If legislature can’t fix prisons, taxpayers will lose

Published 1:02 am Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Gov. Robert Bentley has good reason to have prison construction high on his priority list for the current legislative session.

First, Alabama prisons are in poor repair, are understaffed, and overcrowded. The state is in danger of having the federal courts take over the prison system, a situation leaders already know would mean either a demand for better facilities, or a massive release of current inmates.

Secondly, there appears to be a good chance the governor could be in need of a bed in the system. The Alabama House of Representatives has initiated an impeachment process against him, and the attorney general’s office has an ongoing investigation into allocations that he used state resources improperly. The Alabama Ethics Commission also is said to be conducting an investigation, and political watchers in Montgomery predict the Commission will recommend felony charges against Bentley when they meet in early April.

None of us can know if the rumors and allegations are true at this point. What we do know, is that Bentley, who in six years has not fared well getting legislation approved in Montgomery, is a weaker leader than ever, and legislation with his name attached is basically pronounced dead on arrival.

Last year, the governor and Department of Corrections proposed the construction of four new mega-prisons at an estimated price of $800 million. When that didn’t fly, the bill was altered. This week, it was altered again, this time with language that only allows the state to borrow funds for prison construction if it can find two communities in the state willing to borrow money, build new prisons, and lease them back to the state.

Those with prisons in their communities would tell you that would be a great investment for long-term economic development. Prisons are considered a “clean” industry, with steady employment unaffected by the economy. There is a steady and increasing demand for prison personnel, and those jobs don’t go away.

But not many communities could afford to finance these facilities, especially if the state still plans mega prisons. Those who could would have a hard time selling the idea to constituents, who’d rather have better roads or more amenities than a prison in their backyard.

Sen. Cam Ward’s current version of the prison construction bill has the feel of a hail Mary pass that won’t have a receiver. And Alabama taxpayers who face funding a federal-mandated prison construction will be the losers.