By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Saying Alabama needs a solution to its ongoing prison crisis, Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced a plan to build three new regional prisons that will house thousands of prisoners.
The governor said the Alabama Department of Corrections is seeking proposals from contractors. After reviewing those, the administration will then decide how to proceed, Ivey said. Options include leasing the buildings from private companies or getting legislative approval for a state bond issue to pay for the facilities estimated to cost a total of $900 million.
“Alabama truly does have a major problem with overcrowding of our prisons. It’s a challenge we Alabamians must solve, not the federal courts,” Ivey said at the start of a press conference announcing the plan.
Alabama prisons have come under criticism for high rates of violence and suicides, as well as understaffing and overcrowding. A federal judge in 2017 ruled that mental health care in state prisons was “horrendously inadequate” and violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said two prisons would house about 3,000 to 3,500 male inmates each and another would be a specialty facility for inmates with medical and mental health needs. Many of the state’s existing prisons would close.
Dunn said the state’s crowded and aging facilities are both expensive to maintain and create safety risks for both inmates, and the officers who work them. For example, he said the prison system’s large open dormitories have row after row of stacked bunked beds where it is difficult for officers to monitor what is happening.
The administration estimated construction would cost about $900 million, but Dunn said they think consolidation savings, and the end of expensive maintenance on dilapidated facilities will cover the cost.
The administration said the goal is to begin the procurement process this spring and have the new prisons open in 2022.
At the start of her first full term, Ivey is taking up the push for new prisons that began under her predecessor, Gov. Robert Bentley. Alabama lawmakers rejected Bentley’s proposal, which was similar to what Ivey is discussing, after raising concerns about the price tag and local job losses when existing prisons closed.
“This is nothing but Bentley’s plan with new lipstick on it,” said state Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa.
England said he believes the administration is pursing the “private option” of leasing prisons built by private firms, an approach which may enable Ivey to bypass the need to get legislative approval.
England said he thought most Alabamians would be uncomfortable with spending nearly $1 billion without legislative oversight.
Asked if the state would buy or lease the prisons, Ivey responded that all options are on the table.
Ivey is also asking lawmakers to provide an additional $31 million to hire 500 new correctional officers at state prisons.
Republican state Sen. Cam Ward said “there is no question” the state needs new prisons.
“Construction is just one piece of the puzzle. You need officer hires, mental health hires,” Ward said.
He said the lease agreement would bypass the Legislature trying to “micromanage” which prisons stay open and which ones close.
While sentencing reform has eased crowding in prisons — they once held twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold — it remains a problem, Ivey said. In November, prisons held 20,251 inmates in facilities originally designed for 12,412, according to the prison system statistics.
An attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing inmates in the ongoing mental health lawsuit, said she greeted Ivey’s announcement “with hope mitigated by concern.”
Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she was pleased Ivey was acknowledging the crisis facing the prison system, and agreed some of the prisons should eventually be replaced. However, Howard said she was concerned the state was not addressing its high incarceration rate or the current suicide and violence rates.