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Prisons Math Doesn’t Added Up

Henry Mabry

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By Dr. Henry Mabry

More questions remain concerning the $800 million prison bond issue. Under the plan, all but two prisons are to be shuttered, four new prisons will replace all of those being closed, and the huge overcrowding problem is supposed to be eliminated.

The only problem with this assertion is that overcrowding will remain after throwing $800 million at the prison system. There are over 20,000 maximum and medium security inmates plus another couple of thousand waiting in the wings at the jails, etc., to come into the system. The new $800 million plan calls for building 13,000 replacement beds. Where will the other 7,000 maximum and medium security prisoners be located? Where will the state-custody inmates being temporarily housed in county jails go? Where will the growth in inmate population go?

If only two prisons will remain open, then the existing two prisons could house only between 1,200 and 2,000 inmates each based upon capacity levels, and such levels are at overcapacity, too. Leaving only two existing prisons open would still mean overcapacity of at least 5,000 prisoners regardless of how the new plan is implemented. Corrections says the new plan, along with sentencing reforms, would reduce overcapacity from 180 percent down to 125 percent over a five year period. Why would not three or four additional prisons remain open to address at least the assumed overcapacity? The answer is probably that doing so would not meet the “savings” amounts assumed under the plan. Keeping three or four additional prisons operating would mean an additional cost of probably $50 million or more and this would, of course, negate the presumed savings to finance the plan.

So, in essence, the prison plan along with sentencing reform only addresses part of the prison overcrowding issue. In order to eliminate the overcrowding it would likely cost $50 million per year, in addition to any savings not realized under the prison proposal.

The prison plan is really not a plan, per se. The prison plan is only a mechanism to address some of the problem during one snapshot in time. It calls for replacing existing beds for maximum and medium security inmates but it somehow does not address over a third of the subject population, population growth, and existing system inadequacies.

Gov. Robert Bentley’s premise has been that the state can operate with less if it shelves all of these antiquated and inefficient prisons. Prison poster children include Tutwiler and Holman, two of the scariest places that would be perfect for Stephen King to use as a backdrop. Holman is known by some as “The Slaughterhouse,” and Tutwiler has been infamous for as long as anyone can remember. Not all Alabama’s prisons are as relatively draconian or eerie. Half of the so-called antiquated prisons were built in the 1980s and 1990s–Bibb, Easterling, Ventress, Elmore, Donaldson, Bullock, Limestone, and St. Clair. These places are no Grand Hotel at Pt. Clear by any means, but these facilities are not exactly Shawshank Redemption era built either. These newer prisons house 62% of the medium or maximum population. Guess how many prisoners are housed in the newer prisons? Coincidentally, that number is 13,000, which is roughly the same number as the number of new beds the governor wants to build. Tutwiler and Holman, by the way, have a capacity of roughly 2,000 between them.

The newer prisons do have issues. This is going to be the case when the state only spends $3 million a year on building maintenance and less than a million a year on capital projects. But, the fact of the matter is that selling the plan has been based upon closing all of these antiquated facilities as if they were built when Thomas Kilby and Bibb Graves served as governor. But, the fact is that most of Alabama’s major prison facilities were built during Gov. George Wallace’s last term, under Gov. Guy Hunt, and under Gov. Fob James’ second term. Only 7,000 beds were pre-1982 built. If newer prisons are having to be replaced because of the lack of facility upkeep over the years, then where is the part of the new plan to address deferred maintenance in the future for the new prisons to be built? Depending upon the presumed new prison lifespans this means an additional $16 million to $24 million per year can be expected to be needed to address maintenance. This is likely no part of any plan, and it would be disingenuous to suggest preparing for such new maintenance costs because the prisons need more officers first before extras like deferred maintenance should be considered. This, though, being said, the fact is that the state will be back in time to pass another bond issue that will cost the state billions of dollars because maintenance issues have not been addressed–Alabama and its viscous cycle.

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Apparently, the prison bond issue bill is going to pass. The governor promises cost savings will pay for the project. The governor also promised no new taxes. Besides the plan’s proposed cost savings element there remain other issues of consideration, and cost savings needs revisiting as well.

