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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. 

“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.” 

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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. 

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.

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Deadline extended for Alabama prison bids due to coronavirus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced that because of the COVID-19, she’s giving a two-week deadline extension for submission of proposals to build then lease three new prisons to the state.

Those proposals had been due by April 30 but the two developer teams – Alabama Prison Transformation Partners and CoreCivic – will have until May 14 to file their proposals, according to a press release from Ivey’s office Tuesday.

The decision to extend the proposal submission deadline came after discussions with two groups about the impacts each are experiencing because of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, according to Ivey’s office.

“I am steadfastly committed to the strategic effort to build three new men’s correctional facilities – this ‘Alabama solution’ is a direct result of our dedication to implement actionable solutions that address long-standing challenges facing our prison system,” Ivey said in a statement. “Given the unforeseen circumstances associated with COVID-19, it is in the best interest of the state of Alabama to grant this extension so that the developer teams have adequate time to perform required due diligence and to prepare thorough and thoughtful proposals.”

Ivey’s plan to build three new prisons is part of her solution for fixing the state’s overcrowded, deadly prisons, which remain under threat of a federal lawsuit if state officials don’t address what the U.S. Department of Justice has said are violations of inmates’ Constitutional rights to protection from violence and sexual assault.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement that the spread of COVID-19 “has only further demonstrated the critical need for new correctional facilities in Alabama.”

“As we have stated before, overcrowded conditions within the Department’s dilapidated facilities create increasingly challenging circumstances to ensure inmate and staff health and safety,” Dunn said. “The developer teams expressed the need for an extension – due to work and travel restrictions implemented in the wake of this national health crisis – and we fully supported the extension.  Improved prison infrastructure, increased staffing, and stronger rehabilitation programs will allow for transformational results.”

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Public defender working to free some inmates in Birmingham jail amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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At least six people in the Jefferson County Jail had their paroles revoked after serving time in state prisons for non-violent crimes, and as the threat of COVID-19 inside jails and prisons increases, some are working to get them out before it’s too late.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles told APR on Tuesday, however, that the bureau doesn’t have the authority to release those inmates.

Adam Danneman, lead attorney at the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office, is concerned with the bureau’s assertion.

“They’re only in because of the violations filed by the Parole Board,” Danneman said of those state inmates in the Birmingham jail. “And they’ve already revoked these people.”

ADOC on March 20 announced a 30-day moratorium on taking prison transfers from county jails in an attempt to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak in state facilities.

Danneman told APR on Tuesday that his office is working to get released those who have already served time for non-violent offenses, were out on parole and who were picked back up on mostly technical violations.

“We’re lucky in Jefferson County that our judges and our DA and our sheriff’s department have all collaborated and used some common sense, proactive measures in this crisis to keep as many of our at-risk, non-violent citizens out of harm’s way as much as possible,” Danneman said.

Now he’s hoping the state’s Pardons and Paroles Board does the same, by releasing those who can safely be released before the deadly virus spreads behind the fences.

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It’s a matter of when, not if, Danneman said of the likelihood of COVID-19 cases in the Jefferson County Jail.

“I hope I’m wrong. I hope it never comes into the jail, but if it does it’s going to be bad,” Danneman said.

There’s been no positive COVID-19 case among state inmates as of Monday, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), but an administrative employee at one prison has tested positive for the virus.

As of Monday, 30 state inmates had been tested for the virus, but there were still seven test results pending, according to ADOC.

Criminal justice reform advocates and legal experts have been sounding the alarm for weeks over the threat of an outbreak of the virus in jails and prisons.

Older inmates and those with medical conditions are at much greater risk from serious complications and death from the novel coronavirus, health experts warn.

“The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles does not have the authority to release these offenders,” wrote Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles spokesman Terry Abbott, in a response to APR on Tuesday.

Abbott said that the Parole Board has revoked parole on six of seven inmates APR inquired about, who are awaiting transport back to the Alabama Department of Corrections to serve their sentences. The seventh inmate’s case is to come before the parole board this week, Abbott said.

It was unclear Tuesday how many state inmates were serving in county jails after having their paroles revoked for technical violations. Abbott said that number would change daily and would also involve people who have already had parole revoked and are awaiting transfer to a state prison.

Nancy Aichele, 53, is among those state prisoners serving in the Birmingham jail, where she’s been since January 24. Aichele had already served more than 18 years of a life sentence for an escape charge when she was picked up on a parole violation.

Aichele was charged with escape for walking out of an ADOC facility, without injuring anyone, after being convicted and sentenced to 3 years in 1990 for forging an $80 check, according to court records. The escape charge resulted in a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

After she was released on parole, Aichele was charged with obstruction, which triggered her parole violation and returned her to serve the remainder of her life sentence.

The obstruction charge was later dropped, according to court records, but the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board revoked her parole regardless.

Willie Toyer, 55, is also in the Jefferson County Jail and was sentenced to life on a 1996 marijuana trafficking charge.

Toyer was paroled after serving 22 years and six months, but his parole was revoked for two subsequent drug charges in March; a possession charge and a misdemeanor charge of possessing prescription pills.

Toyer’s case is to go before the Pardons and Paroles Board this week, according to the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Leo Cain, 64,  was sentenced to life in 1994 on a first-degree robbery charge from 1992. He served almost 22 years before being paroled, which was revoked after he was charged with misdemeanor obstruction for giving false information to law enforcement.

Danneman said a parole officer had told Cain that his parole wouldn’t be revoked if he pleaded to the misdemeanor obstruction charge, but after he agreed to do so he was arrested and returned to serve the rest of his time regardless.

Danneman said he’s concerned about Cain because of his age, which puts him at greater risk of death from COVID-19.

“He’s not somebody who needs to be incarcerated right now, if at all,” Danneman said.

Shannon Blackman, 54, received a life sentence for a 1996 burglary and had served 23 years before being paroled. She’s had no new criminal charges, but her parole was revoked on a technical violation for not reporting to a parole officer.

Had she been charged with burglary today under the state’s new sentencing guidelines she would likely serve no more than 18 months, Danneman said.

“She’s done 23 years on it, hasn’t committed a new offense and is still getting revoked,” Danneman said.

On Sunday a man serving in jail in New York died from COVID-19, becoming the first jail inmate in that state to die from the virus.

Michael Tyson, 53, was serving for a technical parole violation when he died from COVID-19. He had failed to report to his parole officer, according to The City.

There were more than 500 COVID-19 cases in New York city jails as of Sunday, according to the news agency. 

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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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