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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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Crime

Tenth state inmate dies after testing positive for COVID-19

As of Tuesday, 97 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19.

Eddie Burkhalter

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As of Tuesday, 97 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. (Stock photo)

A tenth Alabama inmate has died after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the state.

Raymond Earl Allen, 59, who was serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility died Monday at a local hospital, where he had been taken after exhibiting symptoms for coronavirus, the Alabama Department of Corrections said Tuesday. 

Allen was considered high-risk because he had end-stage renal disease, according to ADOC. 

ADOC also said another inmate at St. Clair has tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of confirmed cases among inmates at the prison to 28. Six workers at the prison have also tested positive for the virus. 

The department also announced that four workers at the Kilby Correctional Facility, two at the Fountain Correctional Facility and one at the Alex City Community Based Facility and Community Work Center also tested positive for COVID-19. 

As of Tuesday, 97 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, while 28 have since recovered. Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 490 have been tested. Of the 184 confirmed cases among prison staff, 100 have recovered. 

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Two prison workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Woman have died after testing positive for coronavirus. There have been confirmed cases of the virus in 27 of the state’s 32 facilities.

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Crime

Seventh Alabama inmate dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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A seventh Alabama inmate has died after testing positive for COVID-19, and the man is the second person from the infirmary at the Staton Correctional Facility to have tested positive for the virus and subsequently died. 

Daniel Everett, 74, died Tuesday after testing positive for coronavirus at a local hospital, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced in a press release Wednesday. Everett, who had been housed in Staton’s infirmary due to previous illnesses, was tested after another inmate in the infirmary, 80-year-old Robert Stewart, tested positive for the virus and died on June 14

Coronavirus seems to be spreading among inmates and staff at Staton prison, where, as of Tuesday, there have been 17 confirmed cases among inmates and 23 among workers. That’s more confirmed cases than in any other state prison. Tutwiler prison follows closely behind at 39 confirmed cases — 10 among inmates and 29 among employees, one of whom died.  

ADOC also announced that an inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility, one at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women and another at Staton prison all tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total confirmed coronavirus cases among state inmates to 68, 43 of which remain active, according to the department. 

Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 329 had been tested as of Tuesday, according to ADOC

In addition to the new cases among inmates, ADOC said a worker at the Easterling Correctional Facility and an employee at the Alabama Corrections Academy tested positive for COVID-19. There have been 165 confirmed cases among ADOC staff, who are asked to self-report if they receive positive test results independently. ADOC has not offered free testing to staff. 

ADOC announced last week the first death of a prison worker, an employee at Tutwiler prison, who tested positive for COVID-19. 

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Despite calls by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and numerous criminal justice reform groups and advocates for incarcerated people for ADOC to increase COVID-19 testing and release as many of the very sick and older inmates as possible, who are more at risk from the virus, the department has not publicly indicated plans to do so. 

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn in an op-ed published in the Alabama Daily News on Monday wrote that he believes the depiction by some of prisons as petri dishes for the virus is not entirely off base, and said that “an enclosed environment housing a disproportionately unhealthy population where social distancing is virtually impossible, coupled with COVID-19’s highly contagious nature and long incubation period, creates a recipe for a potential health disaster if not managed correctly.”

But Dunn wrote that handling the pandemic in prisons “cannot be reduced to simple conversations about testing data or be solved through the sudden release of unrehabilitated inmates back into society.” 

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As the confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths continue to increase in Alabama prisons, the virus is also surging outside prison fences and across the state. 

Alabama on Monday saw a new record number of patients in hospitals with COVID-19, and the number of new cases in the state has continued to reach record highs in recent days.

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How qualified immunity affected an Alabama man shot five times during a police sting

Eddie Burkhalter

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Trinell King was driving his girlfriend’s car to give an acquaintance, Donavan Brown, a ride when a Warrior Police Department officer pulled him over because the car didn’t have a license plate.

King, who is Black, didn’t have proof of insurance or a driver’s license that September day in 2015, but gave the officer a photo ID.

Brown — on the other hand — gave a false name, and while the officer was back at his police vehicle, King told Brown to be honest with the officer, according to court records in a case over the incident. Brown told King that he had outstanding warrants and a gun. He was going to run.

Brown got out of the car and ran, and the officer ordered King out at gunpoint, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of the police car. King fully cooperated and told the officer that Brown had a gun. Even the responding officers, in court depositions, agreed that King fully cooperated.