What forethought has been given to existing prison locations for the new prisons? As is, existing prisons have thousands of acres of land. This land is already available and does not have to be purchased which is a another potential cost savings. Local governments have already built infrastructure to meet the needs of the existing prisons. As mentioned previously, local governments have an interest in keeping prisons open or recruiting the new prison sites to their areas. Existing prison communities should have the upper hand in being able to enhance infrastructure investment rather than new communities having to start from scratch.

Mayor Rebecca Beasley of Clayton made a good point in her Alabama Political Reporter article regarding local investment and the existing prisons. Local governments across Alabama have pumped tens of millions of dollars into local infrastructure for the existing prisons for sewer treatment and water, plus other issues like police protection, fire protection, schools and roads. In areas where prisons are the biggest industries, what will those communities do if their largest industry is closed by gubernatorial mandate? Will local communities be made whole for keeping up and modernizing infrastructure that supports the prisons? For communities with 30 year old prisons, those communities have most likely had to make improvements or rebuild water and treatment facilities to continue service. Such communities may have just made further investment during the past five years to support prison infrastructure needs for the next 20 years. Will the state help communities with this sunk cost or will communities face closure alone?

Further, the existing prison communities already have corrections staff living in those communities. Will relocating prisons mean existing prison employees will have to uproot their families to get the same jobs in new communities? Will not eliminating overtime be a disincentive for many officers faced with moving for a 20 percent paycut? Has the state taken into consideration relocation costs or are state employees going to have to eat such costs on their own?

Currently, there are three areas in the state of one or two counties in size that each house three or more prisons. These include Elmore/Montgomery Counties, Escambia County, and Bullock/Barbour Counties. If the state is going to build “megaprisons,” then would it not make sense for the new facilities, at least in part, be located in those areas already having large Corrections employee populations? At least in the Correction Department’s updated plan it says that new prisons will be located in north, central, and south Alabama in proximity to existing prisons because of this issue.

With only three proposed male “mega prisons,” and one of these being slated for north Alabama, one of the three existing current prison hotspots will be left without a chair when the music stops. One area will be the big loser–will it be Elmore/Montgomery, Bullock/Barbour, or Escambia? Those communities probably want to know. Maybe the consolation prize for one of these areas would be leaving one or two facilities open. If the concern, though, is replacing antiquated prisons, then this might leave Escambia, home of “House of Pain” Holman, and Elmore Counties behind the eight ball.

So, in “northern Alabama” will the new prison be in Limestone, Jefferson, or St. Clair County? In central Alabama, will the new prison be in Elmore or Bibb County? In south Alabama, will the megaprison be in Escambia County, Bullock, or Barbour County? Will the new Tutwiler be in Elmore? What two facilities will remain in existence? Will it be assumably Americans with Disabilities Act compliant Bibb? What about the other newest of the new Ventress, Limestone, Bullock, or Easterling?

The new prison plan claims $21 million in annual overtime savings, $17 million of which is wages. This means that ten to 20 percent of Corrections officer pay will go away which may mean Corrections officers leaving state service in pursuit of other employment. Attrition cost savings for 350 personnel is estimated to be another $17.5 million. If the overtime and attrition estimates are correct, then almost a fifth of personnel costs of the entire system is estimated by Corrections to be saved by building new prisons. Already, Corrections says it is understaffed by 2,000 employees. Corrections says under the plan that no employees will lose their jobs. Is it realistic to think with an existing personnel shortage of 35% that the new prison plan will save over 18% of existing prison wages? Is it realistic to think that one of every four non-security prison employees will disappear because of consolidation?

The $800 million prison plan assumes annual savings of $50 million, and almost $40 million of this supposed savings comes from reducing personnel costs in an already understaffed and underfunded system. Savings may be realized to pay for financing the new bond issuance; however, numerous questions still remain. If the savings do not occur after the new prisons become operational and unspoken needs arise, then more appropriations will be needed sooner rather than later, and that sooner may be in as little as three years from now.

Likewise, the new prison plan has been hailed as the way to fix prison overcrowding along with other reforms. Unfortunately, as admitted by Corrections, the $800 million plan plus letting prisoners go will still result in having an overcapacity prison system. Addressing overcrowding would increase the state’s bill by $50 million a year, so it appears that overcrowding is here to stay regardless of whether the $800 million bond issue passes or not.

