Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to bill four state prisons with an $800 million bond issue passed the Alabama Senate tonight.
The plan, initiated by Bentley and Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, includes closing most of the existing prisons.
Bentley and Dunn say it is the best way to resolve the overcrowded and understaffed conditions that have plagued state prisons for decades.
They say the state can pay off the debt with the money it can save by replacing aging prisons with new ones with modern, uniform designs.
They also say the new prisons will allow more vocational training and other programs to reduce recidivism, efforts that they say take a backseat to security concerns now.
The governor issued a statement tonight praising the Senate for clearing a “critical hurdle” in efforts to fix the state’s prisons.
“The passage of this bill will help reduce overcrowding and will provide safer conditions for corrections officers as well as inmates within the facilities. New facilities will also create greater opportunities to reduce the risk of recidivism,” Bentley said.
Some senators objected strongly to tonight’s decision by the Senate’s Republican super majority to cut off debate on the bill.
“What is the rush in terms of getting this bond issue out there without having a thorough discussion and a thorough understanding?” said Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery.
Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, also said the bill was wrongly rushed through. Sanford said there were questions he would not have a chance to ask.
Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said there were plenty of discussions on the bill.
“We have been working on the process for months. … There was plenty of debate, plenty of information,” Reed said.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said he was confident in the plan to pay off the debt through cost savings after discussions today with Dunn and the state Finance Department.
“The last thing we want to do is put any additional pressure on the General Fund,” Marsh said.
“But if we can have these efficiencies that they show and have a new prison system that focuses on rehabilitation and vocational training and have less people coming back to prison, that’s a win for the people of this state.”
The plan calls for closing 13 of the 15 men’s prisons and Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. The state would build three new men’s prisons and a new one for women.
Alabama prisons have about 24,000 inmates in facilities originally designed for about 13,000.
The plan to replace the old prisons would add about 3,000 beds to the design capacity. Coupled with sentencing reforms passed last year, that would reduce the occupancy rate to 125 percent in five years, officials say.