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Alabama lawmakers schedule second hearing to hear from inmates’ families

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Legislative Prison Oversight Committee will hold another hearing on prison violence in July, earlier than originally planned. 

Held last December, the first such hearing saw families of incarcerated Alabamians share testimonies of violence within prisons, as well as their struggles with getting up-to-date information on the condition of their loved ones who, in many cases, they learned were injured from another inmate.

At a subsequent meeting of the committee in April, ADOC Commissioner John Hamm told lawmakers of ongoing efforts within the department to improve communications with inmate families. Those policy initiatives turned into legislation from Sen. Clyde Chambliss, who successfully passed them into law.

Senate Bill 322, which went into effect June 1, establishes a 15-person team whose sole responsibility is to facilitate communication between inmates and their families, as well as to update inmates’ families during instances of injury or death.

The topic of the conditions within Alabama’s prisons came up during a Legislative Contract Review Committee’s meeting Thursday when Mandy Speirs, assistant general counsel for the Alabama Department of Corrections, appeared before the committee to request several extensions on construction-related contracts.

House Speaker Pro Tem Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, used the opportunity to make a new plea to ADOC, stressing the urgent need to reduce violence within the state’s prison system.

“I know I’ve said this before, but I’ve gotten another call from another constituent where their son was beat up because the gangs are running our prisons, and the prison guards are bringing the drugs and the cell phones to the gang members,” Pringle said. 

“I mean, these people call me and they’re crying their eyes out because they’ve got a video tape of their son that’s just been (sexually assaulted) or beaten up by the gangs. I feel sorry for you all, but please God, we’ve got to do something to protect these prisoners. It’s insane what’s going on in our prison system.”

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, used the opportunity to announce that the next hearing of the Prison Oversight Committee had been moved to July 24. Roberts added that the hearing would be an opportunity to not only hear again from those with loved ones in prison, but to get an update on several recent changes to operations.

Sen. Dan Roberts speaks during a June 7 meeting of the Contract Review Committee at the State House in Montgomery.

Speirs acknowledged the ongoing problem within Alabama’s prisons, but said that ADOC had been making improvements.

“We are making strides in that area, and I would love to discuss with you offline what we’re working for,” Speirs said.

“I mean, it breaks my heart to hear,” Pringle said.

“And ours too,” Speirs responded.

After the meeting, Roberts told Alabama Daily News that the previous Prison Oversight Committee hearing was the “hardest two-and-a-half hours that I’ve sat here,” and that it was in large part due to that hearing that the second hearing had been moved up to next month.

“We care about every one of these guys, but it’s (a majority of) violent offenders that are behind bars, so it’s a tough deal, and we’re trying to get these prisons open to be in good shape, and so it’s a sticky wicket,” he told ADN.

Roberts said that SB322 was written as a direct result of the families’ comments during the December hearing, and that hopefully, some of their concerns might be addressed in the coming months. 

As to whether new legislation could be expected in 2025, Roberts said he was unsure, and that he’d like to first see the effectiveness of recent changes concerning ADOC operations, including SB322, the significant pay increases for prison guards and other positions to help with understaffing, and the construction of new, state-of-the-art prisons.

“We’ve got to give this time to work; they’re in the process of hiring people now to do these jobs, let’s give it a little bit of time, hopefully this is going to work and nothing else is required,” he said. “This is total bi-partisan support on what we’re doing, and so I’m very encouraged with it.”

For years, Alabama has struggled to manage its population, with many of its facilities in a state of disrepair. Alabama is currently facing a federal lawsuit due to its violent prison conditions, which if not addressed, could result in a federal takeover of the state’s prison system.

While a majority of Alabama’s prison population are indeed considered violent offenders, the actual percentage is in dispute.

In a 2023 report from the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, for instance, for instance, 83% of inmates were labeled as violent offenders, a figure produced by the Alabama Sentencing Commission. That same year, however, ADOC instead reported its violent offender population to be 67.5%, with the difference coming down to details in how inmates are classified as violent offenders.

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