 

Dr. Henry C. Mabry served as State Finance Director from 1999-2003. He currently heads Mabry & Co., and can be reached at [email protected]

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Racism: Victims on both sides

Jim Allen

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I’ve just seen this Anniston Star photo of the June 3rd George Floyd “protest” march in Heflin. As you can see, a very mixed crowd, black and white, young and old, all peaceful. But serious. What especially got my attention was that sign a lead marcher is holding, the big print saying “Stop Hate, Teach Love.” And the fine print from Nelson Mandela explaining: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin . . .”

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Would this apply to Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis policemen who killed George Floyd? The man’s very name suggests he was somehow “to the manner (if not the manor) born.”

“Chauvin” is a French family name. We get the term “chauvinism” from Nicolas Chauvin, a French army officer of the new Republic and later under Napoleon who was notorious for his excessive, extreme patriotism, and portrayed as such in popular drama of the time. So our English term “chauvinism” means “irrational and extreme belief in the superiority or dominance of one’s own cause, group, race, sex, nation etc.” It’s used most often in academic writing, in plain language “Us vs Them-ism,” seeing the ”them” as enemies. As in violent racism.

So, was Derek Chauvin born a violent racist?

I don’t think so. I’ve searched the internet for photos of him as an infant or young child, looking for clues to his childhood development, hoping to see if he looked happy, or angry, or sad. I didn’t find any photos at all.

But I persist in believing that human infants are born with various kinds of potential. But with a bias toward “playing well with others,” since ours is after all a gregarious species. So a child who grows up wanting to hurt or kill others must have come under the influence of – or perhaps we could say was infected by the virus of – something like chauvinism. In an important sense, then, another victim.

Not that it’s wrong to be very angry about what Derek Chauvin did, not that he shouldn’t be prosecuted and punished under the law. But as we mourn the death of George Floyd, let’s also grieve for the child Derek who was taught hate instead of love, that hurting child who may still be hiding inside this man.

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The sign says “Teach love.” I’m afraid the hardest part is learning love, shaking off that viral Us vs Them disposition to see enemies everywhere. I like what contemporary Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh declares: “No person is the enemy.” But didn’t we get the same advice two thousand years ago from Jesus? – “Love your neighbor – no exceptions!

We are all in this together.

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Opinion | COVID-19 has changed our state’s industry and workforce landscape, our goal remains the same

Tim McCartney

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The human toll of COVID-19 is unprecedented in Alabama, and businesses of all sizes have taken a shellacking due to the pandemic. As such, our tactical focus for workforce development has transitioned from filling positions in the tight labor market we enjoyed in February to pandemic response, incumbent worker training and dislocated worker training today. The future of work has accelerated ten years in three months.

The Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) is working with the Ivey Administration and partners across the state to share best practices, key facts and resources for employers, employees and those who have been recently unemployed.

While the immediate focus of our efforts has transitioned to workforce recovery and response efforts to COVID-19 through our work with informational webinars, workforce recovery surveys, and resources for businesses (all available online), the AWC and AlabamaWorks remain steadfastly committed to the Governor’s attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly-skilled workers to Alabama’s economy by 2025. Notably, in these uncertain times, this goal has not changed.

Creating a highly-skilled workforce and resilient economy, even one that will be recovering for the foreseeable future, is necessary for Alabama’s economic vitality. For those who have become unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19, reskilling or upskilling now can lead to sustainable in-demand career pathways that produce measurable benefits in the future.

Success Plus, the formal name for the Governor’s postsecondary education attainment goal, outlines the need to add an additional 500,000 Alabamians prepared for in-demand, high-wage careers to the workforce by obtaining credentials, certificates or degrees in addition to a high school diploma by 2025. Moremust be done to create stackable pathways that allow individuals to earn credentials through career-specific education and shorter-term programs that prepare them for immediate employment and future advancement.

To this end, Alabama has established a quality-assurance process for credentials through the Alabama Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways (ACCCP). The ACCCP is tasked with identifying in-demand occupations in Alabama, developing competency models and career pathways for each of the in-demand occupations, and identifying related credentials of value associated with each of the in-demand occupations.

Additionally, on June 8the Alabama Workforce Council will launch the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies,which will survey employers in each sector and region of the state to assist the ACCCP with identifying these in-demand occupations as well as the related competencies and credentials of value aligned to those occupations.

