Alabama governor touts prison plan ahead of special session

Published 9:24 pm Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday blamed crumbling infrastructure for the state’s prison problems as she prepares to call lawmakers back to Montgomery for a special session on prison construction.

“The main issue contributing to these struggles is that our prison infrastructure is growing worse, day by day and is not capable of truly rehabilitating inmates,” Ivey said in a speech to a Montgomery civic club.

Ivey is calling a special session next week for lawmakers to vote on a $1.3 billion prison construction plan that would use $400 million of the state’s virus relief funds for prison construction. Ivey said Alabama — already facing a Department of Justice lawsuit and separate court orders to improve on prison staffing and mental health treatment — is risking a federal takeover of the prison system.

“The federal courts have lawsuits against us, and they are getting closer and closer to wanting to intervene. That is something we cannot let happen. If they take over, they’ll turn prisoners out, no questions asked, free the prisoners, take control of the money the Legislature normally has priority over spending,” Ivey told reporters.

While Ivey has put the focus on facilities, some lawmakers and advocacy groups have argued new buildings will not fix the issues, including those raised in the Justice Department lawsuit.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Alabama over conditions in the state’s prisons, saying it is failing to protect male inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

“Buildings alone will NOT address the DOJ concerns. We need real leaders who will,” the ACLU of Alabama wrote in a tweet last week.

Ivey said Tuesday that she is considering “some reforms, possibly” in the special session and is in discussion with lawmakers.

The $1.3 billion proposal calls for at least three new prisons — at least a 4,000-bed prison in Elmore County with enhanced space for medical and mental health care needs; another at least 4,000-bed prison in Escambia County; and a women’s prison — as well as renovations to existing facilities.

The plan includes the purchase of an empty private prison in Perry County for rehabilitation programs.

The projects would be done in phases and partly funded with a $785 million bond issue, $150 million in general fund dollars and $400 million from the state’s $2.2 billion share of American Rescue Plan funds, a key lawmaker who drafted the proposal said.

Ivey said using the virus relief funds will allow the state to build the prisons without borrowing as much money. Asked by a reporter if there were many other needs for the COVID-19 relief money, the governor replied that was speculation and “you’ve got your opinion and I’ve got mine.”

Republican Rep. Steve Clouse, who is sponsoring the bill, said the construction proposal, “seems to have overwhelming support in the House and the Senate.”

Clouse said the buildings are a “a piece” of the solution. He said he is hopeful that more secure facilities will help the Department of Corrections in recruiting and retaining staff.