photo of prison

After a year in which the American prison system was reduced by nearly 200,000 people as federal and state governments reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic, states are now turning to new prison construction as numbers of incarcerated people begin to rise once again nationwide — and prison overcrowding once again is at the forefront of national attention.

However, these plans have not come without their own issues, as a number of recent projects meant to add prison space across the country have had significant delays in their construction. 

According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, “Despite the ongoing pandemic, and efforts to reduce the number of people behind bars…41 states are currently operating at 75% or more of their capacity, with at least nine of those state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons are still operating at more than 100%.”

“Only one state — Maine — has a current prison population below 50% of their capacity,” the report continued.

To combat this overcrowding, many states are looking at ways to increase capacity rather than reduce the number of incarcerated people.

However, construction has not gone smoothly for many of these projects, with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the supply chain for so many construction projects as the nationwide materials shortage has continued to delay construction and cause extreme price increases.

In June 2021, state-mandated construction changes pushed back the opening of a new jail in Green County, New York after the New York State Commission of Correction “walked back” a number of its previous approvals on the project.

“There were a couple of things they wanted changed and it will depend on whether we can get those things procured and installed by that date,” said Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger. “We’re not even sure how much they want us to do or what they want us to do.”

Despite the fact that the jail was intended to be opened to accept inmates by July 1, 2021, the new completion date will depend on the project’s new change orders and the impact of the ongoing materials shortage.

Linger added that the situation was left somewhat unstable as a result of the shortages, saying “We’re seeing a delay in getting the materials like other big construction projects…we’ll have to see what we need to do.”

Similar issues have come up across the country — a June 17, 2021, audit of the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure showed that change orders and other notable delays caused a jail construction project to go almost $2 million over budget and more than three years past its deadline.

The report noted that a number of Colorado subcontractors who worked on the project were billed for more than the original quotes for work and often didn’t keep original price quotes on file, contributing to the nearly $2 million cost overrun.

Substantial change orders submitted during construction extended the project by 1,001 additional days after originally being intended to take only 262 days total for construction. The building was originally intended to be finished by January 2018, yet was still not complete at the time of the audit.

“Change orders after the fact, light documentation on a project, years of delays, and extra cost for work that may have been foreseeable — this doesn’t pass the test for public accountability and responsible management of public funds,” said auditor Timothy O’Brien.

“Effective project management is essential to combat rising construction costs in the city,” O’Brien added. “Based on the management of this construction contract, city managers need to make sure they’re keeping a closer eye on the work being done to make sure the public is getting what they pay for.”

Experiences from COVID-19 pandemic may spur more construction going forward as issues go beyond prison capacity

The COVID-19 pandemic initially caused the American prison system to significantly scale back its level of incarceration. A detailed report from the Vera Institute of Justice notes that the prison system saw “an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020—from 2.1 million people to 1.8 million.”

However, as a report from the Marshall Project notes, “the decrease [in the American incarcerated population] didn’t last long: From mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of people in jails awaiting trial or serving short sentences for minor offenses climbed back up again by more than 70,000, reaching nearly 650,000.”

The Vera Institute of Justice added that “Overall incarceration declined only slightly from fall 2020 to spring 2021…By spring 2021, jail populations increased 13 percent from the mid-2020 low.”

Besides those states that are already dealing with the impact of the pandemic on recent construction projects, some states are looking to take the data gained from the pandemic into account as they deal with issues within the prison system.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said on June 2, 2021, that the state was looking into more prison construction after a plan to lease two private prisons from CoreCivic fell through due to financing, as the project’s financers withdrew after public outcry pressured the state to not work with private prisons. 

In noting that she plans to meet with state legislators to plan alternative options for construction and maintenance of new prison facilities, Ivey added that “It is unfortunate that the comprehensive efforts underway to resolve this issue have proven so challenging and time-consuming; however, my commitment to improving prison conditions is unwavering.”

The state has significant reason to look into either reducing its incarcerated population or improving its facilities. The Prison Policy Initiative’s December 21, 2020, report on prison overcrowding noted that Alabama’s prison system may have been at 153% of capacity in September 2020.

Additionally, the US Department of Justice has sued Alabama over the poor condition of its prison system, with a recent filing by the Justice Department noting that prison conditions have not improved since 2019.

Alabama Representative Steve Clouse, chairman of the Alabama House’s General Fund budget committee, said that the Ivey administration had requested a meeting to talk about options and a possible special session. Clouse added that additional options were being discussed following the private prison plan’s failure, which include the use of a bond issue to finance the construction of new prisons and the use of a part of the state’s COVID-19 relief funding.

Governor Ivey said that she remains committed to finding a way to expand the capacity of the prison system.

“Anyone who is serious about these issues understands that replacing our failing prison infrastructure with safer, more secure facilities that accommodate the rehabilitation of incarcerated people is essential,” Ivey said. “It is not a question of if this will happen, but how.”