By Minority Rep. Leader Craig Ford
This week, the state House of Representatives will be taking up the massive prison bond legislation that Gov. Bentley and state leaders have made the centerpiece of their legislative agenda.
There’s no doubt our prison system has serious problems and, in cases like Tutwiler women’s prison, some are so old and in such bad shape that they do need to be rebuilt.
But the prison bill that Gov. Bentley has proposed is not the solution. His bill, which will cost the taxpayers at least $800 million in bonds (and likely closer to $1.5 billion), is little more than throwing money at a problem, and doesn’t address the real issues we have in our prison system.
In the end, the new prisons will still be run by the same wardens, staffed by the same officers who are underpaid and overworked, and will house the same prisoners.
Riots, abuse, corruption and harassment in our prisons will not be solved by new facilities. This argument has been made by the director of the Equal Justice Initiative and even by an inmate in a letter that was printed on al.com last week.
The real problem with our prisons is that we aren’t doing enough rehabilitation. Our recidivism rate (meaning prisoners who get out and then commit more crimes, landing them back in prison) is high because we don’t have adequate post-release supervision. Too many inmates leave prison only to go back to the life they were living before.
Aside from recidivism, we have an overcrowding problem because we imprison so many non-violent, low-level drug and property offenders. These are people who should be paying fines and doing community service instead of going to prison. All we are doing by sending them to prison is adding to the taxpayer’s burden and exposing these inmates to an experience that turns them into harder criminals when they get out.
None of these issues will be solved by building new facilities and putting the taxpayers in debt by at least another $800 million.
Those who support the bond deal say it will save the state money overall. But even if we reduce the staff and save on paychecks and some healthcare costs, I doubt it will save the state the minimum $800 million it will cost to build these new facilities—and that’s assuming this project will be done for the price it was quoted. In my experience, no government project ever gets done for the original price we get quoted.
And what about all the debt we already have?
Our state government is already in debt by about $582 million to the Alabama Trust Fund, and owes another $114 million to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for overpayments and adjustments. If we are already nearly $700 million in debt, why in the world would we add another $800 million on to it?
The $800 million alone would put the taxpayers on the hook for about $50 million a year just for debt payment! Last year, Gov. Bentley was so concerned about the state’s debt he tried to raise $541 million in new taxes. Now he wants to add another $800 million on to that debt?
To me, there’s something not right about this situation. This seems like the kind of bill that someone goes to prison over; the kind of bill that is loaded with kickbacks designed to line the pockets of elected officials.
Gov. Bentley wants to use a process called “design-build” where the whole project is awarded to only one company that gets a no-bid contract, meaning there’s no competition for the contract. The state would have no say over who gets the subcontracts, and the taxpayers would be on the hook for a situation that could easily succumb to waste, fraud, abuse and corruption.
This process should be transparent! Why not make sure every contract and subcontract is a matter of public record so the taxpayers can know where their money is going? And why not allow businesses to bid for the contracts instead of one company that happens to have the right connections getting everything?
There’s no doubt something needs to be done about our prisons, but this bond deal isn’t the answer. It doesn’t solve our problems in the prison system, and leaves too much room for fraud, waste, abuse and corruption. Why add another $800 million to $1.5 billion to our state debt? Our prison problem won’t be solved by throwing money at it.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.