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Alabama’s secretive prison project same as 2018 Kansas deal

Eddie Burkhalter

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The secrecy behind Alabama’s plan to build three new prisons using private prison companies mirrors a project in Kansas that left some lawmakers there feeling that the state got “hoodwinked.”  

The Kansas governor has since said her state was “hoodwinked” by one of the same private prison companies now vying for a piece of Alabama taxpayer’s $900 million to build one or more of the state’s three planned prisons. Promised savings never materialized, and Kansas now plans to send some inmates to a private-prison-operated facility out-of-state because of continued overcrowding. 

Gov. Kay Ivey in August announced the five companies that expressed interest in building new prisons through build-lease contracts are: The Geo Group, Inc., Corvias, LLC, Corrections Consultants, LLC, CoreCivic, Inc. and Alabama Prison Transformation Partners. 

APR was able to confirm that B.L. Harbert International and Star America Infrastructures are two of the entities behind Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, but additional partners haven’t been identified, and the state isn’t saying. 

Corrections Consultants is owned by the Tennessee businessman Doctor Robert Crants Jr., APR also recently confirmed

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) had promised the interested companies that the state would keep information about the businesses private until contracts are finalized, the ADOC told several news outlets.   

“…The Request for Qualifications assures competing developers that “any information received in response to the solicitation/request will not be publicly available until final contract(s) has received all approvals,” the ADOC said in statements last week. 

Most everyone agrees that Alabama has to address the state’s aging, overcrowded and dangerous prisons, but just how that’s done, and at what cost, remains debated. 

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Alabama is under a judge’s order to roughly double the number of correctional officers by 2022, and the U.S. Department of Justice in April threatened Alabama with a federal lawsuit because of what the department found to be the unconstitutional treatment of prisoners over violence and sexual abuse in the overcrowded, understaffed prisons. 

The state Legislature in 2015, passed criminal justice reforms which reduced prisons from 200 percent of capacity to about 160 percent, but prisons remain dangerously overpopulated and understaffed. A team of law enforcement agencies on Monday confiscated 621 makeshift weapons at the G.K. Fountain Correctional Facility in Escambia County. 

In 2018, the state Legislature increased ADOC’s funding by $86 million for additional medical and mental health services and correctional officers, and in 2019, increased the budget again by $40 million to hire 500 more correctional officers and boost pay by 20 percent to help retain staff, but other attempted fixes have failed. 

Lawmakers tried three times in recent years to pass legislation to replace and consolidate aging prisons in new facilities though bond issuances, but closing job-providing prisons in one’s own district, and taking on additional debt to do so, wasn’t politically popular. 

“Three times it was introduced and three times it failed,” state Sen. Cam Ward told APR on Monday. Ward is also chairman of the prison oversight committee. “Lawmakers wanted prisons in their district. Don’t close mine, close his.” 

Estimates in bills pushed in the Legislature in 2016, and 2017, put the cost of the state itself to build four new prisons – not three –  at around $800. The cost over the 30-year term of the bond issuance would have been $1.5 billion. 

The ADOC has estimated that it would cost the state more than $440 million to repair all 17 major detention facilities. 

After those failures, Gov. Kay Ivey presented a solution: Remove the need for legislation by contracting directly with private companies to build the prisons, then lease them back over a period of decades. Under Ivey’s proposal, the private prison companies would be responsible for maintenance of the prisons and the state would operate them. 

“The politics of it are still dicey,” Ward said. “You still have some legislators who really want us to do it. I think at the end of the day you’re going to see a sit-down where the legislators who want to see the state do it are going to put their numbers on the table and the administration is going to put their numbers on the table, and whichever one is cheaper is the way it’s going to go.” 

Ward said he understands the concern many have about the secrecy behind the ADOC’s request for qualification process, and said he still doesn’t know all of the entities behind Alabama Prison Transformation Partners. 

“They’re naturally suspicious, because that’s a lot of money. You’re talking about close to a billion dollars. There’s going to be concerns there and it’s valid,” Ward said. “I think for their part more transparency would be helpful to them.” 

