By Steve Flowers
As the 2021 Regular Legislative Session looms, the elephant in the room is the prison issue. The situation has grown more dire and imminent because the U.S. Justice Department has now filed suit against the State of Alabama.
When Kay Ivey took office in January of 2019, she and the new legislature knew that they were going to have to address the prison problem in the state. Fixing prisons is not a popular issue. It wins you no votes to fix a broken prison system. Prisoners do not vote. However, victims of crime generally are voters, and they are adamant and vociferous in their beliefs that those who committed crimes should be put behind bars, locked up and the keys thrown away.
Judges also believe in strict prison sentences, especially in Alabama. Our judges are elected in the Heart of Dixie. Therefore, our prisons are overcrowded.
Our men’s prisons are currently at 157% capacity. Gov. Ivey and this legislature did not cause this problem. It has been building up and festering for years. The chickens have just come home to roost under their watch.
Alabama prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years. Ivey’s predecessor, former Gov. Robert Bentley, proposed legislation that would have built new prisons with a bond issue. Lawmakers considered several courses of action but never came up with a solution.
The major obstacles to finding a remedy through legislative action is the cost factor and the location of any new prisons. Having a state prison in your district is a political plum for any legislator, especially those in rural districts. A prison is an economic boon to locals. It not only provides a host of jobs, but also has peripheral economic benefits.
The state realized the seriousness of this problem in April of 2019 when the Department of Justice stepped in and said Alabama has to do something or they will. The Feds have in the past taken over Alabama’s Prison System during the George Wallace vs. Judge Frank Johnson era. In recent years the federal government has taken over California’s prison system due to overcrowding. The ultimate leniency threshold seems to be 150% capacity.
When the Justice Department sent the warning, we were at 175% capacity. During the 2019 legislative session, the legislature, led by Senator Cam Ward, took some actions toward recidivism that has had an immediate impact. The Justice Department edict not only called Alabama out on overcrowding; it also addressed the excessive violence and the lack of mental health treatment among the inmates. However, they hung their hat on the constitutional rights that Alabama’s prisoners are not being provided adequate human conditions of confinement.
Therefore, the cornerstone solution is three new mega men’s prisons. Gov. Ivey took the bull by the horns and made an executive decision to proceed without legislative approval or input. She made the decision quietly and without discussion or hesitancy to go with private developers to build three new men’s correction facilities. The proposed sites are in Bibb, Elmore and Escambia Counties. The Department of Corrections already has major prisons in all three of these counties, which makes it a logical decision. Three separate prime developers have been chosen by the governor to finance, build and maintain the three prisons that the state would lease and operate.
The state’s cost for leasing these facilities would be capped at a total of $88 million a year. The Department of Corrections and the Governor say they can pay for the leases on new prisons through cost savings.
A good many legislators do not like Governor Ivey’s unilateral decision to proceed with contracting for new prisons without their consent. This is a big-ticket item that the legislature would like to be involved with since they are responsible for the funding and balancing of the state’s budgets.
The legislature will also need to address other issues outlined in the Department of Justice edict. This major issue of overcrowding seems to be a big tar-baby that the state legislature and governor have to focus on and resolve in the year 2021.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.