On Thursday, Contract Review Committee members approved nearly $15 million in legal contracts between the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and attorney Bill Lunsford.

The contracts were up for review due to Lunsford changing law firms from Maynard, Cooper and Gale to Butler Snow in April.

"There were some articles written just recently that sort of incorrectly assumed that these were all new contracts," Contract Review Committee Chair State Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) said at the meeting. "These are contracts that were previously in existence. You had a lead attorney who changed firms. We discussed multiple ways to handle some of these. We decided to handle it by bringing them back as new contracts. It made sense."

Of the $15 million, $9.9 million will pay Lunsford for his work defending the ADOC against the Department of Justice's lawsuit over the safety and conditions of Alabama prisons.

Mandy Spiers, ADOC's assistant general counsel, said of Lunsford, "He is basically the only expert in prison litigation in the Southeast, and we're really lucky to have him representing us."

"He has been with us since the beginning of this litigation," Spiers said. "He represents us in all the cases. If we had different attorneys in different cases, they'd be doing the same thing twice and we would be paying for it twice. Whereas if we have one attorney handling it all, I believe it saves the state money."

The Department of Justice lawsuit alleges the conditions at Alabama's prisons for men violate the U.S. Constitution because Alabama fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff. 

In a 2021 special session, the Alabama Legislature approved $1.3 billion in funding for two new prisons to address these issues.

The initial estimated cost of the Elmore prison was $623 million. However, the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority voted to increase the authorized spending on the project to $975 million in March — a 56% increase.

The final pricing of the Elmore facility is still being negotiated, but it is expected to be close to $1 billion. Since the Elmore prison will take up nearly all the funding allocated by the legislature in 2021, the Escambia location will require additional money.

"We could not write a check for the defendants in the DOJ case," Spiers said at the meeting. "There is no dollar amount that they would take that would make them happy. They want institutional change. The Department of Corrections is making changes, and we're working with the amount of money we have to do the best we can."

State Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) said at the meeting, "We've done a lot in a very short amount of time, but at the same time you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who can find any conditions that have gotten any better in our facilities recently."

He added, "We're down to one facility [costing] $1 billion. We're on a healthcare contract that's $1 billion. There's a big ol' hole in that budget that deals with the Department of Corrections, and it continues to grow probably daily... We are probably giving Lunsford $100 million. I'm hung up on well over $100 million over the life of this litigation that's going to I guess not the same law firm, but the same attorney. Part of this is there's not much dispute in terms of liability here in terms of some of our issues of overcrowding and conditions, staffing and so forth so a lot of this continues to drag on and it just continues to cost us a lot more money instead of just trying to find a way to work it out. I don't have an issue with the $9.9 million. Lunsford is basically a government agency at this point." 

To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email caleb.taylor@1819News.com.

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