The Alabama Legislature’s Contract Review Committee on Thursday delayed approving a contract to increase funding to a public relations firm doing work for Alabama’s long-troubled prison system.
Several committee members expressed concern over paying millions in taxpayer money to the Birmingham firm Markstein Consulting to do work for the Alabama Department of Corrections, which is facing a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards.
A representative for ADOC told committee members that the contract was asking for an additional $900,000 for Markstein Consulting, on top of the $600,000 already approved for the firm, that would bring the total allowable amount to be paid to the firm to $1.5 million.
“I just don’t see the need to have marketing,” said Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, during the hearing. “We’re not marketing resort hotels.”
Butler questioned spending $1.5 million on marketing when the state is facing a $30 billion price tag to build three new prisons under Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan. Butler asked that the contract be held to allow time for further inquiries.
“The ADOC is facing several large-scale challenges; it is necessary for the success of ADOC’s best efforts to bring positive change to proactively manage its communications. The ADOC does not have the staff to address these issues,” reads a summary of the contract submitted for review.
The Markstein firm has worked for ADOC as the department navigated a court case and a judge’s order to hire additional correctional officers. The state’s overpopulated and understaffed prisons have resulted in an increase in violence, according to the DOJ lawsuit.
The Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the civil suit Braggs v. Dunn in 2014, over the state’s treatment of state inmates’ mental health care, following a rash of suicides inside the state’s prisons. The judge in that case ordered ADOC to add 2,000 officers by February 2022.
Markstein Consulting received its first payment from ADOC in October 2019, according to Alabama Department of Finance records, totaling $23,150 during 2019. ADOC paid the firm $591,463.12 as program consultants and for advertising, according to those records.
Danny Markstein IV, founder and chairman of Markstein Consulting, is the son of Danny Markstein III, a shareholder and practicing estate and trust attorney at the powerful Birmingham firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale, according to a family obit. Maynard, Cooper & Gale represents ADOC in the Braggs v. Dunn case.
Attempts Thursday to reach Markstein Consulting to discuss the firm’s work for ADOC were unsuccessful.
It appears Markstein Consulting first began doing work with ADOC in 2018 through another firm, Warren Averet CPA and Advisors, according to a report from Warren Averet detailing the work underway at the time related to the court case.
“In addition to gathering demographic data, WA brought in Markstein Consulting, a marketing firm, to gain further insight for developing a successful recruiting strategy,” reads the report.
The ADOC representative speaking to the committee Thursday, who was not identified during the meeting, said that Markstein Consulting’s work for ADOC in that court case resulted in more work for the firm.
“Because of that they got to touch on a lot of different confidential issues. Very deep-rooted, a lot of these crises that we are having going on,” the representative said.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, asked if ADOC has a communications director or communications department, to which the ADOC representative said the department has one full-time employee in that role.
“Wouldn’t it be cheaper to hire two or three more people to help the one, and we’d still get out a whole lot less than $1.5 million,” Orr said.
The representative said she would bring that up to ADOC executive staff but said “this does take a very high level of specialty skill. It’s not just marketing. It’s communications. It’s crisis management.”
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, asked what services the firm has provided for ADOC. The representative said the firm was integral in setting up ADOC’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“We really never had a clear idea of the level or degree of the crisis within our prison system throughout most of the pandemic, and were paying somebody to help us come up with that?” England said.
“Obviously, tests were not available to the state of Alabama for a very long time,” the representative said. “And with the COVID 19 prevention measures that we were able to have we actually fared better, as far as keeping it out and keeping the introduction from entering the facilities for quite some time.”
COVID-19 testing among Alabama inmates remained very low throughout the pandemic. Inmates were only tested if they exhibited symptoms, or were tested at outside hospitals where they were being treated for other conditions. As of May 29, 2020, ADOC had tested less than one percent of the state’s inmates.
Alabama prisons are ranked the ninth-deadliest in the nation in terms of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 inmates, according to The Marshall Project. To date, 63 Alabama inmates have died after testing positive for coronavirus either before or after death.
“As bad as the crisis situation is – multiple crisis situations. Not just COVID-19, but it’s just horrible in the Department of Corrections. Let’s just be honest,” England said. “And it doesn’t make sense to me, as bad as it’s been in the correction system and the lack of leadership that we’ve had over there, that the way to respond to it is to hire a PR firm to make it look better than it actually is.”
“I question why — if we’ve had this PR firm for a year — why we’re not firing them? Why we’re increasing their contract? Because I think they’ve done a terrible job,” said committee chairman Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville.
Garrett said the contract would be held for 45 days and asked that ADOC meet with the firm and come up with a strategy to help better inform the committee on what, exactly, the firm does for ADOC.
Beth Shelburne, a longtime Alabama investigative reporter who’s reported extensively on Alabama’s prisons, in a message to APR after the Thursday hearing decried spending money to a PR firm instead of toward solutions to the state’s prison crisis. [A crisis management specialist at Markstein Consulting follows this reporter, Shelburne and numerous other state journalists on Twitter.]
“It is unconscionable that this agency would throw around millions of dollars to try to contain bad publicity when they don’t even have half the required staff to run safe, constitutional prisons,” Shelburne said. “Since ADOC began paying this marketing firm for ‘crisis communications,’ ADOC’s office of public affairs has stopped responding to my requests for information about prison homicides, suicides, overdoses and excessive force deaths. This money should be spent on fixing the violence and corruption inside the prisons, not on silencing the people who expose it.”