Senator: Legislature could have gotten prisons built at lower cost but politics got in the way

Published: May. 14, 2020 at 8:05 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – Alabama’s prisons have been plagued with problems for years, including a federal order requiring more mental health programs and a DOJ investigation charging prisoners’ constitutional rights are being violated.

On top of legal issues, the prisons are chronically overcrowded and in need of repair, but lawmakers have long been unable to agree on how to fix, find or fund solutions.

“The problem is that politics of the legislature prevented those from ever succeeding passage,” said Senator Cam Ward, R-District 14.

Governor Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections are leading the effort to build new prisons in Alabama. Thursday, bids were due for the $900 million project to build three massive prisons, then lease them back to the state for ADOC to run.

“Really the legislature is almost out of the picture if they lease it,” said Senator Ward. He acknowledges the legislature had several chances to be part of the process, but “failed to get it done.”

“The reason we failed is because you start getting into turf war with this group over here saying, ‘Don’t close my prison, close theirs.’ And, ‘If you’re going to build a new prison, build one in my district, not theirs.’ So it becomes almost an economic development issue as opposed to a criminal justice issue and we failed 3 times to do it so if we can’t do it, I don’t think [Governor Ivey] has any choice but to go on it on her own way,” said Senator Ward.

The project proposals will not be made public until Governor Ivey and ADOC selects the company who will get the job. The lease is expected to cost $78 million per year which will be paid by closing current prisons.

“Under their financial projections, the Department of Finance, you don’t have to ask for any increase in the budget from the legislature to pay for this, because as you close facilities, the savings that close those, pay for the new prisons,” said Senator Ward.

While Senator Ward believes the legislature would have been able to do the project at a lower price, he believes the current plan needs to move forward to fix the prison system, add more programs for inmates and ultimately avoid a federal takeover.

“They come in and tell you what you will pay for and you have to comply with the law,” said Senator Ward.

“It’s a terrible financial burden for the taxpayers.”

Regarding the bids being submitted, Governor Kay Ivey’s press secretary released a statement to WBRC Fox 6 saying, “Governor Ivey remains focused on leaving Alabama better than she found it, and that includes addressing the long-neglected challenges facing the prison system – something that requires a multifaceted solution. One part of the equation is making improvements to our prison infrastructure, which is why she remains committed to moving this construction process forward. Receiving the proposals is the next step in the process, and Governor Ivey, from day one, has been committed to transparency and accountability. Our Office and the ADOC will continue keeping the public informed at each stage. Governor Ivey has sought to tackle this issue head-on and make it a priority of her Administration.”

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