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House OKs plan to build 4 prisons, close 14 of 16 current facilities

Holman Prison, located north of Atmore, is one of the state’s maximum security prisons and houses death row. It was opened 47 years ago, and cost $5 million. | Courtesy photo

Holman Prison, located north of Atmore, is one of the state’s maximum security prisons and houses death row. It was opened 47 years ago, and cost $5 million. | Courtesy photo

Intellectually, Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, knew that prison crowding was a problem when he was asked exactly two weeks ago to handle legislation in the House that would authorize $800 million in new prison construction.

But it was tours of Holman Prison, a maximum security prison north of Atmore that houses the state’s death row; nearby Fountain Correctional Center; and Julia Tutwiler Prison for women that confirmed for him the need for new facilities.

“The staff, correctional officers and wardens I saw were very professional,” Jones said. “Effectively, they’re working with 51 percent of the employees for which they’re approved. They’re working 12-hour shifts and keeping it together with overtime.”

The state also is facing potential action from the federal government if it doesn’t address the state’s overcrowded prisons.

The Department of Corrections currently houses more than 24,000 inmates in facilities that have an architectural design capacity to house 13,318 inmates. With an occupancy rate higher than 180 percent, the prison system recently has had outbreaks of violence, including an incident at Holman Prison near Atmore in which the warden and a guard were stabbed.

A solution proposed by the Department of Corrections and supported by Gov. Robert Bentley – the legislation Jones handled in the House – passed Thursday after seven hours of debate.

“I expected it to be long,” he said late Thursday night from Montgomery, where the House was still in session. “I told one of the members early-on we would have a good-faith debate, which we needed to have.”

The measure calls for 14 of the state’s 16 prisons to be closed – 13 men’s facilities and the women’s prison – and be replaced with four modern, large facilities. The bill does not designate which current facilities will remain open, nor does it say where the new prisons will be built.

And a spokesman for the Department of Corrections said Thursday that’s because those issues have not been decided.

“We have not identified the two maximum or medium male facilities that will remain open. We haven’t identified the ones we’ll consolidate,” Bob Horton, public information manager, said. “We’re still assessing the facilities at this time, and once that is completed, we’ll select those two that will remain open, and the 13 that we’ll consolidate.”

Because the bill lacks specifics, it passed the House with an amendment that calls for an additional vote after the plan is finalized. Jones said he is concerned any measure that holds up construction sends the wrong signal to the feds.

The bill had already passed the Senate, and now must either be passed again as amended, or go to conference committee. The legislature has only two meeting days left in the 2016 session to work out the details.

The DOC fact sheet about the legislation states that the four new facilities be built “in proximity to current facilities to reduce the impact on the department’s existing workforce.”