MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama's governor announced plans Thursday to move forward with state leasing of three privately built mega prisons that would begin construction next year, in what she described as a step toward overhauling an understaffed and violence-plagued prison system beset by years of federal criticism.
Gov. Kay Ivey announced the Alabama Department of Corrections would enter into negotiations with two development teams including Nashville, Tennessee-based private prison giant CoreCivic and Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, a group including state-based construction firm BLHarbert, on developing the three new prisons. The state would lease the facilities and staff them with state officers.
The governor's office did not disclose the estimated cost but said "final financial terms" will become publicly available later this year and construction would begin in 2021. Spokeswoman Gina Maiola said the developers are aware of an "affordability limit" of $88 million per year. She said the three mega prisons would collectively house a total of 10,000 male inmates- more than 3,000 per prison. The state would close, or repurpose, 11 existing prisons.
The Ivey administration has pitched the plan as a smart solution to Alabama's longstanding prison woes.
"The Alabama Prison Program is vital for the long-term success of our state and communities ... we must rebuild Alabama's correctional system from the ground up to improve safety for our state's correctional staff and inmate population, and we must do it immediately," Ivey said.
The governor said the arrangement would end expensive maintenance costs on aging prisons while providing modern security systems and safer facilities allowing more room for treatment and education programs. But the plan has run into criticism from advocacy groups and a mixed reception from state lawmakers, with some saying the leases will be costly without addressing systemic problems.
Considered one of the most violent and understaffed systems in the country, the Alabama prison system has faced a litany of federal criticism.
The U.S. Department of Justice said twice within 18 months that it believes Alabama houses male inmates in unconstitutional conditions for both a pattern of using excessive force by officers and excessive inmate-on-inmate violence. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who ruled the state's treatment of mentally ill prisoners was "horrendously inadequate " on Wednesday, ordered outside experts to monitor the state's compliance with his orders to boost staffing and improve conditions.
"The U.S. Department of Justice has already told us twice that brick and mortar is not the answer to the conditions that the DOJ found 'routinely violate the constitutional rights of prisoners," said a statement from Alabamians for Fair Justice. The collection of advocacy groups and individuals added: "Data-driven, humane policy solutions are needed now. It is time for the State of Alabama to put people over political interests and corporate profits."
Ivey said Thursday that the plan calls for the local construction giant BLHarbert to build a prison in Bibb County in west Alabama and CoreCivic to build prisons in Escambia County in the southern part of the state and another in Elmore County in central Alabama.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall praised Ivey for "tackling head-on the toughest issue facing our state, replacing Alabama's aging prisons with modern facilities that will better serve to rehabilitate the inmate population while also protecting our communities."
Rep. Chris England, a Tuscaloosa Democrat, said the leases do not make financial sense because they will plunge the state billions of dollars into debt. "We are going to spend well over two billion dollars and not own the land, or the facilities or have any control over the facilities," England said.
State Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster, said he is comfortable with the cost estimates put forward by the administration but cautioned it is not the sole solution.
"This by itself will not solve our problems," Ward said. He said the state will have to take over steps to ease federal concerns, including Thompson's order to overhaul mental health care.
A federal judge in 2017 ruled state mental health care in prisons is "horrendously inadequate" and ordered improvements in staffing levels and care. The judge on Wednesday said expert monitors will track the state's compliance.
The lease plan bypasses the typical route of securing legislative approval to borrow money to build state buildings. Prison construction bills failed in the legislature among political infighting over which districts would lose existing prisons and which ones would get the new facilities and the jobs that come with them.
"The legislature, we tried it twice, but we failed cause everybody got in a political food fight over which prison closed and who got a new one," Ward said.