By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
In order to inflate the number of prisoners being housed in State-run prisons possibly to make a better case to build new prisons, Alabama Department of Corrections officials last year began moving dozens of prisoners being held in county facilities, several County Sheriffs said during a meeting Wednesday at the State House.
The Sheriffs – from Clarke, Clay, Sumter, Macon and Lowndes – said they had long-standing contracts with DOC to house prisoners, but last summer, as a new $800 million prison plan was being floated to lawmakers, DOC officers started showing up at their county jails and removing prisoners. Now, those sheriffs said they had more than 600 empty beds – with potentially thousands more in other counties – at a time when DOC officials are saying State prisons are at nearly 200 percent capacity.
“They didn’t give us a choice,” Clarke County Sheriff Ray Norris said. “They came in there and took up the prisoners we’d been housing for years – had a contract to house. They even took the guys we were housing for free. I asked them what they were doing and they said they needed our prisoners, and that was that.”
Norris made his comments in front of a group of lawmakers gathered Wednesday for an informal discussion on prison construction. The meeting was led by Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, who is pushing his own prison construction plan that incorporates ideas from the Sheriffs and other local officials.
When asked by lawmakers if they had similar experiences to Norris, the Sheriffs present agreed emphatically.
“We have a pretty new facility and a lot of open beds,” Sumter County Sheriff Brian Harris said.
Harris said his jail was built in 2003 and the county is still paying for its construction.
Lawmakers, including Reps. Ed Henry, Arnold Mooney, Mike Holmes and Morrow, expressed surprise at the Sheriffs’ stories of inmates being moved away despite protests from the sheriffs and by the number of inmates county facilities could now house.
“I don’t know why no one knows about this,” Henry said. “Y’all really need to get to the media and let them know, because everyone here is being sold a different story.”
Morrow also distributed a letter from a Pardons and Paroles official stating a new electronic monitoring program in the State could keep up with 500 prisoners initially at a cost of just $2.5 million. Over time, the number of prisoners monitored would likely increase and the costs would decrease from the startup year.
Utilizing that program, using a $50 million bond issue previously approved by the legislature to purchase a private facility in Perry County and taking advantage of the existing beds in county facilities could reduce the number of inmates in State prisons to under 14,000 by 2020, Morrow said.
“The question is why do we want to build three or four prisons when you’re going to have a bunch of empty beds?” Morrow said. “If you’ve paid attention to these prison debates, you know the problems are not enough corrections officers and mental health. The plans they’re pushing don’t do a thing to address either.
“I think if we listen to these Sheriffs and are smart about this, we could solve all of our prison problems and save a bunch of money doing it.”