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Alabama lawmakers to mull prison construction with price tag unclear

The proposal calls for building two new prisons for men, one women’s prison, renovations to several others and the closure of four prisons.

Bullock Correctional Facility, left, and Donaldson Correctional Facility, right. Google Earth

Alabama House and Senate leaders are to meet informally today to discuss the latest version of a plan to build new prisons, renovate some existing prisons and close others, but it was unclear Wednesday how much the drafted proposal would cost taxpayers. 

A draft of the bill lays out a plan to build a specialized 4,000-bed men’s prison in Elmore County, another 4,000-bed men’s prison in Escambia County, a new women’s prison and renovations to four existing prisons, reported

A bond issuance of up to $785 million would pay for phase one of the planned construction, which includes both new prisons for men. Phase two comprises of construction of the new women’s prison, to replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, and renovations of prisons in Limestone and Jefferson counties, and renovations of one prison in either Barbour or Bullock counties. 

It was unclear Wednesday how much all of the construction and renovation projects would cost, however. Attempts to reach several lawmakers to discuss that estimate, and both versions of the draft legislation, have been unsuccessful. 

“Phase II projects would be funded through sources appropriated by the Legislature on a pay per a project basis,” reads a synopsis of the bill included in the article. 

APR asked Gov. Kay Ivey’s office on Wednesday if Ivey was aware of what the total estimated cost of the proposal would be. Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, declined to answer on the record, and directed APR to a letter Ivey wrote to members of the Legislature. 

“Many of our existing facilities face server space constraints in providing important services such as mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and educational and vocational programs,” Ivey wrote in the letter, The Montgomery Advertiser reported. “Experience teaches that one powerful way to reduce crime is to prepare our current inmates for life outside prison once they are paroled or complete their sentence.”

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The latest draft of that legislation is a change from a previous version that had been circulating among state lawmakers, which called for building at least two new men’s prisons, one new prison for women and a possible third men’s prison, if deemed needed in the future. 

The earlier version of the bill, obtained by APR, would have used a portion of the state’s property and alcohol taxes to secure bonds to pay for construction and renovations. 

The previous version would have also used the state’s property tax collection established to fund the pensions of Confederate soldiers and their widows to help secure the bonds to pay for new prison construction and renovations. 

Alabama still collects approximately $500,000 annually for that Confederate pension fund, which is used in part to maintain the Confederate Memorial Park in Chilton County. The latest version of the draft legislation makes no mention of using those funds to help secure financing for the projects. 

Democrat and Republican lawmakers were to meet today to discuss the latest proposal in their caucuses, The Montgomery Advertiser reported. 

House Ways and Means General Fund chair Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, declined to discuss the details of the proposal with either or The Montgomery Advertiser, but told the Advertiser that payments could include the use of federal CARES Act funds to replace “lost revenue” related to construction.

APR’s attempts to contact Clouse on Wednesday morning weren’t immediately successful.

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The U.S. Department of Justice in December filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections, alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards.

In previously released reports, the Justice Department detailed systemic problems of abuse from guards, corruption, rampant drug use, violence, overcrowding and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons. The DOJ in those reports states that while new prison facilities might help in some areas, new buildings won’t fully address the state’s widespread, deadly problems in its prisons.

Ivey’s plan to lease new prisons from a private prison company fell through when that company, CoreCivic, was unable to secure financing. Ivey could call a special session for lawmakers to consider the prison construction proposal. The regular session begins Jan. 11.

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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