MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Gov. Kay Ivey agreed on Monday to lease two mammoth prisons as a partial solution to the state's troubled correction system, over the objections of some legislators and advocates who warn that her $3 billion plan won't resolve chronic violence and severe understaffing woes.
The governor signed two 30-year lease agreements with separate entities of CoreCivic, one of the nation's largest private prison companies. The prisons will be built in Tallassee and near Atmore. The governor's office is negotiating with another company to build a prison in Bibb County.
While President Joe Biden has ordered the federal system to eliminate the use of private prisons, these facilities will only be built and owned by private companies. They'll be operated by the state Department of Corrections and staffed by state workers. Together, the two prisons being built by CoreCivic will house 7,000 inmates.
Ivey called the new prisons "the cornerstone" of improving the state's troubled system, replacing aging prisons that are costly to maintain. Once all three prisons are built, they could properly house about half of Alabama's current prison population.
"Leasing and operating new, modern correctional facilities without raising taxes or incurring debt is without question the most fiscally responsible decision for our state, and the driving force behind our Alabama solution to an Alabama problem," her statement said. "We are improving public safety, providing better living and working conditions, and accommodating inmate rehabilitation all while protecting the immediate and long-term interests of the taxpayers."
Some legislators and advocacy groups disagree, complaining about her plan's cost and lack of transparency, and warning that new buildings alone won't fix the problems.
"Alabama is about to spend 3 billion dollars over 30 years on building new prisons that won't fix the problems within our prison system," tweeted Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa. "Also, as a reminder, after paying the money, at the end of 30 years, we won't own either the buildings or the land they sit on."
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Alabama in December over prison conditions, saying the state is failing to protect male prisoners from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff.
Rep. Steve Clouse, who chairs the House budget committee, said he's disappointed. Clouse said lawmakers expected the leases to cost about $88 million per year but information from Ivey's office indicated the annual cost would rise from $94 million to $108 million, and total about $3 billion over 30 years.
The governor's office did not release financial details and said the total cost will become available "once financial close is achieved with CoreCivic."
Clouse said he had urged the governor to issue a bond so that Alabama could build and own the prisons.
Previous legislation had failed amid political disagreements over closing existing prisons and the local jobs they provide.
A group of advocacy organizations said paying such huge sums to CoreCivic won't solve underlying problems of understaffing, violence, mismanagement, and overcrowding. They're calling instead for solutions such as sentencing reform to ease crowding behind bars.
"It is astounding that Governor Ivey is prioritizing fiscally irresponsible and devastating contracts for prisons that do not address our most urgent needs as Alabamians," the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, Alabama Students Against Prisons, the Ordinary Peoples Society and others wrote in a letter to lawmakers.