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Governor officially calls special session to address prison crisis

The proclamation calls for prison construction and renovation, and consideration of two reform bills that failed to pass during the last legislative session.

Gov. Kay Ivey

Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday officially called a special session where lawmakers will, beginning Monday, debate a plan to build new prisons and two sentencing reform measures. 

Ivey’s proclamation setting the special session was expected, and states the Legislature is to meet Monday at 4 p.m. to “take up the following specifically prescribed subjects and matters.” Lawmakers hope the session will take no more than a week. 

Among them is a plan to allow a bond issuance not to exceed $785 million to build two new men’s prisons and a prison for women, in addition to renovations of four existing prisons. Additionally, lawmakers will consider allowing as much as $154 million of the state’s general fund money and $400 million in federal COVID aid to be used towards the construction and renovation projects. 

The proclamation also calls for lawmakers to consider a bill that would allow incarcerated people serving for nonviolent offenses committed before a 2013 sentencing reform bill was passed to have their sentences re-evaluated. Separate legislation would make a 2015 law retroactive, thereby increasing the number of incarcerated people who could be released before the end of their sentence and supervised by the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Both of those bills were filed during the last Legislative session by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, but failed to pass before the end of the session. 

“I am pleased and extremely hopeful that we are finally positioned to address our state’s prison infrastructure challenges,” Ivey said in a statement Thursday. “I appreciate the hard work of the legislative leadership and the many members who have worked diligently with my team to put us in position for a bipartisan proposal. While this issue was many years in the making, we stand united to provide an Alabama solution to this Alabama problem.”

Alabama is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for alleged unconstitutional treatment of incarcerated men, including a lack of basic health care and mental health care in understaffed and deadly facilities. 

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In previously released reports, the Justice Department detailed systemic problems of abuse from guards, corruption, rampant drug use, violence, overcrowding and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons. The DOJ in those reports states that while new prison facilities might help in some areas, new buildings won’t fully address the state’s widespread, deadly problems in its prisons.

rash of preventable deaths in Alabama prisons over the summer, many of which appear to be drug overdoses, highlight the DOJ’s concerns. 

A recent draft of the prison bill lays out a plan to build a specialized 4,000-bed men’s prison in Elmore County, another 4,000-bed men’s prison in Escambia County, a new women’s prison and renovations to four existing prisons. A bond issuance of up to $785 million would pay for phase one of the planned construction, which includes both new prisons for men.

Phase two comprises of construction of the new women’s prison, to replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, and renovations of prisons in Limestone and Jefferson counties, and renovations of one prison in either Barbour or Bullock counties. 

“We all recognize that building new prisons is a significant step towards improving the corrections system in this state, but at the same time, it is only one piece,” Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, told APR prior to Ivey’s proclamation being released. “So far, we like what we’ve heard from our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and I feel pretty good about a deal being reached. But we must have necessary reform measures included and including Tutwiler has to be part of this process.”

Adding any additional items to the list of matters to be debated during the special session would take a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, which would be unlikely. 

Dillon Nettles, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Alabama, in a statement on Thursday expressed displeasure that Ivey didn’t include more substantive reform measures in her proclamation. 

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“We are disappointed that Governor Ivey is limiting the upcoming special session to prison infrastructure and only one minor sentencing reform, instead of focusing on more substantive solutions to Alabama’s broken criminal justice system,” Nettles said “Our leaders need to ensure that we are not just building more prisons, but that we are devoting time to creating comprehensive and progressive policies that address the harsh conditions and unfair practices that currently plague our system. Alabama needs new policies, not new buildings.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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