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Opinion | We should be building great schools, not great prisons

Craig Ford

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Earlier this month, the governor announced her plan to spend almost a billion dollars of taxpayer money to build three new prisons for men (there will be no new prisons for women, even though it was the conditions at the women’s prison in Elmore County that started the whole prison debate).

There’s no question that the hard-working men and women who staff and run our prison system deserve to have a safe and proper work environment (they also deserve to be paid a whole lot more than they are, and deserve some help in the form of more corrections officers and healthcare staff).

But I question any state leaders who would choose to spend a billion dollars on prisons instead of education.

First of all, we might not have overcrowded prisons in the first place if we had better public schools. There is a wealth of research that has proven that kids who can’t read at grade level by the time they are in the third grade are far more likely to end up in prison.

That fact alone ought to be enough to motivate our leaders to prioritize universal pre-K. But instead of giving all children in Alabama access to our nationally ranked pre-K program, our state leaders are choosing to allocate those resources to build nicer prisons.

There’s something terribly wrong when our state leaders would rather build “super prisons” instead of “super schools.”

And it isn’t just that building newer prisons will do nothing to prevent kids (or adults, for that matter) who are on the path to prison from falling down that hole. It also does nothing to reform the non-violent offenders who are already in prison so that they don’t become repeat offenders when they get out.

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During my time in the State Legislature, I often spoke with the prison system’s leaders who are involved in the technical school at J.F. Ingram. The programs at J.F. Ingram are designed to teach non-violent offenders a trade so that when they get released from prison they can become productive members of society working jobs as welders, carpenters, and so on.

The instructors at J.F. Ingram told me on numerous occasions that those who went through their program only had a 20 percent chance of returning to prison while those who do not go through their program have an 80 percent chance of returning to prison.

So you would think it would be a no-brainer to invest in something that reduces both crime and the prison population. But our state leaders are still dead set on spending that money on building bigger, nicer prisons.

But the worst thing of all about this plan isn’t that it is ineffective and will do nothing to truly address or reduce crime in Alabama. The worst thing is that it is a complete and total waste of taxpayer dollars that will cost far more than it should.

Why is that? Because the state is now looking to lease-to-own these new prisons instead of paying for them outright.

Any time you take out a loan – whether it is a business loan, student loan, home loan, car loan, etc. – you have to pay interest.

If the state were to build these new prisons we still might have to take out a loan for a portion of it, but at least it would be a direct loan with a lower interest rate. By leasing these prisons from a private operator and then buying them later on, we are introducing a middleman who also has to be paid.

That’s why Gov. Bentley’s plan would have built four prisons – including one for women – at a cost of $800 million while Gov. Ivey’s plan will build only three prisons at a cost of over $900 million.

So much for being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money!

Meanwhile, these same state leaders are decrying our public school system, labeling our schools as “failing” and have redirected over $100 million out of our public schools to pay for private school scholarships.

Imagine where our state could be if we spent just half of that billion dollars on education instead of prisons. Imagine what our children could accomplish! Imagine how many fewer kids would end up going to prison in the first place.

Imagine if our state leaders were half as interested in building super schools as they are in building super prisons.

Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

 

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