The Alabama Senate on Thursday approved a state prison construction plan, taking significant steps to solve the long-standing crisis in Alabama’s prisons.
After nearly three hours of debate, Senators voted 23-11 for Senate Bill 302, which authorizes a $350 million state bond issue to build one new prison and renovate others.
Gov. Robert Bentley, a strong advocate for prison reform, calls the vote a “step in the right direction” even though it differs from his original proposal of $800 million.
“Today Alabama took a step in the right direction to solve a decades old problem facing the Alabama Department of Corrections,” said Bentley in a news release. “I commend the Alabama Senate for their work on the passage of the Prison Transformation Initiative.”
He continued, “I understand this bill is a work in progress and my ultimate goal remains the same, and that is to have safe and modern facilities that solve the persistent overcrowding of our prisons that will protect our law enforcement officers and inmates, as well prepare the inmates to successfully transition back into our communities. If we are to truly transform the person, we must first transform the system. As this legislation moves to the House, I look forward to working with House members to pass the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative.”
Currently, Alabama’s prisons house far more inmates than originally intended, with the prisons at over 170% of capacity. The proposal passed Thursday, sponsored by Alabaster-Republican state Senator Cam Ward authorizes the Department of Corrections to enter lease agreements with counties to finance and construct the facilities, and establishes clear criteria for how Corrections will award the lease agreements.
As the second-largest expenditure in the state’s General Fund, the budget for all non-education state spending, the prison system is a significant and persistent fiscal strain on the state. For the current fiscal year, Corrections alone costs the state $496 million and consumes 22% of the General Fund budget.
“The state prison system is close to exploding the state budget,” said Ward. “We have numerous prisons that were built before the Vietnam War and some pre-date World War Two. The upkeep alone for these facilities is a bleeding hole in our budgets.”
“This plan will dramatically increase safety for our inmates and our correctional officers,” Ward added. “There have been too many instances over the past year of officers being assaulted and, in some cases, killed. The dormitory-style of housing at some of our prisons is particularly dangerous. Modern, cell-block facilities with high-tech cameras and better lines-of-sight will save lives.”
Senate Bill 302 now moves to the Alabama House of Representatives for consideration.