Ala. seeking bids for prisons in order to address overcrowding

The DOC will lease three prisons from private developers in an attempt to address rising violence and shrinking space


Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group

BIRMINGHAM — When Robert Bentley was Alabama’s governor four years ago, he asked the Legislature to approve an $800 million bond issue to replace most of the state’s aging prisons with four new ones.

Lawmakers could not agree on a final plan and the proposal died. Bentley brought it back the next year, saying it was his top priority. The Legislature again said no.

Alabama will lease three prisons from private developers to address rising violence. (Photo/TNS)
Alabama will lease three prisons from private developers to address rising violence. (Photo/TNS)

Three years later, the problem of overcrowded, violent, and deteriorating prisons confronts Gov. Kay Ivey. And the stakes are even higher, with the Department of Justice demanding improvements, prison space shrinking because of crumbling facilities, and inmate deaths and violence on the rise.

Ivey said she understands that a bond issue for new prisons is a tough sell, especially to lawmakers who might lose a prison in their district, meaning lost jobs and utility revenue.

So, Ivey is trying a different approach. Her administration is seeking bids from private developers who would finance and build three men’s prisons, then lease them to the state, which would operate them. The governor said the Legislature has no direct role.

“They tried. The Legislature took two sessions to deal with floating a bond issue for prisons. Both times it failed,” Ivey said.

Ivey answered questions about the prison plan during an interview Wednesday, the day after her State of the State address to kick off the 2020 legislative session. During the televised speech explaining her top priorities, Ivey said the state can’t afford to wait any longer to begin changing a prison system that warehouses inmates into one that rehabilitates them.

While her administration is pursuing the plan for new prisons, Ivey is asking lawmakers to increase funding for the Alabama Department of Corrections to hire more correctional officers, improve mental health care, and expand job training and education programs to reduce recidivism. The ADOC is seeking an increase of $42 million for the state General Fund in next year’s budget, 8% more than this year.

“We’re doing this through the executive branch, working with the Legislature,” Ivey said. “Because we’ve got a multi-faceted problem, we’ve got a multi-faceted solution.”

A study group appointed by Ivey, which included six legislators, issued a report stressing the urgency of the prison problems, saying that failure to act could result in court-ordered inmate releases, which happened in California in 2012. The Department of Justice alleged in April that conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons violate the Constitution because of the violence, drugs, weapons, overcrowding, under-staffing, and other problems.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Thursday that although Ivey can use her executive authority to have the prisons built, he said as a practical matter the Legislature and governor need to be in agreement on how that will be done. McCutcheon has said prisons are the number one priority for the legislative session.

“We still have questions,” McCutcheon said. “Locations. Cost. There’s still a lot of questions out there that need to be answered. And we’re working with the governor’s office on that.”

McCutcheon, the governor, and other officials have said new prisons are just one component in what has to be a broad-based approach to improving Alabama’s criminal justice system.

“From day one we have looked at this as a package deal, not just talking about bricks and mortar,” McCutcheon said. "There are a lot of other components that have to go into this as well. And that’s where we all have a voice at the table.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Tuesday that lawmakers need to know how much prisons will cost. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn has given a rough estimate of a total of about $900 million. Ivey said the cost won’t be known until development teams that are bidding on the projects submit proposals. Proposals are due April 30.

The ADOC’s request for proposals says the state’s affordability limit on the total cost of the lease payments for all three prisons would be $88 million a year. The leases would be for 30 years. The prisons would be designed to last 50 years. One of the prisons would hold about 4,000 inmates, the other two about 3,000. That 10,000 total is a little less than half the current inmate population.

The ADOC has said it can cover the cost of the leases through savings on labor costs and maintenance that will result from closing and consolidating old prisons into modern facilities with better designs.

Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka, who has several prisons in his district, said he’s anxious to hear more details. Holmes said communities in his district have borrowed money to provide water and sewer service to the prisons and would lose needed revenue if a prison closes as part of the consolidation. Holmes said he’s skeptical about the plan to cover the lease payments with savings.

“Where’s the money coming from?” Holmes said. “How are you going to pay for it? All we’ve heard so far is we’re going to pay for it with labor savings. Well, you do the math and that just doesn’t come out. If you want to keep your ratios anywhere near where they are that good prison management requires, from guards to inmates, it’s going be very difficult to pay for with labor savings.”

The ADOC’s request for proposals says the largest of the three new prisons, which will be for inmates with special medical needs, aging inmates, and inmate intake, will be built in central Alabama. Holmes said it’s important to have one in his district because of the number of jobs at stake. Overall, he said he needs more information on the whole plan.

“I guess all I can say at this point is I’m all ears and I’ll have my notepad ready," Holmes said. "And I need to hear whatever the details that come forward before I can offer a solid, permanent opinion.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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