"Construction takes a long time," said Kim Thomas, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. "Particularly on a building constructed in 1942."
Thomas gave an update on progress at Tutwiler today in Montgomery, at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Prisons. He and other state officials have been scrambling to improve conditions at Tutwiler since last year, when a non-profit group issued a report alleging sexual abuses at the prison. Conditions at the prison are now the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
Concerns about the status Tutwiler were the main driver behind a hard-fought $16 million increase in funding for prisons in the 2014 budget. Part of that money, prison officials said, was needed to install security cameras and make other improvements to improve conditions at Tutwiler. The budget boost came from money legislators pulled out of the Children's Trust Fund, a pool of tobacco settlement money that paid for children's programs.
At the meeting today, Thomas said the installation of the cameras was a 180-day project, expected to be completed by the end of the next budget year — in September 2014.
Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, said that was too long to wait. The cameras, he said, are needed not only for the safety of the inmates, but also for the safety of guards.
"We need to expedite," he said. "We're talking about people's lives."
Thomas said he was pursuing the project at the swiftest possible pace. He noted that the prison system was already spending money on the project, even though the budget boost for 2014 doesn't come online until October. Another challenge, he said, was the fact that the 71-year-old facility wasn't built with electronic equipment in mind.
The prison, named for 19th-century prison reformer Julia Tutwiler, housed 703 maximum security and 249 medium security inmates at the end of May, according to prison statistics. The prison was built to hold 417 maximum security prisoners and 128 in medium security.
That sort of overcrowding is typical in Alabama's prison system, where nearly 26,000 inmates live in prisons built for 13,000.
Some say the abuses alleged at Tutwiler are linked to overcrowding.
"I see the overcrowding problem as at least indirectly if not directly connected to the problems we're seeing in our facilities," Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the chairman of the Prison Oversight Committee.
Earlier this year, prison officials toured a 60-bed facility in Anniston that Rep. Barbara Boyd, R-Anniston, hoped could be used to house nonviolent female inmates. Thomas said today that there's been no movement in that effort since June.
Even if the facility opened, he said, it would solve only a part of the overcrowding problem.
"If you take 65 out of Tutwiler, you don't change the dynamic at Tutwiler," Thomas said.
Thomas outlined other ways the prison system is addressing the problem, including education on rape prevention for current staff and an effort to recruit 100 new correctional officers.
Thomas also told legislators the prison system had recently donated 4,000 cell phones to a charity for victims of domestic violence.
Thomas mentioned the effort as a positive development. But it's also a symbol of the difficulties of dealing with prison overpopulation.
Thomas said all 4,000 cell phones were confiscated from inmates. Possession of a cell phone in prison is a felony under state law — something that could potentially add to the length of an inmate's sentence.
Thomas acknowledged that charges had been filed against some inmates with cell phones, though he said he wasn't sure how many had been charged.
Last week, members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles told The Star that cell phone possession is one of the most commonly reported disciplinary infractions against inmates coming up for parole.
Thomas said there is phone-jamming technology available that, if used in a prison, would render cell phones useless. He said the Federal Communications Commission hasn't given the state permission to use that sort of scrambler.
Even if permission were granted, Thomas said, it would cost roughly $1 million per prison.
Ward, the committee chairman, said there's no inexpensive way for the state to work its way out of the prison overcrowding problem.
"It's not going to be free," he said. "It's not going to be cheap."
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.