By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Tuesday, May 9, 2017 state Representative Johnny Mack Morrow (D from Red Bay) held a press conference where a bipartisan group of legislators and community groups expressed their opposition to former Governor Robert Bentley’s prison construction plan, SB302, which is sponsored by Senator Cam Ward (R from Alabaster).
Representative Morrow was joined by State Representative Mike Holmes (R from Wetumpka) and Allen Farley (R from McCalla) as well as citizens concerned about the prison bill.
Rep. Morrow said, “When we saw this $800 million bond issue coming we started a discussion group.” Do we need to obligate future taxpayers to the tune of $800 million. The more we learned the more we found we did not need this.
Morrow said that the plan had been increased to $845 million in committee earlier in the morning.
Morrow chastised House Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Jones (R from Ozark) for how the public hearing was conducted earlier in the day. “I resent the process in Montgomery today. We do not give the people impacted an opportunity to be heard. Time was limited severely.”
The Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Rhonda Brownstain said, “The building of these prisons will not resolve the legal issues.” The prison are dangerously understaffed. They are staffed at only 50 percent. Commissioner Dunn admits that is the biggest problem. The state is borrowing $800 million and according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) says that this will only need 174 less officers. That will leave ADOC only 1300 officers short.
Brownstein said The idea is prison are in bad shape; but that is not what is keeping people from applying for prison guard jobs and staying wioth ADOC. The pay is.
The starting pay is $7000 less than a state trooper. They leave to get paid more as state troopers, as sheriff’s deputies, and as police officers. The money needs to go to salaries.
Brownstein disputed the idea that the $51 million bond debt could be paid for with cost savings. The $844 million will be paid back over 30 years supposedly through cost savings. ADOC could not explain this. They claim they can save $21 millin in overtime; but in order to be fully staffed they would need 1300 new officers. ADOC also claims there will be $10 million in health savings. Once the court rules in the current case, the state will have to spend tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars more for inmate health and mental health care.
Brownstein said, “The whole idea of cost savings will pay all of thise is absolutely false.”
Richard Fox said my story is a very personal one. I know what it is like from an inmates point of view. Yes we could use new buildings. We could use air conditioning in the summer time. Fox said that he was concerned that the figures don’t add up.
Fox said, “We have bad management. There is a problem with management. There is a problem with the drug problem inside the prisons. There is only one way that drugs can get inside the prison and that is prisoners or guards bringing them in.”
Fox said that some guards make more money selling drugs than they do from their salary.”
Fox’s son was a prisoner and has been there out for two years. “I still have contacts.”
“There is rich justic and poor justice. If you think justice is the same across Alabama I need to pinch you because you must be asleep.” “I have interviewed judges, a district attorney, prison guards, a chaplain, and prisoners from every prison in Alabama.
Fox said, “I am not against new buildings if we can afford them but I live in a 60 year old house because that is what I can affortd.”
Troy University Economist Courtney Michaluk said that the prison construction financing will be financed by lease revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are done for things like toll roads and hospitalsm where the revenue generated from the tolls or the hospital pay the bonds. “Prisons do not have a source of revenue.” The money used to pay off the bonds come direct from the general fund. The claim that this, “Is revenue neutral is fiction.” “The bond debt is off budget for the state but the ulitmate source to pay off the debt is still state revenue.”
Michaluk attacked the idea that the counties and municipalities could assume the majority of these debts. “Elmore county is very interested. They have an $11 million annual budget.” Their debt is $8.4 million a year.” Michaluk said that this is risky debt because the bonds are not guaranteed by the state. There is no guarantee that the DOC renew the lease every year. “The local authoritity is at the mercy of the state.”
Jack Pelfrey, the former mayor of Clio, said that under this plan the prison in their community will likely close. Pelfrey said, “It is going to be very difficult to build these kinds of prsons.” ADOC claims they can build these prison for $56,000 per inmate.
That is normally the cost per iname for low security. The cost to build a maximum security is running about $145,000 per inmate.
Pelfrey said that ADOC were did not do staffing analysis. There was no real in depth analysis done. It looks like the savings were reverse engineered to go to the amount of the debt service. “ It is counter intuitive that if you have more inmates and fewer guards that you will hve less violence.”
Pelfrey said that he is concerned with what this is going to do to Clio. The town has been borrowing money to provide water and sewer services to the prison. “Over the years Clio has done almost $7 million in water and sewer infrastructure improvements. A lot of that was done to support the prisons.” Clio will be in debt till 2043.
Pelfrey said that the prison is the largest employer in the and the largest customer for Clio’s water and sewer services. If the prison town loses a third of its annual revenues
$350,000 in revenue goes away and $106,000 in debt service remains. Clio has just over a $million budget now. “I don’t know that the town of Clio can survive.” “A municipal bankruptcy will be in the near future.”
The Executive Director of Eagle Forum Deborah Love said, “SB302 has many flaws.” How will this particular bill impact the lives of Alabamians.
Love predicted that a tax increase will be needed to service this $845 million in new bonds. There is a lot of issues that have not been fully addressed including medical care and mental health. Will the prison be competitively bid?
Love warned that could lead to one of the largest tax increases in Alabama history. She was also concerned about centralization of power. It moves power towards the governor and there is a real concern about that no matter who the governor is.
Love said that this, “Will unfairly burden the taxpayers and will not solve the problem.”
Randy McGilberry with the Alabama Corrections Officers Associaiton said, “My son was a corrections officer in St Clair. On March 7, 2016 he was stabbed. “We are talking about mens and women’s lives and their livelihoods.”
McGilberry blamed, “Inadequacies in management.”
McGilberry said that the Associaiton gives Corrections officers a voice. “They are reprimanded when they speak about anynthing and treated in a very legalistic way. We are in this because this is a train wreck and it is the corrections officers who are paying the prices. They are working 16 hour shifts and being mandated on their days off. There is a gang leader in St. Clair who said we don’t care what you build we will rule it. We allow you to go home”
McGilberry said, “They are talking about hiring additional parolle officers and additional community officers. Where is that money comng from? What are we going to do in twenty years when these facilities are wore out because they were not properly maintained?”
Clay County Sheriff Ray Latham said, “I represent a group of sheriffs across Alabama who have previously house ADOC inmates. When the first prison bill was rejected, ADOC removed all of our inmates increasing their overcrowding.”
Sheriff Latham said, “We were trying to partner with the Alabma Department of Corrections to give thme some relief without burdening the taxpayers by $2.2 billion and they were not the least bit interested.”
Latham said that the 2015 sentencing reform act targeted the implementation of alternative sentencing thus reducing the ADOC population 100 new probation officers were supposed to be hired. They were never hired. ADOC is not held accountable to follow the very laws they are tasked with enforcing
Rep. Mike Holmes (R from Wetumpka) blamed ADOC management for most of the problems. “They keep telling us that they can’t control cell phones and drugs. They can clean it up. We need a change of management.” “Follow the money.”
Rep. Morrow said under current legislative leadership, “We pretend that we are looking for solutions. We appoint task forces and committees when we really aren’t looking for solutions. We know what we know what we can do.’
State Representative Allen Farley (R from McCalla) said that he had $48,000 in receipts which one family has paid to keep their son safe. A guard looks the other way then the gangs sexually assault an inmate and then tell the other inmates to call their families and come up with some money or it will be your turn next week.
Rep. Farley said that the current bill is all smoke and mirrors. He asked the new governor to call a special session so the legislature can get prison reform right. “It would be better than spending $845 million and not to get it right.”
Rep. Farley has introduced his own prison reform plan, but it has had difficulty moving while the leadership is still supporting Bentley’s Great State 2020 prison construction plan.