By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Construction will start early next year on the two 4,000-bed men’s prisons the Alabama Legislature approved after a rapid-fire, five-day special session last week.
The package of bills Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law late Friday includes the borrowing of up to $785 million for the two prisons and the use of $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act for the mega-prisons in central and south Alabama. A second phase of construction allows for a new women’s prison and renovations to three existing men’s prisons.
Here’s five things to know about how it went down in Montgomery and what’s next.
‘A recognition of need’
Prison proposals have floated around the State House for years, dying when they couldn’t overcome turf wars and pricetags. Former Gov. Robert Bentley tried to get lawmakers to go along with a $800 million bond and prison construction proposal in 2016 and 2017, the last effort derailed by his personal problems and resignation that year.
Ivey in 2019 pursued a plan to lease new prisons because she could do that without having to pass legislation. And when that plan died this spring — not before raising lawmakers’ angst over an about $3 billion cost — legislative leadership, Ivey’s office and ADOC began again on a state-owned prison proposal.
It was approved 75-22 in the House and 29-2 in the Senate. So, what changed the attitudes of the GOP-dominated Legislature this year?
“There was a recognition of need that I don’t think we’ve seen before,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, told Alabama Daily News.
Primarily, that’s been the deteriorating conditions at prisons that haven’t been well maintained. The ADOC last year had to move most of the inmates from the Holman prison after major failures with its sewer and electrical systems.
Separately, the COVID-19 pandemic got lawmakers’ attention, Albritton said.
“We were required to have some separation space (among inmates) and we didn’t have any,” he said. “And backups at local jails, all of that outlined the difficulties and limitations of our prisons.”
Albritton, chair of the Senate General Fund budget committee, and House counterpart Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, have been the point men in the prison plan this year and sponsored the construction bill in their chambers.
Clouse said Ivey’s lease plan got many lawmakers’ attention, particularly the cost and the location of prisons on land that wasn’t state owned.
“I think members realized we needed to move on prisons that we own, on our own property,” Clouse said.
Meanwhile, the use of $400 million in COVID-19 federal funds up front, reducing the amount the state will need to borrow and pay interest on, moved the needle, he said.
Construction starts in early 2022
House Bill 4, the construction bill, allows for three phases of building and possible renovations. Phase I, the 4,000-bed prisons in Elmore and Escambia, will begin early next year.
That quick pace can be attributed to two factors: That chunk of federal money that’s already in hand and general contracts who are already lined up.
State leaders are confident their planned use of $400 million in COVID-19 money is allowable under federal guidelines for the“lost revenue” portion of the American Rescue Plan Act.
A spokesperson for the Department of Finance said the state could be ready to go to market selling the $785 million in bonds within 60-90 days.
Meanwhile, the bill allows the state to bypass the normal bid process for general contractors for the two men’s facilities, likely giving the work to Montgomery-based Caddell and Birmingham-based BL Harbert. They were heavily involved in last year’s lease proposals and already went through a lengthy request for proposals process.
“So much work has already been done under the due diligence of the lease plan and the request for proposals that I think you can move pretty quickly here,” Clouse said.
Elmore could be up and running by early of mid-2025 and Escambia toward the end of that year.
Those sites, per the bill, have to be 60% complete before lawmakers and leaders move to phase two of the bill, a potential new women’s prison and renovations at the existing Limestone County prison and Donaldson prison in Jefferson County. A third site for renovation, either Ventress or Easterling in Barbour County or the Bullock County prison, will be selected later.
Clouse said it will likely be late 2023 or 2024 before lawmakers consider funding for that phase.
What changed in the bills
House Bill 4 is slightly different from what was originally filed and the draft floated among lawmakers earlier in September.
Those changes include adding the St. Clair County prison to the list of sites that will close when the two mega-facilities open. And while the about 180-inmate Hamilton Aged and Infirmed prison in Marion County was originally on that list, it was removed in a Senate committee.
The prison for old and ill inmates is in Sen. Larry Stutts’ district. He and other senators campaigned to keep it open, at least in the near future.
“It’s a major employer in Marion County, relatively speaking,” Stutts said about the around 100 jobs associated with the prison. And while removing it from the bill doesn’t guarantee it will remain open forever, Stutts said it buys the community time to prepare for the future.
