Alabama House Speaker unsure if Governor’s prison overhaul plan will pass

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The Alabama Legislature will formally open its 2017 regular session Tuesday, and Gov. Robert Bentley is again calling for an overhaul of the state’s seriously overcrowded prison system.

But the measure died last year with legislators expressing concern about the proposed $800 million construction tab and the governor’s plan to award a “design and build” contract to one company for the effort. The proposal calls for building four new prisons, three for men and one for women, and moving the bulk of the state’s inmates into those facilities.

There are plenty of issues dogging the prison system.

It holds about 23,000 prisoners in a system build to house 13,000 inmates.

Alabama’s prison system is in the midst of a lawsuit about an alleged lack of mental health care it provides prisoners. The state is also under a Justice Department investigation for its men’s prison systems. The state reached a settlement with the DOJ in 2015 requiring it to improve conditions within its women’s prisons.

Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Huntsville)
Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Huntsville)

Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, told WHNT News 19 he’s getting a lot of questions about whether the prison reform effort will pass the legislature this year. He’s making no predictions.

“I’m constantly asked, ‘Will it pass, yes or no?’ I can’t give a yes or no answer at this point,” McCutcheon said. “I know there’s some questions out there, there’s going to be a healthy debate over the issue.”

McCutcheon said a chief concern is the cost associated with the project. The governor has proposed issuing a state bond to pay for it. Bentley and state corrections officials have argued the debt could be paid back through the state’s savings operating a more efficient and less costly to maintain prison system.

McCutcheon said legislators aren’t convinced.

“Can we make the payment?” he asked. “Do we really want to obligate the state for $800 million? Will this satisfy the court’s requirement for us?”

An issue of special concern for McCutcheon is the fate of the Limestone Correctional Facility. The governor has not spelled out where the four new prisons would be built. That could mean a new prison at or near the Limestone site, or Limestone may no longer house a state prison.

McCutcheon said he’s pressed state corrections officials for answers, but he still doesn’t have a clear idea of what they plan to do. He said the Alabama Department of Corrections plans a detailed study of the existing facilities – including the value of the land they sit on – as part of any future construction. But, it appears legislators will have to weigh Bentley’s proposal without those details.

“I was hoping that we might could have more of that for this debate, but I don’t think at the end of the day we’re going to have that information ready,” McCutcheon said.

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