Kansas leads the way

Kansas officials used the same process that Ivey’s administration is moving forward with when that state entered into a build-lease contract with CoreCivic in 2018, to replace the state’s Lansing Correctional Facility. 

Shar Habibi, research director at the California-based think tank In the Public Interest, which focuses on privatization and the economy, pointed to an audit that determined it would have been less costly for Kansas to build the new prison itself with a bond issuance of $155 million. 

The state’s finance council instead chose to contract with CoreCivic at a cost of $159.5 million, or $362 million over 20 years including maintenance and insurance payments, according to Mother Jones

“I think the theory is that you get a project that’s best for the state, not necessarily one that’s low-bid,” Mike Gaito, director of capital improvements at KDOC, told the Topika-Capital Journal. 

The Kansas Department of Corrections estimated that building the new prison would save approximately $23 million over the 20-year lease, largely by cutting staffing in half by using newly designed cell blocks that don’t require as many officers to oversee inmates. 

That projected savings didn’t come to be, however, when KDOC found the land unsuitable to the new design, and the savings was reduced from $23 million to just $1.3 million over 20 years, according to the state’s projected savings

CoreCivic had hired to aides to former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback,  according to the Kansas City Star, but Brownback at the time said his office wasn’t involved in selecting CoreCivic. The governor had to approve the deal, however, the newspaper noted. 

Kansas Sen. Carolyn McGinn expressed concern at the time that the state’s process lacked transparency. 

“The problem here — we’re in this decision mode now — is because so much of this process was done behind closed doors,” McGinn told  The Kansas City Star. “It wasn’t an open process.”

Just as in Alabama, the Kansas Department of Corrections did initially name the companies that expressed interest in the project, but declined to give out any more information once bids were placed, including the names of the companies that bid or the bid amounts, according to The Kansas City Star. 

The Kansas City Star noted that the KDOC had previously named CoreCivic, Geo Group and Lansing Corrections Partners has having expressed interest, but the paper couldn’t identify who was behind the Tennessee-based Lansing Corrections Partners. No such business is registered in Tennessee or Kansas. APR was also unable to identify the people behind Lansing Correctional Partners. 

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly told the Associated Press in February that the state was “hoodwinked” by CoreCivic into believing the new design would save the state millions. 

“We were just, you know, hoodwinked, I think,” Kelly told the AP. She had been critical of the private prison proposal as a state senator before her governorship. “I was not.”

Changing Tactics

Both CoreCivic and Geo Group have in recent years worked to grow real estate holdings to take advantage of each companies’ change in 2013, from traditional corporations to Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT), which allows them to save many millions through federal tax exemptions. 

Building Alabama’s prisons and managing them as landlords would help the two companies meet an obligation of their REIT’s that they hold a certain amount of real estate in their portfolios, Habibi said, and it lets them move into states that may have been leery of allowing private prison companies to operate facilities. 

Financing Alabama’s prison builds may have gotten a little trickier for the two largest companies recently, Habibi said, which could mean it’ll cost the companies, and the state, more in the long run. 

“In the past few months all of the major banks that have provided financing to CoreCivic and Geo Group…have all said no new financing,” Habibi said. 

JP Morgan Chase & Company had already financed CoreCivic’s Kansas project before the banks made that announcement in March following public outcry over the private prison and detention center companies’ connection to the Trump administration’s undocumented immigrant family separation policy. 

President Trump in June signed an executive order ostensibly ending the policy, but since then at least 700 families have been separated, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Wells Fargo, SunTrust, Bank of America, BNP Paribas, Barclays and Fifth Third Bankcorp have all said the banks would stop financing private prison and immigration detention companies. 

Without access to those banks, CoreCivic and Geo Group stand to lose 72 percent, or $1.9 billion, of the companys’ current available financing, according to a joint report in July by In the Public Interest and several other groups.  

Habibi also warned that locking the state into long-term leases with a private prison companies “significantly hampers” Alabama’s ability to change its criminal justice system. 

