In early February during a budget hearing before the Alabama Legislature State Reps. Rich Wingo (R-Tuscaloosa) and Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) called on Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn to reveal more details about Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to lease three new mega-prison facilities.
At the time, just days before she signed two of the three 30-year lease agreements, Dunn had said the Ivey administration was working with legislative leadership to provide details, adding that the confidentiality of negotiations justified the current lack of transparency.
Wingo said then that he was not totally opposed to the business proposition but “what I am opposed to is just the lack of transparency. I’ve asked for over six months numerous people that are in the position to give me the answers that I want — to just simply provide me what is the developer, what’s his profit, what’s his return on costs. ”
The Ivey administration released Request for Proposals for New Correctional Facilities through a lease agreement arrangement on December 6, 2019 with proposals due from qualified contractors by April 30, 2020. The RFP’s contained little information about the projects, did not identify site locations or contractors but news leaked out pretty quickly that one of the sites would be in Bibb County. The original RFP’s showed that the capacity of the 3 prisons would be 10,162 beds.
By February 1 Al.com summarized the known facts about the prison projects after the Governor signed two of the prison lease contracts, as follows:
- The prison in Escambia County will be near Atmore and the Wind Creek Casino, on the south side of Interstate 65, on Bell Fork Road. There are two prisons nearby, Holman and Fountain, which are north of I-65.
- The prison in Elmore County will be in Tallassee on Rifle Range Road. There are two men’s prisons in western Elmore County, Elmore and Staton, while Tallassee is on the east side of the county.
- The Elmore and Escambia county prisons will hold a total of about 7,000 inmates. The third prison, in Bibb County, will hold about 3,000. The total of about 10,000 is more than half of Alabama’s inmate population. The state had about 17,000 male inmates in November, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ most recent monthly report.
- Some of Alabama’s 13 men’s prisons will close, although those have not been named. A repurposing commission appointed by Ivey will help decide.
- The Elmore County prison will be designed to provide care for inmates with medical and mental health problems.
- Construction on the Elmore County prison is expected to start this year. Construction on the Escambia county prison is expected to start in late 2021 or early 2022.
- The prisons are expected to be ready to use in 2025.
- A private developer group led by CoreCivic will finance, build, and maintain the prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties. The group includes CoreCivic; Caddell Construction; DLR Group; and R&N Systems Design.
- The Ivey administration and the ADOC are in negotiations with Alabama Prison Transformation Partners for the third prison, which will be in the Brierfield community in Bibb County, near Montevallo. Alabama Prison Transformation Partners includes Star America; BL Harbert International; Butler-Cohen; Arrington Watkins Architects; and Johnson Controls, Inc..
- The state will lease the three prisons for 30 years. Final terms have not been disclosed. The state will begin paying the leases when the prisons are ready to use.
The Governor’s use of her Executive Authority and not incidentally her decision to negotiate leases behind closed doors without the involvement of the state legislature has not been without criticism or controversy.
During an interview that aired on a recent broadcast of Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal,” Gov. Kay Ivey seemingly dismissed members of the Alabama Legislature considering efforts to add a check to executive authority during an emergency as Alabama approaches a year of being under a health state of emergency for COVID-19.
Ivey seemed to downplay two bills, one sponsored by State Rep. Becky Nordgren (R-Gadsden), which would allow the legislature to call itself into session. The other bill, led by State Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), would limit the length of a state of emergency and the state health officer’s power.
“I know they’ve been introduced, and the legislature always likes to have their time and their say, and that’s fine — but in an emergency, you don’t need a herd of turtles gathering to make an emergency decision,” Ivey said when asked by Alabama Public Television’s Don Dailey.
The Alabama Policy Institute jumped in on that remark with a tweet that read: “The power to call the legislature into special session was vested in her office, but she chose not to do so. Now we know that it was because she does not deem [the legislature] as necessary to the processes of governance.”
This little firestorm was followed up by the Alabama House of Representatives passing HB 392, sponsored by Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia). Jones’ bill creates a joint legislative committee to oversee large financial agreements made by the executive branch
The legislation from Jones, chair of the powerful Rules Committee, would create the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency. The committee would have the authority to approve or disapprove of contracts, leases and agreements by the executive branch and the agencies therein.
Under the proposed law the committee would meet to review any financial agreement greater than $10 million or 5% of the agency’s annual appropriation from the State General Fund.
