Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is poised to move forward with a plan to build three new prisons and invest more in prison staff as the state’s aging and overpopulated correctional system faces continued calls for reform from both activists and the federal courts.
Ivey announced a broad outline of her plan during a press conference Tuesday at the State Capitol in Montgomery, echoing her previous calls for an “Alabama solution” to an “Alabama problem.” The estimated costs to build three new men’s prisons, according the Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, is around $900 million.
Ivey’s new plan also calls for three new regional facilities, one of which will have additional space for centralized health and mental health care facilities for special needs populations. Each new facility will also include space for educational and vocational training programs.
The Department of Corrections is preparing a request for proposals, and contractors will be asked for bids to build the three new regional men’s prisons. The decision to build the new prisons comes after ADOC hired a project management team to assess the prison system’s needs over the last two years.
By releasing a request for proposals, Ivey said Alabama will be able to see for the first time an accurate estimate of how much it will cost to build the facilities. Estimates in bills pushed in the Legislature in 2016 and 2017 ranged from $800 to $1.5 billion, depending on how long it took the state to repay revenue bonds used to finance the construction.
Ivey shifted from reports over the last few months that she was considering a build-and-lease plan to construct the new prisons. That plan would’ve allowed private entities to finance and build the prisons while the state leased them back. The plan could’ve been issued by Ivey alone, and it wouldn’t have needed legislative approval.
The governor’s plan will now seek some sort of legislative approval and input, though it’s unclear whether she is still considering a build-and-lease plan.
“I make a promise to you that part of this next step is to publicly provide the real costs we receive from contractors and to work closely with the Legislature to determine the most cost-effective way of moving forward. Whatever we do will be the best and most fiscally responsible decision for the state of Alabama.”
Ivey pushed back against assertions that special interests have had a hand in her corrections plan.
“That could not be further from the truth,” Ivey wrote in an op-ed Tuesday.
At this point, it seems Ivey’s plan is a toned-down and re-worked version of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative pushed by former Gov. Robert Bentley and Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. Bentley’s plan called for three new, 4,000-bed regional men’s prisons and a new 3,000-bed women’s prison.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers who opposed that $800 million plan referred to the regional prisons as “mega prisons” and criticized a design-build component that would’ve meant bidding only one contractor to both design and build the prisons. Lawmakers said at the time that the design-build method skirted the state’s bid laws, which typically require a bidding process for both the design and the construction phases of building projects.
Ward and Bentley’s plan died two years in a row in the state Legislature. In 2017, the House stalled on the bill and it didn’t make it to Ivey’s desk in time to sign. She considered calling a special session that year to address prison construction, though she didn’t end up doing it.
The plan still may not avoid criticism from legislators who worry that consolidating the state’s 13 remaining major men’s correctional facilities into three major regional facilities could harm local economies.
Ivey and Dunn have repeatedly argued that upgrading and renovating the 13 correctional facilities to meet minimum required standards would cost just as much, if not more, than building new facilities.
“Our existing facilities need $750 million in maintenance alone,” Ivey wrote. “Last year, we closed the Draper Correctional Facility, a 79-year-old prison, because it was simply too costly to repair. Without costly maintenance, many other facilities may require closing as well. Repairing these facilities that do not meet the needs of today’s criminal justice system would be wasteful and ineffective.”
Ivey’s announcement comes as the federal courts continue mulling conditions in Alabama’s prisons. A lawsuit over mental health care in Alabama’s prisons brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center ended with Federal Judge Myron Thompson ruling conditions to be “horrendously” and constitutionally “inadequate.”
Thompson ordered the state to nearly double the number of correctional officers over the next two years.
Thompson ruled Monday in another part of that lawsuit that the treatment of inmates in segregated isolation is unconstitutional and violates the Eighth Amendment. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found the Alabama Department of Corrections to be “deliberately indifferent” to the treatment of the prisoners in isolation.
In 2014, conditions at Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women were so bad that a federal court ruled them unconstitutional and ordered improvements.
A second phase of the SPLC health care lawsuit is set to go to trial soon and could end with more federally-mandated improvements to the system.
