- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Gov. Robert Bentley and state leaders on Tuesday announced an attempt to overhaul the state’s severely overcrowded prison system, considered at risk of a federal takeover.

Bentley said state prisons are at 192 percent of capacity with more than 25,000 inmates. “It’s an issue that is not going to wait. We need help,” Bentley said.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said the state’s prisons are believed to be the worst, or at least among the worst in the country, for overcrowding.

Bentley announced the beginning of a study under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program funded in part through the U.S. Department of Justice. The nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center will help Alabama examine what causes inmate growth in Alabama prisons and suggest ways the state could contain costs without risking public safety.

Bentley requested the assistance after a series of blistering findings about state prisons. The Department of Justice in January sent a letter accusing the state of keeping female inmates in unconstitutional conditions because of widespread sexual abuse at Alabama’s only prison for women.

The announcement came on the same day the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report saying the state is failing to provide a humane level of medical and psychiatric care to inmates.

State Sen. Cam Ward, who will chair the state’s new prison-reform task force, said either Alabama will solve its prisons woes or “the federal courts will do it for us.”

“We are at a fork in the road. We have two paths to choose and neither one is easy,” said Ward, R-Alabaster.

Ward said changes could involve politically unpopular decisions, but the goal is to avoid a mass release of inmates.

“If we don’t solve our corrections overcrowding and the problems we have in corrections, then shame on us. Not because of our political careers but because of the impact on our children and grandchildren. It will bankrupt our General Fund budget,” Ward said.

Bentley said changing the prison system will “absolutely” cost more money, but he did not know how much or where it will come from.

The goal of the review is to have policy options available for discussion in December and before lawmakers begin the 2015 session.

Andrew Barbee of the Justice Center at Council of State Governments said some states have found success with alternative sentencing, increased treatment for substance abuse and mental health or other diversion programs.

“It’s not hug-a-thug. There still has to be accountability,” Barbee told the task force.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has been involved in reforms in other states, including Texas, North Carolina and Ohio.

While the spotlight Tuesday was on overcrowding, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report detailing what the group called severe problems with medical care in Alabama prisons.

“The state of medical care in Alabama prisons is truly atrocious,” said attorney Maria V. Morris, who authored the report for the Montgomery-based organization.

Morris said stroke victims have lingered without treatment, mental health care is largely nonexistent and some inmates have liver failure because Hepatitis c has gone untreated.

Morris predicted that the issue of adequate medical and mental health care in Alabama prisons would become an issue in federal court litigation.

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