Public authorities handling construction of new prisons utilizing collaboration between counties and municipalities may be the way of the future for Alabama’s prison system reform.
So said State Sen. Cam Ward during a talk to the Birmingham Section of the Alabama AGC in early April.
“Four counties have shown interest in building prisons and pursuing collaborations,” Sen. Ward said. “Usually it’s a collaboration between counties and municipalities.”
The concept is for a public authority to build the prisons and lease them back to the state under a long-term agreement.
The prison reform bill first stirred controversy because it proposed the use of alternative delivery methods in construction. The use of alternative delivery methods was removed from the version of the bill passed by the Senate.
“The whole notion of design/build has been a major issue,” Sen. Ward said. “The prison commissioner wanted it and I thought it sounded good, but some people (in the construction industry) thought it was bad…It’s not an easy debate.”
Late in March, the Prison Bond Bill underwent many changes and was passed in the Senate as SB302. SB302 is very different from the original Prison Bond Bill as well as the substituted version that came out of committee earlier. First, the $800 million bond was reduced to $325 million. Instead of four prisons being built, the bill calls for only three, the women’s prison having been dropped from the legislation. The state will build one prison; local authorities will build the other two and will lease them back to the state of Alabama. Finally, the two facilities built by local authorities must be approved and ready to begin construction before the state can begin construction on its facility.
The next hurdle for the legislation will be the House of Representatives, said Alabama AGC Director of Governmental Affairs Chris Williams. “There are sure to be changes there, and presumably everything will end up in a conference committee,” Williams said.
No matter what happens, the problem with Alabama’s prison system “is a powder keg,” Sen. Ward said. “We are still at 173 percent capacity and the federal government is hearing cases about our system now.
“California had the same situation we have and they had to release 62,000 inmates
“A court takeover of your system takes everything away from you. It’s a huge nightmare. It’s a federal judge (ruling) in Montgomery County” away from disaster.
“If a judge thinks we’re serious (about reform) he’ll probably give us time,” he said. “We’ll probably find out this summer.”
Sen. Ward said Alabama’s prisons are old and were built “on the cheap.” Prisons in Alabama have no fire alarms and “we are the only prison system (in the nation) that still uses manual keys.
“No one wants to spend a lot of money on prisons,” he said. “You can never take on prisons for political gain…Prisons are not about jobs or money, they’re about public safety. We have to be smarter, have to make sense for public safety and criminal justice.
“We got good at locking up a lot of people, but we didn’t want to do it right. Let’s do it right so prisons can operate long term.”