Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column.
By Steve Flowers, Inside the Statehouse
The problem of overcrowded prisons is a dilemma that has been facing Alabama for close to a decade. It was not something that Kay Ivey created. She simply inherited the situation, and the chickens have some home to roost during her tenure. To her credit, she did not hide from the issue. She has tackled it head-on and with gusto and resolve. She and the legislature were and are under the gun because the U.S. Justice Department is breathing down their necks to resolve the inequities and unconstitutional conditions in our prisons.
When you get into a scenario where the Justice Department adamantly demands some concrete resolutions, you must act. Otherwise, they will take over the State’s prison system, mandate the resolutions, and hand you the bill. Just ask California. The Justice Department is not only building new prisons at the Golden State’s expense but also releasing a good many of their prisoners. The bottom line is if the Justice Department will mandate and take over the California Prison System, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will do the same to Alabama.
We have been down this path before. Years ago, in the 1960s, during all the segregation and civil rights wars raging in the Heart of Dixie, the federal courts took over Alabama’s prison system. Governor George Wallace and Justice Frank Johnson were law school classmates and friends. Johnson was married to his lovely wife, Ruth Jenkins, while in law school. Ruth was an excellent cook, and they would have George over for dinner. Unfortunately, their friendship ended when they clashed over civil rights and integration. Johnson handed down most of the rulings that integrated schools and other institutions throughout the State, while Wallace lambasted Johnson daily as a scalawaging, carpetbagging, integrating liberal.
Wallace won the demagogic battle and rode it to being governor for eternity. Finally, however, Johnson and the federal courts won the war. Judge Johnson took over the state prisons, and the bill was so costly that it took the State of Alabama 25 years to dig out of the financial hole.
Kay Ivey is old enough to remember this disastrous solution for Alabama. That is probably why she took the bull by the horns and declared boldly in her State of the State address over two years ago that this is an Alabama problem and we need to find an Alabama solution.
Governor Kay Ivey and probably, more importantly, the state legislature have worked to resolve this imminent and pressing problem. This current Special Session called by Governor Ivey to address the need for new prisons will more than likely resolve the issue for at least the next 25 to 30 years.
The legislative leadership and governor have worked prudently and harmoniously to solve this prison overcrowding issue. This joint success follows months of negotiations between Ivey and legislative leaders in determining the scope and scale of the project. The two General Fund Budget Chairmen, Representative Steve Clouse, and Senator Greg Albritton, deserve a lot of credit and accolades for orchestrating the puzzle pieces. Ivey and legislators knew that the gravity of the situation required the governor to call a Special Session.
The solution will be to build two new men’s prisons with at least 4,000 beds, one in Elmore County and one in Escambia County, in addition to a new 1,000 bed women’s correctional facility in Elmore County. The new Elmore men’s facility will provide enhanced medical and mental health, substance abuse, and educational programming as suggested by the Justice Department.
The two new men’s prisons will cost an estimated $1.2 billion, and the women’s prison and renovations of existing prisons will cost between $600 to $700 million. A $785 million bond issue will pay for the prisons. The salvation for the plan was the State receiving $400 million from the federal American Recovery Plan ACT (“ARPA”), which was like manna from heaven.
The heroes for their area and constituents were Senator Greg Albritton of Escambia and Senator Clyde Chambliss of Elmore, who won the new prisons for their people. These prisons are an economic bonanza for Elmore and Escambia. Chambliss got two.
Hopefully, this will resolve this issue for at least a few decades. We will see.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. In addition, he served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.