Gov. Bob Riley spent Friday afternoon in prison, getting a firsthand look at one of the biggest financial problems facing his new administration.

"I wanted to see it, feel it and taste it," Riley said.

And he did.

The governor spent more than two hours touring Atmore's two overcrowded prisons - Holman and Fountain - chatting with employees and inmates, eating fried fish and scalloped potatoes being served to the prisoners, and visiting Alabama's new execution chamber.

Alabama's major prisons, like Holman and Fountain, house 18,370 inmates in space designed for 9,056. Beds are stacked two and three high, but the state is under court order to take more prisoners out of jam-packed county jails.

Riley's prison commissioner, Donal Campbell, is seeking an extra $29 million on top of this year's $204 million budget and wants a $330 million budget for next year to provide more space and more correctional officers.

As he emerged from the prisons, Riley told Campbell, "Y'all are doing a good job, but we just need to get you some help. If I have a choice between adding another bed or another officer, I'll add another officer."

Riley said the state must also do something about the way prisoners with drug problems get locked away for long sentences when alternatives might be better.

"We can't sustain this level of incarceration," he said.

Holman Prison Warden Grantt Culliver said former Gov. Don Siegelman visited the front office of the prison two years ago, but Riley was the first governor in his memory to tour the entire prison.

The tour included death row and taking time to see problems like the leaking roof and aging equipment.

"It's great to have him concerned and to get to explain the things we need," Culliver said.

Riley is no stranger to how the prison system operates. He has used work release inmates in his businesses, but he said he had not been inside a prison in more than 30 years.

"It was not what I expected," Riley said.

Though the prisons were old, Riley said they were cleaner and more orderly than he expected, and the employees were dedicated and enthusiastic despite being severely short-staffed.

Riley said the thing that bothered him the most was going into large open dormitories crowded with 180 men guarded by one officer.

"If they decide to whip up on the guard, how do you get him out?" Riley asked.

"A lot of times inmates will help. Most of the inmates don't want trouble," the prison commissioner said.

As Riley walked through the halls and cell blocks, he stopped to talk with dozens of inmates, listening to complaints about the state parole board, Alabama's tough drug laws, and prison food. In one cellblock, Riley found a familiar face - an inmate from Clay County, the governor's home county.

Inmate Warren Reese told Riley that he had originally been sent to prison on a life sentence for murder, but got paroled and returned to Clay County to build houses. After 13 years, he said he started smoking marijuana and failed a drug test when he checked in with his parole officer.

"I messed up and they sent me back," Reese said.

"God bless you," Riley said.

In Holman Prison, Riley visited the prison leather shop, where inmates with good records get to spend free time making billfolds, book covers and belts.

Riley was especially taken with an ornate Bible cover made by Josephus Anderson, who is serving life without parole for murder. Riley gave the inmate his address and asked if he would make him a cover for his Bible.

"I'd be proud," Anderson said.