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State might lease prisons instead of building them

By KIM CHANDLER,  Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — As Gov. Kay Ivey looks to replace Alabama’s troubled state prisons, one option would be to lease facilities built by private developers — a strategy that may allow her to bypass the state Legislature where past construction proposals have faltered.

In her inaugural address Monday, Ivey said that she would announce a prison plan in the coming days.

Ivey’s office has not disclosed specifics of the plan, but state officials said that lease agreements are among the options being considered.

Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton wrote in an email that the department is exploring options for building three regional prisons to house male inmates.

“The analysis will evaluate the best approach for constructing the facilities … either through a bond issue, or a build-lease option,” Horton wrote.

Horton wrote that the build-lease option would allow for one or more private firms to construct the facilities to state specifications and then enter into a lease agreement with the state. He said the Department of Corrections would maintain operational control and management of the facilities.

The Alabama prison system has come under fire for overcrowding, violence and understaffing. It is also under a federal court order to improve the quality of mental health care for state inmates.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley in 2017 unsuccessfully sought legislative approval for an $800 million plan to build three new regional prisons for men — as well as a female prison — and to close most existing facilities. The measure failed to win legislative approval after lawmakers raised concerns about the price tag and local job losses when existing prisons closed.

State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said he’s concerned the lease agreements would create a large financial obligation for the state without legislative approval.

“I just think that most Alabamians would be extremely uncomfortable with spending that much money at the stroke of a pen,” England said. “A billion dollars is a lot of money.” reported that Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told the Legislative Contract Review Committee in December that it would cost about $1 billion to build three new regional prisons, including one that can accommodate inmates with high-need mental health issues.

Some committee members last month raised concerns about a Department of Corrections’ contract with a firm to study and possibly design new prisons. The committee put a temporary hold on the contract in December but did not have the authority to stop it.

When asked if the state is considering the lease option, Ivey’s office said Friday that all options are under discussion.

“Governor Ivey will announce her plan to address Alabama’s ongoing prison issues in the next couple of weeks. Until then all options remain on the table,” Ivey spokesman Daniel Sparkman wrote in an email.

Ivey in her inaugural address spotlighted the need for “replacing costly, at-risk prison facilities.”

“The status of our corrections system is an Alabama problem that must be solved by an Alabama solution. As your governor, I plan to do so,” Ivey said.

State Sen. Cam Ward, who co-chairs a prison oversight committee, said the lease option would not require legislative approval to borrow money as a bond issue would.

“You are going to have to have some sort of construction, regardless, whether it is brand new prisons or massive upgrades to the old facilities we have. I think all parties acknowledge that. Now, I think what that looks like is subject to debate,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said.

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