MONTGOMERY - Area legislators are hearing that a special session may be happening around in September to deal with the state's prison problems. State Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, and state Rep. …
MONTGOMERY - Area legislators are hearing that a special session may be happening around in September to deal with the state's prison problems.
State Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, and state Rep. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, said they are hearing that September is being looked at for Gov. Kay Ivey to possibly call the special session, although Estes has also heard October.
"That's one of those issues that has to be addressed," Estes said. "The state has been given an ultimatum."
This past week, a two-year Justice Department report indicates the state's prison system is "unconstitutional" in terms of cruel and unusual punishment, pointing to suicides and mental health needs, as well as an "excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths."
CBS News quoted state officials as saying they are only half staffed to adequately oversee 16,000 inmates, and one lawsuit is already in federal court.
Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said the discussion of a special session on prisons to be called by the governor is ongoing. "There are a lot of issues related to prisons that we don't really know yet," he said.
He noted only 11 legislative days were left as of Wednesday, and without much of the data needed to make a decision "a massive package that would be an end-all answer" to the prison issues.
Reed said the state needs to handle the situation instead of the federal government taking over the prisons.
"That leaves us with no control and spending a whole lot of money that we don't particularly have," Reed said.
Reed added the U.S. Justice Department is particularly concerned about overcrowding in the prisons, which he said has been reduced from 198 percent to about 150 percent, while Justice officials want the figure down to 137 percent.
"That means we're going to have to have different programs to accommodate somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 inmates" in state prisons, he said, noting Ivey is looking at building new prisons, either by borrowing for construction or leasing from privately-built prisons.
"I think we're probably going to get a special session on prisons," Wadsworth said. "We're under a court order dealing the mental health aspect of it," which he said has to be dealt with. "We don't have enough funding for mental health right now."
Wadsworth said if the matter is in the governor's call, it does not require a budget isolation amendment, requiring 60 percent to vote, and will only require a majority vote. Items outside the call will take a two-thirds vote.
Estes said while prisons are to be for punishment, he noted they should also be humane.
"I don't think we have that right now, based on the information we're getting," he said. "I"m not for providing a country club atmosphere, but at the same time we have to address the specific needs the courts have brought to our attention."
In a related matter, both chambers passed the bill preventing sheriffs from using money allocated for feeding inmates and raising the state allowance for sheriffs from $1.75 a day to $2.25, according to al.com on April 30. The website LegiScan indicates the final approval came on May 2. The bill also sets up an emergency fund that counties could turn to in the event of cost overruns, although 2 percent annual increases for the allowance was stripped from the House.
"That was supported across the board by sheriffs," Reed said, noting sheriffs were concerned about bad publicity created by sheriffs "outside my district." He said sheriffs in his district were "very comfortable" with the bill, so he voted for it.
Estes said he voted for the bill. While he said the sheriffs he has worked with would not abuse the system, he said it was good sometimes to "codify some things and make sure it is spelled out in state law what you can and can't do with that."
Wadsworth said it was a "great" bill that prevents the funds to be used by the sheriff for any personal use, as state law allowed for excess funds to be used by the sheriff as additional compensation, which led to excesses in some parts of the state.
He also said the prisoners need to be fed adequately. "They are in jail and being punished for a reason. However, they are human beings still. There have been some jails where a prisoner will stay two or three weeks and come out 20 pounds less. I don't think a slice of bologna, a slice of bread and some Kool-Aid is enough food.