The survey will be conducted between June 8 and June 15, 2020 and, going forward, the survey will be conducted annually to assist the ACCCP’s 16 Technical Advisory Committees (TACs) with their work oflinking credentials of value to one or more specific competencies needed for a job. Ultimately, this will allow employers to create competency-based job descriptions that list the specific skills required for a job, rather than using associate or bachelor’s degrees as placeholders. Therefore, it is vital that employers of all sizes, and from each industry sector, provide responses to the survey. The TACs will receive the results of the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies at the June 17, 2020 ACCCP meeting.

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It is clear that much work remains to be done. COVID-19 adds challenges to our ultimate goal, but the Alabama Workforce Council and AlabamaWorks knows that – regardless of the pandemic – clearly identifying in-demand jobs, with their related skills, and facilitating more opportunities for high-skill, high-wage careers is now more important than ever.

To learn more about the Alabama Workforce Council’s response to COVID-19 and to learn more about Governor Ivey’s vision for creating 500,000 highly skilled workers by 2025, visit www.alabamaworks.com.


Tim McCartney, formerly of McCartney Construction in Gadsden, is the chairman of the Alabama Workforce Council.

 

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Opinion | It’s past time to turn the page on racism, racial violence in America

Anthony Daniels

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On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent National Guard troops to accompany the first black students admitted to the University of Alabama.

In an address to the nation, he said, “It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

Sixty years later, that task is still at hand. The job is still far from done. And more and more often, it even seems like we’re losing ground. It has sure seemed that way this week and, indeed, over the last few months.

We’ve been through this before.

Ahmaud Arbery is not the first African American to be ambushed and murdered by men claiming to be protecting their neighborhood, simply because he seemed out of place. And it’s not the first case of such a murder being swept under the rug.

Breonna Taylor is not the first African American to be killed in their own home by police searching for a suspect who wasn’t there.

Christian Cooper is not the first African American to have the cops capriciously called on him and be falsely accused of menacing a white woman.

And the latest tragic miscarriage of justice, George Floyd is not the first African American to be brutally assaulted and killed at the hands of police officers. And his violent death is not the first to be videotaped and broadcast across the internet, social media, and television. The question is: how do we make it the last? How do we ensure his death and our anger isn’t in vain?

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For too many of us, institutional racism is a fact of daily life. And when the system begins to crack and crumble under the strain of decades of injustice and inequality, only then do we say ‘enough is enough.’ Only then do we go through the same cycle we’re going through right now. Anger is warranted, but it’s not enough to get enraged, despondent, frustrated, and mad. It’s not enough to protest. It’s not enough to lash out. And it will never be enough until we begin to act to change the underlying and lingering conditions that make racism a reality – that makes it part of the American experience.

If you think the system is already working fairly for all people, I ask: by whose standards? Not mine. Our laws, our leaders, and our system of government were never intended to be stagnant.

If you find it acceptable to try to turn victims into suspects, looking for any way possible to justify ruthless behavior, I ask: for every instance of injustice recorded, how many more have gone unreported? The answer is too many to count. What accusations would have been dug up and leveled then? We will never know. After all, it’s much easier to defame someone who’s not alive to defend themselves.

Of course, we won’t all agree on the best course of action, but I hope we can all agree that the status quo cannot continue and that action is required. That’s all the more reason we need to start talking. And to those who don’t want to have this conversation, who may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, let’s not give them a choice. Let’s make it an issue. Let’s prioritize recognizing right and reality instead of inviting shame and violence. Let’s start today and not stop until we succeed.

We simply cannot allow this to be another situation where we shout, we scream, we cry, and then we clean up and move on to only do it all over again down the road. What will this week’s protests lead to next week or next month or next year? Starting now, we must have this conversation at every ballot box at every election – municipal, state, congressional, and so on. If you want your voice heard, presidential cycles are fine, but real, actionable change begins at the local level. Mayors and city councils appoint police chiefs. We elect District Attorneys, Sheriffs, Legislators, Judges, and Coroners. State Representatives and Senators make laws but law enforcement applies them. We all have a role to play in righting the wrongs by revisiting outdated and close-minded policies that continue to plague communities across our state and replacing them with a new vision.

Similarly, when I look at my young son, I wonder how I’m going to have the conversation with him. What am I going to say during “the talk” that black parents have, for generations now, had to have with their children? And how am I going to say it? How am I going to teach my son to protect himself? What are you telling your children?

