Failure of Alabama prison bill sets the stage for federal intervention

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – A major prison reform bill sunk into the mire of this legislative session. The bill would have borrowed $800 million to build four new mega-prisons and addressed the state’s overcrowding issues.

Inmates in Holman and Elmore correctional facilities have been on work stoppage for nearly a week, protesting the conditions that come with severe overcrowding, including inadequate food, medical care, and violence.

Alabama prisons house almost twice as many prisoners as they’re meant to.

Still prisoners reached out to WHNT News 19 celebrating the failure of the prison construction bill.

The reason?

They believe it could induce federal courts to get involved, possibly leading to prisoners being released to alleviate overcrowding.

We heard that concern repeated by multiple legislators too. One told us federal courts could force Alabama to release inmates or raise taxes to pay for new facilities.

The defense for the state would be that legislators passed some reforms last year that could help alleviate some of the overcrowding. Plus, the order would need to come from federal courts, possibly up to the Supreme Court, which may give Alabama a window to take independent action.

But what would it actually look like if the courts started calling the shots here?

We looked to another plagued prison system in California. There, courts ordered overpopulation be reduced from 170% capacity to 137% capacity. For context, Alabama sits near 190% capacity. In California, many inmates were moved from prisons to county jails, and time credits for work were increased to shorten sentences.

But the federal courts also appointed a compliance officer to make sure California stayed below their capacity threshold. If California violated, the compliance officer had the power to simply release prisoners.

Legislators say they may still be called into special session, where they could possibly take another look at the prisons issue.