Lawmakers estimate new Elmore, Escambia prison costs

Lawmakers estimate new Elmore, Escambia prison costs

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The construction of the two men’s prison, which the Alabama Legislature will debate and possibly approve next week, will cost an estimated $1.2 to $1.3 billion. Improvements at other prisons and a new women’s prison will add to that amount, State House leaders say.

The phase one priority in the bill is the construction of two 4,000-bed men’s facilities in Elmore and Escambia counties. House General Fund budget committee chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, put their estimated cost at $650 million and $550 million, respectively. The Elmore site is more because it will house more medical and mental health care and substance abuse programming.

Sen. Greg Albritton, Clouse’s Senate counterpart, estimated the Elmore site to cost about $760 million and the Escambia site about $533 million.

A draft of the bill given to lawmakers this month allows the state to borrow $785 million in bonds for the two sites with an estimated annual debt service of about $50 million per year. Legislative leaders also think they can use about $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief money, allowing them to start turning dirt sooner. About $150 million in General Fund allocations are expected to be put toward the projects, too.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s office and the Alabama Department of Finance on Wednesday referred questions about the prisons’ construction costs, mental health programming costs and staffing needs to ADOC and legislative leadership.

An emailed response from ADOC said those questions were relevant but “premature.”

“As we look toward the upcoming special session, our focus remains on supporting the Governor’s Office and Legislature in the passage of this critical proposed legislation,” Kristi Simpson, a spokesperson for ADOC, said. “We will continue to answer any questions they ask of us, provide background information and data as requested, and participate in their ongoing discussions as appropriate.”

The state’s chronic staffing shortage within ADOC has been well documented in federal court, along with a mandate to increase employment.

New prison designs and technology will mean the new sites can have a lesser guard-to-inmate ratio than existing prisons do, Clouse said. Albritton said the new sites will be mostly cells, not the large dormitories that hold 100-plus inmates in many current prisons.

The official special session call from Ivey will outline exactly what bills lawmakers will take up in the special session that starts Monday. That call is expected to be released Thursday or Friday.

Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Director Cam Ward said the call will likely include a supplemental appropriation for the state to purchase and run the currently empty and privately owned Perry County Correctional Facility.

Alabama Daily News earlier this week reported Ward’s plan to turn the Perry County site into a BPP-run site that will eventually include rehabilitation and educational opportunities for inmates.

Ward and other state leaders met with site owners GEO Group this week to negotiate a purchase.

“It was very productive,” Ward told ADN. He describes the future site as a “true treatment center-type facility.”

Both Ward and Albritton said the state may be able to purchase the site for nearly a quarter of the $60 million asking price the Legislature considered nearly 10 years ago.

The bill next week will start in the House and Clouse and Albritton on Wednesday were positive about its chances of passage.

“I think we’ve done so much work on this issue in the past four months in particular,” Clouse said. “It’s been vetted. A lot of different plans were put forth and this seems to be the one that hits the sweet spot.”

Still, there will be some opposition, including those who want to protect communities in their districts with existing prisons that will likely close. Some will likely argue the planned men’s prisons are too large.

Ward, who previously served in the Senate and carried prison reform and construction bills, said the 4,000-bed sites are modeled after what Pennsylvania has done.

“That’s where we kind of got the blueprints on this years ago,” he said. That state several years ago opened a 4,000-bed facility then described as the largest on the East Coast.

Ward said the new prisons will give the state the space for more prison programming, but won’t affect overall capacity.

“You’re really building for the programming and to replace the old ones, but you’re not building a lot more space,” Ward said.

An earlier plan to lease men’s prisons from private developers would have built 3,000-bed facilities.

Albritton said the state has the land to accommodate 4,000-bed prisons, the utilities to support them and the funding stream to make them happen. He said the state-owned prisons will be the same design as what private builders proposed.

“The price to put an extra 1,000 men was not that much greater,” Albritton said.

The bill calls for the closure of four men’s sites that currently total about 3,500 inmates. Five other sites could be closed or repurposed in the future.

Also expected in the call are at least a few criminal justice reform bills that cleared the House last session by died in the Senate. Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody , said he would be ready with all four bills, but not all may fit in the calll..

Phase two of the plan includes a new women’s prison and renovations at others. Clouse said the new 1,000-bed women’s prison, also to be located in Elmore County, has an estimated cost of about $200 million.

“The renovations at Limestone and Donaldson are in that same range too,” Clouse said.

He describes a “pay as you go type system” with a renovation fund that the Legislature makes allocations into to pay for the phase two projects. A third men’s prison is possible, years from now, under the legislation.