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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama representatives on Tuesday approved a budget that provides money for 500 additional corrections officers as the state seeks to stave off a lawsuit from the Department of Justice over prison violence.
The House of Representatives voted 103-0 for a general fund budget that includes funding for more officers as well as money to boost officer pay. The spending plan now moves to the Alabama Senate.
"This is a first step. It's part of the plan. It certainly won't be all of the plan to try to address these issues," said Republican Rep. Steve Clouse, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
Clouse said much of a $40 million funding increase for the Department of Corrections is for the 500 additional officers and to boost pay by 20 percent to entice more people to work in state prisons.
The Department of Justice last week said Alabama is violating the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse and by housing them in understaffed and overcrowded facilities. The department gave the state 49 days to respond or risk a federal lawsuit.
The state prison system, already facing a federal court directive to increase staff, had requested the money in January, but Clouse said the Justice Department report added increased urgency to the request. The department has indicated it plans to make the same request in subsequent years.
Gov. Kay Ivey last week said that the Justice Department identified many of the same concerns the state already has been working to address.
"This is just reinforcing the need we've been seeing all along. This is an Alabama problem. It's got to have an Alabama solution and we'll be addressing that in fast order," Ivey said.
While the House passed the budget without a dissenting vote, some Democrats used the debate time to question Ivey's proposal to build, or lease, three new large mega-prisons, housing about 3,000 inmates each. Most existing prisons would close.
While nothing has been finalized, the Alabama Department of Corrections is currently seeking "expressions of interest" from companies to build the three prisons and lease them back to the state for a maximum of $78 million annually. The deadline to respond is Thursday.
"Studies across the country have shown that mega-prisons are not the way to go," said Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa.
Some lawmakers noted that leasing the prisons would obligate the state to make lease payments without requiring legislative approval as a bond issue for construction would.
A prison system spokesman said the prison plan will be a collaborative effort with lawmakers and the request for industry proposals will help the state make an informed decision on the "appropriate path forward."
Clouse told reporters he wants to continue to gather information about the proposal.
"We've got to see what the costs are," he said.
A group representing inmates in an ongoing lawsuit over mental health care said the state needs to be more aggressive in responding to the Justice Department's concerns.
Ebony Howard, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said 500 officers is a "wholly inadequate" number. She cited a federal judge's order in an ongoing lawsuit over prison mental health care saying the state should hire 2,200 correctional officers by 2022.
"Governor Ivey has long said that the prison crisis is an Alabama problem that should have an Alabama solution. Well, the Department of Justice has made it very clear that time has passed," Howard said.
In a letter to the governor, the organization suggests that Alabama more than double the funding request to add 1,100 officers this year and again next year; implement sentencing reform; and replace the two worst state prisons, including Holman prison in Atmore.
Lawmakers applauded after approving the general fund budget, but Rep. John Rogers, a Democrat from Birmingham, said the money is inadequate to resolve the problems at state prisons.
"We should have been crying," Rogers said.