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Opinion | Alabama wants to build a billion dollar prison. You should pay attention

Alabamians are wasting billions of dollars on a dysfunctional, deadly prison system already, and we’re about to double the price.

Dramatic sunset with chain link fence and razor wire silhouette.

A billion dollar prison. Read those words. Read them again. Really think about them. 

Because the state of Alabama is about to use your money – some of it meant to offset the expenses of COVID mitigation – to build a nearly $1 billion prison. 

Just one prison. 

Excuse me. One SMALLER prison. 

Yeah, you read that correctly as well. The new prisons we’re building will have less capacity than the prisons we’re replacing. 

Somehow, in less than a year, the costs for building just one of those prisons has swelled by more than $300 million. 

That uptick in costs was approved on Wednesday by a small group of people – the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority, a committee small enough to fit in a closet. That Authority approved the increase, sending the costs for the Elmore County new prison from the $625 million estimate last year to a new cap of $975 million this year. 

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(I would like you to pause here for a moment and really consider what you’ve just read, because we have a tendency these days to toss around big numbers without a second thought. A hundred million here, a half-billion there, a trillion or two over here. But that $350 million increase that some folks just quietly approved on a Wednesday afternoon with nary a word of debate – that’s $60 million more than the entire proposed 2023 annual budget for the city of Montgomery.) 

And it’s likely to be even more. Since at last check we don’t even have a foundation poured, and the new prison isn’t scheduled to open until 2026, it seems safe to assume that this won’t be the last jump in costs. Meaning that we’re likely to be well past the billion dollar mark by the time the doors open and we over-populate this prison. 

Why? Because inflation, of course. That was the excuse provided by state Finance Director Bill Poole, the poor guy trotted out by the Authority to answer everyone’s “what in the hell” questions. Poole is part of the finance authority, as is Gov. Kay Ivey and a few state lawmakers. And as all of them were talking up that dastardly inflation, I couldn’t help but recall that this isn’t Ivey’s first prison construction plan. 

Back in 2019, she had another plan. Do you remember that one?

It included the construction of three new prisons, including one that could accommodate prisoners with special needs. The total cost: $900 million. 

That plan seemingly died, and then morphed into this plan. When Ivey and others introduced this plan last year, it called for two prisons at a total cost of about $1.3 billion. 

So, long before inflation hit, we had still managed to add $400 million to the cost and lose a whole prison. 

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Now, we’ve gone to $975 million for just one prison. One SMALLER prison. 

And it should be pointed out over and over again that this price is simply for the principle. It doesn’t include the interest we’re going to pay over the next 30 years – at the end of which, as Rep. Chris England has reminded us time and again, we will own neither the land nor the buildings. 

Allow me to state the obvious: This is insanity. 

There is simply no possible way that this is the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars. There is no possible way that this is the best means for improving the prison facilities we have available. There is no possible way that this is the best option for the men and women who reside in and who work in our prisons. 

There is simply no way. 

Look, we all know what this really is. It’s an economic development project meant to enrich a handful of people. 

Maybe by default it will also prop up a couple of communities and we’ll end up with a prison (maybe two) that looks cleaner and nicer. But make no mistake about it, the primary purpose of this prison construction plan is not to efficiently build prisons that will solve the litany of issues that currently plague our prison system. 

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If that were the goal, the plan being discussed today would be a hybrid, comprehensive plan that involved renovations of current facilities, new construction and upgrades to medical, mental health and job training facilities. And there would be concrete numbers for upping correctional officer pay and benefits, transforming that line of work from a “I guess I’ll be a prison guard” job to a career that allows those men and women to lead good lives. (Lives that they wouldn’t dare trade for the risk of smuggling drugs into prisons.)

What’s taking place right now is an absolute outrage, and every citizen in this state should be screaming. Even if you don’t care about the rehabilitation of the humans inside those prison walls, you should damn sure care that this traditionally broke state is tossing your tax dollars down a garbage chute just because they know you’re not paying attention. 

The infuriating reality is that we could have a decent prison system that wasn’t seeing massive deaths and on its way to federal takeover. We could have prisons that actually rehabilitated prisoners, cutting down on recidivism and reducing crime. We could have prisons that weren’t a global embarrassment. And it wouldn’t even cost us more money. In fact, it might cost us significantly less money. 

But it would cost you some attention.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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