Cornerstone takes prison project modular

Montgomery's Caddell takes lead on prisons

Mitch Claborn, founder and CEO of Cornerstone Detention Products — based in Tanner but working globally. Photo by David Higginbotham.

One of the state’s most massive building projects in recent years has begun with site work in Elmore County — the first new prison in Alabama since the 1990s.

The prison will hold 4,000 men and provide expanded health care and mental health treatment for those housed in Alabama’s badly overcrowded corrections system. A second prison, also housing 4,000 men but without the special medical facilities, is also planned in Escambia County.

Together, the two prisons carry a price tag of $1.25 billion. Both are bigger than existing state prisons.

The Elmore prison is further along, and two Alabama companies with national reputations in the industry are key players. Caddell Construction Co., based in Montgomery, is the overall contractor on the $624 million project. Building the modular cells will be Cornerstone Detention Products Inc., which recently acquired RW Modular, a manufacturer of pre-cast concrete products.

“Like I told the governor, it’s an Alabama solution for an Alabama problem,” says Mitch Claborn, founder and chief executive officer of Cornerstone.

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The Department of Corrections houses about 17,800 inmates in various facilities around the state.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state alleging unconstitutional conditions inside its prisons, including overcrowding, inadequate supervision, violence and the presence of drugs and weapons. None of these problems are new. For years newspaper editorials railed against Alabama prison conditions and called for reform.

“The state, to their credit, is trying to create a better environment for those that are housed there,” Claborn says. “The buildings that they have now, some of them are 50 and 75 years old. They didn’t have the technology then that they have now. They’re not energy efficient.”

The Legislature finally passed a funding package last year, relying mainly on a bond issue, as well as $400 million from the American Rescue Plan. But the initial bond issue came up $200 million short and the use of federal COVID relief funds has proved controversial.

Department of Corrections officials did not respond to a request for comment from Business Alabama.

Over the years, meanwhile, Cornerstone has built itself into the biggest detention equipment supplier and contractor in the United States, Claborn says. It is headquartered in Tanner, a suburb of Decatur and Athens. Cornerstone also owns a construction company, one of three correctional lock companies in the U.S., and it built a 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that was completed in 2020, “with this project in mind,” Claborn says.

Together the companies provide construction, management, maintenance, repair, security electronics integration, and detention equipment and supplies.

Clients include San Quentin Prison in California, the Dallas County Jail, projects in the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay (providing the locks) and what Claborn calls “the largest detention equipment contract in Canadian history,” in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Cornerstone uses a modular approach to prison work.

The acquisition of RW Modular brings cell construction to Cornerstone’s repertoire. The previous owner, Steve Weirich, stays on as executive vice president and so do some 25 employees. The company has been casting, furnishing and installing modular products for the corrections industry since 1987 and has worked on several projects with Cornerstone prior to the purchase. Among its projects was 256 cells for the Iowa State Penitentiary.

Modular construction will be the biggest improvement in the new prison in Elmore, Claborn says. The process reduces construction time from five years to three years. “All-modular allows you to go faster. It’s almost like building with Legos. You already have the pieces made and you’re just setting them with a crane.”

Cornerstone will make the doors and frames for 1,588 cells, then pour concrete and set pipes in blocks.

“We live in a society today where it’s hard to find labor,” Claborn says. “So, you want to build everything you can off-site in a controlled environment or on-site in a controlled environment, then erect it. It’s the modern way of constructing.”

Cornerstone expects to save the state some $8 million in freight costs by pouring the cells on-site, he says. “In this case, we’re actually setting a plant up on-site and we will be pouring those modulars on-site. We’re doing that to eliminate freight.”

“Modular boxes” of cells will then be set in place using two 70-ton cranes. Claborn says the project has been broken into five phases and some 47 separate buildings. It’s the largest project in the company’s history.

Despite the expense of the construction project, Claborn says prisons are more expensive to operate in the long run than they are to build.

“Everything is based around energy consumption,” he says. “You’re better off to spend your money on technology and things that are going to save you money over the life of the building.”

Cornerstone hopes to begin casting cells in November. It is also working or bidding on several other modular construction detention projects, including in Kansas City, Missouri; Napa Valley, California; and Little Sandy, Kentucky.

Cornerstone has bid or will bid on other subcontracts for the Elmore prison project, including detention equipment, security electronics and locks. It also will be seeking subcontracts for the second new prison in Escambia County, located behind the existing Holman Prison. Site work is being done on both prisons, but at this writing Caddell has not yet signed a contract with the state for overall work on the second prison.

Caddell Construction did not respond to a request for comment from Business Alabama.

According to its website, Caddell bills itself as “builders, first and foremost.” Much of its portfolio is detention-related, but also includes general government buildings, health care facilities and
education-related construction.

Caddell has been involved with the construction and renovation of federal courthouses and penitentiaries. It was also responsible for the new Escambia County Correctional Facility in Pensacola, Florida.

One notable Caddell project that began in 2010 involved additions to the U.S. Embassy complex in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ultimately the design, construction and installation of state-of-the-art security equipment to protect embassy personnel in a dangerous part of the world took 10 years. 

One of the buildings added was the largest single building ever commissioned by the U.S. State Department. It included apartments for the diplomatic staff, a gymnasium, indoor swimming pool, fitness center, grocery store, cafeteria, library, media room, meeting rooms and a courtyard.

Jane Nicholes is a Daphne-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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