By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—The State is poised to give Gov. Robert Bentley an $800 million dollar credit card to build 4 super-max style prisons, with no written plan, no impact study, and no accountability. The only thing certain about the project is that State taxpayers will be on the hook for $1.5 billion. The bill, which has been hurried through the legislature, has raised numerous unanswered questions, not the least of which is how the bond would be paid back.
The massive building project has been pushed through the House by Speaker Mike Hubbard, who is under indictment on 23 felony counts of public corruption, and through the Senate by President Pro Tem Del Marsh. Gov. Bentley, who is under investigation by Federal and State law enforcement is the leading proponent of the project. The genesis of the prison construction bill leads back to Rebekah Caldwell Mason, the Governor’s former senior advisor, and sexting partner.
Currently, both Jon and Rebekah Mason’s companies are under suspicion for contracts acquired while being paid as State employees, hired by Bentley. Around the State House, Rebekah Mason’s ties to a prison construction company has come into question, as the bill received a full-court press from Bentley and his staff.
Mrs. Mason continues to be Bentley’s chief advisor on the prison construction project, as well as other issues before the State, according to sources close to the Governor, this, despite the fact Mason resigned her position last month to spend more time with her children.
Bentley has made secret promises to lawmakers that he can’t keep, according to several lawmakers speaking on background, but all say this is a do or die project for the Governor.
High-priced lobbyists with ties to former Gov. Bob Riley, and his daughter Minda Riley Campbell, have been employed to force the bill through the legislature. Campbell is reportedly involved with those seeking to build the super-max prison as well.
If this is not enough to raise suspicion add to the mix that both State and Federal law enforcement agencies are prepared to launch investigations into the project, should it be signed by Bentley.
Recently, Damon T. Hininger, President and CEO of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), spoke to the Birmingham Kiwanis at the Harbert Center. CCA, the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation, has been “accused of prisoner abuse, poor pay and benefits to employees, scandals, escapes, riots, and lawsuits…civil rights groups, criminal justice reform organizations, and immigrant rights advocates have repeatedly argued that adding the profit motive to the prison and immigrant detention systems provides perverse incentives to keep incarceration rates high,” according to a report by Grassrootsleadership.org.
Laura Dove, Assistant Professor of Business Law at Sorrell College of Business, Troy University, who, along with others, is conducting a comprehensive study on the Alabama prison system said, “The success of SB287 depends on many, many assumptions. If they fail and this project fails to meet its goals, we have committed $1.5 billion and may still face federal intervention.” She also added, “SB287 is deceptively simple…[the] massive $800 million project seems relatively straightforward in comparison, but this would be a huge shock to the current system—effects could be complex. Other states (notably California) have been unable to build their way out of prison overcrowding.” Appearing before the prison reform hearing a few weeks ago Dove, and her colleagues at Troy asked the legislature to move with caution and deliberation citing “complexity of implementation” where details are scant.
The House voted down an amendment by Rep. Jim Carns that would remove the alternative delivery methods. Carns’ bill was designed to provide for transparency in the use of tax payers money.
The House did pass an amendment by Rep A.J. McCampbell requiring a complete report of the plans for the prison construction, on what bond money was spent, but Bentley’s team is working diligently to strip such language, because he already has a preferred company, say those close to the project.
Gov. Bentley and Hubbard’s sudden interest in an expensive prison contract project has yet to be explained.
The maelstrom that now engulfs the Bentley administration should be enough to give pause to the Senate, which may receive the bill on Tuesday.
Marsh has reportedly told Hubbard not to transmit the bill because there are not enough votes in the Senate to concur. However, several senators speaking on background say, they will remain vigilant to kill the construction bonanza, should it reach the floor of the upper chamber. Where it has been said, “This project is all devil and no details.”