priority in the construction bill is two 4,000-bed men’s facilities in Elmore and Escambia counties. Lawmakers estimate their costs at between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion. The full plan, which is sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, includes a new women’s prison along with renovations of other men’s prisons in its second phase.
The bills will start in the House of Representatives. The construction bill will be considered by the General Fund budget committee and the reform bills will be considered in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The construction bill was not publicly available late Monday afternoon. However, legislative leaders said it was mostly in line with draft legislation that has been circulated and reported for the last two weeks.
Clouse said two significant changes in the final bill are requiring minority representation on the state’s prison repurposing commission and specifically naming the existing men’s prison in St. Clair County among the facilities that will be closed under the plan.
Where the new prisons will be built and their cost has not changed, Clouse said.
The plan’s two 4,000-bed men’s facilities would be funded primarily through bonds of up to $785 million and about $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Aside from the construction bill, two sentencing reform bills that make retroactive some sentencing and parole law changes approved in recent years are part of the package moving through the State House this week.
It will be at least Wednesday before the bills are sent to the Senate, but top leaders there were optimistic about the outlook.
“We’re going to get this done,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, who chairs the Senate General Fund Committee and has been involved in negotiations on the plan. “The need is there. There may be some arguing around the edges, but we’re going to get this done.”
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, was just as optimistic but added that construction was only a part of fixing the prison system’s many problems.
“In essence, I do support the package,” Singleton said, adding he hadn’t seen the final draft. “We have a lot to do. The couple of reform bills we have now, I don’t know if they go far enough. We have to do a lot more toward ending the revolving door in our prisons and offer programs, like drug courts, to help non-violent offenders.”
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, couldn’t say where most House Democrats stand on the package at the start of the session.
Daniels did say that his caucus would like to see a total reform of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles and its guidelines for considering people for parole or probation.
“We can’t relitigate cases,” Daniels said.
Lawmakers arriving in Montgomery for the rare fall meeting were greeted by a small group of protesters outside the State House.
Cookie Garner is a co-founder of Concerned Citizens of Alabama and said she believes more focus should be given to what can be done right now to ensure better treatment to those incarcerated, rather than focusing on building new facilities.
“The inmates are suffering,” Garner told ADN. “They aren’t getting medical care they need, they are living with black mold and so some of this money could go into cleaning the facilities now but instead they want to put it into building three new prisons.”
Garner is also concerned about the use of possibly $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan money going toward construction when instead she thinks its uses should include expanding Medicaid in the state.
Singleton and Albritton defended the use of federal money saying it falls in line with the broad parameters Congress wrote into the law.
“I don’t see it as COVID money,” Singleton said. “There was a formula inside the Rescue Plan that allows states to be able to calculate their losses.”
Albritton said that, as far as he knew, the Alabama Department of Corrections has not received official confirmation from the U.S. Department of Treasury approving the use of Rescue Plan funds for prisons.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said he wasn’t sure if passing the bills this week would appease the U.S. Department of Justice and its current lawsuit, but said it should show a good-faith effort by the state.
“This is not some one-time fix, it’s not a Band-Aid. We’re looking at a phased-in plan and I’m hoping the courts will see that and see something that they haven’t seen from us in a long time,” McCutcheon said.