Ivey said Tuesday that she plans to propose a budget that includes a $31 million funding increase for ADOC so the state can hire 500 new correctional officers to comply with the federal court order. The budget increase would also fund a pay increase for security personnel to make their salaries competitive.
“In December, we saw our first increase in the number of correctional officers in years,” Ivey wrote. “With a rising retention rate, we can begin adding to our officer ranks, rather than simply maintaining our current staffing levels. This is a difficult task, but because of the commitment from members of the Legislature, we are now well on our way to addressing our staffing challenges.”
The Legislature last year provided $86 million in additional funding to the department over two years to retain new staff for medical and mental health services and to reduce the rate of turnover among correctional staffing.
Lawmakers have taken other steps in recent years to reduce Alabama’s notorious prison overcrowding. Since criminal sentencing reform passed in 2015, overcrowding has dropped significantly from 200 percent to about 160 percent. But Ivey said that overcrowding rate is still too high.
Ivey said she fears that the federal courts could do like they did in California and order thousands of prisoners released.
“Some estimate this order resulted in the release of more than 40,000 inmates,” Ivey wrote. “Following the release of these inmates, one study into the impact of this mass release called the increases in crime rates ‘alarming.’ So, our public safety also demands this investment.”
Opinion | Let’s hope for Reed’s success
Reed’s temperament and style appear right for this moment in Alabama’s history.
State Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, will lead the Alabama Senate as president pro tem during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. What changes will Reed bring to the upper chamber, and how will his leadership differ from his predecessor? No one knows for sure.
Reed succeeds Sen. Del Marsh, who has served as president pro tem since Republicans took control of the Statehouse in 2010. Marsh, along with then-Gov. Bob Riley, current felon Mike Hubbard and ousted BCA Chair Billy Canary orchestrated the 2010 takeover that saw the Republican rise to dominance.
Reed, who won his Senate seat the same year, was not a charter member of the Republican ruling class, but he benefited from the power sift.
Mild-mannered and studious with a quiet charm, Reed has steadily ascended the ranks of Senate leadership. His silver hair and calm determination have served him well. Reed is a senatorial figure straight out of Hollywood’s central casting.
In all, Reed is nearly universally liked and respected, which in the near term is a hopeful sign of potential success. But political leadership always comes with a warning: “Friends come and go, enemies accumulate.”
Reed’s relationship with Gov. Kay Ivey is certainly less contentious than Marsh’s and gives rise to the belief that there will be greater cooperation between the executive and the Senate.
With the economy and public health under dire stress due to the ravages of COVID-19, legislative priorities are fixed: get people back to work and eradicate the coronavirus.
However, one of Reed’s first tests will be whether he can cool the smoldering anger of those senators who still feel the sting of Ivey’s rebuke over the allocation of CARES Act funds. He will also need to resist those who want to punish the administration over its use of public health statutes to implement mask mandates and other safety measures to prevent the deadly coronavirus spread.
Despite outward declarations of a unified body, the State Senate is a small, insular and unwieldy beast where egos loom large and consensus on policies is often tricky to achieve except on “red meat issues.”
Building a coalition on policy in the Senate is often a combination of horse-trading, cajoling and carefully applied pressure. The way forward in the near term is exact: pass legislation that spurs economic recovery and mitigates the health crisis at hand.
But Reed will also simultaneously need to recognize what comes next for justice reform, prison construction, gambling and a myriad of other pressing issues. His job will be to understand the prevailing winds, which are evolutionary, not revolutionary.
As author Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: “For political leaders in a democracy are not revolutionaries or leaders of creative thought. The best of them are those who respond wisely to changes and movements already underway. The worst, the least successful, are those who respond badly or not at all, and those who misunderstand the direction of already visible change.”
Reed’s temperament and style appear right for this moment in Alabama’s history.
As President Abraham Lincoln said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Let’s all hope that Reed passes the test.
Opinion | Clorox, anyone?
There is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the upcoming legislative session safely — not even a rudimentary one.
In less than 100 days, the state Legislature will return to Montgomery for the 2021 Legislative Session. As of now, there is no comprehensive plan on how to hold the session safely — not even a rudimentary one.
But perhaps there is a reason to keep the statehouse shuttered as the Legislature seems to have forgotten the governing principles that the nation was built upon, and (hint, hint) it was never a slogan.