Other prisons named for closure are: Staton, Elmore and Kilby. The women’s Julia Tutwiler prison will be closed when a new female prison is completed.
The future of Hamilton and several others will be determined years from now. Phase III of the bill calls for an evaluation of existing men’s facilities “to determine if additional facility beds need to be replaced.” The bill was amended to include a site assessment at Bibb County Correctional facility, previously not mentioned in the bill, to determine if it could be repurposed.
Big prisons, little reform
While the construction bill had strong support from Senate Democrats, it garnered few votes from House Democrats, who, along with several advocacy groups, said new buildings won’t address the mismanagement, corruption and staffing issues within the system that have put the state under U.S. Department of Justice scrutiny. They also called for more sentencing reform. But even one of the reform bills originally proposed by Ivey couldn’t get past House Republicans.
“Every problem that has been identified, that exists right now will still exist in 2025 when those prisons are finished,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, told Alabama Daily News.
“…(House Bill 4) certainly doesn’t address a large number of the root issues that are causing the overcrowding in our prison system.”
England said the construction bill and House Bill 2, the reform bill that was approved, are the “bare minimum to satisfy what they believe the court is asking us to do … it’s wholly inadequate.”
House Bill 2 increases the number of inmates who could be released prior to the end of their sentence and placed under supervision of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.
England said he will keep pushing for changes with the state’s parole system and sentencing reform.
Republicans said the other reform bill died because the short special session wasn’t the venue to debate it, but they’re open to future discussions.
Albritton said “reform” may not be the correct term.
“We need to get things more modernized, with a system that goes from arrest to getting a job again,” Albritton said. “(We need to help people) become an active member of society.
“… There is a segment of people that we have not reached, either as children or later along the way, and we need to do that.”
Carla Crowder, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, said she hopes lawmakers will move past the emotional politics of fear and consider the facts and the reality of public safety.
“Alabamians are not safer with tens of thousands of people cycling through violent, dysfunctional prisons and returning to communities traumatized,” she said. “The state’s own data shows that as the prison population has declined, so has the crime rate. Robberies have dropped by more than 50% since sentencing reform began in 2006.”
Albritton said leaders realize fixes are still needed immediately in the state’s dangerous prisons.
“The No. 1 item that we have to address that we have not yet, frankly, is personnel,” Albritton said. Recent numbers show the prison system only has about 50% of the correctional staff needed.
While lawmakers have allocated more money in recent years to hire additional staff, much of that money has been used on overtime for the existing staff.
“I’m not sure we can pay people enough to come into this situation,” Albritton said when asked if more money was the answer.
Albritton said that will take more recruitment efforts, perhaps at the high school level.
Perry County purchase
Separate from the new construction, lawmakers allocated $19 million for the purchase of a long-empty 730-bed prison in Perry County for the use of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.
Bureau Executive Director Cam Ward said Thursday he’s working on a letter of intent to purchase the Perry County site for $15 million.
“We’ll have to do about $4 million in renovations and repairs,” Ward said.
He said the facility, built in early 2000s and largely unused since then, was last appraised in 2018 for $22 million.
Ward said the site will initially house “dunks,” those parolees who have technical parole violations, such as missed meetings with parole officers or failed drug tests. After repeated technical violations, they’re supposed to go to prison for 45 days, “dunks,” under current law. But county jails for years have said those inmates have lingered in the county jails where they’re first sent.
Ward said the facility will be a significant step in getting needed mental health, rehab and job training services to former inmates in an effort to keep them out of prisons and drop the state’s recidivism rate. Ward said next year he’ll ask lawmakers to expand a “dunk” from 45 days to 90 to allow more time for inmates to receive rehab services.
“As opposed to sending them back to prison for a technical violation, we get to use (Perry County) for actual rehabilitative purposes,” Ward said.
Ward said the site could be ready for use by the BPP by sometime next year.
Previous concerns about using the site as a prison include the remote location and staffing challenges. Ward said because it will house offenders who have already been paroled, it will not need the same level of staffing and security as a major prison. Meanwhile, the facility can be a regional center for current staff already working in remote locations.