Soon, King was surrounded by numerous white officers, one of whom testified in a deposition that King was “extremely cooperative from the beginning” and “willing to give [them] any information without having to really ask.”

King’s only crime was driving without insurance or a license, not something Warrior police usually arrest someone for, officers said in depositions, but he remained handcuffed while officers tried to coerce him into helping capture the armed man who’d ran from the scene.

“F— him [i.e. meaning King], you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw — we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f—ing us over, we’ll f— over you,” King said an officer told him, while testifying in a deposition.

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Officers repeatedly threatened King that they would “f—” him “over” if he didn’t help.

King said he was “nervous” and “scared” — that he “felt threatened.” He believed his “life was in danger,” according to court records, and after nearly two hours of coercion, he agreed to take part in a dangerous sting operation to capture Brown. Police officers in depositions disputed that they coerced King into helping them with the sting operation, and said it was his idea to do so, according to those records.

“With the negotiation, the threats, everything they was telling me, if I don’t cooperate they’re going to throw some charges on me, and they going to f— me over. So in the streets that means it could mean anything. It can mean being shot. It can mean being anything. My life —,” King said in a deposition.

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Going along with the plan, an officer called Brown and put a cell phone to King’s ear while he was handcuffed. King told Brown what he was told to say: that police had let him go. He could come and pick Brown up. Police told King to drive his girlfriend’s car, pick up Brown and that they’d pull him over again.

Once again, an officer told King “if you f— over us, we’re going to f— over you,” according to the court documents.

Once King picked up Brown, the officers decided to pull him over before they had discussed, Brown pulled his gun and told King he “had” to shoot the officers, according to court records.

“King could not stop the car before Brown started shooting, and the officers returned fire,” King’s attorneys wrote in a court filing.

King, who wasn’t given a bullet-proof vest, was struck by bullets five times, and there were 20 bullet holes in the car. Brown was shot 13 times, but remarkably both survived. One officer was shot but was protected by a vest. King underwent multiple surgeries, but lost the use of one arm.

King’s case is an Alabama example of how the legal doctrine of qualified immunity prevents some who’ve been harmed by the actions of law enforcement from seeking relief from courts. Qualified immunity, a controversial doctrine established by Supreme Court precedent, protects government officials who have been sued in their individual capacity, unless their actions violate established legal precedent.

King sued, but a U.S. District Court judge in 2017 dismissed the case before it even went to trial on grounds of qualified immunity, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a June 5 ruling also found that the officers were protected by qualified immunity.

[What is qualified immunity?]

Despite the courts’ rulings, witnesses testified that the officers’ actions were improper.

Daniel Busken, a retired police chief and law enforcement consultant, testified in a deposition as a witness for King that the officers should have known they were putting King’s life at risk.

Busken said that the police “knew, or should have known, that their plan to force Mr. King to assist in their capture of Brown represented a significant danger to Mr. King’s safety … and an unpredictable situation for Mr. King,” because Brown “was a desperate man in a desperate situation that had showed how desperate he was.”

Another officer testified in a deposition that he was unaware of any plan to protect King’s life, or if the department had ever conducted such a sting before.

“Nevertheless, Defendants planned to have five vehicles and seven armed officers — all of whom planned to draw their guns on Brown — involved in the sting,” King’s attorneys wrote in an appeal.

The judges ruled that King could not bring his case before a jury to decide whether the officers should be held accountable for nearly costing him his life — not because his case lacked merit but because of the controversial legal doctrine of qualified immunity

Attorneys for King have appealed the 11th circuit panel’s ruling to the full 11th circuit court, and are asking all the circuit judges to reconsider, and to allow the case to go before a jury.

The attorneys argue that the officers violated his Constitutional protections. The June 5 ruling came at the peak of tensions between peaceful protestors and police, some of whom responded with tear gas and so-called rubber bullets.

The judges,  in their opinion, wrote that “even taking King’s testimony as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, there is no evidence that the officers threatened him with false charges” — because the officer’s didn’t say what he might be charged with if he didn’t go along with their plan.

“As for the alleged threats of physical violence, the evidence is similarly thin,” the judge’s wrote. “If the officers had told King ‘help us, or we’re going to f–k you up’ (or something like that) then King would have a more compelling argument. But that isn’t what he said they said.”

“Instead, King testified that the officers told him “[if] you don’t want to help us out, we’re going to throw—we’re going to hit you with this charge, you gonna start f–king us over, we’ll f–k over you. I don’t know where you get your car back,” the judges wrote.

