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Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearing on prison reform

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Wednesday, March 1, 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Governor Robert Bentley’s controversial plan to borrow $800 millions in bonds in order to build four massive new prisons. Senate Bill 70 is being sponsored in the Senate by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster).

Sen. Ward said, “I have committed my life to prison reform over the last few years.”

Ward said that you can not operate a 21st century prison system with buildings built in the mid 20th century and offer the services that we need. There are ten amendments in the bill of rights. The 8th amendment to the Constitution is there just like the second and we have to follow it. We are going to build facilities at some point, whether we do it on our own or we are forced to do it by a federal judge.

Sen. Ward rejected the notion that we need to wait on construction. “We have studied everything that we can study.” Ward said that through sentencing reform bill the number of inmates has declined 18 percent since 2012. Ward said that the combination of building new prisons and the sentencing reforms already passed will lower prison capacity to just 137 percent of capacity. Ward said that we have to build prisons or have a mass release. 72 percent of the prison population are there for violent crimes: the highest rate in the country. “We are making progress but sentencing alone won’t get you there.”

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that a year ago we introduced this plan to transform the prisons. I wish I could report that things have gotten better but they have gotten worse. We have had the single greatest decrease in officers in our history. As staffing levels have dropped violence has increased. We are the most overcrowded prison system in the nation and the most violent. In March we had an uprising. Inmates gained control of part of one facility (Holman Prison) and we had to send our tactical unit to regain control. A warden was attacked and stabbed. In September we had a Corrections office murdered. “He gave his life for the safety of this state.” The US Department of Justice has begun an investigation. Three inmates have been killed in Elmore county in the last two months.

Commissioner Dunn spoke in favor of the plan. It would improve the safety and security of our staff and inmates, expand our ability to rehabilitate, and seeks to control the rising infrastructure costs. Dunn insisted that our facilities are literally crumbling. Dunn insisted that improved efficiencies would be sufficient to pay for paying the $800 million bond issue. Dunn claimed that repairing the existing prisons would cost $440 million. Dunn claimed that the facilities are too far gone to get these facilities back up to standards. “That is a very poor investment.”

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State Senator Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham) asked if you have you not selected the sites for the new prisons. “It seems like you are putting the cart before the horse,” if you are not able to answer our questions.

Commissioner Dunn claimed that there was a very detailed site selection process. Dunn said that they would try to site new facilities in such a way that they do not affect our current employees

Senator Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) said that there should be competitive bidding on this from the very beginning of the project. This is a massive project. This money needs to be spent on qualified Alabama people.

Smitherman added, “We have a serious problem with the mentally ill and drug treatment in the prisons. All of those things need to be simultaneously addressed while we are building prisons.

Smitherman compared it to like replacing a failing school with a new school building without addressing the problems that caused the school to fail.

Senator Bobby Singleton (D-Greensborough) said that Mississippi did something similar with a design build prison project and now people may be going to prison over it. “I am getting messages from my constituents who say we are going to be on the hook for this. Why should we trust you why this delivery method for this projects when you have not even told us where it is going to be.

Senator Tom Whatley (D-Lee County) said that this is just a one time exception from the public works law

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Heather Coleman Davis representing the Alabama Contractors Association and the Sureties Association of Alabama spoke against the bill. “We are not opposed to building prisons if that is what you decide to do.” Davis said that the contractors would only support the massive prison construction project if the state would follow the competitive bid law. Davis said that you get the best price for the state of Alabama when the project is competitively bid.

Bentley and Ward however are insisting that this be a design build where the administration picks one and that contractor picks all the subcontractors for the four prisons. Sen. Ward said that his bill contains language guaranteeing that all engineers and architects used in the project be licensed in Alabama and that the project will include competitive bidding and minority contractor participation.

Davis said that the most transparent process to get the contract done is with competitive bids. With s design build there is a handpicked general contractor who hand selects who gets the projects including the subcontractors. “An $800 million project needs to be competitively bid.”

Davis said that the Sureties Association of Alabama also has a problem with how these bonds are being written. A general obligation bond has to be voted on by the people; but the administration is writing this $800 million special revenue bonds, which is used for things with its own dedicated revenue stream like a toll road or a draw bridge.

State Finance Director Clinton Carter explained that the bonds will be issued by a non-profit corporation they are creating which will lease the facilities to the Department of Corrections and that money goes back to pay the $800 million debt. Carter explained that in order to get the best rate they will have to guarantee the debt with an existing ten cent tax on alcohol sales and another four cent tax on alcohol. Those revenues currently are earmarked to fund DHR and the state Bureau of Veteran Affairs

Commissioner Dunn said that each of the four mega prisons will occupy 40 to 50 acres and then there needs to be a buffer zone so each facility will need 200 to 300 acres.

Southern Poverty Law Center Associate legal director Ebony Howard said that the SPLC is opposed to this bill because the plan has no specifics about mental healthcare and healthcare for the inmates. She acknowledged her group’s lawsuit; but said that there is no indication that Judge Myron Thompson would order the Corrections Department to build new prisons.

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Senator Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) said, “This bill does not solve all of our issues but it does address one of our issues: overcrowding.”

The warden at Holman Prison, Cynthia. We are dilapidated, antiquated. We are part of the state of Alabama

Bullock County Commissioner Ron Smith said that their county has the lowest per capita income in the state and that their prison is their Mercedes. “I am here to talk about the impact of my community Bullock County.” Smith pled with the county to save their prison or build one of the mega prisons there.

The Executive Director of Eagle Forum Alabama Deborah Love asked members of the committee to please vote “no.” This will indebt generations of Alabama children with a minimum of $800 million.”

Director Love said that the Governor should not be given this much authority and that they favor moving away from central authority. Each of these four prisons will house more prisoners than the populations of most towns in Alabama.

Love said that there are too many regulations and over criminalization. “We do not want to incentivize the government to incarcerate more individuals.” “We can all agree that we have too many laws in the state of Alabama.”

Senator Hank Sanders (D-Selma) said, “Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rate in the world. Either the people in Alabama are the worst people in the world or there is something wrong with the system.”

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Clio Mayor Jack Pelfrey said that his town is deeply in debt in order to perform water and sewer projects to the state prison there. We are in debt to 2043. The prison is by far our largest customer, with $340,000, over a third of total revenue. Clio would eventually go out of existence if the prison were to close. We are waging hundreds of millions of dollars on something that is not guaranteed to work.

2014 gubernatorial candidate and corrections officer Stacy George said, “I have a specific plan.” “The problem is not new prison it is understaffing.” “Make everyone who works for ALEA serve three years as a corrections officer.” Sheriff’s offices make new deputies work at the jail before advancing. There was a large corruption problem. Commissioner Dunn has done a good job of cleaning it up, now we are understaffed because of that.

George asked, “At what point does punishment become revenge?” It is costing the state $18,000 to keep these men locked up. Many of them should be sent home. George blamed former Attorney General Charlie Graddick (D)’s three strikes and life policy for the overcrowding issue. Stacy George is the legislative liaison for the Alabama Correctional Organization.

The Committee has postponed voting on SB170.


Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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