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Legislature

McCutcheon announces emergency task force in response to DOJ prison report

Brandon Moseley

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Speaker Mac McCutcheon claps as Gov. Kay Ivey delivers the 2019 state of the state address before a joint session of the Alabama Legislature in the Old House Chambers of the Alabama State Capitol on March 5, 2019. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said the state is creating an emergency task force to address the U.S. Department of Justice’s report alleging violence and a callous acceptance of prisoner-on-prisoner violence by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to sue the state if it does not address the findings in the report.

The DOJ is suggesting that how Alabama treats its prisoners may constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishments.

Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

 

“This Legislature recognizes that Alabama’s correctional system is experiencing critical and fundamental issues, and we are committed to finding the solutions necessary to fix them,” McCutcheon said. “The problem within the correctional system did not occur overnight, and they cannot be resolved overnight, but we are determined to address them. Like any major undertaking, tackling this issue will be a combined effort between the governor’s office, the legislature, and the attorney general’s office.”

“Steps have already been taken to comply with the federal court orders issued in pending cases over mental health services in prisons, and we will faithfully continue those efforts,” McCutcheon added referring to a federal court case brought by the ACLU on behalf of inmates.

“We are also working to impanel an emergency task force of legislators, members of the executive and judicial branches, corrections professionals, and other stakeholders,” McCutcheon added. “This task force will be responsible for finding both short and long term solutions to the facility needs, staffing shortages, and other infrastructure breakdowns within the prison system. As speaker, I know that the Alabama House of Representatives stands ready to do its part.”

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McCutcheon told reporters they have met with representatives from the Department of Justice about the prison conditions.

The speaker said that the task force will be tasked with figuring out what do we need to fix this and go forward.

The speaker was asked if he was surprised by the report.

“No, I am still reading the report, but based on my career in law enforcement I am not surprised. There are parts of the report that yes are in some ways surprising. We had some indications, when we were talking about the bond issue about the safety inside the facility.

“I come from a law enforcement background,” McCutcheon said. “When you are dealing with violent type individuals and there are shortages” in corrections officers there are going to be problems with security.

The 2020 general fund budget request by Gov. Kay Ivey includes $30 million for hiring 500 more prison guards.

“This needs to be a priority,” McCutcheon said.

Reporters asked if Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn should be fired.

“No, I think Commissioner Dunn is doing a great job,” McCutcheon said. The Department of Justice representatives praised him. Ultimately, that is the decision of the governor. “That is beyond my pay grade.”

Reporters asked if the state should construct new prisons.

“I think it needs to be in the discussion,” McCutcheon said. “Some of our facilities were built back in the 30s. Things like line of sight,” are problems. “It becomes a safety issue.”

The Alabama Political Reporter asked: We talked with Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) yesterdays and he said that the state is going to have to pick up funding 20 percent of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) starting in 2021 and that will cost $120 million a year. Now there is the problem of addressing the prison report. Is it safe to say that we are going to need $200 million more in the general fund next year?

“Not at this point,” McCutcheon said. “It would be premature,” of me to put out a number like that.

The report alleges: “Our experts’ on site interviews of captains and lieutenants revealed that many ADOC staff appear to accept the high level of violence and sexual abuse in ADOC as a normal course of business, including acquiescence to the idea that prisoners will be subjected to sexual abuse as a way to pay debts accrued to other prisoners.”

Prisoners reported being raped. Prisoners reported being sexually abused because they reported sexual abuse.

The Alabama Political Reporter exposed much of the culture of corrupt prison guards, violent gangs, violence, drug and cell phone smuggling in our exclusive investigative report three years ago.

President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice reported their concerns about conditions in the Alabama Corrections system to address the issues to Gov. Robert Bentley’s administration.

Bentley presented an ambitious plan to build four mega prisons in 2016. That plan failed to gain support in the legislature and also stalled in 2017. Frustrated with Alabama’s inability to act, Attorney General Loretta Lynch order the DOJ investigation into Alabama’s prison system in the closing days of the Obama administration. AG Jeff Sessions oversaw much of the investigation. DOJ is threatening to sue the state if it does not come up with a plan in the next sixty days.

 

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Congress

Alabama municipalities may be left out of $2 trillion stimulus package

Bill Britt

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As the largest economic stimulus in American history flows to states and municipalities around the nation, stipulations in the two-trillion dollar emergency fund may leave Alabama cities out altogether.

As enacted, the third stimulus bill, the CARE Act, directs funding for states, and local governments, the catch is that the act only allocates funds for municipalities with a population of 500,000 or more.