“If the state is serious about criminal justice reform, if populations do decline, you can’t just say we only need three prisons now. It doesn’t matter. You’re on the hook for the money,” Habibi said. 

Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, told APR that he also worries there would be little incentive for the state to continue with criminal justice reforms and reduce prison populations if the state is locked into long-term leases. 

“Theoretically, you could do anything you want, but why would you? You have no incentive to do that,” Cohen said. “There’s only an incentive to keep the beds filled.” 

Habibi also pointed to problems CoreCivic has had in the past maintaining facilities for local governments. A report released by In the Public Interest in January noted that CoreCivic, doing business under the company’s previous name, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), “failed to repair rusted doors, replace damaged windows, seal cracks in walls and floors, fix damaged ceiling tiles, and patch leaks in the roof” at Hernando County’s jail north of Tampa, Florida. 

After Hernando County took back over control of the jail in 2010, county officials estimated that CCA owed $1 million for needed repairs, which the company agreed to pay, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

Beyond maintenance issues that might arise, Habibi said there’s a real concern that states contracting with these companies to build and maintain prisons can later amend contracts to let private prison companies operate them as well. Once in the door, it’s much easier for private prisons to negotiate other terms, she explained. 

“And there are a lot of examples of human rights abuses that CoreCivic and Geo Group have engaged in” Habibi said. 

Both companies have faced numerous lawsuits over alleged civil rights abuses, neglect and violence at their facilities. 

Kansas officials announced in August that around 600 state prisoners would be transferred to a CoreCivic-operated prison in Arizona at a cost of around $16.3 million a year because of prison overcrowding, according to The Wichita Eagle. 

“Sending Kansas inmates to another state is an option we wish we could avoid,” Acting Kansas Department of Corrections secretary Jeff Zmuda said in a press release.  

Whatever the solution, Alabama officials are under pressure to fix the state’s troubled prison system, and the threat of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice still looms. 

Sen. Ward sees Alabama’s current plan to use the build-lease option as part of a much needed remedy, and one that needs to come quickly. 

“There’s no dispute that we’ve got to have new facilities to replace the old ones,” Ward said. “The issue is getting it done in a timely manner and based on specifications.” 

Ward said that during the state’s request for proposal process later on, the unknown names connected to some of these companies will come to light, which he said is critical to “transparency and making people feel more comfortable with it.” 

“But yes. I think the way the governor is doing it right now is a good way,” Ward said.

 

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Alabama inmate killed by another inmate at Ventress Correctional

Eddie Burkhalter

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via the Alabama Department of Corrections

A Birmingham man serving at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton was killed by another inmate, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Dennis Benson, 40, who was serving a 36-month sentence for possession of a controlled substance and receiving stolen property, died March 30 after being attacked by another inmate, ADOC said in a statement. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Benson by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” the department said in a statement.

Benson’s cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death, according to the department. 

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Attorney general partners with Facebook to stop price-gouging

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Friday announced a partnership with Facebook to address price-gouging on the social media site by people looking to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There is no question that unscrupulous operators are trying to take advantage of Alabamians looking to buy basic necessities to protect and sustain themselves and their families during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic,” Marshall said in a statement. “What’s more, much of that illegal activity is centered online because many consumers find it easier to purchase supplies on the internet due to lack of local availability or self-quarantining. As my office seeks ways to protect our consumers, I am pleased to announce that Facebook is one of several major e-commerce platforms to respond to my call to participate in a coordinated effort to identify and shutdown online price gouging.”

Facebook has agreed to review and remove price-gouging listings and advertisements from the website, according to a press release form Marshall’s office.

The press release from Marshall’s office notes that Facebook has already banned advertising or sale of medical masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 testing kits, and the site also as prohibited products “cures” or products that claim to prevent someone from contracting the virus. 

Recent research by Digital Citizens Alliance showed, however, that many of those banned products and advertisements continue to appear on Facebook, despite the company’s March 6 announcement prohibiting them.

