Prison reform top issue in 2017 legislative session

Updated: Dec. 28, 2016 at 8:17 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama's prisons face overcrowding, understaffing, lawsuits and a federal investigation so, for 2017, prisons seem to be the first item on Governor Robert Bentley's agenda.

Over the last month, Bentley has said he is looking at a potential special session to isolate the prison issue in the middle of next year's legislative session.

Senator Cam Ward said there is no magic bullet that can completely solve the state's prison issues and it could take years to fix. However, Ward said something must be done.

"If we did nothing, the consequences of a [federal] take over would devastate our state's economy and budgets," Ward said. "It's not one answer, it's multiple answers."

The state's prison system presents a complex problem. Where lawmakers likely will begin next year is on the governor's Prison Transformation Act, aimed at replacing outdated facilities.

"Construction is going to be part of it. You cannot have a facility that was constructed in the 1950's and expect to provide 21st century public safety. It just doesn't work that way." Ward said.

If passed, Bentley's plan would build four new super prisons to replace old facilities. The prisons would be built with an $800 million bond issue. 
"Mental health is the missing component of tackling the prison issue in our state," Ward said. 
The prison system's mental health policy is playing itself out right now in federal court. A case Ward said he thinks the state will lose. 
"I think the federal court is going to hold a gun to our head and say 'look, you are going to fix this or we are going to take over and fix it for you,'" Ward said. 
Ward believes the solution will take years and multiple efforts from lawmakers and the correction department itself to fix the problems.

"We are going to keep chipping away; it took many years to get into this mess, it will take many years to get out," Ward said.

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