Making up the committee would be the chair, vice-chair and ranking minority members of the committees in each legislative chamber that oversee taxation. This bill is presently making its way through the legislative process.
Meanwhile, the Ivey administration is still keeping the Bibb County project details under wraps. Recently Deputy Prison Commissioner Jeff Williams responded to a question about prison capacity from Attorney Joel Sogol in a [March 5, 2021] Sentencing Commission Hearing:
- Attorney Joel Sogol: “Am I correct Jeff that the three prisons being considered for the lease, all they’re going to do is replace existing beds, they’re not going to expand capacity at all, isn’t that correct?
- DC Jeff Williams: “Actually the intent is to expand capacity..the general design capacity that the department has been operating under is roughly 13,400. And the goal out of this project is to raise that into the vicinity of 16,000 beds. While we have always recognized that these facilities would not completely eliminate overcrowding, it would ultimately expand our existing design capacity. In addition to that, these facilities will have some expansion capabilities by 1,000 beds in each of the facilities.”
Everybody who is still reading should take note of that last part.
So far most people see the Bibb County prison as a Brierfield issue.
President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and legislative efforts such as HR-1 have proposed granting voting rights to incarcerated individuals, regardless of their crimes.
The Alabama Department Corrections is moving towards creating a prison facility in Bibb County that could house more than 4,000 inmates. The current Brent facility could be re-purposed to house up to 2,500 female prisoners.
The population of such a facility would easily be larger than the population of any of the 4 towns in Bibb County.
Bibb County has 14,992 registered voters. In typical elections the vote turnout is less than 30% which means about 4,500 voters show up at the polls or vote absentee. It was higher for the 2020 Trump election but that was atypical.
This has gone on a little too long so let’s drive towards a conclusion. In a short time span we have cycled, at the federal and state levels, from a government of the people, one that acts with the consent of the governed, to a near monarchy, one that acts with unbridled power, with powers unchecked by the legislative branch. That is not what we learned in our civics classes about how government is to operate.
Governor Ivey has bulled her way forward towards building a facility in Bibb County without answering any of the questions from the people who live here. There have been no public meetings hosted by public officials prepared to answer the public’s questions. Only Silence.
While well drilling rigs drive around on the property [near Ashby Baptist Church] that no one will admit is the proposed site for the project in Bibb County and reportedly fail to locate an aquifer that can supply the needed water for a 4,000 population self-contained city that ADOC has described, quiet negotiations continue with nearby municipalities to buy water for the project. And no one has offered to produce an environmental impact study for the Cahaba River watershed.
Recently April Weaver, a former State Representative and now a candidate to fill the Senate seat vacated by Cam Ward wrote to Governor Ivey about the transparency issue. Weaver invited the Governor to hold a Town Hall meeting to answer questions and discuss the prison issue with Bibb County constituents.
Weaver is right. Governor Ivey may not have to answer to the legislature. But she does owe the citizens of Bibb County the courtesy of answering a few important questions.
When I was Mayor of the City of Centreville [2012-2016] we considered building a public boat launch on the Cahaba River South of the Howard Cooper Bridge, with the co-operation of a willing landowner and a pre-approved federal grant. We ran into environmental impact study requirements imposed by state agencies, including Alabama Fish & Wildlife and ADEM. The project was shelved due to those projected and unforeseeable costs.
In 2018 another local group undertook to build a canoe launch and make improvements to the Cahaba Riverwalk area near the Bibb County Chamber of Commerce. That group has succeeded with their project, but in the process has been required to engage the services of an environmental engineering consultant to perform environmental impact surveys and obtain concurrence reviews from Fish & Wildlife. All in order to launch a canoe.
This leads me to think it may be easier to build a town the size of a 4,000 bed prison [environmentally speaking] than to build a canoe launch. The proposition is usually simple. Build anything that may affect the Cahaba River you must satisfy environmental concerns first……..unless of course you have unlimited executive authority.
So Governor Ivey. Your project will build a town bigger than any we presently have in this county. Shouldn’t you have to show us your environmental impact study before you sign a 30 year obligation that binds the taxpayers and starts a construction project that will impact the Cahaba River watershed?
If you have no regard for the citizens Governor, think of the turtles.
NOTICE: The Opinions Expressed in this Editorial are the Opinions of the writer and not necessarily the views of the Bibb Voice or its editorial board. Your comments are invited & welcomed.