- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Tuesday night used his annual State of the State address to call for the construction of new prisons to replace aging state facilities that have come under scrutiny for overcrowding, violence and abuse.

Bentley proposed a bond issue to build four new large regional prisons and close most of the state’s existing prisons, including the state’s embattled Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women where federal officials last year alleged prisoners were subjected to pervasive abuse and harassment.

“By building a brand new female prison facility, the State of Alabama will permanently slam the door shut on Tutwiler Prison for Women,” Bentley said in the address to lawmakers.

Bentley said the inefficient, overcrowded prisons are unsafe for the officers who work there and the state’s communities. The governor said the construction project would not cost the state additional dollars, because it can be paid for with maintenance savings in the prison budget.

At last count, the state prisons house about 24,000 inmates in facilities originally designed to hold 13,000, ranking the state top in the nation in prison crowding. Seven inmates were killed inside Alabama prisons in 2015, according to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners treated unfairly in the legal system.

The proposal drew a mix of praise and criticism.

Equal Justice Initiative Director Bryan Stevenson said problems of abuse, poor management, understaffing and excessive sentencing will not “get any better when it takes place in a new prison instead of an old one. The nonprofit provides legal representation to indigent defendants an prisoners treated unfairly in the legal system.

The governor also described a broad agenda that included what he described as initiatives to combat poverty in one of the poorest states in the nation.

“Poverty does not discriminate. In Alabama, it knows no race It knows no region. It knows no political party,” Bentley said.

He called for measures to boost prekindergarten access, expand high-speed Internet access in rural areas and assistance for students who want to attend two-year colleges.

The governor, in a deeply personal section of the speech, described growing up poor to parents who did not have a high school education. But he told his audience that he was blessed with love and education opportunities.

Here’s a look at some of the governor’s additional proposals and how lawmakers responded:

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PREKINDERGARTEN

Bentley has made a goal of trying to expand access to the state’s small but lauded prekindergarten program so that every 4-year-old child in the state has an opportunity to attend. The governor is proposing an additional $20 million. That will allow another 3,800 to attend prekindergarten in the program that currently serves about 12,000 children, according to the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.

“By the year 2019, we will be able to tell every parent in Alabama, there is a Pre-K classroom available for your child,” Bentley said.

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TWO-YEAR COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS

The governor said he is proposing a program that would identify seventh-graders in the state’s poorest counties and provide them mentoring, tutoring and, eventually, scholarships to state two-year colleges if they make their grades. The program will be started as a pilot program and then expanded statewide.

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RURAL MEDICAL CARE

The governor is proposing up to a $5,000 income tax credit for health care providers who work in rural areas. The governor said he will also seek increase funding for medical scholarships and loan forgiveness for medical students who commit to serving a period of time in one of our underserved communities.

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TEACHER PAY RAISE/OTHER IDEAS

Bentley is asking lawmakers to approve a 2 percent pay raise for teachers, school employees and state employees. The raise for school employees will be easier to fund because the education budget is in better shape than the state’s general fund which is facing a shortfall.

The governor said he also wanted to provide ways to leverage the federal e-rate program to provide high speed internet access in rural Alabama.

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REACTION

The governor’s speech drew a mix of praise and skepticism.

Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard said he supported the governor’s prison building plans saying the state could no longer put a “Band-Aid” on its corrections troubles. But said he had questions about how the governor was going to fund some of his other proposals.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford said the speech was “vanilla” and short on details and solutions to the state’s problems

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