By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers celebrated Friday afternoon as the governor signed bills to spend $1.3 billion on two new 4,000-bed men’s prisons. A smaller women’s prison and renovations to some existing prisons will come later.
Ivey said that the building of the new prisons is the legally, fiscally and morally right thing as the state addresses its prisons crisis.
“Let me be clear, while more reform of the system can and does need to be addressed in the future – and I am committed to that as are many Legislators – today’s bill signing on the construction part of this issue is a major step forward,” Ivey said.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn attended the bill signing and said he was optimistic that the bills would help to address the concerns brought by the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit on the constitutionality of Alabama prison conditions.
“We’re going to have a lot of opportunity going forward to address those things and to talk about them but today really I’m just thinking about how thankful I am that we’ve gotten to this point …” he said.
He also said meetings will start next week on beginning construction on the new prisons.
The bill signings marked the end of the week-long special session called by Ivey. Earlier in the day, the Senate approved 29-to-2 House Bill 4, allowing the state to borrow as much as $785 million in bonds to build two new prisons in Escambia and Elmore counties and renovate others in the phased plan. The two no votes were Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, is the Senate sponsor of the construction bill and defended it against criticism, saying the measure will help Alabama’s prison infrastructure problems.
“We’re not here to expand the number of beds, we’re here to replace them,” Albritton said.
The Senate vote represented a bi-partisan victory for Ivey and top lawmakers, unlike in the House where most Democrats opposed the measure.
Roll Call Vote on House Bill 4
Proponents of the bill have said parts of it are continuations of plans and vetting under a previous prison lease plan. The bill allows the state to bypass some normal bid selection processes.
Orr, the lone Republican no vote in the Senate, said that while he trusts and respects the governor and legislative leadership involved in the bill, he still had concerns with the final bill.
“There were several possibilities to achieve the goal as it relates to construction projects with public dollars,” Orr said. “I continued to have a concern with the process laid out in the bill.”
Orr did vote in favor of the bills funding the prisons.
“I certainly agree with the need for new facilities,” he said.
After the House adjourned on Friday, Clouse defended the decision to not redo the bidding process for construction companies. He said it would ultimately save the state money to not do the bidding process again and enables them to start construction more quickly.
An amendment put on the bill in committee struck the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed Center from the list of facilities to be closed. The amendment also specifically lists the Bibb Correctional Facility as one of the prisons to be evaluated in phase III of the plan for possible repurposing.
The plan currently includes the closure of the Staton, Elmore, Kilby and St. Clair facilities once the two new men’s prisons are built.
Beasley attempted unsuccessfully to substitute the bill with his own that would build smaller prisons. He has three correctional facilities in his area that are at risk of being closed down under the bill’s plan.
The Senate also passed the two appropriation bills that allow the use of $400 million of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act money for prison building, $135 million for prison maintenance and the purchase of the Perry County facility.
Republican leaders continued to defend the usage of the COVID relief funds by pointing to its allowable usage to replace revenue lost during the pandemic and the impact COVID-19 has had inside prisons.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he thought the use of COVID funds was appropriate in this situation.
“I would rather use the one-time money on something that solves a problem and is a one-time ask,” he said.
Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, told ADN he supports constructing the new prisons and renovations at Limestone County Correctional facility that will allow local law enforcement to take inmates directly there instead of an intake facility near Montgomery.
“It takes a whole day and it takes a deputy off his patrol back home where he could stay in that county to protect his citizens,” Melson said.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, said he was part of summer conversation about the bill and voted for it Friday. He said an earlier proposal by the Ivey administration to lease new prisons on privately owned land bothered him because when the leases were up after 30 years and nearly $3 billion in cost, the state wouldn’t own the buildings or the land.
“(With House Bill 4) we own the prisons and we’ve set up a plan and a big portion of it is pay-as-you go,” Givan said. The women’s prison and renovations at others will be funded as money is available.
“This plan leaves us in control of our destiny,” he said.
Meanwhile, federal COVID-19 money will pay for almost all of the Escambia prison, Givhan said.
Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, voted to approve the construction plan because of the need to fix the conditions inside prisons.
“The bottom line is we don’t want people to continue to live and be housed in the conditions that they are in,” Coleman-Madison said. “We’ve got to do something about the mental health issues, separating out those people that are sick and being able to do something.”
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Spanish Fort, said the many months of work went into the bill.
“The resulting legislation is a significant step in resolving Alabama’s prison issue and addressing the associated DOJ legal action,” Elliott told ADN.