HARVEST — While struggling to dodge questions about his sexually charged conversation with a top aide — and some lawmakers’ impeachment threats — Gov. Robert Bentley said Monday the Limestone Correctional Facility could become the site of a large regional prison under his proposed statewide prison reform.
It could also be one of the few existing prisons left open if his sweeping plan for prison reform comes to fruition, he said, though there are no guarantees.
The Limestone prison facility, which employs about 300 people and houses 2,169 inmates — though it is only designed for 1,628 — “may be the best in the state,” Bentley said after touring a portion of the facility Monday morning.
Without making promises, Bentley said he thought the 33-year-old Limestone facility “certainly would be a good place to put … a new prison” or at least keep the existing prison.
During a question-and-answer session, Bentley repeatedly insisted he was only there to talk about his Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, which is pending in the Legislature.
“We’re going to talk about prisons. Prisons is all I’m going to talk about, OK?” he said.
But upon multiple questions regarding fallout from the release of audio recordings in which he engages in a suggestive conversation with someone named Rebekah — apparently his former senior political adviser, Rebekah Mason — Bentley said the tape was recorded three years ago and that he already has addressed it personally.
“I’ve asked God to forgive me, because that’s the most important thing, because I want to be back in his fellowship,” he said.
“I have humbly opened myself up to the people of this state, and I have asked them to forgive me and let me continue to do the things that they have elected me for twice, and that’s to try to make their lives better,” he said later.
Bentley went on to say he would continue pushing for prison reform in the Legislature despite some lawmakers calling for impeachment proceedings against him. He declined to respond when asked if thought an impeachment vote would occur this week.
“Who else has a question?” he responded.
Despite the attempted sidestep, Bentley continued, saying in response to another question he was not concerned widespread media coverage and speculation about the audio recording would cost the state future economic development opportunities.
“Companies want to know if they’ve got a good workforce, and we’ve got that,” he said.
And he said he takes full responsibility for the inappropriate conversations that took place before his wife filed for divorce in 2015.
“It’s mine. I own it. I own it. I did it,” he said. “I point no fingers at anybody else. I make no excuses for that. I own my problem. It’s not your problem. You have other problems.”
Bentley has acknowledged he had a sexually suggestive conversation with Mason, who has since resigned, but he denied a “physical affair” with her.
No members of the Limestone County legislative delegation were present during Bentley’s visit to the prison Monday, though he was accompanied by Reps. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, and Phil Pettus, R-Killen, as well as members of the Limestone County Commission.
$800M bond issue
Bentley is seeking legislative approval for an $800 million bond issue and a change to state bid laws in order to build four large regional prisons intended to address overcrowding, understaffing, alleged abuse and outbreaks of violence in the state’s beleaguered prison system.
The plan would close 14 existing prisons and leave open just two existing men’s prisons. Three of the large prisons would be designed to accommodate 4,000 male inmates, and a fourth would be equipped to handle 1,200 female inmates.
Despite Bentley’s statements Monday, Bob Horton, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, said no decision have been made about which prisons would close under the plan and where the regional prisons would be located.
Bentley applauded Limestone Correctional Facility’s pre-release program, a 24-week curriculum designed to prepare soon-to-be-released inmates for life outside the prison.
“We want them to be able to become productive citizens again. This is a department of corrections. It’s not a department of housing,” he said, adding that his reform initiative would expand the program throughout the prison system.
Jefferson Dunn, commissioner for the Alabama Department of Corrections, said the proposal would increase the program’s capacity.
“Right now, we are only able to put approximately 10 percent of the inmates that leave the DOC (Department of Corrections) every year through this facility,” he said.
Bentley’s visit to Limestone comes as multiple local lawmakers vow to work to keep the facility open.
According to the December 2015 monthly report from the corrections department — the latest data available — Limestone had 2,169 inmates, making it the most populated facility in the state. It was designed to house 1,628 inmates, putting its occupancy rate at 133 percent.
The average occupancy rate for state facilities is 182 percent, about 24,000 inmates compared to a design capacity of 13,318.
And despite having nearly 150 fewer employees than it is designed to have, Limestone has the largest prison staff at 307 employees, according to the December DOC report.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the facility is important to the area.
“We certainly want to do all we can to keep it open,” he said Monday. “I’ve advocated very strongly to the commissioner to keep Limestone Correctional open.
“I feel confident that Limestone, because of its superior workforce and management, will fare well in subsequent evaluations of existing facilities.”
Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, has vowed to work to keep the prison open. He did not return a request for comment Monday.
Bentley said Monday the savings from closing outdated prisons would pay the debt service on the $800 million bond issue over a period of 30 years and that he hoped for a Senate vote sometime this week. The matter would then move to the House for approval.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 256-340-2439 @evanbelanger