Can Alabama Handle Court-Caused Jail, Prison Overcrowding?

Chief Justice Roy Moore's cancellation of jury trials may create a huge problem. Criminal arrests will, no doubt, continue,.but the state may not have room to hold prisoners.

Last year, a judge ordered the state to relieve overcrowding in county jails because they were holding too many state prisoners for too long. The question now is if that same judge may have another concern, if Moore's order to delay trials is carried out.

When the courts ordered hundreds of prisoners out of county jails, the state had to spend millions renovating old cells and creating new ones out of some unusual space like portable classrooms. But nobody anticipated going two months without jury trials. Despite this new wrinkle, Corrections Commissioner Mike Haley says he's not worried.

The graduation of 91 new prison guards would usually be a source of relief for Mike Haley. Prison officials have long complained about the lack of people to oversee inmates, and this new bunch will help with the spiraling population. But the prospect of having to move dozens of prisoners into already crowded conditions is hanging over Haleys' head again.

"Of course, that is a real possibility, but I assure you we have the best trained officers in the state and they'll be working diligently to make sure everything functions as it should," Haley said.

The situation is ironic, because any overcrowding would put prison officials at odds with the same court system causing the trouble. Governor Don Siegelman says he's concerned about Justice Moore's decision. His Chief of Staff says talks are going on to break the stalemate.

Jim Buckalew is somewhat reluctant to get into specifics.  "At this time, I don't think we have a complete solution, but we are working on it and the Governor is staying on top of it," he said.

By law, state prisoners are only allowed to stay in county jails 30 days before transferring to state facilities. One scenario that could result from two months of no trials is 60 days worth of prisoners crowding into those jails, and violating the court order, or state inmates being forced into tent cities on prison grounds. Haley says it won't happen.

"You know, we've converted some portable classrooms that were in some local schools into some housing for inmate and perhaps we may look at something else like that in the future. But right now, tents are not in our immediate plans," he explained.

The real sticking point here remains money. Chief of Staff  Buckalew says Siegelman's lawyers are talking to Moore's people about some way to break the deadlock. But Buckalew also says one thing is for sure no new money will be being offered to the court system.

Last year, when the state was ordered to relieve the overcrowding in county jails, they looked at several optioins, including shipping prisoners out of state. Haley says they're not going to reconsider.