No city in Alabama has a population of 500,000, leaving an unanswered question as to who gets what and who gets nothing?

The state has 463 municipalities spread out over 67 counties. Not one has a population nearing half a million yet each one is experiencing the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working with Treasury and the Governor’s office to understand what municipalities can expect,” said Greg Cochran, deputy director of the Alabama League of Municipalities.

Alabama will receive $1.9 billion from the stimulus package, as a block grant, which could be allocated in a 55-45 split, according to the League’s estimation with around $1.04 billion to the state and $856 million going to local governments.

“Currently, there is little guidance on how those shared resources are to be distributed to local governments,” said Cochran. “Nor is there clear directive that those resources are to be shared with local governments with less than 500,000 populations.”

The National League of Cities is also seeking clarification from Treasury Department on these questions and guidelines to ensure funds are shared with local governments.

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“Congress is working on a fourth stimulus bill, and we are working diligently with our Congressional delegation, NLC and other stakeholders to have all cities and towns are recognized for federal funding assistance,” Cochran said.

However, on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cast doubt on a fourth package, saying that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s needed to “stand down” on passing another rescue bill. “She needs to stand down on the notion that we’re going to go along with taking advantage of the crisis to do things that are unrelated to the crisis,” as reported by The Washington Post.

Alabama’s biggest cites, Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville, Mobile and Tuscaloosa, are already facing strain under the weight of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But so are smaller cities like Auburn, Hoover, Madison, Opelika and others. Lee County and Chambers County have far more cases of the virus per capita than the state’s more populous counties.

“I was not really happy with the way that they limited the money,” Jones said, adding that the money could go to counties with 500,000 or above. Jefferson County would qualify for that.

Jones also said he would like to see more money for city and county expenses not directly related to COVID-19 like fire and police. “We’re going to have to do what I think we can to backfill some of the expenses,” Jones said.

In addition to health and welfare concerns for residents during the COVID-19 calamity, cites are dealing with what is certain to be a downward spiral on tax revenue and other sources of income and a subsequent rise in costs. The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that at least 90,000 people have applied for unemployment compensation in the state over the last two weeks.

“Knowing that our municipalities will experience a loss in revenue because they rely on sales, motor fuel and lodgings taxes, we are urging our state Legislature to be mindful of actions they take when they return regarding unfunded mandates/preemptions,” said Cochran. “Additionally, we are concerned about the adverse impact this could have on 2021 business licenses, which are based on sales from 2020.”

The combined population of the state’s two biggest cities, Birmingham and Montgomery, do not equal 500,000, the threshold for receiving funds under the Care Act.

Cochran says that the League is working tirelessly to find answers as to how local governments can participate in Congress’s emergency funding.

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Legislature

Alabama Legislature meets under heightened health concerns

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday gaveled in for what was supposed to be their first day back from a two-week spring break—well rested and ready to tackle the state’s pressing issues.

Instead, like everything else in American society, it was a somber event overshadowed by concerns about the coronavirus, which has killed approximately two dozen Alabamians in just the last few days.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, thanked all the members present for attending under the circumstances.

The House called just enough legislators to have a quorum. A bipartisan group of 53 of the 105 Representatives was present in the House Chamber to gavel in for the short session.

Others were in their cars in the parking lot if needed. The leadership had asked that anybody who felt sick at all not to attend. They also directed more vulnerable members to not attend. Despite this, Reps. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores, age 78; Joe Faust, R-Fairhope, age 79; and Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, age 77, were among other older representatives who braved the risks and were in the chamber anyway.

Members of the legislature all had their temperatures checked as they entered the building to make sure that none of them had a fever. While a cough and a fever are strong indications of COVID-19, about a fifth of people infected with the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic.

They can still spread the virus to others despite feeling fine. At least six members were wearing surgical masks and several were wearing gloves. One Republican member wore a face scarf wrapped around her head covering everything but her eyes.

If there had not been a quorum present for a scheduled legislative day that would have, by rule, ended the 2020 legislative session. Their attendance in Montgomery, despite the clear and present danger of the coronavirus, saved the session.

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While there, they passed a Joint Senate Resolution changing the legislative rules so that during a state of emergency, as we have now, if on a scheduled legislative day they are unable to reach a quorum, then the leadership can set a new legislative day without losing one of their thirty legislative days.

The House set its next legislative day for April 28.

