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Hamm: ‘Everybody building’ impacts prison construction

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said the construction of the new prison in Elmore County is quickly progressing, with above-ground construction set to begin within the next few weeks.

The Elmore facility, which recently garnered headlines for its new $1.08 billion price tag, will house 4,000 inmates upon completion. The project is currently taking up the vast majority of the $1.25 billion the Alabama Legislature allocated in 2021 for the construction of two prisons.

On Alabama Public Television’s Capitol Journal Friday, Hamm attributed the increase in price to more than just inflation, saying the current market conditions in the construction industry has also driven up the price the state must pay for the facility Alabama officials and lawmakers have previously said is a necessary expense.

“With all the government money and everybody building, it’s created difficulty is getting bid; contractors wanting to bid on certain projects. This is an enormous project, it’s probably one of the largest in the state, so when you sign up you’re signing up for about three years,” Hamm said. “So, the construction market has dictated a lot of the cost as well.”

Earlier this month, state leaders expressed concerns about the ability to get engineers and crews to do the influx of water, sewer and broadband infrastructure projects funded by federal COVID-19 funds.

Still, some lawmakers are questioning whether the design-build contract at Elmore is proving to be more expensive and whether the state should return to the traditional bidding system for the new prison in Escambia County.

In 2021, when approving a prison spending plan, lawmakers agreed to use design-build contracts, allowing a single entity to perform both the design and construction under a single agreement. In the more standard design-bid-build, designers and contractors are hired separately. Officials argued that design-build would save time and money. The prison legislation allows for, but does not require, design-build contracts at Elmore and Escambia, Inside Alabama Politics reported recently.

“That way we know what it’s going to cost and we get the bids on it and we go,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said late last month.

Changes have also had to be made to the project, Hamm said, in order to comply with court orders stemming from federal lawsuits over the state’s prison conditions.

The Elmore facility is set to be completed in May of 2026, according to the contract the state signed.

“It’s some sticker shock, but it’s kinda what the trend is around the country,” Hamm said, pointing to deals in other states – Indiana and Utah – for prisons costing more than $1 billion.

Hamm also discussed the influence of parole decisions on the behavior of inmates.

“When (inmates) come into the Department of Corrections, they’re pretty much given checklist of, ‘Do these things and you’ll have a good chance of getting paroled, and a lot of them do those things with the hope of getting paroled, and when that doesn’t happen they do start losing hope of getting out via parole,” Hamm said, noting that while some inmates likely shouldn’t be released, there are others who may have taken advantage of the department’s programming and had good behavior that, when denied parole, lose hope of getting out.

“They lose hope, then their behavior inside the facilities are going to start being behavior that we don’t need,” Hamm added.

The number of inmates released on parole has been persistently low in recent months and years. Last year, less than 10% of prisoners eligible for parole were released by the Alabama Parole Board. In July, the parole release rate dipped to 4.1%. 

The board leader in August told Alabama Daily News the body’s decisions are driven by public safety, not statistics.

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