Alabama’s price-gouging law went into effect on March 13 upon Gov. Kay Ivey’s declaration of a state of emergency.

“Although what constitutes an unconscionable price is not specifically set forth in state law, a price that is 25% or more above the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days — unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity — is a prima facie case of unconscionable pricing,” according to the release.

To file an illegal price gouging report visit the Alabama Attorney General’s Consumer Interest Division at  https://www.alabamaag.gov/consumercomplaint, or call 1-800-392-5658 to receive a form by mail to complete and return.

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Families, advocates ask Alabama to release at-risk inmates amid COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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Contributed photo

When Amber Faircloth learned Thursday of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an Alabama prison, she worried that her husband, who has cancer, could be in jeopardy. 

Her husband, who’s serving time at Limestone prison, is one of more than 1,000 inmates most at risk of serious complications or death if the virus spreads throughout Alabama’s prisons. 

Amber and a group of criminal justice reform advocates have asked the Alabama Department of Corrections to consider releasing inmates who are more at risk from the virus, but the department told APR on Friday that for now, there are no plans to do so. 

Justin Faircloth just had a second round of chemotherapy Wednesday and was told by a doctor before treatments began that his stage-4 colon cancer could take his life within six months. 

“We might as well kiss this world goodbye if it gets in here,” Justin Faircloth said in a phone interview with APR on Saturday, speaking of the virus.

He’d undergone a previous round of chemotherapy before being arrested in December on a probation revocation charge, and once in the state’s custody those treatments stopped, AL.com’s Connor Sheets reported in February   

Treatments have since restarted, but Amber worries that his liver is so damaged and his immune system so weak that he’d surely die if infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. She’s asking that he and others in his condition be released before an outbreak occurs. 

“Even a common cold can put him in the hospital,” she said. “And it’s not just him.” 

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ADOC has a large population of older inmates, and many with serious medical conditions, which experts say puts them at much greater risk for complications and death from COVID-19. The tight quarters and overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons — for which the state has repeatedly been reprimanded by federal courts and the DOJ — make them a particularly dangerous place for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Her husband was in the infirmary Thursday night, she said, but it was so crowded that he had to sleep with two other inmates, inches apart, in what inmates call a “boat,” which are plastic stackable bunks that rest on the floor. 

“He’s on a chemo pump, and he’s on the floor,” Amber said. “That’s inhumane and unsanitary.” 

On Friday, he was moved back to the general population, where the men sleep in cramped, open dormitories close to one another. Prisons are perfect environments for rapid viral outbreaks, health experts say. 

“We’re in such close quarters. We use the same toilets. We use the same sinks. We touch the same handles on the microwave and the same remote controls,” Justin said, adding that correctional officers are just as worried about a breakout inside the prison as the inmates.

Justin said inmates are given the same lye soap bars they’ve always gotten, but said he’s not seen any instructional material to let inmates know about the danger of the virus or how to protect from it.

Justin’s criminal history shows signs of years of struggles with drug addiction. The 34-year-old has been arrested for drug possession, theft, resisting arrest and burglary. 

“I ended up relapsing and did commit a crime,” Justin said. “But I should be able to wear an ankle bracelet or something. Be monitored from my house.”

An administrative employee at a state prison tested positive for COVID-19, and all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Thursday. ADOC hasn’t stated in which prison the infected person works. 

ADOC also hasn’t said how many, if any, inmates or other staff have been tested for the virus, but in a statement Thursday, the department said it “has the ability to test inmates within the facilities; however, testing will only occur after the ADPH approves a physician’s order.” 

Alabama’s prisons were at 169 percent capacity in December, before Holman prison closed to almost all inmates and moved the rest to other overpopulated facilities. 

Amber is asking the state to consider releasing her husband, perhaps place him on electronic monitoring, and said those in his condition should be removed from what could quickly become a death trap. 

It’s a call shared by Alabamians for Fair Justice, a group of criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people. The group wrote a letter to ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn on Wednesday that urged the department to act before an outbreak might occur. 

