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Jail backlog hits zero after prison threat, months of planning

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen has eliminated the backlog of state inmates being housed in county jails beyond a 30-day time limit, beating a judge's deadline and lending credence to his plans to revamp the troubled system.

The backlog, about 800 inmates when Allen, a native of Decatur, became commissioner six months ago, was down to zero Tuesday.

"This was truly a department-wide effort, and we won't let up now," Allen said in a statement.

Circuit Judge William Shashy, who threatened Allen and his predecessor with jail time for not moving state inmates out of county jails as quickly as ordered in a 1994 decree, had set a Sept. 5 deadline to end the backlog.

Allen had said in June he hoped to achieve that goal by summer's end, largely by creating about 850 beds by converting minimum-security work centers to house higher-security inmates. He also arranged to house 600 prisoners at a private prison in Louisiana; they eventually will join more than 800 Alabama inmates who are already located in private facilities in that state.

"We've basically cleared out the backlog and we're going to keep it clear forever," Allen said in a recent interview, following the statement with three short raps on the thick mahogany desk in his office.

"All those things we talked about before are coming to fruition," he said.

Allen and Gov. Bob Riley formally announced the backlog's elimination Tuesday. Riley appointed Allen to replace former prisons commissioner Donal Campbell in February. He has since won praise for his innovative approaches to improving the overcrowded, underfunded prison system.

Though some plans — like transferring 500 inmates to Louisiana — were already in place before Allen took over, he deserves lots of credit, said Buddy Sharpless, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

"He's done everything he said he was going to do and made some vast improvements over there ... in their record keeping system," Sharpless said. "Now they have a better handle of where the inmates are, (he) convinced the Legislature to give him a little more money and here he's eliminated the backlog. We're very gratified."

But the system's been here before. The backlog has dipped to zero and swelled to as much as 2,800 since the county commissions association first filed suit in 1992.

Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said the backlog's most recent high was 1,600 in 2003. It was reduced to zero that year and stayed clear for about a year before growing back to 825 in December, he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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