Prison construction bills pass first vote in House committee

Prison construction bills pass first vote in House committee

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The prison construction package negotiated by Gov. Kay Ivey and top legislative leaders advanced in a House committee Tuesday setting it up for vote of the full House Wednesday.

Republicans on the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee expressed confidence in the plan, but some Democrats remain concerned over the cost and ultimate effectiveness of the new buildings.

Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, told ADN that he thinks the new facilities are necessary to reduce the violence and keep staff numbers up.

“The bill is a good start. It’s not the solution to all our problems and it’s going to take a lot of money, but one thing it may help us do is keep employees,” Greer said.

House Bill 4, which contains the multi-phase plan of building three new prisons and renovating others, passed on a voice vote with most Democrats voting no. That bill would allow the state to borrow up to $785 million to build two 4,000-bed men’s prisons in Escambia and Elmore counties. The bill also allows for a 1,000 bed women’s prison later, but does not provide specific funding for it.

House Bill 6 also passed on a voice vote and would give the Alabama Department of Corrections a supplemental appropriation of $135 million for renovations and improvements of existing facilities. The bill also issues a $19 million appropriation to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles for the purchase and renovation of the Perry County Correctional Facility.

The Perry County facility would eventually be used to house those who are serving technical violations of their parole.

House Bill 5 also passed on a voice vote and would allow the ADOC to use $400 million of the state’s appropriation from the American Rescue Plan Act for prison construction.

Committee chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, responded to a top Congressional Democrat calling on the U.S. Treasury Department to intervene and prevent Alabama from using the ARPA funds for prisons, saying he does not think it will be a problem.

“I think it was quite indicative of the fact that no one in our congressional delegation raised an issue about this,” Clouse said.

State Finance Director Bill Poole told Alabama Daily News the state is confident in using “lost revenue” funds from ARPA for prisons because the law allows it.

“The American Rescue Plan Act specifically provides a calculation for states to determine lost revenue due to COVID. Once that calculation is made, the state can use those funds for general government services. There are some restrictions and prohibitions under ARPA, but none are related to prisons so those aren’t applicable,” Poole said Tuesday.

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Hunstville, attempted to add an amendment to House Bill 4 that would allow for an additional bond issue of $225 to build a new women’s prison, but that proposal was set aside.

While the construction bill includes plans for replacing the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison with a new facility, it does not include a mechanism to pay for it and it would come in phase II of the plan, meaning it could be more than five years before construction starts. Some Democrats have been vocal in wanting the women’s prison to be given priority over the men’s since Tutwiler is the state’s oldest prison and has faced its own lawsuits in the past.

Part of the committee meeting included a public hearing in which speakers were invited to voice support or opposition to the plans. Most who spoke in favor of the prison construction plan citing the economic advantages for the areas where prisons would be located.

Elmore County Commission Chairman Troy Stubbs said his county has benefited greatly from the staffing and construction jobs from current prisons and looks forward to the construction of the new facility.

“We look at this project as something that is a win-win for the state of Alabama, for Elmore County and for the citizens of Alabama,” Stubbs said.

A key concern for those who spoke in opposition is that the building of the new facilities would not adequately address the core issues of corruption, violence and understaffing that are laid out in the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit.

Carla Crowder, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said while her organization is not against all new construction, their main concern is the bill’s lack of explanation for how the Elmore facility’s rehabilitation and education programs will be funded.

“This current plan, which relies on one-time federal COVID dollars to barely pull enough money together for buildings alone, provides no confidence that what is actually needed will be funded,” Crowder said.

Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, also voiced concerns saying that she has not heard enough from ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn about how he plans to improve internal services once the new buildings are built.

“If we don’t answer them before we pass this bill, we’ll be back here next year, digging and digging and digging and really funneling resources from other departments,” Warren said.

Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Mobile, said during the meeting he thinks too much importance has been given to how the prisons will grow local economies and not enough on things like reducing recidivism.

“What are we going to do to help make sure that the 80% don’t come back into these facilities because we already see that Pardons and Paroles is not letting them out,” Bracy said.

Clouse pushed back on the criticism during the meeting saying that the modern facilities would require fewer guards and provide proper surveillance of inmates because of new technology updates, which does address some concerns from Justice.

“I think it builds the foundation,” Clouse said. “Just like you build a house, you’ve got to build a foundation first. You don’t go build a roof first. This helps build the foundation for all these other issues that have been brought up. They are legitimate issues that need to be addressed but we need to build a foundation first.”

Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, agreed that more reform pieces are needed but said building the facilities will be a good jumping off point.

“We’ve got to get the environment, the bricks and mortar, correct to be able to do all the things that are outlined in the lawsuit,” Reynolds said.

Rep. K. L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, told ADN he is supportive of the construction plan because it can help with the ongoing problem of finding enough correction staff for prisons.

“I don’t know what the answer is but I think building these facilities and the electronic surveillance is going to have to be the answer because the human element is just not going to work,” Brown said.