- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama Senate on Tuesday approved an $800 million prison construction bill over objections from both parties about a lack of debate on the issue.

The Senate voted 23 to 11, sending the bill on to the House.

The Senate passage of the prison bond issue was a welcome legislative win for Gov. Robert Bentley on a day where lawmakers overrode his budget veto and some House members called for his impeachment.

“I commend the Senate for taking a bold and decisive step toward prioritizing public safety in our prison system,” Bentley said in a statement Tuesday night.

A major initiative of Bentley’s, the $800 million bond issue would fund four large new prisons. As of the end of 2015, the state’s prisons were crammed to about 180 percent capacity.

In March, Bentley described prison facilities as “archaic” after several violent riots.

The bond issue would consolidate most of the state’s existing facilities into three men’s prisons and one women’s facility to replace the Tutwiler Prison for Women, which has been a subject of a federal abuse investigation. The new prisons are projected to be at 125 percent capacity when they open.

Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in March that as long as facilities are modernized, the state should not need to hire more corrections officers.

Opponents of the bill say new construction doesn’t do enough to address the systemic issues leading to overcrowding.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said he believes the state will transition away from simply “warehousing” people with a renewed focus on rehabilitation and vocational training.

Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said Tuesday that his colleagues should “slow down” to consider the bill.

“Here we are sitting on the verge of a general fund budget where we can’t find money to keep our Medicaid system afloat, but we’re ready to float bonds to the tune of $800 million to fund prisons,” Ross said. “There’s something wrong with the scenario.”

Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, said he was “disgusted” with the lack of debate on the floor, but Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed said the vote was the culmination of months of discussion among lawmakers.

“We have been working on this process for months, and now we’ve brought the process to a conclusion,” Reed said.

Bentley has said he hopes to begin construction in 2017 and have the prisons open within three years.

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