MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A plan to build up to four new prisons advanced in committee Tuesday, but only after several lawmakers expressed deep skepticism about the project’s scope and price tag.
Under the plan, the state would build a new women’s prison and lease, or build, three new men’s prisons. Most existing prisons would close. The state would borrow between $200 million and $845 million to finance the construction, depending on how many prisons are built and how many are leased from local communities.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 9-5 vote. The lengthy committee debate threw a spotlight on the continuing divisions over the legislation, which will almost certainly resurface when the bill hits the House floor in the final days of the session.
Republican Sen. Cam Ward, the bill’s sponsor, repeated concerns that a federal judge might one day order the state to reduce prison crowding if the state does nothing to address overcrowding.
Alabama prisons house 23,074 inmates in facilities built for 13,318.
Opposed lawmakers said a critical shortage of corrections officers was the more pressing problem and questioned the $845 million price tag.
While the prison system maintains that the cost can be paid through consolidation savings, the state would be required to pay the bonds even if those savings don’t materialize.
“We are essentially mortgaging the future of our children,” said Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka.
“A good bit of us believe that this savings is Montgomery magic money. It will never materialize,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said.
Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the department was confident in the analysis of the savings and costs.
“The core issues are overcrowding and understaffing and the conditions of our facilities. We all agree that a comprehensive approach needs to be taken. This bill is one piece of a comprehensive approach,” Dunn said.
Dunn said modern prisons would boost safety and improve working conditions for officers.
David Wise, the retired warden at St. Clair Correctional Facility, said after the committee meeting that staffing shortages are the biggest problem facing prisons. He said it is not uncommon for two officers to have to watch 196 dangerous inmates.
“We don’t have the staffing. That’s our biggest problem. The Alabama prison system is operating under insanity right now,” Wise said.