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Questions hang over massive prison bill

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

The push to build four new correctional facilities at the cost of $800 million will soon begin in earnest. Still, many questions are left unanswered by legislations known as the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative (APTI). The plan at present says the estimated $1.5 billion bond issuance will be paid by savings in the ADOC budget over the next 30 years. It also assumes proper medical and mental health care will result by consolidating facilities, and that the new high-tech prisons will reduce prison staffing needs. Governor Robert Bentley and Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner Jeff Dunn are warning lawmakers of an imminent threat of Federal intervention if actions are not taken immediately.

But how can the State claim these assessments are accurate without first knowing the design of these facilities, where they will be built, and the fate of the current prisons? Construction costs, complying with Federal statutes, constitutional adherence, and adequate staffing are just a few of the top-level considerations not fully articulated in the plan.

According to the APTI presentation provided to APR by Commissioner Dunn, the $800 million bond payments will be “funded entirely within current ADOC General Fund Appropriation,” the plan reads. “There is no requirement to supplement the ADOC General Fund Appropriation to service this debt.” According to the State’s projections, the estimated $50 million annual bond payments will be taken out of ADOC’s current $400 plus million annual appropriations with no additional funding from the Legislature. The plan calculates historical annual increases in funding, as a portion of the payments.

But how can the State accurately estimate the cost when so little is known? Is the State in possession of a design that it has not shared with the Legislature or the public?

Currently, the State is under a Federal court order to address its violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There is also litigation citing the State’s failure to supply adequate medical attention for inmate’s with mental health issues, and a lack of correctional officers.

“There is no question that Alabama needs to improve its prison facilities,” said SPLC Associate and Legal Director Ebony Howard in a recent interview. “But spending $800 million on four new prisons will not fix the grossly inadequate medical and mental health care, the ongoing staff shortage or the unspeakable levels of violence.”

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How does APTI solve these legal issues? By consolidating health care delivery and reducing inmate population over the next four years (according to the APTI presentation). This, they claim, will result in improved health care services.

Evidence-based data for these claims are absent from the APTI presentation.

The plan also states “design improvements and the use of technology as a force multiplier,” will lead to a six percent reduction in security staff while curtailing violence. According to the report, the DOC is spending roughly $30 million in correctional officer overtime. APTI projects its new staffing model will provide full-staffing at new regional facilities while cutting overtime spending by 65-70 percent.

APTI cites savings from cutting correctional staff overtime and will result in a net reduction of 352 staff. However, given that there is not a set design (at least not publicly known) how can the State estimate the number of correctional officers needed?

Technology as a force multiplier is being employed across the nation but what are the technologies built into the design? No one has seen them.

As for the existing prisons, the bill gives Bentley and a small group authority to sell the property at Kilby at their discretion. Kilby is located approximately 7 miles from the Poarch Creek Indians’ casino and 11 miles from VictoryLand. As for the other prisons what is to become of them is not known.

A comparison APTI documentation cites Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Phoenix to support its argument for building large prisons. The Phoenix is an unfortunate example as it is known to have blown through multiple deadlines, incurred $30 million in change orders, and completion is now delayed indefinitely according to the Philadelphia Enquirer.

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The $400 million prison Design-Build contract was awarded to Walsh Heery Joint Venture by the State of Pennsylvania, as of December 2016, Walsh Heery Joint Venture ”has run up more than $14 million in ‘liquidated damages’ due to missed datelines, according to the Philadelphia Enquirer. They also found that while Walsh Heery claims the facility is ready for delivery, Mark D. Dickinson, an attorney representing the State, told the Enquirer, Walsh Heery’s statment “is grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

Governor Bentley, assorted lobbyists, and a host of special interest groups will come full throttle in the coming week to secure legislation for new prisons, yet, many questions are still left hanging.


Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.


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