"I would like to look into the possibility of a facility for women that could ease the problem at Tutwiler," said state Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston.
Boyd has long been an advocate of closure of Tutwiler, the state's only maximum-security prison for women. As the state's receiving unit for female inmates, the Wetumpka prison houses not just violent, maximum security inmates but also many women imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Allegations of sexual abuse at Tutwiler — and a federal investigation into those claims — have moved the prison to the political front-burner in recent months.
Boyd has long advocated for the creation of a system of lower-security facilities around the state, to house nonviolent female offenders. She told The Star on Friday that she's actively seeking just such a facility for Calhoun County.
"It would be for women from the surrounding area, to eliminate the overcrowding and to assist their families," Boyd said.
Contact with family helps reintegrate women inmates into society, Boyd said. Family members now have to travel to Wetumpka — a 95-mile drive from Anniston — to see Tutwiler inmates.
Boyd declined to discuss possible locations for a correctional facility, but other advocates for the idea say Anniston has one facility in place that would be ideal. The former Anniston Star building at 216 W. 10th St., now owned by Calhoun County, is already able to house 60 inmates, due to a renovation done years ago to create overflow capacity for the county jail, county officials say.
"It seemed like a win-win-win to me," said former Anniston Mayor Bill Robison. As director of the community corrections program for the Calhoun-Cleburne Circuit Court, Robison runs a DUI school, a misdemeanor probation office and other court programs out of a separate portion of the building. He said he has been trying to get legislators, prison officials and county officials together over the last few months to discuss opening the unused facility to Tutwiler inmates.
Prisons spokesman Brian Corbett said Friday that he didn't know whether state prisons officials had yet discussed the matter with the county.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said he proposed the idea of a county-run, state-funded rehabilitation program for state inmates at the former Star building years ago.
"Currently, the Alabama prison system is very overcrowded, and a lot of them are there for minor crimes," Amerson said. "Virtually none of them serve their sentences."
Amerson said the county could have used the building to house inmates in programs that would let them work, undergo drug rehabilitation if needed, and get back on their feet.
The idea never caught on. But recent developments in the prison system could bring the idea — and other proposals like it — back to life.
Alabama's prisons are now running at nearly twice their capacity. The state's prisons were built for roughly 13,000 occupants, state figures show, but there are now nearly 26,000 inmates in those prisons. Another 6,000 to 7,000 state prisoners are serving time in county jails or in other rehabilitation programs that don't require them to be in state facilities.
"We're at 192 percent of our capacity, probably the most over-capacity system in the country," said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who heads the Legislature's Joint Prison Oversight Committee.
Ward and other state officials are increasingly concerned about those numbers because of a court case, filed a few years ago, against California's prison system. In that case, the court ruled that overcrowding and poor medical care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered California to reduce its prison population by thousands of inmates.
Tutwiler, the women's prison, has become a particular worry for state officials concerned about a California-style lawsuit. Last year, a report by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative alleged rape and sexual harassment of inmates at the prison. Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas ordered a review of the prison — which found, among other things, that two inmates were pregnant with the children of Tutwiler employees. In March, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the prison.
Ward said the situation could lead to federal intervention.
"The warning signs are there now," he said.
Ward spoke to The Star on the topic of prison overcrowding before the Calhoun County push for a women's facility came to light. Moving inmates to county-run facilities was one solution he mentioned for the overcrowding issue — but just one.
"It took us decades to get here, and it's going to take a long time to change," he said.
The state's prison population in 1991 was approximately half what it is now, according to state figures. Over the past two decades, lawmakers have bumped up punishments for existing crimes, and created new felonies, as part of the nationwide trend toward getting tough on crime.
Most of those new crime bills have come without a "fiscal note" — the cost estimate that accompanies most new legislation.
"There's no fiscal note," Ward said. "It's too hard to estimate."
In recent years, state officials have become more aware that the cost of incarceration is growing. Prisons got some of the money from a $437 million raid on the Alabama Trust Fund, approved by voters in referendum, last year.
But in some ways, the state is only beginning to get a grip on its prison population. Nearly a decade ago, legislators created an Alabama Sentencing Commission to provide guidelines to help judges determine the proper length of sentences.
Those guidelines have never been mandatory. Until recently, judges followed the guidelines about half the time, imposing tougher sentences in most of the cases when they ignored the guidelines. In 2012, compliance with the guidelines topped 70 percent. Beginning in October, judges will be required to follow the guidelines in non-violent crime cases, unless they can show a reason why they didn't.
Sentencing Commission director Bennet Wright said the guidelines should help bring down the prison population, slowly, over time. But it will take more than that to relieve the overpopulation problem, he said. And even if the population goes down, he said, they're still housed in prisons built mostly in the middle of the last century.
"At some point, the state's going to have a real discussion about building state prisons," he said.
Built to current standards, Wright said, a prison for 1,200 inmates would cost about $100 million.
If the state does face a court order to empty its prisons, it won't be the first time. In 1976, U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ordered the Alabama prison system to take no new inmates. Back then, state prisons housed only 3,550 inmates, according to press accounts from the time, but were built for only 2,307. Prisoners complained of sexual assaults and other issues worsened by overcrowding.
State prison figures show the number of inmates dropped by more than 1,000 over the next year. Crime rates dropped about 2 percent in 1976, but rose 9 percent the following year, state records show.
The order led to the opening of work-release facilities around the state. It's not clear whether those new facilities were cheaper, on a per-inmate basis, than keeping inmates in the prior prison system. But advocates of a local women's correctional facility say a state-funded, county-run system could be operated at lower cost than the state prisons — particularly if it allows nonviolent inmates to do work that would help them reintegrate into society.
"I think at the county level, we can do housing of the same inmates and do it cheaper," Amerson said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.