By Susan Britt and Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Although Alabama labor unions strongly opposed Senate Bill SB63, it passed out of the Public Hearing and Vote Wednesday with a 8-0 vote. However, while expressing support for the bill, some senators were not comfortable with all aspects and asked for further meetings with Jeff Williams, Department of Corrections, to clarify some of the points of the bill.
Chairman Ben Brooks said that he would not place the bill on the calendar until the senators had a chance to further speak with Williams.
Referring to the prison overcrowding problem in Alabama, Cam Ward (R) 14th District (Bibb, Chilton, Jefferson, Shelby) pointed out to the committee, “We need to do something now.” Alabama’s prison population is estimated at 198% capacity which could prompt the federal government to get involved.
Alabama HB 63 is a bill that would allow the Department of Corrections (DOC) to contract with private industry to bring jobs into Alabama prison facilities, enabling inmates to earn a wage as well as pay for some of the cost of their incarceration.
SB63 was sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R) 3rd District (Limestone, Madison, Morgan).
The bill is designed to reduce recidivism rate among newly released prisoners. “In other states that have implemented this type of program, we already have the data that shows the prisoners that use this opportunity are definitely less likely to return to prison,” said Dr. Jim McClendon (R) 50th District (St. Clair and Shelby).
The bill’s summary states, “Under existing law, the employment of prisoners within the Department of Corrections facilities by private industry is not authorized.
This bill would specifically authorize the Department of Corrections to contract or enter into agreements with private industry to establish work-oriented rehabilitation programs within facilities located on property owned or operated by the Department of Corrections or any prison facility housing inmates sentenced to the department.”
The bill would authorize the Department of Corrections to enter into contracts with private sector business. The program would be run on prison property and will not be treated as a work-release program.
Qualified prisoners will participate in the program voluntarily and earn wages. These wages then can be used to pay their restitution, send money to their families, pay for their cost of incarceration and what is left will be reserved for the prisoner to receive upon release.
In fact, prison industry worker are under strict rules and oversight by the U. S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).
According to the BJA, “Under the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) certifies that local or state prison industry programs meet all the necessary requirements to be exempt from federal restrictions on prisoner-made goods in interstate commerce. The program places inmates in realistic work environments, pays them prevailing wages, and gives them a chance to develop marketable skills that will increase their potential for rehabilitation and meaningful employment on release.”
Since federal regulation prohibits prisoners competing with the private sector for jobs, this is theorized not to interfere with the job market in Alabama. The programs are regularly reviewed and if found to be in competition will lose their certification.
Today, 37 states operate this type of work program. North Carolina has a program called Correction Enterprises and according to North Carolina policy, “No money is appropriated by the General Assembly (of North Carolina) for the operation of Correction Enterprises. This organization aids in the rehabilitation of inmates by teaching them job skills that are easily transferable to the private sector upon release.” The North Carolina model consists of 30 separate revenue producing operations located throughout the state and employs approximately 380 staff and 2100 inmate workers.
A similar bill is schedule in the House for this session, HB30 sponsored by Representative McClendon.
By Susan Britt and Bill Britt