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As prison project moves forward, lawmakers still have questions

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Some Alabama lawmakers say they still have questions about Gov. Kay Ivey’s possible selection of private companies to build three state prisons, a process that so far has largely excluded the Legislature.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Alabama Daily News he plans to send Ivey’s office a letter this week asking if contracting out prison services is an option she’s considering or in bids recently submitted to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

“I’m just going to ask point blank,” Ward said. “I am going to be 100% opposed to privately run prisons.

“That’s a big policy shift that the Legislature should be involved in.”

Ivey has previously said the prisons would be leased from developers, but run and staffed by ADOC. 

“The state will operate the prisons,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said Monday.

“Gov. Ivey remains focused on leaving Alabama better than she found it, and that includes addressing the long-neglected challenges facing the prison system – something that requires a multifaceted solution,” Maiola said. “One part of the equation is making improvements to our prison infrastructure, which is why she remains committed to moving this construction process forward. Receiving the proposals is the next step in the process, and Governor Ivey, from day one, has been committed to transparency and accountability. 

“Our Office and the ADOC will continue keeping the public informed at each stage. Governor Ivey has sought to tackle this issue head-on and make it a priority of her administration.”

Ward said as of Sunday, he hadn’t seen the proposals by two companies to build the three large prisons for men. The Alabama Department of Corrections opened the bids on Friday. The previously reported cost estimate is about $900 million.

The Associated Press reported that ADOC declined its request to make the proposals public, saying that a “confidential evaluation period has begun.” The prison system said the successful developer team or teams will be announced this summer and the financial terms will be announced in the fall.

The three prisons will replace most of the smaller existing facilities around the state.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Monday he didn’t know if lawmakers would see the contracts before they’re signed.

“I haven’t been a part of any talks or negotiations with the governor as far as contracts go so it would be premature for me to speak about that.

“… I have said from the very beginning that the legislative body needs to be aware and given information as it flows in so that we can be working as a team and I still believe that. Its important that we all work together as a team on this.”

The U.S. Justice Department last year said violent and crowded conditions in Alabama prisons violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Justice Department said understaffing and overcrowding were a primary driver of the violence, but also mentioned the need to improve facility conditions.

Lawmakers expect Ivey to call a special session of the Legislature later this year to address a package of criminal justice-related bills that didn’t pass in the regular session because of a COVID-19-caused hiatus.

“Obviously, we do not want the federal authorities taking over our prisons,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said. “I don’t want that to happen. Whatever we need to do to address the concerns of the federal judge, we need to do that and I do think we’re working on things, including construction of new prisons but we’ll see where that ends up. But yes I do believe you have to call a special session.”

Ivey can enter into the lease contracts without the Legislature’s approval. 

Ward said some in the Legislature want the state to build the new prisons because it’d be cheaper. But previous attempts to do that have fallen apart in the State House because of territorial disputes about where the new prisons — which are large employers — will be located and what existing sites will be closed.

McCutcheon said more information is needed about costs of leasing prisons compared to building them.

“And there I go back to the fact of, how much do we need, what would be the lease payment versus a borrowing and building our own facilities, and these are numbers that we need to see and I stand firm on that.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said lawmakers have to be part of the process.

“I think we’re all very leery about spending $1 billion-plus on prisons and at the end of the day it still won’t be adequate enough room in the state, we’ll still be overcrowded,” he said. “If the governor wants this to happen, we’re going to have to be part of this process.

“Only the Legislature can appropriate money.” 

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