BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Governor Kay Ivey appeared steadfast when she announced her plan to solve Alabama’s prison crisis by building three new regional mega-prisons at a price tag of $900 million, despite growing opposition to the idea. Many stakeholders tell WBRC they don’t believe new buildings are the answer to Alabama’s chronically understaffed and violent prisons.
Ivey and Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner Jefferson Dunn held a news conference on February 12 to say they will begin accepting bids to create the new prisons with the goal to close some of Alabama’s oldest men’s prisons. Which prisons and how many will close remains unclear.
Ivey called the plan a work in progress. Alabama prisons were recently identified as having the highest prison homicide and suicide rates in the nation.
This comes after several plans that would have borrowed the money to build new prisons failed to pass in the legislature. The idea, first presented in the 2017 legislative session, included four new prisons for $800 million. This latest plan has a larger price tag for fewer facilities.
Several ADOC correctional officers, who spoke to WBRC with the condition that we not use their names, said the immediate staffing shortage should be the priority before the state spends close to a billion dollars on new prison construction. Governor Ivey’s budget proposal will include an additional $31 million to hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay for all ADOC security personnel. A 2017 order from U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson calls for adding 2000 correctional officers in order to reach constitutional conditions.
WBRC was recently given several videos that show prisoners assaulting other prisoners inside an open dorm of an ADOC facility. A correctional officer, who has seen the videos, said the incidents were unreported to ADOC personnel, but are typical of the widespread, everyday violence that has resulted from a lack of staff.
“What happened should not have happened,” he said. “There are inmates in there who are scared to death.”
The officer said a handful of prisoners can terrorize entire housing units when there aren’t enough officers to watch them.
“The other inmates may go along with it, so they won’t be the ones to get bullied and extorted,” he said. “Inmates are afraid to report incidents after the fact because they don’t want to be seen as a snitch.”
The videos depict three separate fights or assaults showing an individual prisoner attacking another prisoner. One brawl lasts two minutes, another ends with the victim appearing unconscious on the floor. No officers appear in any of the videos.
An ADOC correctional officer with decades on the job said prisoners are suffering more serious injuries, because it takes officers longer to respond to disturbances. He said prisons used to be staffed with “response teams,” a group of officers set aside each shift to break up fights, stop assaults and restore order. Now, thin staffs have available officers spread throughout the prisons just to man posts, and responding to an incident can take two to three minutes, sometimes longer.
“We’ve got to have manpower before new prisons,” another correctional officer told WBRC. “Without staff, they’re going to spend all this money and the inmates will tear the new prisons apart.”
State Representative Chris England of Tuscaloosa has been vocal in his opposition to Ivey’s plan. He doesn’t understand why the plans don’t include a new women’s facility, given that the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is now the oldest in the state. He also does not believe the claim that the new prisons will be paid for by operational savings the ADOC will gain through consolidation, updating and improving the efficiency of the current system.
“It’s hogwash,” said England. “Savings does not apply here and the most frustrating thing to me about all this, is the idea that I’m right and you’re wrong, and I’m going to force you to pay for my idea,” England said.
“Commissioner Dunn can create generational debt, he can potentially be wrong, and he never has to be held accountable for it and they’ve already spent $10 million to Hoar Program Management (HPM) to figure out the best way to pay for their bad idea.”
ADOC submitted the contract with Birmingham-based HPM to the Legislative Contract Review Committee in December, 2018. Some members expressed concerns about whether the service was necessary, which delayed the contract for 45 days. WBRC obtained a copy of the contract that states, “The contractor will provide management services in relation to prison construction and renovation and rehabilitation of prison facilities.”
It also includes a list of hourly rates for 48 “team resources,” that run between $85.00 an hour to $402.50 an hour. The overall contract will cost the state approximately $11.5 million and includes $1.5 million for the initial phase and an additional $10 million that ADOC submitted in December. You can read the entire contract below:
Then there are questions about the actual design of mega-prisons. Dr. David Skarbek of Brown University has studied prisons in California extensively and said research shows bigger prisons tend to be more chaotic and harder to police, leading to further entrenchment of prison gangs.
