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Prisons must be top priority this session

Alabama’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons are a disaster in waiting, and every revelation seems to underscore the potential for that disaster.

In a week in which another inmate died as a result of prison violence, we also learned that the state’s 15 prisons do not have working fire alarms. Not a single one of them.

The state prison system is at 180 percent capacity, and we sentence more people to go there every day. Because the state is already overcrowded, more inmates are being housed in county jails, increasing local burdens.

Last year, Gov. Robert Bentley proposed the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative (APTI), a plan to build four mega prisons at a cost of $800 million. While the initiative passed through both the House and the Senate, it did not gain final approval.

Among the problems with the bill was that Bentley and prison officials said the state would be able to service the debt on the $800 million (which will cost more than $1 billion when we include interest) with savings from closing the 15 older, harder-to-maintain prisons.

Officials also would not say where those new prisons would be located. Because the communities that surround the 15 existing prisons depend upon those facilities to provide jobs, and because many have gone into debt to provide the infrastructure systems (water and sewerage) for them, many opposed the measure.

The problems in the existing system are made worse because correctional officers don’t want to work in the current environment, and many jobs go unfilled. Fewer guards, more violence …. It is a vicious cycle.

Two weeks into the 2017 legislative session, Bentley’s new bill hasn’t made it to committee yet. While there are many, many questions about that bill that need to be answered, the legislature must take some action this session or face federal intervention in the prison system, which could prove more costly than the governor’s proposal.

More than 23,000 inmates are housed in aging prisons built for 13,000, and the reductions of the last few years have only produced minimal improvements.

As we see it, the legislature has no choice but to make this issue a top priority this session.