By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, February 23, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley held a press conference in Montgomery proposing replacing sixteen of the state’s existing prisons with four brand new massively large prisons. The Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act (Senate Bill 287) sponsored by Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee Chairman Senator Trip Pittman (R-Montrose). The bill was also introduced in the State House of Representatives as House Bill 314 by House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark).
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) said, “We have made significant progress over the last year to improve our criminal justice system, and with the construction of four new and modern prisons, Alabama is poised to be a national leader in safe and effective incarceration of inmates. We cannot move our state forward without addressing the issues that have plagued the prison system for decades. We have a good plan to address the issues and with the partnership of the Alabama Legislature, we can solve the issues and make the Department of Corrections more efficient.”
Rep. Steve Clouse said in a statement, “This prison transformation legislation is yet another example of our commitment to continued efficiency in state government. It will not only save taxpayer dollars, but it also addresses important issues plaguing our prison system. This bold reform measure reinforces our commitment to addressing this matter once and for all.”
Sen. Trip Pittman said, “This initiative represents a way to remedy some of the long standing issues with Alabama’s prisons. We have before us an opportunity to better serve the citizens of Alabama by operating our prison facilities with a higher level of efficiency through consolidation and increased capacity.”
Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said, “The Prison Transformation Initiative Act creates a new approach to Corrections in Alabama. By using modern, state-of-the-art design, the new, more efficient, correctional facilities will improve the security and safety of staff and inmates and provide increased capability to offer rehabilitation and re-entry services aimed at reducing recidivism.”
On Tuesday, February 16, Commissioner Dunn told the Alabama Prison Committee that the massive $800 billion cost of the project would be bid out to just one contractor who will be responsible for building all four of the prisons, three for men and one for women. The $800 million project would be paid for with an $800 million bond issue that the people of Alabama will have to pay $50 million a year for over the next thirty years. Dunn declined to say where the four new prisons will be located. Dunn said only that there will be one men’s prison in North Alabama, one in central Alabama, and one in South Alabama.
The embattled Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) joined Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and Governor Bentley at the announcement.
On Wednesday, March 2, the House Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing on HB314.
Proponents argue that the state’s current prison facilities were built decades ago and that it would be cheaper in the long run. They argue that no additional funding will be needed to pay to service the massive debts due to savings created by moving at least 3,500 prisoners into the new facilities.
According to original reporting by WSFA TV’s Michael Doudna, Clouse said, “When you go from 16 prisons down to four you save a tremendous amount of money.”
Clouse claimed that the savings to pay for the payment on the $800 billion in new debt would come from three areas: $20 million less in overtime, $10 million in reduced medical expenses and $17 million through staff reduction.
Critics scoff at the claims that the savings would be anywhere near that great and claim that taxpayers will be burdened with the massive debts for decades to come, likely leading to higher taxes to support the State’s long troubled General Fund (SGF).
House Minority Leader, State Representative Craig Ford wrote, “But how can the governor – or any legislators, for that matter – justify spending almost a billion dollars on new accommodations for prisoners while thousands of our children are going to school in run-down facilities that have broken windows and no air conditioning?”
Rep. Ford said, “Instead of building ‘super prisons’ like what the governor is talking about, how about we build ‘super schools’ instead? Why is the governor willing to invest hundreds-of-millions of dollars in our prison population’s future, but wants to cut hundreds-of-millions from our children’s future?”
Some critics have suggested that it would be far more affordable for the state to repair the existing prisons using convict labor rather than bidding out the construction of new facilities to a general contractor.
The Construction of the three regional men’s facilities and one female facility would begin in the fall of 2017 and is expected to be completed within three years.
Lawmakers did not vote on HB314 on Wednesday.
The Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee will hold a public hearing on the controversial SB287 on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. in room 727.