The price tag for the new prison in Elmore County increased by over 50% in March, and the final price has yet to be established by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
In a 2021 special session, the Alabama Legislature approved $1.3 billion in funding for two prisons.
The two 4,000-bed facilities — one in Escambia County and the other in Elmore County — were thought to be needed promptly as the ADOC continues to be under the federal government's scrutiny.
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.
State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), who sits on the finance authority, recently told 1819 News that he was unhappy with the increasing cost but believed the work must continue to address the defects in the state’s prisons.
“We’ve been working on this for a number of years,” Albritton told 1819 News. “We tried this some years ago, that didn’t get passed. Then the governor came forward with a lease plan, and that didn’t go anywhere. But we tried to use the same plan, supposedly, of what the lease was in moving forward, and evidently, that didn’t work out.”
The 2021 bill that approved the prison construction included stipulations that allow a specific method of bidding and pricing, enabling construction to begin before a final price is established for the build.
ADOC commissioner John Hamm, who presented a report to the Joint Legislative Prison Oversight Committee earlier this month, described the “design-build” project as a way to precipitate the construction process.
“It’s not your traditional Title 39 that the state usually does when you design the whole thing 100%, and then you put it out for bid, and then you award the bid,” Hamm told the committee. “The design-build concept is you design some, you bid, you build, you design more, bid, build. So, it actually gives us a bit of a head start on the construction process.”
According to Albritton, the design-build concept has led to several unforeseen issues with the bidding and construction process. Albritton also said that the ADOC was ultimately responsible for managing bids for materials.
“Unfortunately, what we have is a matter where we have this public, private, design-build endeavor which has turned out to be a bit more problematic than we expected,” Albritton explained. “I didn’t find out about the $900 million price tag until the very end of May. That was just an estimate, evidently, also. We have yet to get the full-blown cost on this.”
Several lawmakers have expressed displeasure at how the executive branch has handled the entire process, with few answers as to why the massive cost increase. According to Albritton, the plans have expanded throughout the process. He also joined Hamm in pointing to inflation as a driver for the price jump.
“In the plans that we thought we were getting included a 5,000 square foot classroom,” Albritton said. “Then, after we passed the bill, the junior college said, ‘We can’t do what you’re telling us to do in that space. That’s just impossible to do.’ That became not a 5,000 square foot space, but it looks like that will go almost to 50,000 square feet.”
He continued, “Everybody kind of blows this off, but one of our biggest problems is really inflation. Inflation we’re talking about is 5%, 10% at most. But that’s per year. We’ve been talking about this for two years. So, there’s lots of reasons for this, and I don’t have all the answers. We’re trying to make sure we ask all the appropriate questions. Trying to make sure we look under every tea leaf we can here, but this is a difficult circumstance.”
Albritton also pointed to the polarization of the Alabama prison issue, making it difficult to bring about the needed changes.
“The last thing the liberals want is for us to fix this problem,” Albritton asserted. “The last thing they want is for this to become a situation where we resolve these issues. Their gravy train would go away then. I’m not trying to say new prisons are the complete answer; they’re not. But it is a substantial move in the right direction. So, the libs don’t want us to do it. They don’t want us to do anything with housing prisoners at all, and we’re fighting that. Then we got the right-wingers, they’re afraid we’re going to put colored TV’s in and make everything a Taj Mahal federal prison system, but we aren’t heading in that direction either. But both sides are unhappy about this, and that makes it difficult to bring about any change.”
In 2019, The Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the State of Alabama, alleging the prison conditions 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. The DOJ also claimed ADOC fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.
The trial for the DOJ complaint is slated to begin in 2024, while the Elmore facility isn’t expected to finish until 2026. With the threat of a federal takeover of Alabama’s prisons looming over the heads of every branch of the Alabama government, Albritton believes the current course is a sufficient starting point to address the DOJ’s concerns.
“I don’t know what the feds will do,” Albritton said. “I don’t know what the courts will order. And to try to guess what is in a judge’s mind is dangerous territory. All I can tell you is that I believe we have an adequate and good plan for the beginning, and this isn’t the only part of it. We have intents and methods to move forward with refurbishing if need be and dealing with the problem on a large scale.”
He continued, “We are doing all that we feasibly can at this point. And frankly, I’m personally comfortable with the plan that we’ve got. I’m unhappy with the cost overruns, but that’s true with everything. Between mental health and classrooms, everybody’s overrunning. I just got out of contract review, and Medicaid is overrun by a few million bucks. Cost overruns in this environment is SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), unfortunately. But we still can’t stop, and we’ve got to move forward to solve the problem that’s before us.”
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