MONTGOMERY — Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner John Hamm delivered an update on prison construction during Wednesday's Join Prison Oversight Committee meeting, insinuating that just one of the two new mega-prisons could cost the state over $1 billion.
The Alabama Legislature approved $1.2 billion in funding for two 4,000-bed facilities in 2021 in response to a 2020 lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concerning poor prison sanitation, violence between inmates, excessive force from staff and sexual assault.
Earlier this year, the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority (ACIFA) voted to increase the authorized spending on the Elmore facility to $975 million, a 57% increase from the initial project estimate of $623 million. This means the Alabama Legislature will have to provide more funding if both projects are to be completed.
When State Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) asked how much the Elmore prison construction would cost, Hamm said the ADOC's current estimation is "close to the last one."
However, Hamm said it could be more.
"[Would it] be fair to say it's probably going to be north of a billion?" asked England.
"I'm always hopeful that it could be less," Hamm answered. "But, you know, realistically, with things that have been happening, and the construction industry, not as far as just inflation. It's getting … bid packages, getting people to bid on our work, and it's not just corrections work. I talked to my counterparts in state two-year colleges, and everybody is coming in over budget because everybody has work, and it's difficult to get contractors to bid."
The ADOC will have an official final maximum price after Tuesday's ACIFA meeting, Hamm insisted.
Regarding the Escambia facility, Hamm said the ADOC is 90% complete on the project's design phase. Once the design is complete, the department can get a cost estimate.
ADOC anticipates that the prisons will be completed by May 2026.
England then asked Hamm about maintenance projects on existing prisons, which must house Alabama's growing prison population in the interim.
"We're trying our best on that, Representative England," Hamm said. "... Yes, Maintenance has been historically an issue with corrections, but that's something we're trying to stay on top of because we cannot neglect maintenance just because we're going to get two new facilities … There's facilities laid out in the legislation that will close once these two open up, but 2026 is the earliest, so we have to maintain what we have."
Hamm failed to provide England with an estimate of the amount of money the ADOC spends on maintaining the current prisons, though he did admit it was "not enough."
"[These prisons have] been neglected for years and years and years, so that cost probably is pretty high," Hamm said.
"We're getting to a point where everything we're spending is $1 billion on construction, $1 billion on health care," England added. "We just recently added $20 million for healthcare on another contract … We're just burning through cash here."
Hamm also updated the committee on construction progress.
"We're still getting chatter that nothing is happening at the construction site," Hamm said about the Elmore facility. "That is very far from the truth."
According to Hamm's presentation, stormwater pipes, sanitary and sewer piles, under-slab plumbing, and the building foundations have already been installed at the Elmore site.
The ADOC is still negotiating with design professionals for the Escambia facility. However, limited demolition has been completed on-site, and the department received its wetland permit authorization for construction from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Some demolition and the construction of an access road had already been completed in Escambia by the committee's last meeting.
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