The Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee met on Tuesday to discuss the construction and funding of the state’s two new mega-prisons, staffing shortages and more.
The committee, chaired by State Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), did not meet a quorum due to another legislative meeting regarding the state’s redistricting. Despite the lack of quorum, Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner John Hamm gave a presentation to Chambliss and Matt Simpson (R-Daphne), the only other committee member present.
The Alabama Legislature approved $1.2 billion in funding to build two prisons after a special session in 2021.
The two 4,000-bed facilities, one in Escambia County and the other in Elmore County, were thought to be needed promptly as ADOC continues to be under the scrutiny of the federal government.
Hamm told the prison committee that construction has begun on the Elmore prison, and the Escambia location was cleared of a barn and some grain bins. A construction access road has also been finished while ADOC awaits approval of a wetlands permit and negotiations with an engineering firm.
Hamm also said 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.
Some in the legislature have criticized the perceived lack of progress on the prison facilities.
Chambliss, who toured the Elmore construction site, said although the site appears just to be a vast patch of dirt, most of the construction is underground, such as with the installment of drainage pipes.
“The work is being done, but most of it is covered up within a day or so when it's actually laid,” Chambliss said.
After the meeting concluded, Hamm told members of the media that the estimated completion date for the Elmore facility is between March and May 2026.
The issue of funding for the Elmore prison has also raised questions since the current price has nearly doubled from the initial estimate, and, according to Hamm, the final dollar amount is still being worked out. He blamed the increased cost on inflation and vendor expenses.
“It’s almost a negotiation right now to see what that final price will be,” Hamm said. “We expect that probably [in] six to eight weeks.”
Simpson questioned the ever-increasing funding needed for the Elmore facility. 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 earlier this year.
“Roughly, it comes out to $250,000 a bed when the average family home in Alabama is $170,000,” Simpson said.
“I understand,” Hamm retorted. “It’s just the people that’s going to be sleeping in these beds are different than in your neighborhood.”
Staffing in the new facilities is also a concern since virtually all prisons in the state are understaffed.
In March, ADOC increased employees’ base pay to address the issues with prison staffing.
According to Hamm, ADOC currently has applications for 821 correctional officer trainee candidates and 350 correctional security guard applicants.
ADOC is also contacting former employees to inform them of the pay raises. Thus far, ADOC has rehired 25 former employees.
When asked by Simpson if ADOC was still losing more employees than it was gaining, Hamm confirmed that, since his appointment as commissioner in January 2022, only one month had a net gain of employees.
“I was given a report today on staffing for the month of May," Hamm said. "Since I’ve been there, this is the only month we have had a positive gain. It was very slight, but I was very pleased that we had a positive gain for the month of May. Not only in security staff but also non-security staff and support staff.”
In 2019, The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the state of Alabama, alleging that conditions in Alabama’s prisons constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The complaint, filed by the Trump administration, cites chronic understaffing, high violence rates (including deaths and sexual assault), inadequate mental and drug treatment programs and the dilapidated conditions of prison facilities.
To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email email@example.com.
Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.