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Poll shows current prison building plan has low approval

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new poll from Auburn University at Montgomery shows that while a majority of Alabamians favor some type of reform to the state’s prison system, respondents liked the plan being currently pursued by the state the least.

The results of the poll showed that out of the eight options given for prison reform ideas, the option to have private firms build three prisons and then lease them to the state received the least amount of approval at 14.5%.

The proposal option that got the most approval was to “reduce or eliminate criminal sentences for non-violent crimes” which got a 36.6% approval.

Gov. Kay Ivey recently announced three sites for mega-prisons as one of the state’s tactics in handling the overcrowding, violence and multiple other issues Alabama’s prisons have faced in recent years. Ivey’s office has said the state will spend up to $88 million a year leasing the prisons from private builders. They’ll be staffed by Alabama Department of Corrections’ employees.

Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, told Alabama Daily News that Ivey supports a multifaceted approach to fixing Alabama’s prison problems.

“Prison infrastructure is a key part of the equation, but criminal justice reform is also needed,” Maiola said. “We were making great strides during the last regular session, before COVID-19 derailed what probably would have been the passing of a series of criminal justice reform bills. New infrastructure is the first phase of a comprehensive solution, and Gov. Ivey looks forward to revisiting the issue during the 2021 regular session.”

The emailed statement also said that reducing Alabama’s complex prison reform discussions into a single poll may not produce an accurate picture of the situation.

“Prison reform is a complex issue that would be hard to appropriately define within the context of a poll, and I would be curious to see if the full scope of our prison’s complex challenges were laid before the respondents,” Maiola said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, also took issue with the poll and thinks more context needed to be given.

“Without putting it all into context, the poll is misleading because it makes you think that prisons are full of non-violent people when actually the majority is not non-violent,” Ward told ADN.

According to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ most recent monthly statistical report from August, 67.9% of its population are considered violent offenders.

Other results of the poll include 30% of respondents favoring the options to “parole inmates convicted of non-violent crimes.” The next most favored is “increase funding for prison staff such as correctional officers, health care providers, educators,” at 27.5%.

The choice to “increase funding to improve existing prison facilities” garnered 25.9% approval and the choice to “construct new prisons to be operated by the state” got 21.4% approval.  The second to last favored option was “increase funding for probation officers” which received 15.2%.

Ward also said that public support for building new prisons is never going to be very high but thinks Alabamians prefer it over releasing more inmates.

“I don’t think I can tell you I’ve ever seen a poll where people say ‘I love the idea of building prisons,’” Ward said. “…and I bet you if you poll the people of Alabama and ask would you let half of the prison population out, I bet that poll would be turned on its head.”

The proposal that Democrat respondents approved of the most was to “reduce or eliminate criminal sentence for non-violent crimes” at 48.7%.

Republican respondents were more mixed in their favored proposals but overall approved the idea of building new prisons more than Democrat respondents: only 25% supported a proposal to build new state-run prisons, and only 18% supported a proposal to lease prisons from private contractors.

The AUM poll was conducted between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3 and solicited online participation from 1,072 registered voters. Respondents were weighted according to demographic factors such as age, gender, race, education and income to produce a more representative sample of Alabama’s voting-age population. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points.

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