Legislators meet in Columbiana to discuss prison overcrowding

By BRAD GASKINS / Staff Writer

COLUMBIANA – Alabama’s correctional system is “probably facing the greatest crisis in our state’s history,” state Sen. Cam Ward said Tuesday when the Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee met at the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility.

The problem, he said: Alabama’s prisons are severely overcrowded, operating at 190 percent capacity.

Last spring, the federal government took control of California’s prison system, ordering the release of inmates to relieve overcrowding in a system operating at the time at 137 percent capacity.

“We do have a very serious emergency on our hands,” said Ward, R-Alabaster, who is the chairman of the committee. “Our overcrowding and our capacity actually exceed the situation they had in California.”

Alabama’s prisons, designed to hold about 13,400 inmates, currently hold about 25,400 inmates. Kilby and Staton prisons, for example, were designed to hold 440 and 500 inmates, respectively. Each currently holds 1,400 inmates.

If nothing changes, Alabama would have 27,190 inmates by July 2015, Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim T. Thomas said during the meeting.

If Alabama were to pass a truth in sentencing law, where all inmates serve 85 percent of their time, then Alabama would have 36,256 inmates by July 2015, Thomas said.

The state’s parole board has “helped keep our population in check” throughout the years, but recently “has not been very productive for us,” Thomas said.

From 2009 to 2011, the parole board decreased the number of parolees by about 500 per year, Thomas said.

One of the most difficult aspects of running the state’s prison system is finding correctional officers, Thomas said. With starting salaries of about $28,000 a year, about 60 percent of prison staff leaves the system within the first five years.

Since 2001, the number of convicted felons has increased by 29 percent, from 16,195 in 2001 to 20,846 in 2010, according to Bennett Wright, the executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

Community corrections programs serve as an alternative to prison and help save money, said Jeffery Williams, director of the community correction division.

Forty-five of the state’s 67 counties, including Shelby County, have community corrections programs. What would it take, he asked, to have programs in all 67 counties.

He said it takes community officials ‘buying in’ to the program.

“All the key players that are in the criminal justice system are partners. That’s one of the important elements of having a successful community corrections program.”

In fiscal year 2011, 1,868 inmates were diverted to community corrections programs. In 2011, community corrections accounted for annual savings of $17.3 million.

In addition to Ward, other members of the Shelby County delegation at the meeting were Sen. Slade Blackwell, Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, Rep. Mike Hill and Rep. Kurt Wallace.