Prisons top town hall topic

Published 2:03 am Friday, April 27, 2018

Holley: State will have to build new ones or let prisoners out

Eventually, Alabama will face a tough choice: Build new prisons, or let a lot of inmates out.

That’s the response Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, gave when pushed about how long the state will remain embroiled in federal lawsuits over its prison system. Holley and Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, spoke in a town-hall type meeting in Opp Thursday evening that drew a dozen interested residents.

After Holley explained that the legislature had no choice other than increasing the prison system’s funding in its General Fund budget, the two men, who represent all of Covington County and parts of surrounding counties in the legislature, were asked “What more has to be done before that judge is satisfied?”

Holley explained that there are lawsuits against the state in federal court challenging health care for inmates, mental health care for inmates, and personnel.

“Right now, I have to admit, the federal courts have been more than lenient with Alabama,” Holley said. “They have bent over backwards to say, ‘Let us help you.’ I thought we would be slam dunked into receiverships and the prisons would be taken over. This is a longer, drawn-out procedure.”

Both men agreed that new facilities are a must.

“We either have to do that or let a lot of people out,” Holley said. “Pardon and Paroles would have to do an evaluation for that.”

Problems with the state’s aging prison facilities, he said, include inadequate sewage services with crumbling clay pipes under a 6- to 8-inch slab of concrete.

“The facilities would cost more to renovate than building would,” he said. “We’d like to work our way to different styles that require fewer guards to maintain.”

Jones said, “At some point, we cannot avoid construction. We’ve got places where we can’t lock doors because there are no parts available to fix them. When you can’t lock doors in prison, that’s trouble.”

Jones said the state’s prisons are staffed at approximately 45 percent of the employment level needed.

“That’s dangerous, and you see prison violence increase,” he said.

In exit surveys, those leaving the Department of Corrections have cited the poor conditions of facilities as their main reason for leaving.

Jones and Holley also heard concerns about the state’s mental health system, and the need for truancy officers in schools. Mayor Becky Bracke expressed the need for a new gasoline tax dedicated to improving infrastructure, and Medicaid reforms.