Gov. Robert Bentley's proposal to build four mega-prisons to replace 14 of the state's aging and overcrowded facilities is not a perfect plan for dealing with the state's chronic prison woes, but the governor deserves applause for putting forth an ambitious one.
I believe, based on what has been revealed up till now, it also is a workable plan.
But already there is a carping from legislators. Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, the House Democratic minority leader, said, for instance, that the state could find better things to spend money on, such as infrastructure and highways.
Frankly, if I were a legislator there would be a long list of things I, too, would rather spend money on than prisons -- public schools, teacher salaries, preventive health care, law enforcement, Medicaid -- the list could go on and on.
Much the same point could be made in my private life as well. Every so often the house needs a new roof. It's not something I want to spend money on -- I'd rather take the grand-girls to Disney World, buy a fancy new camera lens, travel to Yellowstone -- this list could go on and on as well.
But when the house needs a roof, it would be foolish not to shell out the money for one. Oh, you can patch it up for a while, but you're risking a leak that could cause further damage that could cost far more than what a new roof would cost. Eventually, patching just won't work anymore.
Alabama governors and legislators have been patching up the state's aging prisons for years -- no, make that decades -- now. The cost of that patchwork approach has grown and grown, and the state is fast approaching the point where patching won't work.
Currently there are 28 state corrections facilities in 17 Alabama counties. Those facilities house 183 percent -- almost double -- the number of prisoners they were designed to hold. Some hold much more than that; Kilby in Montgomery County, for instance, has almost three times the number of prisoners than it was designed to house.
The state faces about $90 million in overdue maintenance on those facilities -- in other words, patching -- and has an annual bill of about $70 million for maintenance, according to Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Legislature's prison reform committee.
Bentley's proposal calls for the state to build four large capacity regional prisons that would replace 13 existing medium- and high-security men's prisons, as well as the Tutwiler facility for women.
Other than Tutwiler, no one is saying for certain yet which prisons would close -- that's a touchy subject for local politicians who fear losing jobs in their communities.
But the Corrections Department website lists only 16 medium- and high-security facilities in the state, so I assume most would be on the chopping block.
The cost of the new facilities -- about $800 million, according to the governor -- would be borrowed through a bond issue.
According to the governor's plan, the debt service on that bond issue would be covered "through a combination of reduced annual personnel cost, operational savings achieved through consolidation of facilities, supply, logistics, and transportation costs, and reduced medical and mental health costs."
To cover all the costs of repaying the debt through savings seems a stretch to me. But it makes sense that a significant portion of the cost could be covered through the greater efficiencies that well-designed new prisons could bring.
Alabama dramatically understaffs its corrections officer force by about 35 percent, so the new construction would not save money by reducing the number of officers. But it could save a lot of the $20 million a year that the state currently spends on mandatory overtime. Meanwhile, updated design could allow the same number of officers to oversee more prisoners.
It would create other efficiencies as well. For instance, since each new mega-prison would have several levels of security, prisoners who move from one level to another could be moved within the prison and not have to be transported from one prison to another.
Still, it remains to be seen whether such new efficiencies as these would save enough to cover the debt service on the money borrowed for construction.
But ultimately, the state might not have any choice but to tackle at least some new construction. The state corrections system already is under pressure from the federal government because of overcrowding. Sooner or later, a federal court is going to force the state to address the overcrowding issue.
If legislators think they will get criticism from constituents for spending on new prisons, they should consider the criticism they will get if their inaction results in a mass release of prisoners. It's happened in Alabama in the past, and it could happen again.
As I said in an earlier column, new construction will not solve all of the prison system's problems. But well-designed prisons can help.
Patching outdated facilities can only take the state so far. There comes a time when legislators need to face reality and do what is necessary, not just what is popular.
Bentley has offered them a plan; not a perfect one, but a plan. Doing nothing, as some legislators might prefer, is not a plan; it's an invitation for federal intervention and possibly extended oversight. If lawmakers think Bentley's plan is costly, just think what the price tag of federal intervention might be.
Ken Hare is a longtime editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com.
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