By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
The Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections has a vision, one that will give meaningful work and hope for tomorrow to those inmates who truly want to improve their lot in life.
Commissioner Kim Thomas saw that vision come in to clearer focus this week with the passage of HB30 and SB63, these bills will allow the Department of Corrections to enter into agreements with private industry to establish work-oriented rehabilitation programs within Alabama’s state prisons. Having passed the House and Senate the bill now awaits the signature of Governor Robert Bentley to become law.
The bill was shepherded methodically through the Legislature by Rep. Dr. Jim McClendon (R-Springville). McClendon had worked last year to pass the bill only to watch it die in the senate. This year with the help of Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) the bill won the day. “One of the things this bill does is it gets prisoners on a work routine. They get used to going to work everyday,” said McClendon, “Another thing that happens is that gives the prisoners experience that they can use when they are seeking work once they get out.”
The bill met with fierce options by some who said that is was a return to chain-gangs and was just state sanctioned slavery.
Across 38 states these programs have been tremendously successful and beneficial to the inmate as well as the state.
“In this process we have deliberately taken a lot of time to talk with legislators, individually and in groups to educate them about this bill and listened very carefully to their [Legislators] concerns,” said Commissioner Thomas, “Many of those concerns are addressed in the bill itself and others will become evident over time with its implementation.
The bill will 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 and to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes.
“This will allow healing to take place for the victims as well as hopefully adding to the rehabilitation of the offender,” said Thomas, “This can be a part of paying their debt to society and beginning to start over for those who choose to do so.
The program must meet Federal guidelines in its inception and its application. Under those guideline no job within the prison can displace a civilian worker. The inmate must be paid the prevailing wage for that job in that area, ensuring that no corporation could take advantage of the inmate workforce.
“I want the Legislators and the people of Alabama to see that we have done this legitimately that is is an advantage in many ways,” said Thomas.
Adding, “Once we get the certification form the federal government we want to find a good company that is willing to come behind the wire and provide good jobs, with job training and the potential for job placement once they are released.”
Working in the program is totally voluntary and prison industry worker are under strict rules and oversight by the U. S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).
“An important keystone part of this bill is that participation in the program is totally voluntary. Those prisoners that wish to participate, if they qualify, will be allowed to do so. And those prisoners that do not wish to participate will not have to do so at all,” said McClendon.
Thomas points out that idleness is a real problem for those in prisons it not only can lead to bad behavior there is also a sense of hopelessness that prevails. “When people are locked away in prison they are isolated from pro-social behavior, this program is a way if a person truly wants to they can gain a great sense of self-reliance and hope,” said Thomas.
Thomas says that he and his staff will be looking at the programs that have been working in the other states to craft for Alabama the best program possible.
He believe that this opportunity works on many levels to offer an inmate skills, give them meaningful work while incarcerated and also a better chance once released from custody.
Around 90 percent of the current prison population will one day be released. According to Thomas, lack of jobs, or employment and an unsuitable home environment are two major causes that lead to reincarceration.
Thomas wanted to make it abundantly clear how much he and the ADOC staff appreciated the efforts of Rep. McClendon and Sen. Orr, he also spoke of the great help they received from the House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh. He wanted everyone to know how much Governor Bentley’s support has meant to the effort.
After the bill is signed into law the DOC will work on the process of certification by the United States Department of Justice.
According to the he Bureau of Justice Assistance (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.” Today, 38 states operate a work program like the one that Thomas plans for Alabama.