King’s attorneys in the appeal to the full 11th circuit argue that the case should be heard by a jury of King’s peers, and that the all-white judges on the panel are “good people with good intentions” but that they are out-of-touch with “the common experiences of the people, especially Black Americans, and the reasonable inferences that they would draw from the totality of the evidence presented.”

“Suffice it to state that Black and other Americans of color, and a significant amount of White and other Americans, would come to a different conclusion than the panel, based on their different life experiences, which is the reason why the Founders insisted that the Seventh Amendment require trial by jury, and not by a panel of judges who do not have the same life experiences,” King’s attorneys wrote.

King told APR that he was left without a choice, forced to risk his life in a bid to help the officers, with whom he cooperated from the start.

“I can’t believe that the courts have given the officers who made me help them catch their suspect immunity after they forced me to go along with their plan to trap him. They knew he was armed and dangerous. They put on their bullet proof vests while I waited, and they made me go pick him up with no protection at all,” King said in a statement. “I had done everything I could to cooperate and even told them his name, that he had a gun and had warrants on him, but then they forced me to help them catch him.”

“I didn’t have any choice because they made it clear that if I didn’t go along with their plan they were going to hurt me,” King continued. “There was no doubt about that. I was one Black man surrounded by all these white cops who were threatening me. How can judges sit there and say what a jury would think about that?”

Spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, protestors and criminal justice reform advocates are calling for an end to qualified immunity, which they say allows police to escape responsibility for harming the public.

On June 19, in a tribute to Juneteenth, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a series of law enforcement reform bills, included among them an avenue for Coloradans to sue police in state court if their rights have been violated. The Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act states that “qualified immunity is not a defense to liability.”

Colorado is the first state to pass such legislation barring qualified immunity as protection for officials, but the state law can’t stop such officials from claiming qualified immunity if a case is brought before a federal court instead of a state court.

That could change, if the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against such protections, but earlier this month, the Supreme Court passed up a chance to rule on the matter.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1967  Pierson v. Ray case that established qualified immunity as a doctrine as a protection against frivolous lawsuits, and over the years, courts have expanded the protection, and the doctrine still has its supporters.

Democrats have pushed for broad police reforms in the wake of Floyd’s homicide, including an end to qualified immunity, but many Republicans argue that doing so would result in frivolous lawsuits and discourage people from becoming law enforcement officers.

The U.S. House of Representatives on June 25 passed a series of policing reforms in a largely party-line vote, but the Trump administration is threatening a veto, and the measure has little support among Republican lawmakers, just three of whom broke ranks and voted for the House bill.

Democrats opposed a GOP proposal in the U.S. Senate, and said the bill didn’t go far enough, effectively stalling that bill and leaving the matter in limbo as protests against police brutality continue across much of the country.

Birmingham attorney Rip Andrews, one of King’s attorneys, told APR in a statement that he hopes the full 11th circuit considers the case in the current context.

“Qualified immunity has so far kept Trinell from having his day in court in front a jury. Win or lose — a day supposedly guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment,” Andrews said. “His only chance now is the hope that the full Eleventh Circuit reads his story in the context of our time and agrees to hear his appeal.”

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Crime

Sixth Alabama inmate dies after positive COVID-19 test

Eddie Burkhalter

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A sixth incarcerated person in Alabama died Monday after testing positive for COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Corrections announced Monday. 

Wanda Gaye Dison, 68, who was serving at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka died at a local hospital Monday, according to the department. Dison was hospitalized for advanced, chronic health problems, was tested and found to be positive for coronavirus.

Dison’s exact cause of death is pending an autopsy. 

Two more inmates at Tutwiler tested positive for COVID-19, ADOC also announced Monday. One woman was asymptomatic but was tested for precaution during a transfer from another facility and was found to be positive, according to the release. The other woman was tested after showing symptoms. Both are now in medical isolation. 

There have been 29 COVID-19 cases among workers at Tutwiler and nine cases among inmates, according to the department. The prison was at 175 percent capacity in April, according to the department’s monthly statistical report. 

ADOC on Thursday announced that a worker at Tutwiler prison died after testing positive for the virus, becoming the first Alabama prison worker to have died after receiving positive test results. 

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ADOC also announced eight new coronavirus cases among staff from five separate prisons, including the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, St. Clair Correctional Facility, Holman Correctional Facility, North Alabama Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and the Kilby Correctional Facility. 

Forty-one of the 65 total COVID-19 cases among inmates remained active on Monday, while 82 of the 163 cases among staff were still active. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in 27 of the state’s 32 facilities.

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