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A special session on prisons is likely on the way

Rows of prison cells, prison interior.

Brace yourselves, another special session is coming.

At a press conference Thursday morning, Alabama legislators provided updates on the ongoing prison debacle and encouraged Gov. Kay Ivey to call a special session this fall to allow them to fully address the many issues.

Ivey issued a press release later in the day saying she would work with lawmakers, but she didn’t commit to a special session.

My administration pledges to continue to work closely with the Legislature to build consensus on any and all remedies necessary to solve these problems,” Ivey said. “And make no mistake, we need a solution that not only addresses today’s challenges but keeps us from having to deal with this issue again years from now. This problem has been kicked down the road for the last time.

“I believe everyone — the Legislature, the Department of Justice, the courts and, most especially, the people of Alabama — realizes there is no single solution, and there are no easy answers. I am encouraged to know that the Legislature will continue to work on solutions during the remainder of this session, we will remain in constant communication with one another during the coming weeks and months to keep this issue on the front burner.”

Alabama’s prison issues have been a growing and glaring problem for much of the last decade, but have drawn national attention — and attention from the Department of Justice, activist groups and federal courts — over the last five years.

The problems, as Ivey noted, are numerous, ranging from severe overcrowding to a shocking lack of health services to an appalling shortage of corrections officers. A recent report from the DOJ highlighted numerous horror stories gleaned from its lengthy investigation of Alabama’s prisons, including instances of ransom, daily and multiple stabbings, numerous deaths and the nation’s highest suicide rate among incarcerated individuals.

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The report from the DOJ gave Alabama lawmakers 49 days to come together and begin working to address the problems in good faith before the DOJ filed a federal lawsuit and ultimately intervene in prison operations, forcing the state to make and pay for corrective actions.

At Thursday’s press conference, Sen. Cam Ward, who has been leading the prison reform efforts the last several years, said he doesn’t believe the DOJ will file a lawsuit because state lawmakers have been working diligently to address the issues.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said he was concerned, however, that lawmakers couldn’t focus appropriately on the prison issues in the few remaining days of this legislative session, and he encouraged Ivey to call a special session.

Prior to the DOJ report, Ivey appeared to be leaning toward not calling a special session and instead using the governor’s powers to address many of the problems, particularly in building new prisons that would ease overcrowding and be safer. She has the authority to enter the state into a contract that would see a private company build prisons and then lease them to the state to operate for a monthly fee.

That option is appealing after years of infighting among lawmakers who are hesitant to spend the millions of dollars on prison construction or hesitant to lose prisons — which bring in millions of dollars and several hundred jobs — that are located in their districts.

But the lease option is also much more costly, and a group of lawmakers have already indicated that they would take considerable issue with the plan.

In the meantime, both the DOJ and a federal judge — who has ordered Alabama to dramatically improve its quality of health and mental health care services in prisons — are waiting to see progress.

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Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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