Alabama Prisons

Legislature to Get Bills Addressing Needs of Alabama’s Troubled Prisons

Runners, inmates who work at the prison, walk the halls of Donaldson Correctional Facility. (Source: Cameron Carn

MONTGOMERY — In her state of the state address to open the current legislative session, Gov. Kay Ivey praised the work of a study group she appointed to “address the needs to rehabilitate those within our prison system” and said she looked forward to working with lawmakers “on bills specifically designed to address some of these issues.”

Now it looks as if the rubber is about to hit the road.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, one of the six legislators on the prison study group and one of the Legislature’s experts on the overcrowded and violence-plagued prison system, met with two staffers from Ivey’s office on Thursday afternoon — legislative liaison William Filmore and policy adviser Jonathan Hester — to discuss a package of prison bills that Ivey’s office is putting together. The governor’s package could come forth next week, Ward said, and he said he may be the Senate sponsor of some of the bills. He also said he plans to hold hearings on the package before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is chairman.

As described generally by Ward, the measures in the package reflect some of the recommendations of the study group, which issued a report earlier this year. The governor’s office said it had no comment.

Ward said one of the bills expected in the package would create a deputy prison commissioner to oversee the programs to help inmates re-enter society. Another, reflecting a concern of prison study group member Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would require the Department of Corrections to promptly disclose the violent incidents that take place in its prisons.

“No more media having to get a court order to get them out,” Ward said.

Still another measure anticipated in the yet-to-be-released package would allow inmates who commit no infractions and complete certain education programs – getting a high school equivalency certificate commonly known as a GED, for example, or getting licensed in HVAC repair – to have their sentences reduced or to be considered sooner for parole.

Other anticipated parts of the package may be controversial, Ward said. One would allow for certain classes of inmates who commit no disqualifying infractions to leave prison before the end of their sentences and receive support and supervision to help them stay out.

Having an inmate serve an entire five-year sentence when he should be able to leave sooner “makes us all feel good, but what we discovered was, it’s terrible for recidivism,” Ward said. “You really want to get him out at four, and then say, ‘For the next 12 months, you’re gonna be supervised, you’re going to do drug tests, you’re going to check in with somebody to make sure you’re doing good.’ That transition period works. But if you go all the way to EOS (end of sentence) …, on the last day of five years you get out, there’s no supervision, there’s nothing. You get a check, a bus ticket, good luck … That’s terrible for your recidivism rate. It just doesn’t work.”

Like all of Alabama’s prisons, Kilby Correctional Facility is overcrowded and understaffed. (Source: Mary Scott Hodgin,WBHM)

Another measure expected in the package could lead to shorter sentences or parole consideration for several hundred inmates who were serving life without parole before sentencing reforms in 2015 removed some offenses that figured into the state’s tough-three-strikes and you’re out law. Under the 2015 reforms, these inmates would not be serving life without parole, Ward said.

Alabama prisons have been in the spotlight for years, and the spotlight has not put them in a favorable light. At present, the system has about 11,800 beds and more than 21,000 inmates. A suit over mental health treatment in the prisons is still before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery, and a U.S. Justice Department report issued last year found corruption, violence, sexual abuse, poor management, deteriorating buildings, understaffing and other shortcomings. The Department of Corrections recently announced closure of part of Holman Prison near Atmore, and it has already closed Draper Correctional Facility, a prison built in 1938 north of Montgomery.

In its last regular session, the Legislature approved a pay increase for correctional officers, and funding to hire and train 500 new officers during fiscal 2020 and to improve the prison system’s mental health services. On Thursday, a class of 85 new correctional officers graduated at the Alabama Corrections Academy in Selma.

In her recent state-of-the-state speech, Ivey said the state had “no choice but to reinvent our corrections system by replacing outdated and unsafe facilities that pose a great risk to public safety – and inhibit development of programs for inmate rehabilitation.” She added that Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn was spearheading “efforts to build three new prisons that will transition our facilities from warehousing inmates to rehabilitating people.”

“You need construction,” Ward said, “mainly because (when) we’re talking about hiring 200 and something more …  mental health workers, there’s nowhere for them to go … Drug rehab, prison education, you don’t have enough space.

“You’re not building for capacity … you’re building for treatment and programming’s sake.”