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Advocates denounce Ala.'s plan to fund new supersize prisons

The 4,000-bed prisons will be much larger than any of the state’s 13 current prisons for men


The state has been accused by the U.S. Justice Department of holding men in dangerous, understaffed and poorly managed facilities that violate their constitutional rights.

Photo/Montgomery Advertiser via MCT

By Mike Cason

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Advocates are speaking out against Alabama’s project to build two 4,000-bed prisons as the state moves ahead with the financing and construction plans.

Two groups — the Communities Not Prisons coalition and Justice Capital — issued press releases opposing the $725 million bond issue approved last week, part of the funding for the two prisons, which will cost an estimated $1.3 billion to build.

The opposition to the prisons is not new but is the latest round in a years-old disagreement about whether new buildings are an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars by a state accused by the U.S. Justice Department of holding men in dangerous, understaffed, and poorly managed facilities that violate their constitutional rights.

“More and more, investors are refusing to finance the growth of mass incarceration – this is a bad deal that will cost more to taxpayers, expose investors to risk, and harm Black and Brown communities for generations,” Christina Hollenback, founder and CEO of Justice Capital, said in a statement. “With $725M, Alabama could be scaling more efficient, more effective public safety and rehabilitative models, saving themselves millions each year, and spurring economic growth, yet Governor Ivey is doubling down on this bad deal for everyone.”

Justice Capital, according to its website, is an investment fund and “convening platform” that promotes “community-led infrastructure and enhances public health and safety to grow thriving Black, Brown, and systems impacted communities.”

The 4,000-bed prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties will be much larger than any of Alabama’s 13 current prisons for men, which held a total of about 16,000 inmates as of the end of April. Some of those prisons will close when the new ones open.

Veronica Johnson, executive director of the Alabama Justice Initiative, part of the Communities Not Prisons coalition, said the bond issue commits Alabama to unjust and ineffective criminal justice policies.

“These prison construction bonds are structured to mature as late as the year 2052,” Johnson said. “Do you know what that means? It means that this is a project to marry our state to mass incarceration for the better part of this century. It means that Alabamians, and Black Alabamians in particular, will continue to be incarcerated and brutalized by the Alabama Department of Corrections on a breathtaking scale. It means that Alabama residents like me will be paying these investors back – plus interest – for decades to come.”

Gov. Kay Ivey has pursued the plan to build prisons for several years, saying new facilities are essential to reverse decades of neglect to the prison system. Alabama has not built a prison since the mid-1990s. Ivey’s predecessor, Gov. Robert Bentley, also proposed building new prisons with a bond issue.

“Achieving an Alabama solution to these problems – rather than a federal court-ordered solution – is paramount,” Ivey said when she urged legislators to approve the plan last year. “It is not only the legally and fiscally prudent but also the right thing to do to ensure the safety of our corrections staff and the proper rehabilitation of our inmates, many of whom will someday return to our communities.”

Ivey initially proposed a plan that called for the state to lease and operate privately owned prisons. But that fell apart last year when financial backers withdrew because of opposition to the private prison industry.

Ivey and the Legislature then developed the current plan for two state-owned prisons, approved during a special session last fall. It calls for paying the $1.3 billion construction cost with the bond issue plus $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds and $135 million from the state General Fund.

The DOJ lawsuit, filed in December 2020, says Alabama fails to protect the men it incarcerates from inmate-on-inmate violence and sexual abuse and excessive use of force by correctional staff. The DOJ said the poor physical state of Alabama’s prison buildings contributes to the unsafe conditions but that new facilities alone will not correct the shortcomings.

The Ivey administration and legislative leaders concede that new buildings will not solve all the problems. But they have said new prisons will be safer for inmates and staff and will enable to the Alabama Department of Corrections to provide more rehabilitation programs. One of the new prisons, in Elmore County, will be a specialized care facility for inmates with medical and mental health problems.

In April, the state signed a contract with Caddell Construction of Montgomery to build the Elmore County prison for $623 million. The ADOC has not announced a contract for the prison in Escambia County.

The DOJ lawsuit against the state could be years away from a resolution. U.S. District Judge David Proctor has issued a scheduling order in the case in May telling lawyers to be ready for trial in November 2024.

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