By: Cady Inabinett
Alabama legislators approved the construction of three new prison facilities throughout the state during the special legislative session that ended Oct. 1. $400 million in funding for these projects will be drawn from the state’s American Rescue Act funds, sparking backlash from some Alabama residents.
One piece of legislation passed was House Bill 4, which focused on the construction of new prisons and modernization of some existing prisons, as well as the closure of other prisons. The bill split this process into three phases.
Within the first phase are plans to construct prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties. Each will be men’s facilities with 4,000 beds. The Elmore County facility would, according to the bill, “provide enhanced medical, mental health, and other health care, substance abuse and addiction treatment, and educational and other programming services to inmates.”
Phase 1 also includes the closure of the existing Staton, Elmore and Kilby prisons one year after construction of the new Elmore County and Escambia County facilities are completed. Additionally, the St. Clair Correctional Facility will be closed, “at a time to be determined by the Department of Corrections.”
Phase 2 will begin, “upon substantial of at least 60 percent of the construction of Phase 1 projects,” and will include the construction of a 1,000 bed women’s facility in Elmore County. Within one year of this new prison’s completion, the Julia Tutwiler Prison, also located in Elmore County, will be closed.
Additionally, this phase focuses on renovating existing facilities, calling for, “the renovation and improvement, or, if necessary, the demolition and reconstruction” of Donaldson Correction Facility and Limestone Correctional Facility—located in Jefferson and Limestone counties, respectively, as well as the renovation or potential rebuilding of either Ventress Correctional Facility or Bullock Correctional Facility—located in Barbour and Bullock counties, respectively.
Phase 3 will begin prior to completion of 75% of the projects outlined in Phase 2. It calls for the Department of Corrections, with a Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee to, “perform an evaluation of men’s prison facilities” using inmate population trends to, “determine if additional facility beds need to be replaced.”
House Bill 5 allotted $400 million from the state’s American Rescue Act funds to the Correctional Capital Improvement Fund.
House Bill 6 addressed funding as well, moving $135 million from the State General Fund to the Correctional Capital Improvement Fund, as well as moving $19 million from the State General Fund to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles for the acquisition and renovation of the existing prison facility in Perry County.
Representative Russell Bedsole, representative of Alabama District 49, who also works as a jail commander at the Shelby County Jail said that modernization of Alabama’s prisons will help reduce “warehousing” of inmates—in which prisoners are kept in dormitory style houses with, “rows and rows of bunk beds” in a warehouse-like structure, a practice that he says makes it so, “you cannot guarantee for the safety and wellbeing of the inmates,” or corrections officers. He claimed that this will help reduce inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-corrections officer assaults.
In response to claims that the use of American Rescue Act funds was an improper use funds, Bedsole said, “I will acknowledge, sure, we could make an argument to spend that money on a lot of things in our state,” but that the American Rescue Act, “reads like an infrastructure package.”
Senator April Weaver said that the bills passed during the special session were in directly in response to a Department of Justice lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections last year, saying that if the issue were to go unaddressed it, “could result in a federal takeover of our prison system.”
Weaver went on to say, “The last thing our state needs is to have Washington, D.C. bureaucrats and politicians come in and tell us how to run our prisons and spend outrageous amounts of Alabama taxpayer dollars to give us a “Washington fix” to an Alabama problem.” She asserted that, “the funding mechanism used for our plan will be far cheaper than any plan the federal government comes up with from D.C.” She did not elaborate on how or why the state plan is cheaper.
She claimed that, “With a federal government takeover of our prison system, the feds in Washington could demand that our state release potentially thousands of prison inmates out onto the streets before they have completed their sentence.”
Weaver also said that, “Building new, high-quality prisons will be a positive first step in correcting the staffing issues the Department of Corrections faces in hiring correctional officers,” as well as ensure the safety of inmates and, “send a strong message to the federal government that our state is working in good faith to improve the quality of our prisons.”
Activist groups Alabama Students Against Prisons and Block the Brierfield Prison were contacted for comment on the bills passed during the special session, but did not respond.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has spoken against the new prison plan, saying, “It’s a distraction and I think a misuse of funds to invest millions of dollars,” and “Our prisons are dysfunctional not because they’re old. Our prisons are dysfunctional because we have allowed a culture of violence to prevail.”