One individual at the Statehouse said that there would be a vaccine by February, so why worry about holding Session as usual. Perhaps this individual also believes that a disinfectant cure or a UV light remedy is right around the corner. News flash, as of press time, intravenous Clorox and lightbulb suppositories are still in phase one trials.
Pandemic humor aside, the surprising thing would be if the Legislature actually had a plan at all.
There have been rumors of a plan, even mentions of one, too, but nothing that would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and the public to realistically gather to conduct the peoples’ business in a relatively COVID-free environment.
We all want a miracle, but miracles are outside legislative purview, and while prayer is needed at the Statehouse, so is commonsense and a plan.
One plan in consideration is to limit the number of people who can enter the building. That’s a bad idea because the public has a right to witness government action and advocate for causes.
At the end of the truncated 2020 session, the Legislature curtailed the number of people in the Statehouse, which violates the law and good government spirit.
Lawmakers come to Montgomery to do the peoples’ business — at least that’s what they say at campaign events and pancake breakfasts. Of course, they don’t really conduct the people’s business in Montgomery. That’s just a figure of speech.
Legislators represent the people when they are running for office or giving chats at Rotary, but when most — not all — enter the Statehouse, they work for special interests.
Yes, some do care, and all are convinced they are doing a great job, but just like the plan to open the Statehouse safely on Feb. 3, it’s sadly an absurd pretense.
The majority of the Legislature consists of Republicans, who used to have a firm sense of what the party represented. While I hate to offend my many friends, the current party couldn’t find the most defining principles of traditional governance in our nation if you gave them a GPS and a flashlight.
Let me humbly run down a short list of things that should matter in no particular order.
For the list, I will turn to the 2006 book American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia: “Classical liberalism is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and the press, and international peace based on free trade.”
Classical liberalism has nothing to do with modern liberalism and everything to do with our Republic’s founding. Classical liberalism underpins the Constitution’s foundation, Federalist Papers and the vast majority of the founding generation’s ideology, which created our nation’s governing structure.
Private property rights are fundamental to what Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness.
And guess what is an individual’s most precious piece of property? Their person. Yes, a person’s body and mind are an individual’s greatest possession. A person’s right to live freely with only a minimum amount of government intrusion is essential to happiness. The government’s job is not to tell us how to live, rather keep others from harming us, killing us or taking our stuff.
Every year Montgomery seems intent on an ever-expanding agenda to meddle in people’s private lives.
Real estate and other property is significant but can’t be thoroughly enjoyed if we are dead or in chains designed by the good intentions of the Legislature. Lawmakers are not to be the central planning committee for the soul.
The government should promote a relatively unhampered market economy. Tariffs anyone? Trade wars? No one wins a trade war. Everyone loses. Winning simply means the other side lost more or gives up. It’s like a bar fight. Nobody wins it because everyone gets beaten up — but one got it worse.
How about the rule of law? I hear it talked about a lot, but the law must be just for everyone. If the law is applied unequally, is it really the law?
We hear a lot about Second Amendment rights as if that’s the big one. But what about freedom of the press? Is that less important? As the nation’s second president John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
The press is not the enemy of the people. Is there bias? Sometimes. Is there poor reporting? On occasion. But the real enemy are the politicians who defame or attempt to delegitimize the media for not supporting their political agenda. An AR-15 can be coercive but have a free county without a free press in impossible.
Freedom of religion is also paramount to our nation’s principles as free people have a right to worship without government interference or mandate. But believe me, some religious leaders would see a government-imposed religion as long as it’s the one they like. I often wonder, does religion require a strong man or strong faith? Today it’s hard to tell. Like all rights, if you take away the freedom to worship or not, and the whole system of liberty fails.
Last but not least, international peace based on free trade: If a nation is making money by trading with another country, it doesn’t have a good reason to bomb it. Likewise, the bounds of capital are generally stronger than political ideology. Money may not make the world go ’round, but a lack of it sure can unleash terrible conflict.
After this exercise in futility, I’ve decided I’m glad the Legislature doesn’t have a plan to open the 2021 session. Why bother? Because the very ideals that genuinely make life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a reality are the ones at greatest risk of being trampled upon by the Legislature.
