- Associated Press - Monday, September 7, 2015

SPRINGVILLE, Ala. (AP) - Two hundred and fifty inmates live and sleep in long rows of cots in the airplane hangar-sized dorm at St. Clair Correctional Facility. Industrial fans churn the 92-degree summer heat in the brick building without air conditioning. Guarding them all is usually one or two corrections officers.

The inmates in the dorm, where prisoners participate in classes and court-ordered treatment programs, were selected for good behavior. Still, it’s a scene repeated across the state prison system, said Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn: too few officers watching too many inmates.

“Our concern is the security of our officers,” Dunn said. “When you are understaffed, which in many of these facilities we are, it makes it very difficult for our corrections officers to cover all of the areas they are supposed to cover.”

State budget cuts could stymie an effort to relieve crowding in state prisons that now hold nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold. Dunn said a 5 percent funding cut to the department would jump crowding from 185 percent to 213 percent of capacity.

Legislators, fearing the federal courts might intervene in the state’s prison system, earlier this year passed a series of reforms aimed at reducing crowing through sentencing changes, boosting use of community corrections and hiring additional probation and parole officers. However, while lawmakers approved the reform effort, they still have to fund it.

The state general fund faces a projected shortfall of $200 million. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is asking lawmakers, who begin a special session Tuesday, to approve $260 million in tax increases to avoid budget cuts. Bentley said Friday that his proposed general fund budget incorporates the money for prison reform for Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

“This is a major problem in the state, our prison situation,” Bentley said. “We inherited this problem, but we’ve got to solve this problem. The prison reform is a good piece of legislation and we need to fund the first part of that. We need, probably, some new prisons but that is down the road.”

The state’s close security prisons, which hold the most dangerous inmates, are at average of 155 percent capacity. St Clair was designed for 984 inmates, but holds 1,323. Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery was built for 440 inmates but in June housed 1,279 inmates.

St. Clair, a maximum security prison, has been in an unfavorable spotlight because of incidents of violence and inmate deaths. Four inmates were killed in a 14-month period at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. The facility was placed on lockdown in April when prison officials say more than two dozen inmates assaulted officers using broken broom handles, locks tied to belts and other objects as weapons.

A portion of St. Clair prison is closed for a project to replace locks on cell door locks that have grown old and unreliable. Dunn said while the money is set aside to replace the locks at St. Clair, lock replacement projects at two other prisons would have to be put on hold even if the department receives level funding, Dunn said

State Sen. Cam Ward, the chairman of Prison Reform Task Force, said he believes lawmakers will find the money to fund the reform effort. He said the price tag on the reforms is only $16 million the first year

“If we go over 200 percent capacity, you might as well go ahead and give away the keys to our system to a federal judge,” Ward said.

However, as lawmakers decide what to fund, they’ll have to trade off where to cut or where to raise taxes. A Senate-passed budget in the first special session funded the reform effort, but opposed senators accused their colleagues of picking prisons over services for children and the elderly. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected the Senate spending plan.

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