“If there was no budget, I would say you need a lot more staff, and yes, you probably need some new, modern prisons, but those prisons should be no more than 1000 to 1500 prisoners,” Skarbek said.
ADOC is in the midst of the remedy phase in a class action lawsuit over prison mental healthcare, in which a federal judge ruled against the prison system in 2017, calling the care “horrendously inadequate.”
The lawsuit was filed by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has recently raised concerns about the increase in prison suicides. Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney with SPLC said the solution to the prison crisis should include ADOC complying with Judge Thompson’s court order, increasing correctional staff and lowering the prison population through sentencing reform. She said SPLC is hopeful they can work together with ADOC and Governor Ivey on solutions.
“We recognize that ADOC sees us as an opponent, but the reality is, we are very invested in this issue,” Howard said. “We see ourselves not as interlopers, but as members of the Alabama community and we recognize that in order for us to resolve this crisis, we’re all going to have to work together.”
WBRC sent a list of questions to Governor Ivey and Commissioner Dunn and received the following responses from a spokesperson for the ADOC.
Q: What individuals or groups have been consulted that allowed Gov. Ivey and Commissioner Dunn to reach the conclusion that this plan is the best option to address Alabama’s prison crisis?
A: Alabama is revitalizing the corrections system by replacing prison facilities that pose the greatest risk to public safety, place the largest financial burdens on tax payers, and inhibit development of programs for inmate rehabilitation. Additionally, the Alabama Department of Corrections is working with a prison project management team, lead by Hoar Program Management (HPM), to develop a comprehensive, long-range prison infrastructure revitalization plan for statewide prison construction.
The last assessment of the state’s correctional facilities showed that deferred maintenance cost totaled around $450 million. This number has nearly doubled in 5 years, making the deferred maintenance cost now at $750 million. To properly maintain the state’s current, dilapidated facilities would cost Alabama twice as much as building new ones. In addition, the cost of maintaining state prisons under current conditions is a bottomless pit, placing a large and never-ending financial burden on tax payers. The need to resolve the prison infrastructure problem is immediate. If left unaddressed, or even deferred for another year or two, Alabama would face huge financial repercussions. If these issues are left unaddressed, Alabama’s correctional system may face a Federal Court takeover. This would remove all deciding power from Alabama and place total control in the federal government’s hands.
Q: Will there be any public input during the process of accepting construction bids?
A: Yes. A letter of interest to develop the prisons will be made public to include a Request for Qualification (RFQ) and a Request for Proposal (RFP). This will be a competitive selection process with a preference for Alabama bidders. The plan is to begin the procurement process in the Spring 2019.
Q: Can you provide data on how the new construction will be paid for through cost savings of closing older prisons?
A: The prison revitalization plan will not increase taxes. By updating and improving the efficiency of the prison system, the plan will save the state nearly $80 million annually. The operational savings will be used to pay for new construction.The average annual budget for ADOC is over $500 million. In 30 years, maintaining the current prison system would cost taxpayers more than $15 billion or more. The new prison infrastructure revitalization plan would invest $900 million of current and future budget projections over a 30 year period. Without the investment, the $900 million would be paid many times over if the state maintained the status quo.
Q: What about upfront costs to break ground and begin construction? Where will that money come from?
A: All associated cost will be determined once the project management team has developed the architectural and operational programming requirements, and has completed a procurement cost estimate through the RFQ and RFP process.
Q: Commissioner Dunn said Tutwiler is not included because many of its problems have been solved by management changes and training. Why not implement those same strategies for the men’s prisons?
A: The current prison plan addresses the infrastructure needs of the men facilities that have a population of more than 18,000 inmates, less than 50 percent staffing, a higher operational cost, and a deferred maintenance debt that exceeds $700 million. The men’s facilities currently present the highest risk for liabilities and lawsuits, which ultimately cost the government and tax payers a high price in legal fees. The ADOC also recognizes the need for a modern women’s prison that could be considered under a separate plan.
Q: Can you address the myriad concerns surrounding private prison companies- that they are more expensive than public prisons, are less safe than public institutions and do not improve public safety.
A: Alabama is not pursuing a plan to privatize the prison system.