Opinion | Prisons, justice reform and the art of the possible
Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.
For years, prison reform advocates, media outlets and even a few public officials have called for new correctional facilities to address Alabama’s dangerously overcrowded prisons.
Now that it’s happening, some aren’t happy with how Gov. Kay Ivey is addressing the problem.
Is the Ivey Administration’s plan perfect? No. But building new facilities along with criminal justice reform — while all imperfect — is the last best hope to correct generations of cruel treatment, endangered correctional officers and corrupt practices.
German chancellor and statesman Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best,” this is the state of a workable solution to Alabama’s prison needs and criminal justice reform.
Yet, there is a concerted effort underway to stop the Ivey Administration from acquiring three new men’s prisons under a build-lease agreement.
Some lawmakers want another crack at financing additional facilities through a bond issue, and others want more say in the process. Still, the fact is that Ivey’s actions are the result of decades of legislative indifference and inaction to adequately address the appalling conditions at Alabama’s correctional facilities.
Even some advocates are working against the prison plan and while their intentions may be good it seem to their hand wringing is almost as disingenuous as lawmakers whining.
What’s worse are those who spread disinformation to discredit process.
Many good people have worked hard to bring about an end to the state’s barbaric prison system and unfair justice, but lately it seems there is an outright movement to derail much needed change— simply because it’s not enough. As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
There have been so many false claims and sly manipulations of facts about the prison plan as to make even a hardened journalist want to cry “fake news.”
But as for Ivey, frankly, my dears, I don’t think she gives a damn.
Here’s the hard truth. The Ivey Administration is building three new men’s prisons, and nothing will stop it. The fact is that three prisons are not enough; the administration should move forward to build a new women’s facility as soon as practicable.
Politics is bound by the art of what’s possible. It is also true that those who never dare the impossible rarely achieve even the possible.
Failing to recognize when the once impossible is coming to fruition is a sad reality. Still, in politics, as in life, good things happen while most people are navel-gazing or complaining.
Having visited three state prisons, St. Clair, Elmore, and Tutwiler, I can say without a doubt, the conditions in those places are a living hell.
A report from the U.S. Department of Justice released in April 2019, found “reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”
DOJ’s investigation revealed that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.
When the state incarcerates a criminal, it assumes custodial care for that individual. No matter how heinous the crime or foul the person, the state has an obligation to feed, clothe, house and provide essential human services for their care and welfare. Another element is often overlooked; when a person is committed to prison, they lose their freedom, not their humanity. Therefore, under the law, they cannot be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.
Building three new men’s prisons is just the start; it must be accompanied by criminal justice reform.
“We are able to have a serious discussion about prison reform in Alabama because we have a governor who is serious about putting solutions into place,” Ivey’s press secretary Gina Maiola recently told APR. “Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation, but criminal justice reform is also needed,” Maiola said.
The Study Group entered its mission with one pressing question; “What policies and programs can the State of Alabama implement to ensure the long-term sustainability of our prison system without jeopardizing public safety?” according to Supernumerary Associate Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, Jr., who led the effort.
In a letter to Ivey on the Study Groups finding, Lyons wrote [T]he challenges facing our prison system are exceedingly complex—ranging from the elimination of contraband weapons and drugs to the recruitment, retention, and training of correctional staff to the size of the inmate population and to the physical condition of an aging and far-flung prison infrastructure.” He further wrote, “But having thought through many of these issues with my Study Group colleagues, especially our legislative members, I can report to you that some meaningful answers to this question are not just possible; they are within our grasp.”
Prisons without justice reform is a hollow victory, and the Ivey Administration is committed to bringing about reasonable reforms.
“Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation,” said Maiola, “but criminal justice reform is also needed.”
The issues facing Alabama’s prisons and criminal justice system are complex, and generations in the making; therefore, arriving at a universally acceptable solution is not imaginable for the moment if ever. But what once seemed impossible is soon to be realized.
No one gets everything they want, but it’s a great step toward getting what is needed simply because it’s possible.
Opinion | Amendment 4: Stairway to heaven or highway to hell?
If you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.
Amendment 4 will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot asking the voters to approve a constitutional amendment to remove racist language from the 1901 Constitution and recompile other sections for content and clarity.
