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Lawmakers criticize $1.5 million prison PR contract

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A panel of state lawmakers on Thursday questioned an Alabama Department of Corrections public relations contract worth up to $1.5 million and criticized communications from the department during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just don’t see the need,” Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, said about PR work for prisons. “… We’re not marketing resort hotels. Everyone has a pretty good concept of what a prison is.”

The $900,000 contract extension with Markstein Consulting, LLC in Birmingham brings the total to $1.5 million. A representative from ADOC said the agency doesn’t expect to spend that much. The firm’s work includes messaging about the ADOC and responses to media and state agency inquiries.

The committee can’t kill proposed contracts, but can delay them for up to 45 days, which it did.

In an emailed statement to Alabama Daily News, ADOC said its contracted communications partner assists in addressing the many crisis issues that arise unpredictably, as well as other emergent internal and external communications needs.

“These issues include but are not limited to: the U.S. Department of Justice’s findings letters and its subsequent lawsuit, as well as other sensitive litigation matters that arise; the COVID-19 pandemic and other disease or infection outbreaks at ADOC facilities; issues of violence that occur within ADOC facilities; inmate escapes and inmate deaths; instances of staff corruption; facility safety and security issues; and more,” the statement said. “We have received well in excess of 1,000 media inquiries on these types of concerns in the past year alone.

A description of the contract on the committee’s agenda said the department is “facing several large scale challenges.”

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, called that a “masterful understatement.”

The department was sued in December by the U.S. Department of Justice over conditions in men’s prisons, the latest in the ADOC’s legal problems regarding treatment of inmates. Meanwhile, Gov. Kay Ivey is moving forward with a plan to lease three privately built men’s prisons, despite objections from lawmakers and other groups over long-term costs, estimated to be more than $3 billion over 30 years.

“Given the complexities of the longstanding challenges facing our correctional system, coupled with the need to operate with speed and urgency to address these challenges and communicate with the public, our communications partner’s services are critical to the ADOC’s overall transformation and ability to share information effectively and transparently around complicated issues of public concern,” the ADOC statement said.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, was critical of the department’s response to COVID-19 or information shared publicly, especially early in the pandemic.

“It seems like the PR firm cleaned up the fact that the department of corrections actually wasn’t testing people for a very long time and wasn’t reporting test results accurately for a very long time…” England said.

“We never really had a clear idea of the level or the degree of the crisis within our prison system, and we were paying someone for that?”

The department now sends out daily emails about new cases among inmates and staff. According to Wednesday’s email, 1,600 inmates have tested positive, 44 of those cases are active.

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