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Many Stumbling Blocks To Prison Reform

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Governor Robert Bentley wants to float $800 million in bonds to build new prisons. Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner, Jeff Dunn wants that, too. Some State Senators believe Bentley and Dunn are using the recent prison violence as a way to gin up support for their plan. They also think Dunn is implying a takeover by the federal authorities is imminent.

No one in their right mind who has toured Alabama’s crumbling prisons would deny there are problems of epic proportion. Outside of Bentley, Dunn and the companies knowing they may gain millions in borrowed State money, it would be difficult to find anyone willing to spend nearly a billion dollars, in a no-bid scheme known as design-build, to construct Bentley’s dream prisons.

Bentley and Dunn have doubled down on the no-bid design-build aspect of their plan. In a recent meeting with contractors who want to follow the State’s long-held bid laws, Dunn became so dismissive that Montgomery builder R. Scott Williams sent him a letter expressing his frustration at Dunn’s demeanor and tone during the August meeting writing, “In the matter of the meeting itself, I was surprised at the abrupt ending and want to express my disappointment in your demeanor,” wrote Williams. “Where a point is being made that expresses the will of the people I feel it is your obligation to listen. To summarily cut off dialogue before the train of thought is completed shows great contempt for those you serve.”

SEE LETTER

Williams also demanded an apology from Dunn to Heather Coleman-Davis, a lobbyist who represents several mid-size contracting and design firms. “Your characterization of Mrs. Davis as being an impediment to the discussions in advancing prison reform is grossly inaccurate. Her knowledge, leadership, and skills are best described as efficient and effective. I am shocked that you do not appreciate her presence as it offers genuine assistance and to this end, I believe Mrs. Davis is due an apology from you,” wrote Williams.

When Dunn failed to respond Williams request for an apology to Davis, he went a step further and called for Dunn to resign. “Predicated on your actions in our meeting of 8/24/16, you showed your great disdain for the competitive bid laws of the State of Alabama,” Williams wrote. “Your attitude and actions made it obvious that your role is to place dissemination of monies ahead of responsible leadership and problem solving. And in as much as you have rebuffed my suggestion to apologize to Mrs. Davis I think it is only appropriate that you tender your resignation.”

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SEE LETTER

As for an impending seizure of State prisons, Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) President Richard Cohen sees no evidence of a federal takeover. However, SPLC has successfully forced the State to take actions on the rights of prisoners with disabilities. Under an order from Federal Judge Myron Thompson the State has agreed to make its facilities compliant with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

This is one element of a class actions suit on behalf of all Alabama inmates. The next part of the suit concerns providing proper mental health treatment for those incarcerated by the State contends, “the medical and mental health care [in State prisons] is below the constitutional minimum,” Cohen said. “It is constitutionally inadequate.”

SEE CASE

In 2012, two years before SPLC sued the State, Maria Morris, who serves as managing attorney for the SPLC, in an interview with the Alabama Political Reporter, warned, that ‘Overcrowding leads to a variety of health issue that put inmates and correctional employees at greater risk of disease.’

In fact, numerous medical studies have shown that many diseases, even the drug-resistant, are born and fostered in overpopulated correctional facilities. According to the CDC, such infectious diseases as Tuberculosis (TB), HIV and Hepatitis A, B, and C Virus are the biggest threats inside overcrowded prison walls.

“When staff contracts the diseases from inmates they, in turn, bring them home to the community,” said Morris. “This is also true when inmates are released back into their communities.”

Four years later, SPLC is successfully suing to bring the reforms the State promised but failed to deliver with the passage of the Prison Reform Act.

Cohen says the second phase of the court proceedings will address mental health neglect, which will be tried in December. He says Judge Thompson is planning to rule on that case in February. “After that part of the case is tried, the court will try the rest of the medical part as to physical care,” said Cohen. “It is not clear when that will happen. I think the court wants to reach a decision on the mental health first.”

As to the issue of a federal takeover Cohen said, “If the ADOC fears eventual federal intervention into the prison system, it must be because the state knows it is operating the prisons in an unconstitutional manner.”

Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) is a leading champion on reforming the Justice System, which includes meeting the constitutional standards in prison facilities.

He believes Judge Thompson will give the State time to begin to resolve the issues on inmate care and compliance with ADA but thinks it will be a huge challenge. “[Thompson] is not saying he is going to take over, he is going to say that our prisons are unconstitutional due to structures, healthcare, etc. but he in not going to impose any sanctions,” Ward said. “He is going to give us time to address it. That is what is coming.”

“[Thompson] is not saying he is going to take over, he is going to say that our prisons are unconstitutional due to structures, healthcare, etc., but he in not going to impose any sanctions,” Ward said. “He is going to give us time to address it. That is what is coming.”

Ward says if the Legislature doesn’t address the issues in the next regular session Judge Thompson, “will come back with a hammer and force us to fix it.”

He thinks the biggest issues that Judge Thompson is going to find is: “The facilities you are running don’t meet constitutional muster,” Ward said. “And demand we build new medical facilities within the existing facilities,” Ward says he is working with the Governor, Dunn, and others to find a solution, but it’s going to be tough.

Those who understand the problems of the State’s antiquated prison system know, that the competing interests from the Executive Branch to high powered construction lobbyists present a major stumbling block to a wise path forward.

Judge Thompson may be the only force to push the State into the Twenty-first century.

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