One of the specific recommendations from the group is to release the 1,000 or so inmates who are at high risk of serious complications or death from the virus. 

In this light, the Bureau of Pardons and Parole’s decision to cancel upcoming parole hearings is counterproductive. We call on BPP to work with ADOC to expand upon existing medical parole provisions in order to expedite the release of people from the populations at greatest risk,” the group’s letter reads. 

The group also recommended that ADOC develop reentry plans, identify transitional housing and, where possible, refer the released inmates to outside medical and mental health providers.

In a statement to APR on Friday, an ADOC spokeswoman said, for now, the department doesn’t anticipate any non-routine releases. 

“The ADOC is continuing to work closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the potential spread of the virus,” the statement reads. “Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff and the public remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

“The ADOC’s Office of Health Services is working closely with our contracted health services vendor to monitor and protect high-risk inmates, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. At this time, the Department does not anticipate conducting any non-routine releases. We are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and will be making additional operational and preventative decisions as this situation continues to evolve.”

ADOC has taken other steps to mitigate the dangers of a COVID-19 outbreak. The department has suspended visitations, begun screening staff for fever, suspended inmate co-pays and transfers between prisons. 

On Friday, ADOC announced that state prisons would stop taking in new inmates for 30 days.

It’s a move that might help prevent the virus from getting into prisons, but it shifts that danger to county jails, and it’s not sustainable. Prison systems across the country are coming to terms with what could turn into a very deadly situation very quickly. 

In Los Angeles earlier this week, low-level inmates were being released from some jails, The Los Angeles Times reported, and New York City this week began releasing more vulnerable inmates with medical conditions and those serving for minor crimes. 

“I think the threat level is at 10 now,” said Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, speaking to ABC News. “The [nation’s] corrections leaders are struggling to figure out what the national response will be.”

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Alabama prisons halt intakes from county jails during COVID-19 outbreak

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday announced a 30-day moratorium on taking in inmates from the county jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

ADOC on Thursday said an administrative employee in a prison tested positive for the virus, and that all staff who came into contact with the person are under a 14-day quarantine. It was the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state’s prisons. ADOC said no inmates have tested positive. 

The department said in a statement that suspension of new intakes includes “but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers…” 

Statement from ADOC: 

“The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) continues to take steps necessary to maintain the safety, security, and well-being of our inmate population, staff, and the public. The Department is working closely with Governor Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), and infectious disease control experts to mitigate the spread of the virus. Our continued and collective efforts have allowed for the implementation of new preventative practices and procedures in response to this rapidly evolving situation.

 “Effective today, the Department is placing a 30-day moratorium on new intakes from county jails based on Governor Ivey’s declared State of Emergency related to COVID-19. This restriction includes, but is not limited to, new commitments, court returns, and parolees and probationers who are revoked or sanctioned to a dunk. During this time, the Department will continue to receive inmates with severe medical or mental health conditions, subject to the usual review process by the Department’s Office of Health Services. However, additional health screenings will be implemented at the facility level to ensure any inmate is not symptomatic prior to entry. While the 30-day moratorium is in effect, the ADOC’s intake procedures will be reviewed closely and intake dorm space will be assessed thoroughly. At the end of this 30-day period, the Department will assess our interim intake process.

“In addition to implementing system-wide preventative measures to prevent the virus from entering our facilities, the ADOC also is modifying internal protocols to best serve our inmate population who have been impacted by these altered processes and various safety precautions. Effective immediately, the ADOC will extend both inmate yard time and snack line services at all our facilities. Other protocol adjustments remain under consideration for possible implementation.

 “We are continuing to diligently monitor the situation, working closely with the ADPH and adhering to CDC-recommended health and hygiene guidelines. As noted yesterday, March 19, the ADOC has been notified that an administrative employee tested positive for COVID-19. All individuals within the Department who have been in direct contact with the individual who tested positive remain in a 14-day self-quarantine period, and are being monitored by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) for signs and symptoms due to direct exposure. Maintaining the safety, security, and well-being of our overall system remains the ADOC’s highest priority.”

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