MADISON, Ala. – Governor Robert Bentley delivered the keynote remarks during the Leadership Huntsville/Madison County class luncheon in Madison on Wednesday.
The governor discussed a variety of topics, including the Great State 2019 strategic plan and recent economic growth in Madison County. He also talked about gaming, the immediate need to solve prison overcrowding, the BP settlement and why he isn’t voting for Donald Trump for president.
Legislators rejected Bentley’s proposal to issue an $800 million bond to build three men’s prisons and a women’s prison to relieve overcrowding.
The issue was reignited last week when the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the State of Alabama announcing it was beginning an investigation into the state’s men’s prison system.
Bentley said today there are several steps that need to be taken to address Alabama’s prison issues.
He expects new prisons will be built. He repeated the claim today that just cost-savings on the new, more efficiently operated prisons will cover the interest payments on the bond debt.
“This is something that is going to cost us a lot of money, a lot more than $800 million by the way, if we don’t solve this problem,” Bentley said. “Before I get out we’re going to build the prisons.”
The governor said the new prisons will also include space for training inmates with skills to help them adapt to life outside prison upon their release.
“We’re going to have work areas, we’re going to have training areas in the prison, so that when they get out of prison, they can become productive citizens,” he said. “Those that are going to get out, if we don’t train them and prepare them for society out there, they’re going to be right back in prison.”
Bentley said prison reform also means finding alternative sentences — rather than prison — for lower level offenses. He said former inmates who’ve done their time should also have the opportunity to enjoy the rights of most citizens.
“When they get out ought to be able to vote, ought to get driver’s license,” he said. “If you have paid for your crime, you ought to be able to become a productive citizen.”
The Justice Department is planning to review prisoner safety and prison conditions. Bentley said the recent death of a corrections officer at Holman Prison was due in large part to extremely overcrowded conditions.
The prisons have no air conditioning either, the governor noted, with temperatures rising to about 110 degrees in the summer.
“I’m not saying people shouldn’t be punished for the crimes they commit,” Bentley said.
The governor then argued that the punishment should’t continue during the incarceration. He said safety is a minimum duty of the state.
“It’s our duty to protect them,” Bentley said. “They shouldn’t be punished the whole time. They’re in there for a crime, they’re being punished by being away from society. They shouldn’t’ have to worry about their life, being raped, being assaulted.
The Special Session
Bentley said he continues to believe there are better ways to fund state government than a lottery, but he supported a “clean” lottery bill to help ensure there was adequate funding for Medicaid. The lottery measure ultimately failed during this summer’s special legislative session because the Alabama House and Senate bills could not be reconciled.
Bentley said he considered the special session a victorious one however, because legislators agreed to provide funding for Medicaid through money obtained in a settlement with BP over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said 1 million Alabama residents are on Medicaid now, more than half of them children, but there are plenty of others still lacking adequate health care.
Bentley said there needs to be a longer term solution for Medicaid. The governor said he was a vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — but the U.S. Supreme Court had found it legal. Given that, Bentley said it makes sense for Alabama to look at ways to gain more federal funding through expanding Medicaid. He said the state doesn’t have the money over the long-term to fund Medicaid in its present form, so it would need to find additional money to expand the program.
A solution to that could come through an unusual avenue. Bentley said the State of Alabama owes Medicaid $100 million to $150 million in repayments due to reimbursements it shouldn’t have claimed several years ago. The governor the state has been in conversations with the agency that oversees Medicaid. He said one avenue toward expanding the state’s program could begin if the federal government were willing to forgive the amount Alabama owes if it applies it toward additional health care for the poor.
We’ll have further updates on the Governor’s remarks later in the day — check WHNT.com this afternoon for more updates.