If you trust state lawmakers to “recompile” the state’s governing document, then vote yes.
If, however, you wouldn’t trust that august body to manage your checkbook, reconfigure your last will and testament, or redefine the terms of your car loan, then you should vote no.
The question is straightforward. Do you trust this Legislature with this important task?
The ballot measures lead sponsors were Sen. Rodger Smitherman and Rep. Merika Coleman, both Black Democrats, and it was passed with an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate. This would seem to give legitimacy to the claim that at its heart, this is a referendum to remove racist language from the state’s Constitution.
However, Amendment 4 is a Trojan horse to allow the state Legislature to manipulate the state’s Constitution using past racism as cover. (Let’s not forget the recent racially charged monuments preservation act.)
This Amendment isn’t a benign effort to cleaning up the Constitution; it is a way for lawyers, lobbyists and lawmakers to rewrite the Constitution using sleight-of-hand.
After speaking about the need to eliminate racist words in the Constitution, Coleman actually points to the real reason the Republican supermajority supported the measure.
“Coleman said it’s not just a social issue,” according to reporting by Mary Sell. “But an economic development issue ‘for those of us who want to bring industry, new ideas, new technology, new research, new employees that are diverse into the state of Alabama.'”
The driving force behind the so-called recompilation is mostly about money, bringing more in and for the government to spend it more easily.
Eradicating racism from the state’s Constitution is a noble effort, but not if it opens the flood gates to more mischief.
In 2012, the Legislature offered a more narrow amendment which claimed to remove racist language from the Constitution only to have it revealed that it also eliminated a child’s right to a state-provided public education.
About that Amendment, also known as Amendment 4, then-Sen. Hank Sanders wrote, ”It proposes to remove racist provisions from the Alabama Constitution that have no real legal impact.”
The indent of the 2012 measure was to do away with a child’s right to public education; removing racist language was simply bait for the unaware.
The same is true of the current Amendment 4 because the offensive words have no bearing on how the state is governed.
The U.S. Constitution contains racist language and holds racist ideals, but they no longer have the weight of law.
“Consider the 14th Amendment. No part of the Constitution speaks more forcefully to the power of law to transform social relations,” notes Richard Albert, a constitutional law professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “It guarantees that no state shall ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ And yet the Constitution still today counts a slave as ‘three-fifths’ of a person.”
“The First Congress debated whether a constitutional amendment should entail changes to the original text but ultimately chose to record changes in the higher law as sequential amendments to the end of the document,” according to Albert.
The founders determined it was best to leave offense clauses in the text and add amendments to the end; Alabama has followed their example.
Hurtful words matter and should be condemned but protecting citizens from a Legislature who would exploit constitutional change for their own benefit is also dangerous.
Removing racist language from the state’s constitution is morally right, but not if it lets deceptive lawmakers legalize unethical conduct. The state shouldn’t exchange one wrong for another.
Those who support Amendment 4 say that it will not change the Constitution; just cleans it up by removing all racist language; deleting duplicative and repealed provisions; consolidating provisions regarding economic development; and arranging all local amendments by county of application. And nothing in the amendment permits more money to be spent on economic development than is currently available. Those who want to foster greater commercial growth believe that condensing and clarifying sections of the Constitution will help define Alabama as a more business-friendly state.
However, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of textural construct knows that merely moving a comma can dramatically change a sentence’s meaning. Consider the many tricks which can occur with a cut and paste constitution.
For example, “I say to you today, I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That statement means at some point in the future, I’ll give you the money. But, “I say to you, today I’m going to give you a million dollars.” That means you’re going to get cash now. One little comma makes a lot of difference.
Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is some 800 pages long. How many lawmakers have read it; how many will read the “recompiled” Constitution? Most? Like none.
The Legislature asks us to suspend disbelief, pretending that nothing nefarious is going on and that they are sincere, and their intentions are good.
Sincerity is no guarantee of honesty, and as for good intentions, we all know where that leads.
Rock songs say there is a stairway to heaven and a highway to hell. Obviously, rockers understand the traffic patterns better than our lawmakers.
Amendment 4 is a fraud that will weaken the state and lead to further legalized corruption.
The ballot measure is in fact about money and power under the guise of racial equity.