They saved the 2020 legislative session, but it may still be a hollow victory.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked McCutcheon if they are able to come back and have legislative meetings, will there still be committee meetings or will that be done by e-meetings online, and if so will there be a way for the press to participate in those online discussions?

“If we come back to conduct legislative business, there will be committee meetings and we would have no reason to keep the press out,” McCutcheon said.

But McCutcheon said that they will not come back if doing so will risk the members or their health and the other people in the building.

McCutcheon himself is in his mid-60s and has suffered from a heart condition. Pre-existing conditions like cardio-vascular disease greatly increases the likelihood of death with COVID-19.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked, given what we think is coming, is there any discussion about passing legislation so that the Alabama Department of Corrections can release its oldest and most vulnerable inmates so they can get healthcare from Medicare or Medicaid rather than from the prisons health system?

“There have been no discussions about that,” McCutcheon said.

State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told reporters that the Legislature would pass “two bare-bones budgets.”

McCutcheon agreed with that but cautioned, “We want to see what kind of federal money is coming down.”

McCutcheon said that when the Legislature comes back, they will prioritize supplemental appropriations bills, the budgets, the education budget and members’ local bills. They would also prioritize economic growth bills. Priority will be given to bills that have already passed the House or the Senate.

“We will look at the time we have available,” McCutcheon said.

APR asked: Given what we think is coming we are going to need every nurse that we can get. Is there plans to work with the nursing schools and colleges to ramp up the training of the nursing students we already have in the pipeline to get them trained and out on the front lines?

McCutcheon said that there has been no discussion about changing the curriculum or the course of study for nurses, but “I do know that when we look at workforce development, we have recognized that there is a nursing shortage. They are looking at ways to increase that number.”

Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler asked if the Legislature would look at increasing the length of time that an unemployed person can receive unemployment compensation.

“I am not against looking at that,” McCutcheon said.

McCutcheon said that under the circumstances that, “We may have to look at ways to reassess the timeline,” on building new prisons but warned that the state will have to speak to the Department of Justice.

Passing sentencing reform and efforts to reduce recidivism “will depend on how much time we have left,” he said.

McCutcheon said that there is a possibility that the Governor will have to call a special session over the summer and if they had not met on Tuesday then there would have been a special session.

“The members are concerned about their districts,” McCutcheon said. “The governor is now having weekly conference calls with legislators.”

McCutcheon said that the leadership will be monitoring the situation and, “We may be in a position where we can not” go back into session.

The Alabama Senate had a similar meeting on Tuesday to change the rules and set April 28 as their next meeting day.

The Alabama Legislature must constitutionally pass the two budgets and conclude their legislative business by May 18.

 

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Governor

Legislature returns to a much different Statehouse

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Legislature will return from their spring break vacation Tuesday, but nothing is the same as it was two weeks ago.

Monday, the press was informed that the corps will be removed from the press rooms behind the chambers. Those rooms are being given to the legislators so that they can sit the necessary six feet apart. The press will move to the gallery looking down on the House Chambers. That will be our space exclusively as the public and the lobbyists are barred. The additional space will allow members of the press to also stay a minimum of six feet apart to avoid transmission of the coronavirus.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked if we would still have access to the fifth-floor lobby where citizens and lobbyists regularly met with members of the legislature who stepped off of the House floor. APR was told that we would not have access to any part of the fifth floor except by appointment and that extended to the entire Statehouse building.

Legislators were told in a conference call that if they feel sick, are showing symptoms of anything that they should just stay away from today’s meeting which is not essential. Legislators will gavel in and set April 17 as their next meeting date.

The reason they have to gavel in is that if they do not the session would automatically end and the constitutionally mandated budgets for the 2021 fiscal year beginning on October 1 have not been passed yet.

State Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, said that the legislator spoke with Gov. Kay Ivey and her team as well as legislative leaders.

Wadsworth said that they were told that conference calls are helpful and that members will receive a letter detailing the procedures to be followed by the members for the rest of this legislative year. There will be no visitors in the State House and all voting will be by voice so there will be no touching of voting machines.

The governor was to participate in a conference call with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence later that day.

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Ivey told them that Alabama will test for counterfeit supplies and watch for coronavirus scams and that the state will have an advance web site operating later this week. The state is, “Working with various Alabama companies to manufacture and produce various medical safety products.”

Wadsworth said that they were told that the state had had 831 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 15 reported deaths, though not all had been confirmed by the Alabama Department of Public Health, by that morning and that there were over 2500 deaths already in the United States.

