Lawmakers question Gov. Ivey’s plan to lease private prisons

Published 7:59 am Saturday, February 8, 2020

Alabama lawmakers say they have questions about Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposal to lease three mega-prisons built by private companies as a partial solution to the state’s ongoing prison crisis.

The governor’s administration is pursuing a plan to hire private companies to build the three prisons which would then be leased back to the state and run by the Department of Corrections.

Republican legislative leaders said they are not objecting to the proposal at this time but want to make sure the leases do not become a drain on the state’s budget.

“We have questions. Locations? Cost?” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said. “There’s still a lot of questions out there that need to be answered and we’re working with the governor’s office on that.”

The U.S. Justice Department last year said violent and crowded conditions in Alabama prisons violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Justice Department said understaffing and overcrowding were a primary driver of the violence, but also mentioned the need to improve facility conditions.

The proposals from three developer teams are due April 30. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the state could make an award in late summer after evaluating the proposals.

Ivey said the state can pay a maximum of $78 million a year to lease the three prisons, money that is supposed to made available from savings from closing existing prisons.

“They build it and they maintain it. And then the state operates it and the state will pay a lease back,” Ivey said.

The governor said it is clear the state needs new prisons. The state recently announced it was largely shuttering Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore because of infrastructure problems.

“It’s more cost-effective in the long run to build new prisons than it is to try to maintain these old dilapidated falling out things like what happened to Holman and its infrastructure,” Ivey said.

The signing of a lease, rather than borrowing the money for construction, would bypass the need for legislative approval.

Alabama lawmakers twice debated a similar plan, in which the state would build the prisons rather than lease them, but the measures failed after concerns about cost and the closures of existing prisons in legislators’ districts.

“They had two shots,” Ivey said.

Ivey said the executive branch will handle the construction of the prison and that “takes the legislator off the hook.”

Asked if lawmakers were comfortable with the lease proposal, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh replied “not completely.”

“Let’s be honest. Until we can see actual numbers on what it’s going to cost, it’s a little discomfort. That is going to have to come out of the general fund,” Marsh said, adding that any additional cost would take money away from other state services such as mental health, Medicaid and children’s services.

State Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa, said there are “some significant legal questions that have to be answered” about how the leases would work.

“I need to see specifics of what we are talking about beyond just the general rendering of the facilities,” England said.