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House GOP caucus meets on prison plan

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama House Republicans met for more than two hours Wednesday to discuss their potential support and concerns about draft legislation to build new prisons and renovate old ones using a combination of state, federal and borrowed funds.

According to legislative leaders, the first phase of the plan includes building two new men’s prisons at a total cost of $1.2 billion, with a third of that potentially coming from federal stimulus funds and a significant amount borrowed in a bond issue.

“I think this is a good piece of legislation,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said. “I think it will satisfy the courts and moving forward I think the members will continue to study it and raise questions and make sure everyone has the answers to their questions.”

The Senate GOP caucus is expected to hold a similar meeting today.

In a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, Gov. Kay Ivey called the prison infrastructure issue urgent.

“We are already under a variety of federal court orders that impose certain mandates, which take critical funds away from hardworking Alabamians and families,” Ivey said. “And if our prison infrastructure issues are not resolved in a timely manner and the state is unsuccessful in court, our budgets will be even more significantly impacted. As Alabama did in past years, we could once again be subject to government by federal court order rather than government by our own elected officials.”

A second draft on the prison proposal is slightly scaled back from the first that emerged last month. The draft calls for a multi-phase plan that includes:

  • Phase I: Two new 4,000-bed men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties;
  • Phase II: A new 1,000 bed women’s prison in Elmore County and renovations or demolition and reconstruction to existing prisons in Jefferson and Limestone counties and either Barbour or Bullock counties;
  • Phase III: When Phase II is mostly complete, the Alabama Department of Corrections will perform “an evaluation of men’s prison facilities based on a current facilities assessment and inmate population trends to determine if additional facility beds need to be replaced.”

The bill also allows for the purchase or rental of the Perry County Correctional Facility. The privately owned prison, which is currently empty, would be used to facilitate work release and other rehabilitative and re-entry efforts.

The bill would authorize the state to borrow up to $785 million. The annual debt service on the bond would be about $50 million, according to a summary document obtained by ADN.

McCutcheon said he expects to have an estimate on how many caucus members support the bill as soon as early next week. The legislation will be carried by House General Fund budget committee chairman Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.

Clouse said he expects to be able to use about $400 million from the state’s American Rescue Plan funds and about $150 million from the General Fund budget. That means construction can start on at least the first facility without borrowing any money from the state and hopefully construction can begin soon after legislation is passed.

“So that helps us save on interest expense down the road and we can go ahead and get this started because time is money, and if we can get things going quicker than that’s better for us as for our far reaching goal here and it sends a message to the Department of Justice that we want to get into compliance and move forward,” Clouse said.

McCutcheon said the bill would start in the House. While it’s not certain yet when Ivey might call a special session on prisons, McCutcheon did say that it would need to happen before a special session on reapportionment. That’s expected in late October or early November.

Attempts to reach leaders in the minority caucus were not successful Wednesday.

Members of the House and Senate leadership have worked for months on the draft legislation, consulting with Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections.

But Wednesday was the first time the caucus as a whole could ask questions about the proposal. Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, said based on what he heard, he’s supportive of the bill. He said he asked specifically about a commitment from ADOC to vacate emptied prisons so the state didn’t have continued maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, low interest rates are in the state’s favor.

“I think this is the time to get it done,” Reynolds said. 

He also said under the plan, the Limestone Correctional Facility not far from his district would get technology and facility upgrades.

Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, told ADN that she is hopeful for the success of the new bill since this has been the accumulation of months of work and thinks it is their best chance to move forward in prison reform legislation.

“I think we’ve got to do something,” Rowe said. “We absolutely have to do something or I do think that we risk federal intervention, and no one wants that. I think that we’ve got to show a little less talk and a lot more action and I think that this plan gives us the opportunity to do that.”

Rowe, a retired police chief and who has been heavily involved with prison reform legislation in the past, said that while financial concerns should be discussed, she also hopes House members consider the human cost of Alabama’s prisons.

“At some point it just became the appropriate time to talk about some other issues, how you treat people that you lock up, how you treat the correctional officer who are responsible for overseeing these people,” Rowe said.

Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, told ADN that he is leaning toward approving the bill but still needs more time to fully evaluate it.

“I think this is the most reasonable proposal that I have seen in all the time we’ve been dealing with this, so I think it’s got a great deal of potential and well thought through,” Ball said.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, told ADN he thought Wednesday’s meeting was fruitful but he hasn’t made a final decision on his support.

“I want to read the bill a bit closer because I know we need to do something and I’m OK with that, but I want to make sure we do the right something and not just jump on it because the federal government is threatening us,” Wood said.

The three new prisons would be built on land the state already owns. The new men’s prison in Elmore County would be designed with space for medical, mental and other health care needs, substance abuse and treatment space and educational and programming space.

One year after the completion of the two new men’s prisons, the existing Hamilton Aged and Infirmed Center and the Staton, Elmore, and Kilby facilities would all be closed, according to the draft.

Similarly, the current Julia Tutwiler women’s prison would close after the completion of a new female facility.

Lawmakers early this year balked at Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to lease three new men’s prisons from private builders for nearly $3 billion over 30 years. That plan fell apart in June when one of the builders couldn’t secure financing.

The draft bill says “existing prison facility infrastructure lacks sustained maintenance and lifecycle replacement has not been routinely performed on all facilities” and “in many facilities, renovation would be uneconomical or cost-prohibitive.”

Ivey’s letter cites $1 billion in deferred maintenance at current prisons, the result “of decades of neglect.”

“Now, however, through strong collaboration and hard work from your leadership in the Alabama Legislature – representing both chambers and both parties – you will receive a plan that will go a long way toward addressing these critical, decades-old issues,” she wrote.

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