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Opinion | Alabama must build more prisons but taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill

Nameplate reads J. Pepper Bryars

Vicious assault. Brutal rape. Cold-blooded murder. 

These are some of the crimes that will get you thrown into prison, but what if they’re also what could happen to you once you get there?

Sadly, a federal investigation found this is happening in Alabama’s prison system, and part of the problem is we’ve simply run out of room. 

“Our investigation revealed that an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama’s prisons on a regular basis,” wrote the authors of the report from the U.S. Department of Justice, adding that that one of the major factors is “severe overcrowding” and that the state doesn’t “provide adequate humane conditions of confinement.”

“These are human beings,” said one mother of an inmate who was repeatedly threatened with violence at the state prison near Atmore. “I feel like our society is getting too numb when it comes to human lives.” 

Alabama’s prison system was designed for about 9,900 inmates but it’s currently holding more than 16,000 – an occupancy rate of more than 165 percent, according to data published by the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

It gets worse in some places. The investigation found that the medium-security prison in Elmore County was at 272 percent occupancy, holding nearly 1,400 inmates in a facility designed to hold about 500. And Kilby Correctional Facility outside Montgomery was designed to hold 440 but currently has more than three times that amount. 

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While some were shocked by the details shared in the federal report and the graphic pictures from inside our prisons that were leaked to the press, others remain unconcerned. 

Alabama is a law-and-order state whose people believe in the adage that “if you do the crime, you do the time.” And a recent survey from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama found that a slight majority of us disagree with plans to build more prisons. 

But here’s the problem: if Alabama doesn’t get its act together than a federal court has said it may find us in violation of the Eighth Amendment and will force us to release thousands of these inmates before their sentences are complete. 

Do we really want that to happen?

Of course not, and that’s why the Alabama Policy Institute has begun organizing with a coalition of concerned individuals and organizations who seek to promote, among other reforms, the construction of three new state-of-the-art prisons. 

The Ivey Administration released plans earlier this year calling for one facility to be a centralized location for medical and mental health care, housing for older inmates and where prisoners first enter the system. It could house nearly 4,000 inmates. The other two would hold a little more than 3,000 prisoners each. 

Here’s the best part: Under the plan as currently proposed we wouldn’t have to raise taxes. 

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Estimates show it’d cost $900 million, but through a creative public-private partnership, developers would fund construction up-front and then the state would lease the facilities for up to $78 million annually. That money would come from savings realized by consolidating services and closing old facilities that are expensive to maintain. 

“Alabama truly does have a major problem with our overcrowding of our prisons,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said. “And it’s a challenge we Alabamians must solve, not the federal courts.”

This plan would go a long way in meeting not only our constitutional responsibilities but our moral obligations, as well. 

The vast majority of Alabamians profess to be Christians, and as written in the 13th chapter of Hebrews, we’re called to be “as mindful of prisoners as if you were sharing their imprisonment.” 

When our State Legislature convenes early next year for what’s expected to be a special session to address prison reform, Alabamians should ask ourselves if we are honestly living up to that standard.

And if we aren’t, it’s time to do something about it.  

J. Pepper Bryars is a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute and host of the 1819 podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @jpepperbryars.

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