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Private prison company eyes Elmore County land for one of state’s new prisons

Eddie Burkhalter

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Editor’s note: The story was updated Feb. 12, 2020, to reflect that the private company Corvias has also pulled out of the procurement process. 

The private prison company CoreCivic for more than two years has been eying land just outside the city of Tallassee in Elmore county to build one of Alabama’s planned three new prisons, something several locals say they don’t want and weren’t aware of until last month. 

Meanwhile, the Elmore County Commission argues that the prison should be located on state-owned land where the closed Draper prison stands, about 30 miles west of the proposed site. 

CoreCivic’s push to get one or more of the state’s three contracts to build the prisons comes as two of the other private companies, Geo Group and Corvias, have dropped out of the running.  

The architecture firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood in recent weeks have been conducting surveys and soil testing of the 376 acres on Rifle Range Road, which is owned by a local man, Ken Maddox, according to tax records and interviews with residents. The property had been listed for just more than $1 million. 

If the Alabama Department of Corrections selects the site work could begin as early as the fall on a medium or maximum security prison to house between 3,100 and 3,900 incarcerated people.  

Leslie Ogburn, who lives and works on land next to the proposed site on Rifle Range Road, told APR on Sunday that local residents found out about the plan approximately two weeks ago, when land surveyors began working on the property. 

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“There’s been a lot of backlash from the community over it,” Ogburn said. “All three of our schools would be within four miles of the prison.” 

There’s also the stigma of being a small town centered around a massive prison, Ogburn and other residents told APR on Sunday. 

Ogburn started an online petition asking residents to sign their names opposing the prison. As of Tuesday evening more than 1,5oo people had done so. She plans to deliver those signatures to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office. 

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Alan Parker built a home for himself and his wife on Rifle Ridge Road three years ago to get away from bustling Montgomery, where he runs a landscaping business he told APR he’ll soon retire from. He lives about a quarter-of-a-mile down the road from the site, and said he’s worried about his property values if it’s built. 

“My wife retired from the state health department. We’re empty-nesters and just wanted to have a nice country place,” Parker said. 

He was also concerned that the matter didn’t come out from local officials sooner, and thinks the secrecy was purposeful. 

“A super-prison with 4,000 people? They would have to sneak around everybody’s back to get that in around here,” Parker said.

Alabama’s violent, overcrowded and understaffed prisons face the possibility of a federal takeover. The U.S. Department of Justice detailed the those problems in a report released in April 2019 that found that Alabama may be in violation of prisoners’ Constitutional rights. 

Under Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan, private companies would build the prisons and the state would lease and operate them. The Alabama Department of Corrections has estimated the cost of all three new prisons to be approximately $900 million. 

The proposed site on Rifle Range Road is just outside the Tallassee city limits, but falls within the city’s utility coverage area. 

Tallassee Mayor Johnny Hammock in recent days has faced public pressure for not telling residents of the proposal sooner, and on social media some questioned a trip he took to Arizona to visit CoreCivic prisons. 

Hammock told APR on Monday that shortly after taking office in October 2016 he was approached by the Elmore County Industrial Development Authority (ECIDA) asking if he knew of 2016 acres available for sale in the city’s industrial park, without saying what the land was needed for. Hammock said he told them the park had no such available property. 

Hammock said some time in 2017, although he couldn’t recall exactly when, he was again contacted by the ECIDA and told they’d located land on Rifle Ridge Road and was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement with CoreCivic, which he did, and was told hat the company was looking at the Rifle Range Road site for a prison. 

Hammock’s first discussion with CoreCivic predates Gov Kay Ivey’s administration, and would have happened likely after former Gov. Robert Bentley in January 2017 called for a plan to build four new prisons. That plan, which would have required the state to borrow $800 million, failed. Ivey’s plan was a slight tweak of Bentley’s, cut the prisons to three and removed the need to borrow the money, instead going with a build-lease proposal.

Hammock said he later took a weeklong trip with an engineer the city uses to Arizona to see CoreCivic facilities and talk with local municipal leaders. He said the city paid for the plane tickets, some meals and for the engineer’s time spent in Arizona and work done back in Alabama drafting plans for infrastructure at the Rifle Range Road site.

Hammock said that all together, the trip and engineering work cost approximately $10,000 and that the ECIDA, Which is a separate entity from the county, paid for the hotel stay. CoreCivic paid nothing toward the trip, he said. 

About two weeks ago word began circulating around Tallassee that a private prison company might build on Rifle Range Road, Hammock said, so he called CoreCivic and said he’d have to discuss this with residents. 

“I said, ‘Hey look, I ran a campaign on transparency and I know we’re supposed to be hush-hush about this but I’m not going to lie to people,’” Hammock said. “So they said, tell them what you know.” 

