By Michelle Mann
The fact that Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded was not debated. Nor was the fact that a solution needs to be found at a state level before the federal courts intervene.
What was debated at the Dale County Republican Committee meeting June 20 was how the state should deal with the fact that the state prison population is at about 186 percent of what the facilities were originally designed for.
Dr. Stephen C. Miller, chairman of department of economics at Troy University and director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy in the Sorrell College of Business and David Grice, the mayor of Clio, were keynote speakers at the event.
Both have studied the recently defeated Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, created by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and Alabama Department of Corrections Director Jeff Dunn.
The APTI called for consolidations of 14 of the state’s prisons into four large, regional correctional facilities, which would have been financed by an $800 million bond issue. “It would be the second largest bond issue in the state’s history,” Miller said. “Our immediate reaction, at the Johnson Center is, let’s start by being really careful.”
Under the governor’s proposal, which did not pass in the recent legislative session, three of the facilities would have housed 4,000 male inmates each and one facility would have housed the 1,200 female inmates.
The ADOC is authorized to have 5,832 employees but is currently staffed with 3,818, resulting in an overall staffing level of 65 percent. The ADOC currently houses over 24,000 inmates, an occupancy rate of nearly 190 percent.
Miller explained the “important difference” between the sentencing reform that the legislature passed last year and the reform of the actual prison facilities. Until last year’s legislation—also commonly known as prison reform—it was “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing with a third felony conviction mandating a prison sentence. The consequence was a dramatic increase in state prison population over the last 20 years.
The new law, which went into effect in January, creates a new class of felonies for low-level drug and property crimes in an effort to keep offenders out of state prisons and into supervised probation and community corrections programs. Alabama has reclassified third-degree burglary as a nonviolent crime.
The sentencing reform law required the hiring of 100 additional probation and parole officers. It also mandated that parole boards create standardized guidelines statewide, give reasons why inmates are denied parole and reduce punishments for minor parole violations.
The exact ramifications of this sentencing reform have not had enough time to surface, Miller said, adding that his group has suggested building one new prison at a time rather than four at one time.
Overcrowded prisons and “definite understaffing” are causes for federal intervention if the state does not change something soon, Miller said. “The practical reason to be concerned about that is that the federal government may actually take over the prison system and if there is anyone you don’t want to have get involved and make reforms for you it’s the federal government.
One of the disadvantages to the regional, mega-prisons, Miller said, is that they will no longer be local. “When there are large centralized prisons with 5,000-6,0000 inmates, gangs prevail because there are too few correctional officers for that many inmates.”
Not being local is a huge problem for his Barbour County town of less than 2,000, Clio Mayor David Grice told the group. Clio has been home to Easterling Correctional Facility since 1990.
“The revenue stream generated by Clio’s contract with the state of Alabama for water and sewer alone—my little town will sustain a loss of about $36,000 a month in income,” Grice said. “You’re talking about laying off policemen, municipal court, more importantly you’re talking about laying off 110 corrections officers who work there that live in Barbour, Dale, Henry and Houston Counties. You’ve also got about 65-70 support personnel working there.
“The economic impact of closing Easterling on my little town is that it will basically force me to hand the keys over to whoever wants it first,” Grice said. “The economic impact that you’re going to have is catastrophic.”
Grice noted that the APTI was a dead issue in the recent legislative session but said it would not be realistic to think that it would not resurface and that he wanted the public to be aware of the potential impact to the area. “When it comes down to it, I was elected to serve my people and look out for what’s going on with them,” Grice said. “And that’s what I am going to do.”
“We’re not politicians, we’re economists,” Miller said. “This is a very expensive, complex affair but if it really needs to be done—showing the federal government that you are starting to reform the prison system—so much could be learned from building just one and seeing how it works and learning from the mistakes there.”
State Rep. Steve Clouse said that the APTI, which did fail to pass the Alabama House of Representatives, expected to repay the bond issue with the savings generated by closing the antiquated prisons. Repayment of the bond issue had been based upon the cost savings generated by a large, consolidated building project, he said.
“You brought up a good point on building just one prison,” Clouse said, explaining the history of the legislation that had started at a $700 million bond issue to build three men’s prisons. “Tutwiler wasn’t even on the drawing board. That’s where the rub came.
“Tutwiler just needs to be a new women’s prison or the feds are going to come in there and shut it down, so the issue became to add another $100 million to build Tutwiler—that brought it to $800 million.”
Clouse said that he had co-sponsored a revenue-generating bill that would have raised the fee for certification new vehicle title to $28. “It hasn’t been changed since 1986,” Clouse said. “They pay $90 in Florida.”
Clouse said his bill passed in the House of Representative but it didn’t pass the Senate. It would have raised approximately $19 million a year, Clouse said, adding that the money could have been earmarked for building a new Tutwiler Prison. “We could have built that prison and paid it off in six or seven years. Then there would have been a revenue stream to help with the others.”
Miller agreed with the urgency to built Tutwiler, adding that Elmore and Draper should have been condemned long ago. “Commissioner Dunn and the governor are absolutely committed to doing it all at once,” Miller said. “They need to start realizing those savings of $50 million a year because that is how they are going to pay for the bond issue. They don’t have it in their budget elsewhere.”
Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson said that transporting prisoners to and from regional prisons would be more of a hardship on the smaller, rural law enforcement departments than it will be for Dale County. “But we haven’t given the prison reform act enough time to see how it’s going to affect our prison population overall,” he said.
“I realize that Julia Tutwiler needs to be rebuilt. It’s the oldest prison in the state of Alabama, built in 1941. Draper was built in 1939,” Olson said. “But the reality of this is that we haven’t seen how the sentencing reform is going to affect us and we need to do that first.”
Grice agreed. “The construction cost (for the new prisons) is so exaggerated. I’m just an old small town fellow but I ain’t buying into that,” he said. “We could streamline some other things in Montgomery before we spend $800 million on a problem that won’t get fixed.
“You’re not going to solve the problem building four new prisons,” Grice said. “You’re going to cause four generations of Alabamians to have to pay back $50 million a year.”