State leaders continue new prison talks

State leaders continue new prison talks

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

State leaders are now discussing building two new prisons and renovating others in an effort to improve the state’s dangerous and crowded correctional system.

Legislative and Alabama Department of Corrections leaders met Thursday in Montgomery for the third time in less than a month to discuss options. Another meeting is scheduled for next week, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, told Alabama Daily News.

The meetings come in the wake of Gov. Kay Ivey’s ambitious plan to build and lease three new men’s prisons unraveling in the spring as financial underwriters backed out. Ivey last month said the lease-only route is no longer an option and several top lawmakers have expressed interest in passing a bond issue to pay for new prisons the state would own.

Albritton, who chairs the Senate General Fund budget committee, said the meeting included ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn. Also at the table is CoreCivic, the company that won the bid to build and lease two of the new prisons.

“They’ve responded to every question we’ve asked them. They brought data,” Albritton said.

Asked about the ongoing negotiations, Ivey’s office referred questions to ADOC. The department did not respond to emailed questions about the meeting.

While lawmakers in previous sessions failed to come to agreement on a plan to borrow and build new prisons, some leaders see more consensus now, especially after many complained about Ivey’s prison lease plan that they say excluded them from decisions. Estimates put the total price of those 30-year leases at about $3 billion, which Ivey and ADOC said could have been paid for with savings from closing current dilapidated prisons. An amount for a possible bond issue has not been publicly discussed.

Albritton said there is still some “variance” between how the executive branch and the legislative branch view lawmakers’ role in this prison building process.

He described the “old George Wallace method” of government, where the Legislature passed the budgets and left decisions up to the governor.

“There are many of us who don’t feel that’s the proper way to do things,” Albritton said. “We have oversight responsibility, we have to make sure that what we direct and tell the executive (branch) to do actually occurs, which has been a problem.”

Albritton said more data is needed on what existing prisons could be renovated for continued use. The potential use of the Perry County Correctional Center, which is privately owned and currently vacant, is also being considered, Albritton said.

“But even if we do all that, we still need two new prisons,” he said.

Alabama Daily News first reported that some lawmakers want to consider using some of the state’s money under the federal American Rescue Plan relief money to build or improve prisons. State government’s Rescue Plan funding includes $2.1 billion earmarked for state relief and $192 million for state capital projects fund.

Albritton said he’s not sure when a special session might be called on prisons. He said there is concern about timing, especially in the sometimes volatile 105-member House. Every state Senate and House seat is on the ballot in 2022.

“They don’t want to deal with this in an election year,” Albritton said. “… I think we’ll be unsure of a special session until we are relatively certain of a plan and also where the House is on this.”

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said he thinks it will be very difficult to pass any legislation revolving around prison building or prison reform during the next regular legislative session that begins in January.

“If it’s not done in a special session this year, then the likelihood is you won’t see any political will in an election year cycle,” England told ADN on Friday.

But England believes work to address the prison system’s problems needs to be taken up immediately.

“I think just like most Alabamians would like to see the state’s urgency meet the Department of Justice’s and the federal court’s urgency,” England said.

The ADOC has an ongoing lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice related to conditions and violence in its prisons.

Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, is on the House Judiciary Committee and said Thursday evening he thinks House members are ready to take action, especially because the state came so close to the lease plan that many didn’t like.

“If they had any sense politically, doing something about (prisons) would be a good move in an election year,” Ball, who is not seeking reelection, said. “Getting a win.”

Long-time lawmaker Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said he thinks his House colleagues, and their constituents, are ready for action to fix the dangerous prisons.

“I think most Alabamians realize that we’ve dropped the ball on the prison situation and the time has come to make an effort,” Greer said Friday. He’s on the House General Fund budget committee. 

“Most taxpayers aren’t excited about spending their dollars on prisons, but it’s something we’ve got to have,” Greer said. He said he’d much rather see a bond issue and state-owned prisons than leased facilities.

“The time has come to make a move,” he said.

Albritton agreed.

“We’ve put this off long enough, we need to resolve this, even if we can’t turn dirt right now,” he said. “We’ve got to stop kicking this down the road, we have to stop looking for excuses, and we have to deal with it. And I think at least from the Senate side, there’s agreement, there’s a willingness to address this.”

Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.