Coronavirus cases continue to surge in Alabama prisons, with corrections officials announcing a number of inmate deaths in recent weeks.
Between Aug. 27 and Dec. 16, the Alabama Department of Corrections reported 29 inmates had died while positive for COVID 19, bringing the total number of inmate deaths associated with the virus to 50. Read about them.
A lawsuit filed last week by the U.S. Department of Justice could lead to federal supervision of Alabama’s prison system. It’s the culmination of an investigation that began in 2016 and resulted in two scathing reports, published April 2019 and July 2020, that detailed rampant abuse of inmates.
Before filing the lawsuit, the DOJ spent more than a year negotiating with state officials and trying to get Alabama to improve its prison system.
University of Alabama law professor Jenny Carroll said the federal government got tired of waiting. “I think the fact they did go ahead and file suggests that the solutions the state came up with and were bringing to the table and were offering just weren’t enough,” said Carroll. “They weren’t enough in light of what DOJ was finding.” Read more.
MONTGOMERY — The House on Tuesday passed legislation that would require state inmates who work outside of the Alabama Department of Corrections facilities to wear electronic monitoring devices. Read more.
UPDATED MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison study group held its last public session Tuesday, with lawmakers on the body calling for more resources to keep potential inmates out of the state’s overcrowded, understaffed and violence-plagued prison system, as well as other steps to reduce the existing population and better equip those who leave the system to never return.
“I’ve got to come up with a report that says, ‘This is where we have unanimity, this is where we have differences of opinion,” said former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons. At Ivey’s request, Lyons has chaired the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. He was scheduled to meet with Ivey on Tuesday afternoon. Lyons said the group’s report should be complete and made public in a week or 10 days.
The study group, whose members also included state Finance Director Kelly Butler, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and a stand-in for Attorney Gen. Steve Marshall, began its work last summer. Charged with helping the state better address the prison system’s problems, it has reviewed major litigation facing the system, visited some of the state’s prisons and discussed the shortage of correctional officers. Read more.
As the Alabama Legislature winds down its regular session, state lawmakers are on track to boost the budget for the state’s prisons, they have approved a pay raise for correctional officers, and they expect to meet again in the fall to address other issues in a system that is still overcrowded, under-resourced and under the watchful eye of a federal judge and the U.S. Justice Department.
“There are lot of different issues, from mental health to overcrowding, the pay, to facilities,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
Friday is likely to be the last day of the regular session. On Wednesday, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that will give correctional officers “a one-time two-step salary increase,” and expand bonus opportunities for Department of Corrections employees. The measure takes effect Oct. 1, the first day of fiscal 2020.
Over the past few years, the Department of Corrections has seen its budgets increase by small amounts. For fiscal 2020, it expects to have a budget of $601 million. Most of that money would come from the state General Fund, which pays for most of state government’s non-educational functions.
The Legislature has approved and sent to the governor a General Fund budget that is slated to include money to cover the pay increase signed into law by Ivey, give money to hire and train 500 new corrections officers during fiscal 2020 and improve the prison system’s mental health services. Read more.
BirminghamWatch, in collaboration with B-Metro Magazine, documented the conditions under which correctional officers work for a story last year:
MONTGOMERY – Gov. Kay Ivey’s first legislative session since winning a term in her own right will feature a laundry list of contentious issues when it begins Tuesday.
On the top of that list is Ivey’s proposal to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for improving roads and bridges, which could be one of the first votes the GOP-led Alabama Legislature will be asked to take.
Ivey’s infrastructure plan will be the predominant issue of the 15-week session. Advocates for the first statewide gas tax increase since 1992 say bad roads are dangerous, cause costly congestion and hinder economic development. But passage of the legislation is not a sure thing in the 140-member Legislature where 41 members are new this year.
Other potential high-profile bills include a proposal for a statewide lottery, a likely teacher pay raise request and continued attempts to address the state’s understaffed and aging prisons.
In a recent interview with Alabama Daily News, Ivey said she knew that confronting difficult issues was going to be necessary when she decided to run.
“When I was trying to wrestle with the idea of even making a race for governor, I had to face the fact that our state has some very difficult challenges and needs,” Ivey said.
“Because they’ve been, with the prisons and the infrastructure, neglected for years and years and decades. I knew if I was successful in running for governor, I was going to have to deal with those. And you don’t look forward to dealing with difficult things, but that was one of the soul-searching questions that I had to answer for myself. Was I willing, if I was going to run for governor, would I be willing to take on the high priority needs that the state has because of neglect by others through the years?
“And it was a hard decision for me to make because we have some heavy lifts.” Read more.
Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections aren’t yet talking publicly about possible fixes for the state’s crowded and aging prisons, but they are extending a multimillion-dollar contract with an outside project manager to study construction needs.
Some leaders in the Statehouse say they expect Ivey to move forward with a plan for new prisons that doesn’t require legislative approval.
“We’re going to have several prison-related bills (in the 2019 legislative session), but none will be infrastructure,” Sen. Cam Ward said recently. He expects Ivey next year will begin the process to pay private companies for prison space.
“XYX company builds it, we lease it,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said. The new prisons would be staffed and run just like state-owned facilities. Read more.