Hammock has said that a prison on Rifle Ridge Road would boost the city’s utility revenues – Hammock is both the mayor of Tallassee and also the city’s superintendent of utilities – provide jobs and spur economic growth. He said more than 700 people in Elmore County work for the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

“What if they move it somewhere and it’s out of commuting distance and these people move out of our area?” Hammock said. “I have to look at it from every angle.” 

Troy Stubbs, chairman of the Elmore County Commission, told APR on Monday that the commission learned on Aug. 28, 2018, that a private prison company was looking at land in Tallassee, and that a meeting was set up the following week with Hammock, ECIDA and county officials to discuss the matter. 

County officials stressed in that meeting a desire for the prison to be located on the Draper prison site, Stubbs said, but that state law does not allow private companies to build on state-owned land. 

“We believe that that whole area has the current infrastructure in place, from water and sewer and everything else, that if it’s ready to build immediately,” Stubbs said of the Draper site. 

Stubbs said that throughout 2019 the county commission has worked with Gov. Kay Ivey’s office, Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn and state legislators to ask for an amendment to state law that would allow the Draper site to be considered. 

Asked if CoreCivic is also considering the Draper site, Stubbs said that the commission hasn’t given the company any tours of the land, but that it’s possible CoreCivic has visited it. 

Hammock said he wasn’t certain if the Draper site was still being considered by the company, and that CoreCivic doesn’t discuss with him other potential sites, but that the Draper property was in play early on. 

ADOC in statements to APR this week confirmed that Geo Group and Corvias have pulled out of the procurement process.

“The Alabama Department of Corrections is pursuing a delivery model tailored specifically to the State’s needs, which will allow the successful developer teams to finance, design, build, and maintain three new men’s prisons. This delivery model is unique in that the new facilities will not be private prisons, as the State will lease and operate the facilities,” ADOC’s statement reads.  “Participating in the procurement process requires significant investments from the developer teams; therefore, it is typical part of the process for teams to withdraw if they recognize the delivery method is not an ideal match for their business model.”

Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, a partnership including B.L. Harbert International and Star America, remain in the running, along with CoreCivic.

Both Geo Group and CoreCivic have faced increased public pushback for providing housing for immigrants for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which spurred condemnation and lawsuits over abuse of those detained. 

According to The Washington Post both private prison companies have struggled to access funding as multiple investors have stopped providing capital to private prison operators. 

APR reported in December that CoreCivic was looking to a Japanese Bank for financing, but that Birmingham-based Regions Bank continues to provide financing to CoreCivic. 

Stubbs said that the disapproval from some local residents in Tallassee over the prison proves the fact that, unlike other economic development projects, prisons are unique.

“You need the public on your side,” Stubbs said. People who live near one of the county’s two existing prisons are already used to living close to the facilities, he said. 

The Elmore Correctional Facility, classified as a medium custody facility, houses 1,176 inmates north of Montgomery, and the Staton Correctional Facility, which opened in 1978 about 12 miles west of Wetumpka, has beds 1,376 medium custody inmates. Draper prison opened in 1939 and was designed for 650 inmates. It closed in 2018. 

Stubbs said neither he nor any other commissioner or member of the ECIDA were asked by CoreCivic to sign non-disclosures, and were kept “out-of-the-loop” on the company’s plans for the Rifle Range Road site. 

Elmore County commissioner Mack Daugherty, whose district includes the Rifle Range Road site, on Jan. 30 got a call from a landowner next to the site asking why engineers were doing core samples and discussing the possibility of a prison being built, Stubbs said. 

Janice Wisener, whose family for three generations has operated a 470-acre farm that connects to the proposed prison site on Rifle Range Road, told APR on Monday that those engineers stopped in her driveway two weeks ago and said they were there to look at land next door, but declined to say why. 

“It’s a mess,” Wisener said, adding that she worries for her family’s safety if it’s built. “It’s a lot to think about.” 

Hammock said he understands why some are concerned, and that it might just cost him his reelection this year, but that he wasn’t going make things difficult for Gov. Kay Ivey’s office. Tallassee has gotten $4 million in state grants in recent years, he said. 

“I don’t know how I would feel if I lived out there on Rifle Range Road across the street from it either,” Hammock said. “It’s mixed emotions. If somebody wants to blame somebody on it, they’re probably going to blame me.” 

Proposals from the private companies are to be submitted in April, and ADOC is to make selections during middle to late summer. Work could begin on the first prison in the fall.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Human Resources on Wednesday warned the public that thieves are targeting people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, commonly known as food stamps, through text messages. 

The text messages typically request personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and SNAP electronic benefits transfer card or PIN numbers, the department said in a press release.

