Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, on Monday expressed optimism that the state will address its long-neglected prisons in this week’s special session of the Alabama Legislature.
“All of us are optimistic about getting something done,” McCutcheon said. That optimism is based on “the meetings we have had thus far with both respective caucuses,” he said.
The speaker said that in addition to the infrastructure improvements, the “other two bills are reform issues.”
House Bill 1 allows inmates sentenced more harshly than the 2013 sentencing guidelines to be eligible for resentencing while HB2 gives inmates re-entering society a period of supervised release by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles at the end of their sentences.
“People are going to get out,” McCutcheon said of the need for passing justice reform to try to reduce recidivism.
“These are some bills we identified in the last session,” McCutcheon said. “They seemed to have good support.”
McCutcheon said that he expects a “much more aggressive” justice reform package during the 2022 Legislative Session.
The Legislature has been considering justice reform and prison construction issues since 2015 without actually doing that much. Reporters asked McCutcheon why he thinks this special session will be different.
“I think one of the things is the education process of dealing with the same issue year after year have built us up to this point,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon said that the new prisons will all be on land already owned by the state, reducing the cost of new prisons. The speaker added that “we need to take better care” of our prison facilities and do a better job of doing maintenance. The speaker added that the House had already drafted legislation to build new prisons, but that they chose not to act due to “the lease program put out by the governor at the start of the last session.”
“We backed away from it in support of the governor,” McCutcheon said. “The planning that was already done for the lease program” contributed to the prison plan.
“A plan that is $780 million bond issue versus a $2 billion bond issue,” McCutcheon said of this plan versus Gov. Kay Ivey’s private lease build plan that failed in May.
“We are also looking at some federal dollars we did not have available a year ago,” McCutcheon said of $400 million in American Rescue Act that the Legislature is using to help pay for the new prisons.
The plan includes building new men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia Counties as well as the construction of a new women’s prison in Elmore County and the renovation of several existing prisons, including one in Jefferson County. The plan also includes closing some of the state’s existing prisons.
“Members will look at those facilities that could be closed,” McCutcheon said. “Are they worth the investment to keep them open? We wanted to look at those facilities to see if they could be repurposed.”
McCutcheon suggested that there could be several counties coming together to turn a closing ADOC prion “into a work-release facility. It may close for one purpose and be repurposed for another purpose.”
APR asked: The state is under a federal court order to hire 2,000 new prison guards. It has been three years and as of last spring, the Department of Corrections has only been able to hire about 300 of that. Has the Legislature considered raising Department of Correction pay so that they make more money than other law enforcement officers to fill that gap?
“I don’t know what kind of discussions are going on in the Department of Corrections about pay scale,” McCutcheon said. “Those men and women should get comparable pay. At the end of the day, there has not been any discussion about comparing them to another state agency.”
McCutcheon said that the plan would be in committee on Tuesday and be voted on the House floor on Wednesday.
Reporters asked if this plan would be enough to satisfy the Department of Justice, which is suing the state, claiming that Alabama’s treatment of its prisoners is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
“I am confident that if we do nothing that they are going to do,” McCutcheon said. “I would hope that the federal government will see our effort. We are moving forward with a good plan.”
“It has been well thought out and planned,” McCutcheon said of the plan.