By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) signed legislation, on Friday, Oct. 1, authorizing the Alabama Department of Corrections to build two new mega prisons. Construction on the two 4,000-bed men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia Counties could begin as early as January.
The Alabama Senate passed the $1.2 billion bipartisan plan to build and upgrade prisons on Friday morning. House Bill 4 authorizes the state to issue $785 million in new bonds to spend towards the construction of the two new prisons in phase I of the plan. House Bill 5 appropriates $400 million of American Rescue Act funds the state received for COVID-19 relief for the project. House Bill 6 authorizes the state to purchase or lease a vacant private prison in Perry County. That facility will be used by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles; and will allow the Bureau to expand its training programs as well as reduce county jail overcrowding by housing technical parole violators, serving 45-day imprisonment punishments there (called a “dunk” by law enforcement) rather than in county jails.
Two hours later, the Alabama House of Representatives met to vote to concur with the Senate amendment to House Bill 4. The House then voted to end the 2021 special session and legislative leaders walked across the street to the state’s historic 1859 Capitol Building for a bill signing ceremony at the Old House Chambers by Gov. Ivey.
“I’m extremely pleased to have joined leadership of the Alabama Legislature today to sign a major prison construction bill package,” Ivey said in a statement. “Folks, this is a pivotal moment for the trajectory of our state’s criminal justice system. Let me be clear, while more reform of the system can and does need to be addressed in the future – and I am committed to that as are many legislators – today’s bill signing on the construction part of this issue is a major step forward.”
Building new mega prisons has been very controversial. Previous efforts by Govs. Ivey and Robert Bentley before her to pass a $1 billion bond issue for building mega prisons failed in the state legislature. Gov. Ivey and the ADOC were pursuing a lease build agreement to have three new mega prisons built by private consortiums so that the administration would not have to deal with the legislature. That plan failed in May when the private prison consortiums were not able to obtain financing after the banks withdrew from the project due to public criticism. The Alabama House of Representatives began working on this “Plan B” approach this spring while the administration’s lease/build approach was unraveling.
“We all know that addressing this issue has not been easy, but sometimes, doing the right thing and the hard thing are one in the same,” Ivey added.
The package was sponsored by State Representative Steve Clouse (R-Ozark).
Clouse said that the new prisons will help the state hire new guards as well as mental health professionals – an area that ADOC has had tremendous difficulty recruiting to work in the long-neglected facilities.
“This is a win-win-win for the state,” Clouse said. “It is a win for the financial aspects of the plan. The amount of cash put forward keeps the costs of this thing down for the taxpayers. It’s a win for the prisoners who get to live in better conditions plus being in compliance with the Department of Justice order. It is also a win for public safety and the children of Alabama.”
Clouse and Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, are both seeking to be the next Speaker of the House. Current Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) is retiring at the end of this term.
In addition to the three-bill prison construction package, the legislature passed one of the two justice reform initiatives that Ivey asked for in the call. House Bill 2 was sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Hill (R-Odenville). It specified that a requirement enacted in 2015, that inmates nearing the end of their sentence be released by the Department of Corrections to mandatory supervision by the Board of Pardons and Paroles before their end of sentence (EOS). HB2 made that reform retroactive for prisoners sentenced before 2015.
Hill said that a period of supervised release lowers recidivism by 40%.
The $1.2 billion prison construction package has been negotiated upon for weeks with the Governor’s office and the legislative leadership from both major political parties. The plan is a three-phase plan with the initial $1.2 billion funding just phase 1 of the project - building the two new 4,000 bed men’s prisons. The Elmore County facility will have additional space for drug treatment, mental health treatment, and long-term care beds for an increasingly aging prison population. This facility is the costlier of the two.
The lack of adequate mental and health services has been cited as a need for the system by federal Judge Myron Thompson in a lawsuit in Thompson’s court brought by the SPLC on behalf of several current and former prisoners.
Thompson has cited the ADOC for grossly understaffing its prisons. Since Thompson ordered the state to hire 2,000 more prison guards three years ago, ADOC has only been able to hire 300 new corrections officers even though ADOC has raised the pay for corrections officers, as well as paying hiring and retention bonuses.
The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against the state of Alabama, alleging that conditions in Alabama’s prisons are so bad that they constitute a “cruel and unusual punishment” banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The complaint, filed by the Trump administration, cites the chronic understaffing, the incredibly high violence rates (including deaths), the inadequate mental and drug treatment programs, and the dilapidated conditions of the aging facilities.
The two new facilities will have a pod and cell arrangement versus the barracks-style housing that Alabama’s current aging facilities use. There are often 50 to 100 beds per barracks, which means that corrections officers walking into one of those dorms to break up a fight or to check for contraband is doing so potentially at great personal risk. Sponsors claim that the new facilities will help ADOC better recruit and retain corrections officers.
Phases 2 and 3 of the plan are both pay-as-you-go plans, which means they have no dedicated funding source and will have to be written into future state general fund budgets. Clouse explained that once the two new prisons are 60% complete, renovations would begin on existing men’s prisons in Limestone, Jefferson, and Barbour or Bullock Counties. Phase 3 would be the construction of a new women’s prison to replace the 1942 Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, in Elmore County. As the new prisons are opened and the renovations on the three existing prisons are being completed, ADOC would begin closing or repurposing facilities that are no longer needed.
“This is a consolidation plan,” Clouse said.
Speaker McCutcheon said that this was "a good first step.”
McCutcheon praised legislators for addressing “a problem that we have had in Alabama for decades."
Reporters asked McCutcheon if the passage of the plan went far enough to satisfy the federal government.
“I don’t know, but we know what would have happened if we had done nothing?" McCutcheon asked.