Photo of prison exterior

Significant changes are coming to the Alabama Department of Corrections after October 1, 2021, saw Alabama Governor Kay Ivey sign Alabama House Bill 4 into law, allocating $1.3 billion in funding for the construction of new prisons and renovation of old prisons in the state.

Specifically, the bill allocates money for the construction of two 4,000-bed men’s prisons in Elmore County and Escambia County, a 1,000-bed women’s prison in Elmore County, and renovations of other existing state prison facilities.

“Let me be clear, while more reform of the system can and does need to be addressed in the future — and I am committed to that as are many legislators — today’s bill signing on the construction part of this issue is a major step forward,” Governor Ivey said about the bill’s passage.

Prior Levelset coverage noted that Governor Ivey and other state lawmakers were focused on the possibility of new prison construction as early as summer 2021. Governor Ivey said on June 2, 2021, that the state was exploring the possibility of prison construction after a plan to lease multiple private prisons fell through earlier in the year.

Though the state will see significant construction spending in the next few years, it may not be distributed in the way that such spending ordinarily is. The state is planning to bypass the standard bidding process for the construction of the two men’s 4,000-bed facilities, with the bill instead specifying that that state is allowed to negotiate with contractors that had previously qualified for the state plan to lease private prisons.

Learn more: The Difference Between Public and Private Projects

The hope is that working with companies involved with the prior plan’s development will allow the state to return to aspects of that plan rather than start fresh. “The main thing is time, and time is of the essence. This is going to enable us to start these projects 12 months in advance, and time is money,” said State Representative Steve Clouse, sponsor of the bill.

These companies include Birmingham’s BL Harbert International and Montgomery’s Caddell Construction, which are expected to each serve as the general contractor for one of the two new prison facilities.

Though opponents of the bill pushed back against the exclusion of a traditional bidding process, State Representative Mac McCutcheon noted that the companies had already gone through a bidding process connected to their prior agreement with the state. Additionally, the law specifies that if the state can’t develop a new agreement with either contractor the state will introduce a traditional selection process to the construction plans.

“We can start this construction now with the money we have on hand now…without having to wait to float bonds,” State Senator Albritton added. “I believe we’re going to see dirt flying in January.”

Though the prior project fell through due to funding issues, the bill’s passage approved $400 million in federal COVID relief funds to be used for the new construction. Additionally, another $150 million for the project will come from the state’s general fund, and $785 million will be borrowed through a bond issue.

Multiple Alabama lawmakers had been uncomfortable with the lack of construction or ownership involved in the prior plan, and the new bill assuages a lot of those concerns. However, the bill does have a number of detractors, as there are those who don’t believe that this should be where the state is putting its focus.

“The current state of the Alabama prison system is abhorrent, but the use of COVID-19 relief funds to pay for decades of our state’s neglect is simply unacceptable,” State Representative Terri Sewell said of the bill’s plans. State Senator Arthur Orr added that funding was also an issue for him, saying “There were several possibilities to achieve the goal as it relates to construction projects with public dollars…I continued to have a concern with the process laid out in the bill.”

Many advocacy groups are noting that this new construction may not fix the issues that the state is looking to deal with, making it entirely possible that this is not the last time Alabama will be searching for answers with their prison system.

“In my view, this is not the end of us addressing the prison problem,” said State Representative Randall Shedd. “It’s the beginning of us seriously addressing the problems in our prisons.”

“We do not believe the issues facing Alabama’s prisons are about the buildings,” said Equal Justice Initiative founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson. “We think it’s entirely about leadership, culture and the practices…I just think engaging in a costly effort around new prisons is not going to solve the problem and worse is distracting us from dealing with the prisons.”

The bill’s proponents seem to think that, while more work needs to be done, more construction will play a big part in bettering the system. “We’re not here to expand the number of beds, we’re here to replace them,” State Senator Greg Albritton added.

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