U.S. Justice Department investigating Alabama prison system - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

U.S. Justice Department investigating Alabama prison system

(WAFF) -

The United States Department of Justice announced Thursday that a federal investigation into Alabama prisons for men in underway.

The Department of Justice has taken over state prison systems. Like California’s, it's based on overcrowding, placing a federal compliance officer in charge of determining how many and which prisoners are released. However, the objectives in the press release announcing the investigation, overcrowding is not specifically mentioned.

The DOJ states it is investigating whether prisoners are protected against sexual abuse, if they are subjected to excessive force from correctional
officers and if they have safe living conditions. State Sen. Arthur Orr said based on what the DOJ has outlined as its objectives, he is not concerned at this point about a possible federal takeover of the prison system.

Some state prison reform is underway. Last year, state lawmakers passed the 2015 Prison Reform Act. The Alabama Department of Corrections is releasing more nonviolent offenders to relieve overcrowding.

However, lawmakers have not agreed on funding for the construction and consolidation of prisons outlined in the legislation. During the 2016 legislative session, Gov. Robert Bentley proposed $800 million for the plan with the money to come from bonds to be pad back over 30 years. The proposal did not pass after compromises on the number of new prisons and an overall cost reduction failed to get enough momentum during the last hours of the session.

Orr, who was in Montgomery meeting with the governor and lawmakers about the 2017 budget on Thursday, talked with WAFF 48 News by phone. He said lawmakers will take the issue on again in the next legislative session.

"Gov. Bentley will have much more research, study and analysis to back up the construction plan, and spending $800 million to build these new
prison facilities. The plan is they would be paid for out of normal operating budget of the Department of Corrections," Orr said.

State Rep. Terri Collins, who serves on the Commission on Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System, said she is confident the compromises will help get funding moving during the next legislative session. She said lawmakers will have more researched data to show factors such as return of investment to make their decision clearer.

"I've been able to tour a lot of the prisons, and so I know we need to make some of these reforms. They're serious, and we make sure that in Alabama we're taking care of the issues we need to take care of. We're not needing someone to come in and tell us how to do it," Collins said. "I do believe you'll see some funding legislation come out of the next session. I hope that with the compromises and the work that's already been done that we'll be closer to actually getting something accomplished at that point."

The 2017 session starts in February.

Bentley released the following statement concerning the investigation:

I welcome an investigation by the Department of Justice into Alabama's prisons. We both share a common goal of wanting to improve the safety of the officers and inmates within the facilities. I have personally met with representatives from the Department of Justice, and following those meetings the Alabama Department of Corrections made several critical changes to Tutwiler Prison for Women

I have also had the opportunity to personally meet in Washington D.C. with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and discuss the issue of overcrowding in Alabama and across the country. I shared with Lynch the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative announced earlier this year. This plan includes modern prisons that will reduce overcrowding and improve safety conditions for inmates and corrections officers.

I welcome the opportunity to continue to work with the Department of Justice and continue the efforts to make Alabama prisons better. This issue of overcrowding is a decade's old issue that must be addressed. I am looking forward to again working with the Alabama Legislature to permanently solve this problem.

To read the press release from the United States Department of Justice announcing the investigation, click here.

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