Alabama prisons eye releases as worst case option

AP News
Posted: Dec 15, 2009 2:03 PM

Alabama's prison commissioner warned Tuesday that a budget shortfall of $15 million this year could lead to employee layoffs, prison closings and inmate releases _ all conditions he and the governor are determined to avoid.

Commissioner Richard Allen appeared before state legislators to outline this year's budget woes and even bigger fiscal problems next year for a prison system that has been understaffed and overcrowded for years.

Allen said this year's available revenue of $412 million is $15 million short of what he needs to pay all his bills.

"I don't have the ability to affect that shortfall without closings and layoffs, which I don't want to do," he told lawmakers.

Alabama last had a mass release of inmates in the early 1980s due to overcrowding.

Asked by legislators about the possibility of inmate releases, Allen said, "I don't expect to do this because the governor has said he's not going to do it."

But Allen warned that his financial problems get even bigger for fiscal 2011, which begins next Oct. 1. The current budget year's spending plan includes $118 million in federal stimulus funds, which won't be available for the next year. Allen asked legislators to make up that money, plus provide additional funding from a state General Fund budget that is expected to shrink due to the recession.

House budget committee Chairman John Knight, D-Montgomery, called the money problems "scary."

"We had $118 million in stimulus money. We know we've got to replace that," he said. But he added that it's too early to say how.

Allen said the prison system has sold land and timber in recent years to make ends meet, and its options for solving budget problems are exhausted.

National rankings show Alabama's prisons are the nation's most crowded, with its 26,400 inmates putting it at 191 percent of its designed capacity. It has reached that mark by squeezing beds into all available space.

A lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of inmates at maximum-security Donaldson prison contends it is unconstitutionally overcrowded and dangerous _ and corrections officers have joined the suit supporting the inmates' claims.

The crowded prisons are also understaffed. The ratio of inmates to officers is 10 to 1, compared to 5 to 1 nationally.

Allen's boss, Gov. Bob Riley, will present his budget proposals for fiscal 2011 next month.

Allen did not say Tuesday how Riley plans to close the gap, but he said the prison system has managed to get by each year without prison closings or layoffs.

In Riley's first term, he did accelerate paroles to relieve both overcrowding and budget problems. He has tried to minimize budget cuts for prisons _ and with the stimulus, he was able to _ but he has not said how he wants to fix the huge looming shortfall.

Allen said the prison system's budget problems could be eased in two ways:

_if Alabama expanded community corrections and drug court programs. Those programs allow offenders to stay at home and work while under close supervision rather than going to prison.

_if more judges started following the state's voluntary sentencing guidelines rather than giving sentences longer than the guidelines recommend.