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Gov. Bentley Considers New Prison Construction

Wed December 07, 2016 - Southeast Edition #25

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said Nov. 17 that he may convene lawmakers to a special session to approve spending on prison construction for the state's severely overcrowded corrections system, which is under federal investigation.

Bentley said the focus would be approving an $800 million bond issue for prison construction, which was a centerpiece of his legislative agenda this year, but died in the final minutes of the regular session.

Alabama houses 23,692 inmates in facilities built for 13,318.

“We've got a real problem in this state,' Bentley said. “Our correctional officers are being injured and killed and really it's due to overcrowding and the conditions in our prisons.'

The U.S. Justice Department announced in October that it was investigating whether male inmates in Alabama are housed in safe and sanitary conditions. A guard was fatally stabbed by an inmate in September at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility. The same prison was the site of two uprisings where inmates set fires and seized controlled of a dormitory.

The state also faces federal lawsuits filed by inmates over medical care and violence. And Alabama agreed last year to make changes at its only prison for women after the Justice Department investigated complaints that guards were sexually abusing inmates.

“In light of an imminent federal court ruling on our prison system I believe we do not have a choice but to address this issue sooner rather than later,' said state Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the legislative prison oversight committee.

Bentley said he is considering calling the special session in January, or holding it within the bounds of the regular session that begins in February.

“I would like to isolate it, because if you isolate the issue I think we have a better chance of passing it,' Bentley said.

The governor in the last regular legislative session proposed the bond issue to pay for three new mega-prisons housing up to 4,000 men each, and one new prison for women.

The administration has argued that consolidating existing prisons into modern facilities would generate enough savings to pay for the construction. The House approved the measure, but senators raised concerns about the scope, the accuracy of the savings estimates and which existing prisons would be closed. A scaled-down $550 million version died in May when supporters could not break a filibuster.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse said he remains “a little bit skeptical' that the project could pay for itself with savings. However, he said he believes lawmakers need to “face the facts' that they need to do something about the prison system.

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