By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
In an Op-Ed at al.com, Gov. Robert Bentley signaled, that he may call a Special Session to try, once again, to pass an $800 million prison construction project. Bentley said, the massive spending project failed because, “We simply ran out of time in this Regular Legislative Session to finally address Alabama’s prison overcrowding problem.” He also wrote, “That legislation failed in the final minutes of this session. But that doesn’t mean we won’t reach that goal.”
What he fails to mention is, there are no blueprints for the prisons, there has not been a single study to support the cost, and no impact studies done, to explain how closing existing prisons will affect the communities in which they are located.
Another troubling issue is how the $800 million would be paid back.
Gov. Bentley, and the Department of Corrections Commissioner (DOC) Jeff Dunn, said the massive bond would be paid back using efficiency savings. However, neither man has offered a study, much less, an itemized list of savings. Like everything else with this project, they expect the Legislature to just trust them.
The Department of Corrections’ annual report for the fiscal year 2014—which is the latest one available—shows personnel costs were $175,059,592,and employee benefits costs were $68,197,330 combined, they represent about half of the total expenditures at DOC. Add to that, the $115,868,912 for Medical and other professional services, and it is difficult to see where the department saves $50 million a year to pay off the $800 million.
According to the DOC report the direct cost to maintain the inmates, population in 2014 was 65 percent of the total budget. “Direct costs are those associated with a facility or program—this includes personnel costs, inmate food and clothing, supplies, utilities, repairs and vehicle operating costs.”
Bentley also talks about how Dunn’s “vision for solving Alabama’s lingering, dangerous and expensive prison overcrowding problem,” could be solved by building these new prisons.
Bentley wants us to believe that giving him an $800 million credit card will solve prison overcrowding. But as it has been reported on these pages before, “The 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 these State-custody inmates, being temporarily housed in county jails, go? Where will the growth in inmate population go?”
This can be added to the long list of questionable answers to serious questions.
In his opinion piece, Bentley, not only quotes scripture, but reminds us that God has chosen him. The last time I checked, God didn’t vote in the last election, and Obama was not on the ballot.
A man who is under investigation for using State resources to facilitate an alleged affair, might want to show some dignity, and leave the Lord out of his sales pitch.
Republican lawmakers might ask themselves one simple question: “Why now?” If you are being told it’s because you can forestall the action of US District Judge Myron Thompson, you are being misled. As one astute court observer stated, “ Judge Thompson is going to dig deep into Alabama’s pockets with the ADA settlement.
The State has been sued over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Judge Thompson will likely demand inmate housing be made compliant, long before ground breaking on the first super max. It is also disingenuous to say we need $800 million for new prison to solve this problem, when a prison expert believes all current facilities could be made ADA compliant for between $10 to $15 million. Do we really need an $800 million solution for a $15 million problem?
The Republican supermajority has raised taxes on the citizens of our State at Bentley’s insistence. They have borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars and now they want saddle our children’s children with another $1.5 billion of debt.
Can legislators overlook the fact that the State is already in a financial crisis, or that we can’t meet our current obligation?
Will they overlook the cronyism that is driving the “alternative” bid process?
What about the fact that Bentley claims no building sites have been selected, but has promised everyone a “goody” if they get on board with his plan?
It is very painful to watch men and women, who ran on a conservative platform, so easily dismiss their promises, and vote for more debt.
Just five months ago, no one was talking about building new prisons. It was not necessary then, and it’s not necessary now.
If this legislation passes, a full-criminal investigation should be, and most likely will be, launched.
Even now, Bentley is the prime target in a Federal investigation that will likely see him indicted before years end.
Bentley said, this is part of his legacy project, the “Great State 2019” plan. The more probable legacy for Bentley will be similar to that of Governors Guy Hunt and Don Siegelman.
Bentley wants a credit card to purchase four prisons without a concrete plan, a solid analysis of how they will be paid for, or where they will be built, and why we need them.
This is a farce bordering on fraud, and should remain a dead letter until there is a need, a plan, and real answers.