Wadsworth said that the subject of hospitals came up. Hospitals are looking at expanding their ICU (intensive care unit) areas to deal with the demand for intensive care beds by COVID-19 patients. Hospital rooms are freeing up due to the elimination of elective procedures.

Wadsworth said also that the Apple Company, through President Tim Cook, is delivered 100,000 N-95 masks and surgical masks, the schools will not reopen physically this year, and teachers, workers and aides will practice social distancing when they go back into the school buildings on April 6,

Wadsworth said that State Superintendent Eric Mackey told them that the focus will be on graduating and getting students ready for this year. The State Board of Education building is being cleaned.

Legislators were informed that the Alabama National Guard is ready for when they are needed.

Wadsworth said that they were told that teletherapy will be used for mental health patients except for extreme patients. A 24/7 mental health help telephone lines available and that mental health patients are only being discharged when teletherapy is available at home.

Wadsworth said that State Finance Director Kelly Butler assured them that, “All vendors are being paid.” In the first six months of the fiscal year revenue held up good; but that he anticipates a decline though in revenues for the last six months of the current fiscal year. Butler did not anticipate calling for proration due to the strong first six months of the year. $300 million is being moved from the stabilization fund to the education trust fund (ETF) to ensure stable budget.

The 2020 Legislative Session will end by May 18.

 

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Governor

State ramping up for COVID-19 fight

Brandon Moseley and Nicole Jones

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, State Health Officer Scott Harris, Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield, Public Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear and Alabama National Guard Major General Sheryl Gordon briefed state legislators Monday about how the state intends to address the looming wave of COVID-19 cases as the virus spread across the state of Alabama virtually unchecked.

Ivey said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a team in the Montgomery area currently visiting the six major metro areas in our state studying existing facilities that can be used to provide additional hospital beds. The new hospitals would be in the greater Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, Tuscaloosa and Auburn areas.

U.S. Army Major General Diana Holland, who commands the South Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will be working with the Alabama Department of Public Health on this effort and will provide a report on their findings later this week.

It was explained that hotels provide the easiest conversion to hospitals as they already have bathrooms connected to each room and are built to handle large numbers of guests and staff.

Harris told the legislators that there were 831 cases of COVID-19 in Alabama as Monday morning, that number has risen now to nearly 1,000, and that there already have been 15 deaths reported, though the ADPH has publicly acknowledged 13 because not all have been officially investigated yet. The United States is up to 2,500 deaths nationwide.

Harris said that clinics are opening in Macon and Dallas counties on Monday, in Wilcox County Wednesday, and Houston on Thursday to provide more testing in the Wiregrass and Blackbelt. There are now 30 pop-up sites in these areas.

Harris said that hospitals are using available space to add additional ICU areas and that hospital unnecessary capacity has been diminished due to a recent health order prohibiting elective procedures.

Harris said that the ADPH has received its third and final shipment of personal protection equipment from our strategic national stockpile allocation. A certain amount of that is going to hotspot hospitals in crisis right now using the same formula based on the size and reported needs of the counties.

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Canfield said that his Department is working diligently to identify companies across Alabama that can manufacture PPE or who can quickly learn how to make the items we are most in need of. Canfield said that they have identified 30 companies so far.

Gordon said that the Alabama National Guard is assisting with logistics and warehousing of vital supplies. The Guard’s 12,000 soldiers and airmen are ready to serve. Gordon said that the Guard is abiding by CDC guidelines for the safety of the soldiers and airmen.

State Finance Director Kelly Butler said that his Department’s goal is to continue operations with social distancing and ensure that payments are made to health providers, Medicaid, and vendors that provide services.

Butler said that they implemented plans that allow them to do remote work with employees working at home continuing to process payments and transactions. “All vendors are being paid,” Butler said.

Butler warned that the revenues that are coming in for the 2020 budget will decline; but we have not seen a decline in the first six months of the fiscal year.

“We think that March receipts are based on February economic activity and expect to see sales and income tax decline in April’s numbers,” Butler said.

Butler said that because of the strong first six months, we do not expect to call for proration in the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

Ivey included changes to normal purchasing rules so Alabama can acquire the PPE we need.

Beshear said that the community mental health centers are using telemedicine. Home visits are required only in extreme cases.

President Donald Trump has extended his social distancing order to 30 April, Ivey said.

“Remember the 6-foot rule,” she said.

The U.S. is confronted with an unparalleled health threat.

On Sunday, noted Trump coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper that a lot of Americans are going to die.

“I mean, looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000,” Fauci said. “We’re going to have millions of cases.”

 

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