By Kyle Whitmire, state political columnist for AL.com and the 2023 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
Years ago, I lived in denial. My hair was thinning in the back and I fretted over what to do about the hole in my ozone layer. I tried that prescription spray, but it didn’t seem to do much. Finally, I asked my barber.
“I know of something you should try,” he said.
“It’s called a C-A-P.”
Thanks, pal. Later I started cutting my own hair and not giving my smartalek barber any more of my money.
I knew what a cap was. Everybody knows what a cap is. And what a cap is good for. Or so I thought.
You see, last March, the state of Alabama put a different sort of cap on the rising cost of its mega-prison in Elmore County.
I assumed then that they were using C-A-P in the accounting sense, as in a limit. A ceiling. A point above which we would not pass.
But this week, the same folks told us that the same prison would cost $1.08 billion.
Maybe they gave the new prison a top hat.
Or perhaps, there’s no wrong meaning to C-A-P here, because it was meaningless then and meaningless now.
Because nothing about this deal has ever made much sense.
Way back in the year 2016, when borrowing was cheap, Gov. Robert Bentley told us that Alabama could spend $800 million for four new prisons.
That was $200 million per prison.
A few years and one new governor later, Ivey told us in 2019 that it would cost $900 million to build three new prisons.
That came to $300 million per prison. And we lost another one somewhere along the way.
The Alabama Legislature then approved $1.3 billion to build two new prisons.
That was $650 million per prison and … Whoops! Another one was gone.
Then, in March, the state said it would spend most of that money — your money— on one new prison.
But state officials put a cap on it, so we were cool. Right?
Now the same folks say it will cost $1.08 billion. For just one prison.
According to Alabama Appleseed, our new prison would become the most expensive ever built in this country.
It will house 4,000 beds. That’s $270,000 per bed — about $50,000 more than the typical Alabama home.
And we’re not done yet. Who knows if $1.08 billion is the final price tag? State officials say so, but see above.
And these beds will only replace capacity elsewhere in the system. The new prison is not expected to fix or even improve Alabama’s overcrowding problem.
The last time I saw a major construction project spiral out of control like this, it was the Jefferson County sewer scandal, which sent the county into bankruptcy. It also didn’t decrease the prison population.
From the beginning, this project has been cloaked in secrecy. The state and the firms it has hired have denied public information requests that could reveal what exactly tax money is buying or who is getting paid. They have refused to show so much as what this prison would look like, citing security issues.
As if people won’t be able to look at it when it’s done and see for themselves.
What seems clear now is that no one ever really knew how much this was going to cost.
Every number we’ve been given has been as meaningless as the “cap” state officials put on this project six months ago. They just pulled these numbers out of their hat.
Like me so many years ago, Alabama officials have been living in denial.
But Alabamians won’t be able to get out of the haircut that’s coming.