The Alabama Legislature on Monday met briefly for the first day in a special session to debate a $1.3 billion prison construction project and sentencing reform. Lawmakers hope to close out the session by Friday.
During the half-hour meeting, lawmakers didn’t debate the prison matters, but House Bill 4 was introduced later in the day. An earlier draft version of the bill would 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 are considering allowing as much as $154 million of the state’s general fund money and $400 million in federal COVID aid to be used toward the construction and renovation projects.
The House adjourned at 4:38 p.m. Monday and is to reconvene at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Committee meetings begin Tuesday morning and are to run into the afternoon, with House members returning to the House chamber for a second reading of the bill Tuesday afternoon. The House is set to begin debates on those bills on Wednesday. The Alabama Senate is to convene at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
The House Judiciary Committee is to meet at 11 a.m. to discuss two criminal justice reform bills introduced on Monday by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, that would allow incarcerated people serving for nonviolent offenses committed before a 2013 sentencing reform bill was passed to have their sentences re-evaluated.
The other reform bill 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.
“I am pleased and extremely hopeful that we are finally positioned to address our state’s prison infrastructure challenges,” Ivey said in a statement last week. “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.
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.
A rash of preventable deaths in Alabama prisons over the summer, many of which appear to be drug overdoses, highlight the DOJ’s concerns.
“These new prisons are very much needed. We have people living in inhumane situations. We definitely need to update our facilities,” said Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton , D-Greensboro, in a statement Monday. “We cannot build our way out of this situation. So, we must find a way to end the revolving door of recidivism, and develop programs to provide non-violent offenders with alternatives.”
Criminal justice reform advocates have said new prisons and the two reform bills won’t solve Alabama’s deadly prison crisis, and have urged lawmakers to take more substantive steps toward dealing with the systemic problems of violence, drugs and corruption in state prisons.
“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,” said Dillon Nettles, ACLU of Alabama’s director of policy and advocacy, in a statement.