Some text messages also falsely claim people have been selected to receive food stamps.

“Identity thieves are using new tricks in hopes of catching SNAP recipients off guard during this time of heightened uncertainty,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. “It is so important to take the precautions necessary to protect your identity, along with the integrity of this vital program. Following these simple but effective tips can greatly reduce your risk of harm.”

DHR recommends these tips to protect against the scam:

  • Never provide personal information to an unfamiliar person or organization.
  • If a text message seems like a scam, delete it. Do not reply. 
  • Do not click on any links in an unexpected text message.
  • Beware that scammers often pressure victims to “act now!”
  • If an offer or claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Do not trust caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” technology to disguise their phone numbers.

SNAP recipients who are unsure if a request for information is legitimate should contact their local DHR office at a verified phone number. Contact information is available here.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama. More information about the program can be found here.

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John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9. (VIA ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS)

John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9 after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming the 21st Alabama inmate to have died after being confirmed to have the disease.

Dejnozka, who was dubbed the “Southwest Molester,” was convicted in 1980 in connection with the assault of at least 18 women in their homes, attacking, torturing and raping some of them, according to news accounts. He was sentenced to 830 years on convictions of two counts of rape, two counts of assault with intent to maim, one count of burglary and assault with intent to ravish, 11 counts of first-degree burglary and one count of second-degree burglary.

Dejnozka, who was serving at the Holman Correctional Facility, was tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to a press release from the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained until his death.

ADOC also announced that six other inmates at Holman prison and one at Ventress Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 393 Alabama inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, of which 45 remain active, according to ADOC. As of Sept. 6 the state had tested 1,886 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates for COVID-19.

There have been 372 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers, while 340 have since recovered, according to the department. Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after testing positive for the disease.

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Governor announces grant to aid domestic violence victims amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced approval of a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help domestic violence victims access help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence is using the funds to provide direct services and support during COVID-19 for victims of family, domestic and dating violence, Ivey’s office said in a press release.

“The global pandemic has made many aspects of our lives more challenging, including the ability to seek help due to domestic violence,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend the work of the staff at the coalition who are working every day to help those in need during the additional challenges posed by COVID-19.”

The coalition supports shelters throughout Alabama and operates regional 24-hour crisis telephone lines for victims needing information or seeking to escape violent situations. It also provides training and technical assistance for police and others who encounter domestic violence situations and helps develop public policy to reduce domestic violence and ensure victims receive proper services.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant from funds made available as part of the CARES Act.

“ADECA stands with Gov. Ivey in support of the coalition and other likeminded organizations as they work throughout the state to provide vital help to domestic violence victims,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said in a statement. “The partnership between ADECA and the coalition helps ensure that this level of assistance will continue to be available throughout the state even during a pandemic.”

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Appeals court upholds Lowndes County capital murder conviction

Brandon Moseley

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Twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Mac Girdner

Attorney General Steve Marshall said this week that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction of Deandra Marquis Lee on capital murder during a robbery.

Lee, 24, is from Montgomery and was convicted in Lowndes County Circuit Court in October 2018 for the 2012 murders of 9-year-old twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Girdner.

On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals released a decision upholding Lee’s conviction.

On June 3, 2012, Terrye Moorer dropped off her twins, Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett, with Girdner, their caregiver who was also Moorer’s friend from church.

That evening, when Moorer drove to Girdner’s residence to pick up her children, no one was home so Moorer filed a police report. On June 5, 2012, the bodies of Girdner and the two children were found on a dirt road off of Alabama Highway 21 in Lowndes County.

The police determined that Lee was a chief suspect based upon reports that he was seen driving Girdner’s white Mercedes on the day of the murders and the last call made to Girdner’s phone was from a number belonging to Lee’s mother.

Lee’s cousin, Joe Hamilton, testified that on June 3, Lee took Hamilton home in a white Mercedes that had a skateboard and a bag in the back.

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Moorer testified that her children had similar items with them when she left them with Girdner. Lee’s fingerprints were also found inside Girdner’s vehicle.

Lee told several people that he murdered Girdner but not the children.

Curtis Robinson, who was incarcerated with Lee in Autauga County, testified that Lee “went there to commit burglary and it turned to something else.”

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Robinson testified that Lee told him he killed Girdner and the two children.

Lowndes County District Attorney Charlotte Tesmer’s office prosecuted this case and obtained a guilty verdict. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Lee subsequently sought to have his conviction reversed on appeal.

The Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division handled the case during the appeals process, arguing for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm Lee’s convictions.

Alabama Attorney General Marshall commended Assistant Attorney General John Davis for his successful work on this case and thanked the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney and her staff for their valuable assistance in defending the capital murder conviction.

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