- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama’s prisons chief on Tuesday said the state prison system remains “under stress” because of aging facilities, low staffing and overcrowding.

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told lawmakers during budget hearings that state prisons house about 24,000 inmates in facilities designed for about 13,000. He said overcrowding and staffing levels create a dangerous situation for prison officers. He says that also makes it difficult to retain employees, control contraband and offer rehabilitation and education services to inmates.

“This is a department that is under great stress and it has been under stress for a considerable amount of time. It is my hope that as we go forward, we will be able to figure out a way to at least relieve some of that stress, because at some point, if you stress the system too much, it will break,” Dunn told lawmakers.

He praised corrections officers and prison employees as “unsung heroes” for their work.

Dunn said Alabama spends $44 per day per inmate. Sen. Cam Ward, the chairman of a prison reform task force, said only one state - Louisiana - spends less.

Legislators last year approved a prison reform bill that made sentencing and other changes to reduce crowding. However, the impact won’t be seen for at least several months.

Lawmakers began budget hearings ahead of the legislative session that begins Feb 2. Lawmakers questioned state agency heads about their spending and budget needs.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse said lawmakers are expecting another difficult year of deciding how to budget available money that will certainly fall short of agency requests.

“It’s going to be rough,” Clouse said.

However, Clouse said the problem is not as severe as the one lawmakers faced last year. Legislators after two special sessions approved a cigarette tax increase and other revenue measures to minimize cuts to state agencies.

Clouse has said he doubts lawmakers will approve any additional taxes this session. He said lawmakers will be looking at ways to handle increased needs in Medicaid and prisons, the two biggest expenses in the general fund budget.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore told the committee member that judicial system employees have had one raise since 2008, while legislative and executive branch have gotten raises. Moore said that was unfair and is causing employees to leave the court system.

“We’ve got a problem,” Moore said.

Budget hearings continue Wednesday.

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