In last Tuesday’s State of the State address, Governor Robert Bentley renewed his call for the passage of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act, which would close 14 of the state’s 16 maximum-custody level prisons and replace them with four new large-scale prisons. Though the act did not pass in last year’s legislative session, Bentley argued that the poor condition of Alabama’s overcrowded and aging correctional facilities necessitated a “complete transformation of the state’s prison system.”
Three of the new facilities would be 3,996-bed complexes for men, while the last would be a 1,200-bed women’s prison to replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, according to an analysis of the plan released by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). The initiative would be financed by selling an $800 million construction bond, which would be paid in increments of $50 million a year. However, ADOC Associate Commissioner Jeffery Williams said the program would not require any supplement to ADOC’s budget, because the new facilities would reduce maintenance and staffing costs enough to cover the $50 million annual debt payment.
“Alabama has some of the oldest facilities; Draper [Correctional Facility] was built in 1939, followed by Tutwiler in 1942, and what you had for decades is prisons that have been double-occupied, so their life span has been diminished considerably,” he said, noting that many prisons in Alabama were “designed for roughly a fraction of the offenders that we’ve put in there.”
Williams said that a recent assessment of the state’s current prison facilities found that repairing them would require a $440 million investment. He argued that it is more cost-effective to construct new facilities with a much longer life expectancy, rather than trying to maintain the current facilities indefinitely.
Williams also noted that the new facilities’ greater space would allow for ADOC to offer more re-entry programs and educational programs to inmates than is possible in the current prison buildings.
“Fifty, 60 years ago they were building prisons to basically warehouse individuals. Corrections around the country has changed over the last 40 years, and now the trend is toward evidence-based programming that has proven to reduce recidivism,” he said. “Our challenge in the current system is that we operate some programming in spaces that were never designed for that and spaces that are inadequate in terms of size, and we can only affect a small group of offenders,” Williams said. “By design, we will go into these new facilities incorporating spaces so offenders can take advantage of these evidence based programming [concepts] so that we can expand our ability to offer educational programs so that offenders leave with a specific trade.”
With such programs, “the offenders that do come through the system are less likely to come back, and for everyone that doesn’t come back, that’s one or two or three or four less victims that we have,” he noted.
Some prison reform advocates, however, are skeptical of the proposal and argue that it fails to address the root causes of Alabama’s prison overcrowding.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is currently involved in a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections regarding the quality of healthcare provided to inmates, released a statement shortly before Bentley’s address in which they expressed reservations about the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative. The SPLC’s statement argued that the claim that the money saved in lowered maintenance and staffing costs would pay for the new prisons’ construction is “a pipe dream” and that the initiative does not take any steps to improve health care in the prison system.
Williams, in contrast, said that the initiative represents “an opportunity to deliver more effective health care to offenders,” and said that by consolidating staff and resources in fewer locations, the plan will allow the system’s health care professionals to provide higher quality healthcare to inmates.
“It’s clear that Alabama has a problem with over-incarceration. … Everyone agrees that that’s the case and that we need to do something, and so we’re on the same page as Governor Bentley and [Alabama Department of Corrections] Commissioner [Jefferson] Dunn when it comes to that,” said Ebony Howard, the associate legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The problem is how they’re going about doing it is not going to solve this problem ultimately. What needs to happen is we need to take a step back and do a full assessment of this problem. We need to come up with a plan that’s going to address every single aspect of it.”
Howard argued that the best way to deal with the problems facing Alabama’s prison system is to reform sentencing laws so that fewer nonviolent offenders go to jail, and those who are in jail are released when they no longer pose a threat to society. She praised the Alabama legislature for passing Senate Bill 67, a sentencing reform law backed by Bentley that reduced penalties for nonviolent crimes, as a “wonderful first step,” but expressed concern that the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative would remove the incentive for lawmakers to follow up with further sentencing reforms.
“The reality is that the legislature moves, like most people move, when they feel like they have to because there is a crisis,” Howard said. “So what’s happening, or rather what could happen, is that the APTI could bring a false sense of security about the prison crisis.
“Legislators could believe the claims of the APTI that these problems are going to be solved and as a result they won’t be engaged in much-needed reforms, and if that happens we’re going, five, 10 years from now, to be back here in the same situation. Except for instead of having our current facilities that are overcrowded, we’re going to have three to four mega-prisons overcrowded.”
Will Harrell, the Southern Regional Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, also expressed concern about lawmakers’ willingness to follow up on previous reforms that he saw as necessary.
“There’s no question there’s an overcrowding problem in Alabama, and we’ve been saying that for a long time. But we also now know that prison-building isn’t the only answer,” said Harrell. “The answer to overcrowding is not simply build more prison space. You build them, they will continue to come.”
Harrell noted that he agreed with Bentley on the need to replace Alabama’s aging prison facilities. “It would be inhumane to ignore the current conditions of confinement that many individuals suffer, men and women, in Alabama prisons. There’s a big difference between additional beds and replacement beds and this proposal doesn’t address that,” he argued. “There’s no question that it would be impossible to do restorative work on facilities such as Tutwiler. But this is a prison expansion bill, make no mistake. This isn’t about correcting structural problems and flaws; this is about building new prisons.”
Williams, however, said that he did not see the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative as discouraging future sentencing reforms.
“We don’t see those as competing issues, because reforms have already been passed,” he said, noting that Senate Bill 67 is expected to reduce the prison population by roughly 4,000 individuals in the next five years. “Reducing the prison population is a significant and important factor in this process and dealing with crowding. What’s also an important process in dealing with offenders is our ability to rehabilitate offenders that come in our jurisdiction. Part of this initiative has to do with our ability to provide that service and that function to the citizens of Alabama. … With new facilities, we can incorporate future programming in those facilities that doesn’t currently exist, so I don’t really see that as a conflict.”