By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Deteriorating underground utilities at William C. Holman Correctional Facility are forcing the closure of parts of the prison and the transfer of more than 600 inmates to other crowded facilities around the state, officials announced Wednesday.
Commissioner Jeff Dunn said plans to decommission the facility were made in August 2018 but were hastened because of the increasing risk involved with maintaining an underground utility tunnel that houses essential power, water and sewer services.
About three weeks ago, officials learned of an increasing risk of sending ADOC maintenance staff into the tunnel.
“It became obvious to me that it was not sustainable and we had to accelerate our plans,” he said. Holman is 51-years old and one of the state’s highest-security prisons. It houses most death row inmates and the state’s only execution chamber. As of October, it had 752 inmates. It was originally built to house 581.
The process of moving about 617 inmates from Holman in Escambia County to other prisons was to begin Wednesday, Dunn said. Citing security concerns, a timetable for the moves wasn’t disclosed.
The announcement comes as lawmakers prepare to begin their 2020 legislative session next week. Prison construction, crowding and inmate and staff safety are expected to be significant topics in the session. According to ADOC, its systemwide occupancy rate is about 169 percent. That number doesn’t include additions added to prisons after their original construction.
Dunn said the dilapidated nature of Holman highlights the need to build three new male prisons, as laid out in Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison reform plan.
“We are now projecting upwards of $800 million in deferred maintenance costs alone,” Dunn said. “This unavoidable issue reinforces the critical importance of Governor Ivey’s transformative and necessary plan to build three new correctional facilities.”
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has lead prison reform and construction efforts in the Alabama Senate. Wednesday’s closure announcement didn’t surprise him, he said.
“I’ve visited Holman four times. The roof is falling in,” Ward said.
He’s a proponent for building new facilities.
“No one is advocating for a Holiday Inn for prisoners, that’s not what prison is,” Ward said. “But we’re going to spend a lot more taxpayer dollars trying to keep these (existing) buildings open.”
Failing infrastructure at most of the state’s prisons was documented in a 2017 report that detailed multiple issues, including fire safety and electrical system concerns.
The roughly 1,100-page report highlighted the worst problems at each prison and made a case for then-Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposal to borrow $800 million to build four mega facilities. The engineering and architectural firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood created the report under a nearly $500,000 contract, the Decatur Daily reported in 2017.
The report listed priority areas that should be addressed at each prison. Holman had a lengthy list, including the maintenance area, several towers, four general population dormitories and seven death row dormitories.
Dunn told ADN on Wednesday that as a result of that report, ADOC has created a prioritized list of all the outstanding maintenance needs, but it is an increasingly large and difficult list to tackle.
“We have flexed over the last year-and-a-half with the resources we have to adjust the list, but also we have to leave some aside to address the emergencies, not unlike what we’re facing here at Holman,” Dunn said. “I will say, there is no way we can address all of that.”
The report doesn’t say which prisons should be closed, but gave overviews of each and some general assessments systemwide, the Decatur Daily reported.
“Based on the facility assessments, interviews with staff and internal interviews with utility providers, we have recognized a systemic lack of operational expertise and manpower to make the corrections necessary to bring the facilities up to meet current standards. In numerous facilities, the water and sewer systems are beyond repair and need to be replaced.”
• “Extensive defects in electrical safety exist throughout the system.”
• Except at six major facilities, “the perimeter security measures at ADOC facilities are significantly under par.”
That no facility has fully functional fire alarms was another highlighted concern.
At Holman, there are sections of the facility that have their own power, water and sewage utilities. They will remain open to house some inmates. About 150 of Holman’s low-risk inmates serving life without parole sentence will be moved to a stand alone dorm that operates on a separate utility system, Dunn said.
In addition to the 150 low-risk inmates, 166 death row inmates will remain.
The execution chamber at Holman will remain operational, Dunn said. The facility’s car tag and clothing plant will also remain operational and inmates will be able to continue their work there.
Even though the execution chamber is located in the main facility where the utility issues are, Dunn said that power, water and sewage needs will be brought in as needed for executions to be carried out.
Dunn said death-row inmates from the Donaldson Correctional Facility were transferred Tuesday night to Holman, even amid utility problems, because plans to consolidate all of Alabama’s death row inmates to one facility were already planned.
“It was just one part of the puzzle to eventually get us to having no inmates inside that main facility,” Dunn said.
The Atmore prison is in Sen. Greg Albritton’s district. He said he thinks Dunn made the correct, but tough, decision.
“Our options are limited and there are no cheap options,” Albritton, R-Range, said.
Albritton expects the prison to remain open.
“This does not mean that Atmore is losing a prison or losing jobs,” the senator said.
State prisons have been chronically understaffed, resulting in dangerous conditions for both staff and inmates.
The U.S. Department of Justice in April issued scathing findings that condemned Alabama prisons for what it called unconstitutional conditions, including high rates of violence.
Holman correctional facility specifically has had a history of violence issues, including a correctional officer in 2016 dying after being stabbed by an inmate, the Associated Press reported.
Once all the transfers of inmates happen, Holman will be staffed at 100%, Dunn said.
“Which we’ve not been able to do ever since I’ve been commissioner,” Dunn said. “It will give us kind of a test case for what kind of programming can we bring to bear, what can we do for the inmates, how can we address contraband issues with a fully staffed unit.”
Dunn asked lawmakers last week for a $42 million increase in ADOC’s annual budget, up from $517 million this year.
Dunn told lawmakers that most of those funds would go toward increasing staffing and inmate health care. He hopes to recruit a total of 700 new security staff members, which would put the department on track to obtaining the federally mandated 2,200 additional correctional officers by 2022.