There is a rising wave of violence in Alabama’s prisons. Recently in Elmore County, three inmates were killed by other prisoners in a ten-day period. In March of last year, the warden of Holman Prison in Atmore was stabbed by an inmate during a riot. A few months later, at the same prison, correctional officer Kenneth Bettis, a decorated Army veteran who served with the Alabama Army National Guard in Iraq, was stabbed and killed by an inmate. Overcrowding – Alabama’s prisons are 173 percent above capacity– has created this dangerous situation and it places our correctional officers in harm’s way.
A federal takeover of the Department of Corrections is a realistic threat if we don’t get our house in order. Consider California: in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court found that California’s overcrowded prisons were a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Court ordered the state to lower its prison capacity to 137.5 percent. The Court also found that inmates in California’s prisons were not receiving a constitutionally-required level of medical and mental health care, and wrote that overcrowding had created unsafe conditions that make “progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve.”
A panel of three federal judges now oversees California’s prison system to ensure compliance with the order – and compliance has been costly to the state and its taxpayers. Court-imposed regulations have ripped a gaping hole in California’s budget and prostrated the state’s autonomy under the federal bench’s crushing oversight. The panel ordered the state to release 46,000 prisoners to reduce overcrowding, and California’s per capita healthcare spending on inmates has exploded from $7,747 in 2005 to more than $18,000 in 2013 as it strives to meet the demands of the three-judge panel.
Alabama could face a similar path if we don’t act quickly.
Last year, the Alabama Legislature started work on a prison reform bill to update our dilapidated correctional facilities and avoid California’s miserable plight. Governor Bentley proposed a bond issuance of $800 million for the construction for four new prisons, but the proposal was met with many questions and some skepticism. Since then, I have worked closely with State Senators Cam Ward and Greg Albritton to develop a construction plan that better protects taxpayers, while still solving our problem of unsafe and overcrowded prisons. Last week, the State Senate passed a prison reform bill that does just that.
Senate Bill 302 allows for the construction of three new prisons, which would dramatically reduce overcrowding and increase the safety of our correctional officers. New prisons should also decrease recidivism — the cycle of prison re-entry — by increasing the space for job-training programs and faith-based counseling ministries so desperately needed by those about to be released.
The legislation includes local communities by allowing them to participate in the process, giving them control of their own destiny, instead of a top-down approach where the Legislature picks who gets a state prison and who does not. The proposal authorizes the State enter lease agreements with counties and cities to finance and construct the new facilities, and establishes clear criteria for how the lease agreements will be awarded. SB 302 protects against waste and cost overruns by requiring Corrections to hire an outside project manager to oversee construction of the facilities, and limits the bond authority to $325 million.
The status quo is our most expensive, self-imposed option. If we don’t build new prisons, the courts are going to force us to do so and that will cost much more than if we do it ourselves. Modern, circular designs are more cost-effective to operate than existing dormitory-style jails, and we will repurpose currently appropriated dollars to help pay for the cost of the new prisons.
Men like Kenneth Bettis protect us from criminals and deserve to return home to their families each night. These correctional officers should not be under the constant threat of injury or death because the state does not have adequate prison space.
Clyde Chambliss represents all or parts of Autauga, Elmore, Chilton, Coosa, and Tallapoosa Counties in the Alabama Senate. Follow him on Twitter for the latest legislative updates: @Clyde_SD30