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Judge hears arguments in lawsuit over prison leases

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A judge said Friday that he will decide soon whether to let a lawsuit go forward challenging Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to lease privately owned prisons.

Montgomery Circuit Judge Greg Griffin heard arguments in the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit that contends the plan violates state law because the massive $3 billion expenditure was not approved by the Alabama Legislature. Griffin indicated he would rule by Monday.

Attorney Kenny Mendelson, of Montgomery, filed the lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court on behalf of four plaintiffs — Republican State Auditor Jim Zeigler; Democratic state Rep. John Rogers, of Birmingham; Leslie Ogburn, a homeowner near the proposed prison site outside Tallassee; and prisoner rights activist Rev. Kenny Glasgow of Dothan.

“This is a legislative function. It’s up to them to decide whether to fund prisons or not to fund prisons. And what the (prison commissioner) and the governor have attempted to do is say, ‘We are going to go ahead and obligate the state anyway,’” Mendelson said after court.

Much of the arguments on Friday centered on whether the state’s financial obligation under the leases is a debt. Assistant Attorney General Jim Davis told Griffin that court rulings have made clear that a lease is not the same as a debt.

“It is not a debt as a matter of law,” Davis said.

The governor in February agreed to lease two mammoth prisons as a partial solution to the state’s troubled correction system. The two 30-year lease agreements are with separate entities of CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies. The governor’s office is negotiating with another company to build a third prison in Bibb County.

Ivey has said new prisons are a crucial first step to overhauling the state’s troubled and aging prison system and that new facilities will be safer and enable more training and rehabilitative efforts. Critics said the $3 billion plan is unnecessarily expensive and does not address critical issues of training, violence and understaffing.

The proposed prisons would be owned by the private companies but staffed and run by the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Ogburn said homeowners and businesses in Elmore County have concerns about being near the planned prison that would house about 3,000 inmates. She said the community didn’t know about the proposals until surveyors were on the site.

“The biggest concern is the shadiness. They did all of this behind closed doors,” Ogburn said.

The governor’s lease plan has been besieged by setbacks including the withdrawal of finance companies.

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