In Alabama, we must come to terms with our legacy of racism and commit to eradicating injustice or we will never escape this cycle. As a policymaker and leader in this state, I cannot tell my son or anyone that we’ve fully turned the page on our dark and violent past. But I can tell you what needs to be done. Change starts with commitment. Individuals must resolve to break this cycle and then influence their own neighborhoods and communities to do better. It continues with conversations among people of diverse backgrounds, seeking to understand each other and treat each other with equality, decency, and dignity as human beings. It becomes reality when together we take our values to the ballot box and hold our leaders accountable to enact policies that ensure justice for all.

I invite and I welcome all Alabamians to join me in the task as an obligation to each other and to ourselves. Together, let’s continue this work. And at the very least, let’s each reflect on the words of President Kennedy so many years ago, “We are confronted primarily with a moral

issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution . . . I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.”

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | To close the homework gap in our schools, let’s close the partisan divide in Washington

Matt Akin

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As Alabama shut down its schools on March 16thand moved classes online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was saddened but not surprised when many Gulf Shores students told me they didn’t have broadband at home needed for their coursework.

Having headed school systems in Piedmont, Huntsville and now in Gulf Shores’ first year as an independent district, I am passionate about closing the digital divide. At Gulf Shores, I gave 6ththrough 12th graders computers to take home early in this school year. Kindergarteners through fifth graders had assigned devices at school.  As we shuttered the schools, we ordered 100 mobile hotspots for our students to access the Internet.

But schools can’t – and shouldn’t have to – close opportunity gaps all by themselves. The crisis that has closed our schools has created a rare opportunity for national leaders to close the digital divide and homework gap through the next economic stimulus. 

With schools closed, the digital divide looks more like a socioeconomic chasm. More than a quarter of Alabama’s population are not online at home. As a math teacher by training, I believe in using data to analyze problems like the digital divide, which comprises two challenges – adoption and availability.

Adoption is the greater problem – about 25 percentof American households with broadband access in their neighborhood haven’t even subscribed to it. The major barriers to adoption appear to be households not having basic computer hardware, digital literacy or an understanding of the internet’s importance to their lives.

But, while 95 percent of Americans have access to high-speed fixed broadband, about 22 percent of rural households don’t. And, because of problems with  availability and adoption, over 30 percent of African American and Latino youngsters didn’t have home internet and nearly half don’t have a laptop or computer at home.

For the sake of our students and their families, we need all hands-on-deck – educators, broadband providers, computer companies and tech leaders – to address the challenge.

With broadband deployment, we need a process driven by public spiritedness, not political patronage. The best companies and technologies should compete to serve every community from isolated rural areas to the inner cities.

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Let’s learn from the 2009 stimulus: Legislators and lobbyists funneled funds to favored companies and technologies. The results of that anticompetitive practice?  Just what one would think:  Duplicative networks in areas where broadband was already available, with billions of dollars squandered, while many communities remained without service.

I’m skeptical of one-size-fits-all solutions. Wireless hotspots can close homework gaps in some communities. But elsewhere, wired connectionsmay be more cost effective and less expensive with faster download speeds for e-learning.

And we also need to regulate broadband intelligently. This crisis is a teaching moment.  U.S. broadband has risen to the challenge of a 34 percentsurge in internet demand during COVID-19.   But, in Europe, over-regulated networks are slowing down.

Why? While Europe regulated broadband as a utility, and investment suffered, the U.S. opted for a “light touch” approach that encouraged nearly $2 trillion in private investment. Our wise policy choices built robust networks that we can rely upon in these difficult times—and to rebuild our economy for better times.

To achieve what’s needed, Congress needs a bipartisan compromise, including an end to anti-competitive practices that exclude qualified providers and technologies—and an effort by broadband and computer equipment companies to help attack the divide. 

We have a job to do, and no time to waste.

Alabama’s Senators – Doug Jones and Richard Shelby – are well-prepared to reach across the aisle to form bipartisan consensus.  Broadband providers are providing free and discounted broadband to low income homes. But everyone needs to step up.

I wish Congress could have watched our students in the Piedmont schools after we provided them with computers and connectivity. Many mastered subjects such as advanced algebra they had previously struggled with because they couldn’t do homework online.

When our leaders in Washington bridge their partisan divide, communities across Alabama and America will bridge their digital divides. And many more students will bridge the gap between their performance and their potential.

Dr. Matt Akin is the Superintendent of Schools in Gulf Shores, Alabama, having held similar positions in Huntsville and Piedmont.

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