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Funding new prison in Escambia: ‘It will be a challenge’

In 2021, Alabama lawmakers passed legislation and an about $1.2 billion spending plan to build two 4,000-bed prisons and shutter some old facilities.

Three years later, design changes and construction cost increases are expected to eat up more than $1 billion of that funding for just one prison in Elmore County. 

State leaders recently told Alabama Daily News their commitment to build the second prison in Escambia County remains. What they don’t have right now is the money.

“It’s a considerable amount and it will be a challenge,” Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Hazel Green, said about needed funding for the Escambia prison. Reynolds is chairman of the House General Fund budget committee. 

Reynolds and Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said state leaders are working to get a new cost estimate for Escambia.

“It’s going to be a lot more than we originally thought,” Albritton, the Senate General Fund committee, said. That early estimate was in the $500-million range.

Elmore’s cost estimates when construction got underway ballooned from less than $700 million to $1.08 billion. Elmore, expected to open in May 2026, was always going to cost more than Escambia because it will house ADOC’s primary medical and mental health facilities.

“And it’s not just inflation, we had some pretty significant change orders on that project,” Reynolds said about the cost increases.

In Escambia County, some site and prep work has happened, but construction has not begun.

Reynolds and Albritton both said state leaders are considering borrowing more funds for the second mega prison and looking for funding to “cover the gap.”

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey, reiterated to ADN the state’s determination to build both prisons. 

“The $100 million in the General Fund supplemental proposed by Governor Ivey shows her commitment to getting this done, despite the challenges out of our control, such as record high inflation that is increasing the costs of all construction nationwide,” Maiola said. “Gov. Ivey said during an interview (last week) that we cannot afford to not get this done, and to that end, she looks forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to accomplish this for Alabama.”

Budgeting impact

As lawmakers begin discussing the state’s 2025 General Fund budget, which funds non-education agencies, most expect a focus on prison construction.

“I think that both myself and Sen. Albritton are committed to asking the members to allocate a considerable amount toward the next prison so it can be a reality,” Reynolds said.

Ivey’s proposed General Fund supplemental appropriation bill has $100 million earmarked for prison construction. And another $100 million, leftover at the end of fiscal year 2023, was already diverted to the construction cause.

“You tuck away $100 million here, $100 million there, we’ll get there,” Albritton said. 

Albritton pointed to recent moves by legislative leadership to pay off millions in previous state debts, including what the leaders borrowed more than a decade ago from the Alabama Trust Fund and other bonds. It was the correct, fiscally conservative thing to do, he said. It also frees up more money to fund prisons.

Reynolds said he and Albritton have agreed to put language in the General Fund budget bill that any Department of Corrections funding not spent on personnel be dedicated to capital funds. 

Corrections Commissioner John Hamm last week told lawmakers he has 3,852 budgeted positions, but 853 of them are currently vacant. The department has struggled for years to get enough workers, despite a court order to increase those numbers.

Hamm asked lawmakers for an increase in funding next year of about $123 million but none of those expenses were related to prison construction.

Closing prisons?

The 2021-enacted House Bill 4 said that once the Elmore and Escambia prisons were open, the current Elmore prison, which is on the same site as the new one, and Stanton and Kilby prisons would be closed within a year. Together, those three prisons held more than 3,800 inmates in December. It also outlines other later closures.

At least Albritton last week questioned the feasibility of prison closures in the near future. 

“We’re not creating new beds, we’re simply replacing beds. And I think it’s clear, from the (budget hearings last week), the population is on the rise. So we don’t have a lot of capacity to close (other prisons). 

“We’re going to have to find a way to bring these (older prisons) up to standards and make them safer,” he said.

While existing prison capacity hasn’t changed since lawmakers approved the new prisons, the inmate population has risen from 17,864 in October 2021. In December, ADOC held 20,497 inmates in prisons designed to hold 12,115. 

Reynolds said some existing prisons will have to close to staff a new prison. 

“Otherwise, we would not have the staffing for a new mega prison,” he said. “We shut (older ones) down and move that staff with the inmates.” 

When lawmakers approved the bill, supporters said the new state-of-the-art facilities would be safer and save money, cutting down on the staff overtime pay.

“Anytime the government says it’s going to save money, it’s a lie,” Albritton said on Thursday. “The government doesn’t save money. I’ve never believed that and never shall.” 

Savings wasn’t the point, he said.

“We’ve got to have viable facilities, safe facilities, dare I say humane facilities,” Albritton said. “Where you can house and feed thousands of people — incarcerated, mean people — in a way that is safe for the workers there and for those individuals.” 

The federal government’s involvement in Alabama prisons is also a factor in the new construction. The Department of Justice in 2020 sued the state over its violent and crowded prisons.

Hamm told lawmakers last week that 75% of the inmates at the new Elmore site will be housed in two-man cells with locking doors. Most current prisons have large dorms with a few correctional officers and hundreds of inmates.

Reynolds said building two prisons is the right thing to do.

“We have a very violent population right now in our prison system,” he said. “And the quicker we can get the single-cell units available to begin to transfer those inmates into those single-cells. The better environment we’re going to have there in our prisons.”

The 2021 law also allowed for a new women’s prison and renovations to three existing men’s prisons, if funds were available. Those facilities aren’t part of current discussions.

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