The Alabama House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a prison construction plan after a five-hour debate over the state of Alabama’s prisons and whether construction can correct problems within them.
The vote was 74 to 27, mostly on party lines. The bill moves to the Senate.
The $1.3 billion proposal calls for the construction of two men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties, each with at least 4,000 beds. The Elmore facility would provide medical, mental health care and rehabilitation services for inmates. Construction would be funded by a $785 million bond; $400 million in COVID money and $150 million from the General Fund.
Supporters say the bill would address rampant violence within Alabama’s correctional facilities. House Ways and Means General Fund chair Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the sponsor of the bill, called the legislation a “win-win-win” situation for Alabama, saying it would save money, address the DOJ lawsuit and create a safer environment for staff and inmates.
“These new prisons will have pods and cells instead of dormitory facilities, so they can be protected,” he said.
The bill also opens the possibility of building a new women’s prison to replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, a 78-year-old facility, and renovations to other correctional facilities around the state. But those projects do not have a dedicated funding source in the bill.
The legislation also calls for the closing of six prisons – Staton, Elmore and Tutwiler prisons in Elmore County; the Hamilton Aged & Infirmed Center in Marion; Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery and the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. About 5,070 people were incarcerated at the six prisons at the end of July; those facilities were designed for 3,072.
Alabama’s prisons face endemic violence. DOJ reports in 2019 and 2020 detailed physical and sexual assault against inmates, excessive force by correctional officers and the widespread presence of contraband. DOJ sued the state in December 2020, saying the prisons violated inmates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The state faces separate court orders over staffing and mental health treatment.
Inmates describe conditions as a war zone. Parents of incarcerated individuals joined a protest of the construction bills outside the State House on Wednesday, and described a dangerous climate within the walls of the prisons. Anita McCree of Montgomery, whose son Gerard is incarcerated at Donaldson Correctional Facility, said she feared for his life.
“People have been trying to kill my child,” she said. “They’ve been paid to kill my son.”
Mary Abrams, whose son Roderick was found dead at St. Clair Correctional Facility in 2019, said she only found out about his death when an inmate in the prison called her daughter. She said her son suffered mental illness.
“They knew that, they knew that, but they didn’t give him no kind of service to help him,” she said. “None whatsoever. They abused him more than they gave him.”
Speakers at the protest said new prison construction would not address those issues, and were particularly critical of using COVID relief money for prisons.
“Do you want to take $400 million from our health care, to keep us alive, to deposit into more facilities for locking people up?” said Kenneth Glasgow, a minister and activist from Dothan. “To me, that’s a sign and an indication and a proof that you’re inhumane.”
The 2019 DOJ report described the deterioration of Alabama’s prisons, but said “new facilities alone” would not address the problem. That was a point House Democrats raised during the debates.
“Every issue that’s been identified, every one of them that’s been identified, will still exist in 2025 when these first two prisons are completed,” said Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa. “They will still exist. They will still be overcrowded, they will still be understaffed, and if our current commissioner is still there they will still be mismanaged.”
Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, also expressed skepticism that the prisons would be effective.
“If there is a family that is not cohesive, does moving into that new house change that dynamic?” she said.
Clouse said that he believed the new facilities would provide a foundation for further reforms and offer more opportunities for rehabilitation services and training that would allow inmates to re-enter society. Responding to Hall, he said family dynamics could improve if a family leaves a “dilapidated house.”
Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Arab, also said he believed the new construction would be a start.
“In my view, this is not the end of us addressing the prison problem,” he said. “It’s the beginning of us seriously addressing the problems in our prisons.”
Democrats also pushed to include a new women’s prison in the first round of construction. The House defeated an amendment from Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, to move the construction of the women’s prison up on the schedule.
The House was scheduled to take up bills authorizing the use of COVID and General Fund money later on Wednesday. The chamber may also consider bills to make 2013 sentencing reforms retroactive.
In the Montgomery delegation, Reps. Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road; Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery and Chris Sells, R-Greenville voted for the bill. Reps. Kenyatte Hassell, D-Montgomery; Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville and Tashina Morris, D-Montgomery voted against it.
In the Tuscaloosa delegation, Reps. A.J. McCampbell, D-Linden; Kyle South, R-Fayette; Rodney Sullivan, R-Northport and Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa voted for the bill. Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa, voted no.
In the Gadsden delegation, In the Gadsden delegation, Reps. Gil Isbell, R-Gadsden; Craig Lipscomb, R-Rainbow City, and Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, voted for the bill.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or [email protected]