Prison problem must be on radar next session

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, December 14, 2016

While the presidential race played out this year, several things happened in Alabama politics that went under the radar.

First, a federal appeals court upheld the legislature’s banning PAC to PAC transfers. The new Republican legislative majority that marched into the statehouse in 2011 set out to destroy and bury the last bastion of Democratic power in the state – the once omnipotent Alabama Education Association. They succeeded.

One of the legs they sawed off was the PAC to PAC money laundering scheme that AEA so adroitly used to funnel and hide their campaign contributions. The primary beneficiary of the AEA transfer was to Joe Reed’s Alabama Democratic Conference. The three judge panel’s ruling does not limit the amount of money that the ADC can raise, it just disallows the AEA from transferring money to their sister organization.

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The AEA/ADC coalition was not the only group using this PAC to PAC shell game of hiding campaign contributions. The practice was pervasive. However, the ADC was the one that sued to say that the PAC to PAC prohibition was unconstitutional because it banned free speech and due process.

Attorney General Luther Strange praised the ruling, saying “the PAC to PAC transfer ban has been instrumental in limiting campaign corruption while adding greater transparency to the election process.” This federal court ruling has hammered an additional final nail in the coffin of the once vaunted AEA.

In early October, the U.S. Justice Department launched a statewide investigation into the safety and sanitary conditions of Alabama’s men’s prisons. It has been common knowledge that Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded. It is probably a foregone conclusion that there is a very real possibility that the federal courts may intervene and take over control of our prisons.

The state already settled a suit with the Department of Justice over problems with the Julia Tutwiler women’s prison in Wetumpka arising out of allegations of physical and sexual violence. This settlement occurred about a year ago. The Justice Department is now saying that the same problems exist in the men’s prisons. The DOJ investigation may very well be the precursor to federal intervention.

The prison problem will have to be front and center when the legislature convenes in February. State Sen. Cam Ward of Shelby County, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been at the forefront of the prison issue, says, “At the end of the day, you have to change the facilities to some degree not just for the safety of inmates but for the safety of those who work there.”

Alabama’s prisons were at 178 percent capacity in July. This severe overcrowding is the primary contributing factor to violence in prisons. There have been six homicides at the St. Clair Correctional facility between 2011 and 2014. There have been riots at Holman prison in Atmore. The Bibb and Bessemer correctional facilities have seen numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse. All three U.S. Attorneys in the state have tacitly agreed with the justice department investigation.

The Governor’s Advisory Council on Gambling is meeting and will formulate a plan of action to propose to the legislature when they convene in February. This seven-member advisory panel will examine the entire gambling gambit. Hopefully, this council will promulgate a plan of action for gambling in Alabama.

This issue of gambling has plagued the state for decades. In fact, it has existed since the state’s founding. Gambling revenue is probably the state’s largest potential revenue source. Our state is losing millions of dollars to our surrounding states.

Hopefully, this council will look at all aspects of gambling including the lottery, how to extract some money from the Poarch Creek Indian casinos, and also allowing the locally sanctioned facilities in Greene, Macon and Lowndes counties to exist and pay some state taxes.

The council should have a recommendation to give the legislature by Jan. 31, 2017, in time for the legislative session in February.

The race for our open U.S. Senate seat is beginning to percolate. Candidates will be wise to avoid the interim appointment to the seat by Bentley. The early favorites to win election to the seat are Attorney General Luther Strange and Rep. Robert Aderholt. A host of viable candidates will enter the fray.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist.  His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers.  He served 16 years in the state legislature.  Steve may be reached at