Lawmakers anticipate pivotal year for state prisons

Big changes possible for AL prison system

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Spending taxpayer dollars on prisons is politically unpopular and a tough sell to constituents.

“No one wants to pay for prisons,” said Sen. Cam Ward. “They want to use them, but they don’t want to pay for them.”

But in 2019, it’s a check Alabama will be forced to cash. Off the top, the state will invest millions to increase prison staffing to meet a court order and avoid federal receivership.

“Last session we gave them a $50 million supplemental appropriation, and then we also did $40 million more budgeted for this year. They will come back to us again and ask for another $40 million next year," Ward explained.

That funding will hire upwards of 2,000 correctional officers and prison support staff.

Ward chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and continues to lead the charge on prison reform. He says the issues are two-fold.

“You’re going to have to have some construction,” Ward said. “Then we have to figure out programming, what you are doing with them while they are in there and what’s most cost effective.”

Construction is the big ticket item. Ward says it will shore up space, and the design will allow better surveillance. The lack of major surveillance points in the state’s current dilapidated facilities likely fuels the ongoing violence that’s caused the state to be labeled as having one of the most deadly prison systems in the nation.

At this point, we can expect any movement on prison construction to come from the governor - not the legislature.

“It gets very politicized,” Ward said of passing a prison construction bill. “You have 18 or 19 prisons around the state. And everyone who has one in their district doesn’t want to lose one."

You can expect to see legislation addressing inmate programs and clearing barriers for them to return to work after they've paid their debt to society.

“I’m really big on the idea of collateral consequences,” Ward explained. “You have a lot of people who go to prison for a lot of reasons. They come out and solely because they were in prison they can’t get a license to do jobs in hundreds of fields. We need to evaluate that - we need to make it easier for people to get a job, not harder.”

He also expects legislation to be filed surrounding an increase in funding for drug treatment and mental health.

“Drugs and mental health is a major issue and you see a population that’s crying out for help and we have nothing to give them,” Ward said.

Ward says he’s been accused of being soft on crime due to his stance on improving prison conditions and criminal justice reform. He says it’s a not a political issue - it’s simply the right thing to do.

“We profess to be a Judeo-Christian society and profess to have these values," he said. “You love all men, not just the ones you want to love. Even though someone goes to prison, and they should if they break the law, you still have to treat them with human decency.”

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