3 issues to watch on Alabama’s plan for new prisons

By Mike Cason

Inmates in a dormitory at Staton Correctional Facility Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Elmore, Ala. Staton is one of four prisons that would close under a plan the Alabama Legislature will consider in a special session starting today. (Julie Bennett)

A plan to overhaul Alabama’s prison system, starting with two new prisons that would house a total of 8,000 men, goes up for debate in a special session of the Legislature that begins today.

Gov. Kay Ivey called the session after legislative leaders said there was support for the plan, which they developed in meetings with the governor’s staff.

A new 4,000-bed men’s prison in Elmore County would have facilities for medical and mental health care, addiction treatment, and education programs. The second 4,000-bed men’s prison would be in Escambia County. Four smaller prisons would close within a year after the new ones are ready.

Funding would come from a $785 million bond issue, $400 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, and $154 million from the state General Fund.

A second phase includes renovations of Donaldson prison in Jefferson County, Limestone prison in Limestone County, and one of the prisons in either Barbour or Bullock counties. The second phase also includes a new 1,000-bed women’s prison in Elmore County to replace 80-year-old Julia Tutwiler Prison.

The main bill will start in the House, which could vote on it as early as Wednesday. The minimum time to pass legislation is five days. Special sessions can last up to 12 meeting days within a 30-day period.

Although there is support for the prison plan among lawmakers, there are parts of the proposal that could be points of contention.

Why is Alabama using $400 million from a coronavirus relief bill on prisons?

Alabama will get $2.1 billion for state government from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Congress passed in March.

It’s the same law that sent $1,400 payments to individual taxpayers and $2,800 to couples, plus $1,400 for dependents, along with expanding the child tax credit and other benefits. County and municipal governments in Alabama will get a total of $1.7 billion separate from what the state got.

Half of Alabama’s $2.1 billion has arrived; the other half comes next year. States have until the end of 2024 to obligate their money and until the end of 2026 to spend it.

The Treasury Department restricts how the money can be used. Alabama officials say states have more flexibility if they can show they lost revenue because of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.

State Finance Director Bill Poole said he expects Alabama will certify that it lost at least $400 million in revenue. Poole and lawmakers say the law places almost no restrictions on how states can spend the revenue replacement dollars, except they cannot offset a tax cut or support pension funds.

Ivey and legislators say the $400 million in American Rescue Plan funds will reduce the bond debt for building the prisons, a cost-saver for taxpayers that they say will help them set aside funds for prison maintenance and to pay for later phases of the renovation and construction without borrowing.

Still, there is some pushback against the idea.

Dev Wakeley, a policy analyst with Alabama Arise, which advocates for low-income families, told the Associated Press that even if the law allows American Rescue Plan funds to be used for prison construction, that would stray from the law’s intent to “help everyday Alabamians in their lives, and to smooth out the recovery.”

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, said, “I can’t imagine that funds that were distributed for the purpose of helping states recover and deal with the coronavirus and this pandemic can be used to build prisons. I could think of thousands of different things that that money should be spent on rather than buildings.”

Why not make more changes to Alabama sentencing laws?

Ivey’s proclamation setting the scope of the special session included two sentencing reform proposals.

One would allow nonviolent offenders sentenced before 2013 to apply for new sentences under sentencing guidelines that took effect in 2013. The idea is to address a discrepancy that has left some offenders serving longer in prison than others who committed the same crimes. The House passed such a bill earlier this year, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, but it did not pass the Senate.

The second sentencing reform in the governor’s call expands a 2015 law that requires offenders to spend a certain time at the end of their prison sentences on supervised release, rather than staying in prison until the final day. The idea is that inmates who receive supervision have a better chance to successfully adjust to life outside prison. The bill would expand the supervised release requirement to cover inmates sentenced before 2015.

Both ideas were suggested by a study group on criminal justice policy that Ivey appointed and that issued recommendations last year.

Democratic lawmakers have said sentencing changes are an important part of a prison overhaul and may introduce more reforms.

A bill by England to repeal the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA) and allow inmates sentenced under the HFOA to apply for new sentences stalled in the House earlier this year. England said the HFOA needs to be scrapped because it results in unjustifiably long sentences, such as life without parole sentences for repeat offenders who never committed violent crimes.

Dillon Nettles, director of policy and advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, issued a statement asking for more extensive reforms to be part of the special session.

“We are disappointed that Governor Ivey is limiting the upcoming special session to prison infrastructure and only one minor sentencing reform, instead of focusing on more substantive solutions to Alabama’s broken criminal justice system,” Nettles said. “Our leaders need to ensure that we are not just building more prisons, but that we are devoting time to creating comprehensive and progressive policies that address the harsh conditions and unfair practices that currently plague our system. Alabama needs new policies, not new buildings.”

Why make exceptions to the state’s competitive bid law?

Alabama law requires most public works projects to be awarded on a sealed, competitive bid process. But the prison plan makes an exception to that for the two men’s prisons.

But the draft bill on the prison plan allows the state to award the contracts for the design and construction of the Elmore County and Escambia County prisons without going through the normal competitive bids. The bill would allow the state to award the contracts to any companies that were deemed as qualified to build prisons under Ivey’s lease plan.

The ADOC named four developer teams as qualified in 2019. Two teams of developers were picked in 2020 to build three prisons under that lease plan, which collapsed because financial backers withdrew.

A team that included Caddell Construction; DLR Group; and R&N Systems Design was picked to develop two of the prisons — in Elmore and Escambia counties.

A team headed by CoreCivic that included Star America; BL Harbert International; Butler-Cohen; Arrington Watkins Architects; and Johnson Controls, Inc., was picked to build the third, which would have been in Bibb County.

Lawmakers said the state will save money and time by using companies that had already developed prison plans under the lease proposal, which was in the works for about two years before it was scrapped.”

“We’ve done due diligence and research,” House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter said. “It looks like if we went back to the drawing board it would probably would cost taxpayers up to $75 million or more. And it would cost us probably another year before construction could start. With this plan, we will see dirt moved in the first quarter of next year.”

Ledbetter said the earlier start is important because of the pressure from the federal government for Alabama to improve prison conditions. The Department of Justice sued the state last year, alleging that violent conditions in men’s prisons violate the Constitution.

Another factor weighing in favor or an earlier start is the 2026 deadline for spending the American Rescue Plan funds, Ledbetter said.

A summary of the bill from the Legislative Services Agency says all site work and subcontracted work on the first two prisons would be competitively bid. The summary said all projects in Phase II, the renovations at Donaldson and Limestone and the new women’s prison, would be competitively bid through the normal public works process..