Lawmakers: Ala. will proceed with 2 new prisons despite cost increase
A resolution passed allows the state to spend up to $975 million on the 4,000-bed prison
By Mike Cason
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Several top lawmakers said today they expect Alabama to proceed with its plan to build two men’s prisons after a state board raised the spending cap on the first prison to almost $1 billion.
A resolution passed Wednesday by the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority allows the state to spend up to $975 million on the 4,000-bed prison in Elmore County. That was an increase of $352 million, or 56 percent, over the “initial guaranteed maximum price” of $623 million listed in a contract the state signed in April 2022.
The project is in the preliminary stages and officials have said they expect it to be finished in 2026. The second prison, also with 4,000 beds, is slated for Escambia County. Lawmakers approved a total of $1.3 billion to build both prisons in October 2021.
State Finance Director Bill Poole said Wednesday that the $623 million figure was based on a preliminary design. He said changes to the design and inflation have driven up the cost.
Rep. Rex Reynolds, R- Huntsville, chair of the House General Fund budget committee and a member of the Corrections Institution Finance Authority, said he was in a a meeting with the governor’s budget office Thursday morning to discuss how to handle the situation. The fact that the first prison is approaching $1 billion raises questions about how to cover the cost of the second prison without more funding on top of the $1.3 billion initially approved.
“We’re fortunate,” Reynolds said. “We’ve got a good budget right now. We met this morning with the executive budget office looking forward on what we do. And eventually if we get in the position to have to come back to the (House) and ask for money, certainly I’ll have to stand up there and defend that.”
Reynolds said the plan is still to build both prisons. Some of Alabama’s older prisons will close when the new ones are completed. Reynolds said there is some talk that the cost of building materials is declining, which he said could result in cost savings on the second prison.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R- Atmore, chair of the Senate General Fund committee and also a member of the Corrections Institution Finance Authority, said inflation is causing the rise in the cost of the prison.
“That’s what inflation does,” Albritton said. “The prisons are a great reflection of that and I don’t mean great in good, I mean great in large. We’re seeing that throughout. Everybody is seeing that. From eggs to cars to gas to everything. I don’t know how you deal with inflation.”
Albritton said he expects the state to proceed with the second prison. “We’re on this track, we’re going to make it work,” he said. “We have to. That’s going to be painful. It’s not going to be easy. But we’re going to make it work.”
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D- Huntsville, questioned whether its accurate to blame the $352 million increase entirely on inflation.
“That’s very disappointing,” Daniels said. “That’s a lot of money that we could do a lot of other things with. I do understand that construction costs are certainly increasing. But for me, I don’t know that it’s increased by that amount. So we’re going to be looking into that. We’re going to be asking a lot of questions about how did we get to this point that it costs that much more. I don’t think that construction costs have increased that much.”
Gov. Kay Ivey and Republican leaders in the Legislature who supported the prison-building plan say new facilities are an essential step in fixing problems in Alabama prisons. That includes the levels of violence and other problems in a lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice filed against the state alleging conditions in men’s prisons are unconstitutional, as well as a related lawsuit over the quality of mental health care and medical care.
House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R- Rainsville, said the cost increase on the prison was not a surprise. ”As all of you know inflation has hit us hard over the last few months,” Ledbetter said. “And I think that’s certainly a reflection of that.”
Ledbetter said he expects the plan for the second prison to proceed. “I do believe that we’ll carry forward with what the plan was,” he said. “There may be some adjustments along the way. But as all you know we’ve got to do something. The federal government is certainly looking for us to do something. So we’ll see how everything progresses.”
The Legislature resumes its regular session on Tuesday.