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Alabama Governor Wants to Build a Trio of Mega Prisons

Thu September 24, 2020 - Southeast Edition

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently announced plans to move forward with state leasing of three privately built mega prisons that would begin construction next year. She described the move as a step toward overhauling an understaffed and violence-plagued prison system beset by years of federal criticism.

Ivey said the Alabama Department of Corrections would begin negotiations with two development teams to develop the three new prisons: Nashville, Tenn.-based private prison giant CoreCivic; and Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, a group that includes BL Harbert International, the large construction firm headquartered in Birmingham.

The state would staff each prison with state officers, while leasing the facilities.

The proposed sites are in three areas of Alabama:

  • Facility One is to be located near State Road 139 and County Road 2 in west Alabama's Bibb County. The developer team is Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, which includes New York's Star America Infrastructure; BL Harbert International; Butler-Cohen LLC in Houston, Texas; Arrington Watkins Architects in Phoenix, Ariz.; and Johnson Controls Inc., a provider of security systems.
  • Facility Two currently involves multiple locations in Elmore County in the central part of the state, but a review is still under way. The developer team for that site is CoreCivic, along with Caddell Construction Co. in Montgomery; Nebraska-based DLR Group; and R&N Systems Design in Memphis.
  • Facility Three is tentatively set for a location near Bell Fork Road in Escambia County in the southern part of Alabama. For that mega prison, the developer team is made up of CoreCivic, Caddell Construction, DLR Group and R&N Systems Design.

The governor's office did not disclose the estimated cost but said "final financial terms" will become publicly available later this year and construction would begin in 2021. Spokeswoman Gina Maiola said the developers are aware of an "affordability limit" of $88 million per year. She said the three mega prisons would collectively house a total of 10,000 male inmates — more than 3,000 per prison. The state would close, or repurpose, 11 existing prisons.

The Ivey administration has pitched the plan as a smart solution to Alabama's longstanding prison woes.

"The Alabama Prison Program is vital for the long-term success of our state and communities. We must rebuild Alabama's correctional system from the ground up to improve safety for our state's correctional staff and inmate population, and we must do it immediately," Ivey explained.

The governor said the arrangement would end expensive maintenance costs on aging prisons while providing modern security systems and safer facilities allowing more room for treatment and education programs.

But the plan has run into criticism from advocacy groups and a mixed reception from state lawmakers, with some saying the leases will be costly without addressing systemic problems. Considered one of the most violent and understaffed systems in the country, the Alabama prison system also has faced a litany of federal criticism.

State Attorney General Steve Marshall praised Ivey for "tackling head-on the toughest issue facing our state, replacing Alabama's aging prisons with modern facilities that will better serve to rehabilitate the inmate population while also protecting our communities."

On the other hand, Tuscaloosa state Rep. Chris England said the leases do not make financial sense because they will plunge the state billions of dollars into debt.

"We are going to spend well over two billion dollars and not own the land, or the facilities or have any control over the facilities," he added.

State Sen. Cam Ward, from Alabaster, was a bit more cautious regarding the three new prisons. He is comfortable with the cost estimates put forward by the administration but said the plan is not the sole solution.

The lease plan bypasses the typical route of securing legislative approval to borrow money to build state buildings. Prison construction bills failed in the legislature among political infighting over which districts would lose existing prisons and which ones would get the new facilities and the jobs that come with them.

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