Prioritizing Prisons

State officials hope a build-lease approach to new prisons will be the key to solving Alabama’s chronic prison overcrowding. But details are scarce.

New prisons are a high priority for Alabama — mostly because the feds say they have to be. And the state is actively working toward construction, with plans to have three new prisons in place by 2023.

Beyond that? Be prepared to dig if you want information.

Here’s what we know:
• The state won’t own the buildings. They’ll lease them from the builders.
• The state will operate the prisons.
• Inmates should begin moving in year after next.

Here’s what state officials won’t talk about:
• Where the prisons will be
• How big they’ll be
• What they know about the firms they’re allowing to bid
• The procurement process

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It’s a problem that’s not going away — state officials announced just last month that they’re closing most of Holman Correctional Facility due to deteriorating mechanical systems.

But if things go according to plan, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) will have three new prisons in operation by the second quarter of 2023, according to the ADOC website.

Four teams of developers have been selected to submit bid proposals to construct the new facilities. ADOC is expected to receive the proposals sometime this spring and the state will then evaluate the plans. Hoar Program Management, of Birmingham, has been hired by the state as a consultant to assist in the evaluation process.

According to the ADOC website, “Each proposal must incorporate proposals for at least two of the facilities, which must be identified to ADOC in advance of proposal submission.”

It goes on to say, “ADOC may identify one or more proposers with whom to enter into negotiations for one or more leases for the facilities. It is currently ADOC’s intent to select multiple proposers for negotiations, rather than selecting a single proposer with whom to enter into negotiations and, ultimately, leases for all three facilities.”

The plan is for facilities 1 and 3 to be about the same, with facility 2 larger to contain ADOC’s special services, such as medical, mental health, aged care and inmate reception.

No one is saying where the three new facilities will be located other than to say that facility 2, the larger one, has to be located in the central part of the state. Each site will be more than 3,100 acres.

ADOC will lease the facilities — not own them — but will operate them.

According to the ADOC website, “ADOC is seeking facilities with a 50-year design life so as to maximize ADOC’s occupancy of the new facilities over a long term lease with minimal interruption or interference for lifecycle maintenance.”

ADOC says the facility designs “should incorporate innovative features that will optimize the cost of ADOC’s facility operation, including programs that have a positive effect on ADOC’s recidivism rate.”

The goal is for ADOC to have facilities 1 and 2 leased by the end of this year and facility 3 six months later. Inmates would start moving into facilities 1 and 2 in 2022 and facility 3 in 2023.

This past November, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced the four development teams deemed qualified to bid on the prison projects:

Alabama Prison Transformation Partners: Star America; BL Harbert International; Butler-Cohen; Arrington Watkins Architects and Johnson Controls Inc.

CoreCivic: Caddell Construction; DLR Group and R&N Systems Design

Corvias: Municipal Capital Markets Group; HDR Architecture; JE Dunn Construction (no relation to ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn) and CORE Construction (joint venture); TKC Management Services; TreanorHL; Seay, Seay & Litchfield Architects; White-Spunner Construction; Mead & Hunt and Baldwin Consulting Group

GEO Group: GEO; White Construction Co. and NELSON Wakefield Beasley & Associates

State officials made it clear they will release few details about teams or proposals until contracts are awarded.

Andi Sims, vice president of marketing for Hoar Program Management, replied to a request for information about the evaluation process:

“In order to protect the integrity of the procurement process and to respect the plans of our clients (the Governor of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections), it’s in the best interest of the project not to call attention to ourselves and our role until completion.”

The decision to build the new prisons follows years of federal lawsuits involving high levels of violence and sexual abuse in the prisons, low pay for guards and outdated facilities. Senior U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in 2017 ordered ADOC to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers and declared Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate.”  

State Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and of the Prison Oversight Committee, says he has visited each of the state’s 14 major correctional facilities “multiple times,” and the prisons “are dysfunctional.”

“In the 1970s and ’80s was the last time we have undertaken this kind of construction in the Department of Corrections,” Ward says. “That was the last time we were put into receivership.”

Gov. Kay Ivey and her administration decided to adopt the build-lease approach after three attempts to build new prisons were rejected by the Legislature. Ivey has stressed that the new prisons should be part of the plan to improve the overall prison situation, but the governor’s office did not reply to a request for information about the new construction.

“We have tried this three times in the Legislature and could never get it passed,” Ward says, because some existing facilities will have to be closed.

“There was always a fight about where the locations would be, and ‘don’t close mine,’ ‘don’t take mine away.’ So, when it came to the Legislature the last couple of times, everybody said, ‘Well, don’t close mine, it’s jobs in my district.’ So, we could never make it work.”

Ward says there are three reasons the state’s prisons are dysfunctional.

“One, some of them are so old the wiring can’t handle things like security cameras or electronic locks, so you have a safety issue.

“Two, they were built on a mentality of warehousing people so when you have four officers overseeing 300 people in a warehouse who are criminals, it is not going to be a good outcome. That is why you have the riots you have.

“Then finally, at the end of the day, in order to comply with what federal Judge Myron Thompson wants in mental health service, we have got to have better facilities than we have right now.”

The current build-lease proposal would cost about $900 million. The ADOC website says, “ADOC has determined an overall affordability limit of $88 million for all three facilities combined. The affordability limit represents the maximum amount that ADOC would be willing to pay on an annual basis for leasing all three facilities during the base year.”

While public-private partnerships, especially when applied to correctional facilities, have raised some concerns, Ward says he has no problem with the build-lease arrangement. “I have seen other states do leasing. The only difference would be whose name is on the note that owns the building, because we are still going to staff it and operate it.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions on what they are trying to do,” Ward says. “What the governor and them are really trying to do is make these prisons safer for your officers. The number of officers who have been killed or at least attacked just keeps going up because the facilities are just not designed to handle this many people.

“No one is saying we need to build Holiday Inns for prisoners, but they are saying we don’t want to go into receivership. I think it is the right thing to do.”

Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.

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