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New Elmore County men’s prison will cost over $1 billion


New Elmore County men’s prison will cost over $1 billion

Sep 26, 2023 | 7:01 pm ET
By Brian Lyman
New Elmore County men’s prison will cost over $1 billion
A prison corridor in Holman Correctional Facility in 2019. (File)

A state authority Tuesday put a “final guaranteed maximum price” on a new men’s prison in Elmore County at $1.082 billion, nearly equal to what legislators two years ago allocated for two men’s prisons.

The higher price tag – blamed on inflation and changes to spaces in the building – makes the construction of a second prison in Escambia County uncertain. It also throws other projects tentatively approved by the Legislature, including renovations to existing prisons and the construction of a new women’s prison, into doubt.

“We’ve got to move forward and do a good job,” said Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, the chair of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, following the meeting of the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority (ACIFA). “I’ve been out to the site, and it literally is a small city coming out of the ground.”

Alabama’s prisons, overcrowded for decades, have suffered a wave of physical and sexual violence that led to a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2020. Gov. Kay Ivey and corrections officials argued for years that new prisons would be safer for inmates and staff, cost less to run, and have space for educational, vocational and rehabilitation programs to prevent people from returning to prisons.

The Legislature in 2021 approved the construction of 4,000-bed men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia County for $1.3 billion. The legislation also authorized renovations of the Donaldson and Limestone correctional facilities; either the Bullock or Ventress Correctional Facility, and the construction of a 1,000-bed women’s prison to replace Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, built in 1942.

A meeting of people around a table
The Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority (AFICA) meets shortly before approving a “final guaranteed maximum price” on an Elmore County prison on Sept. 26, 2023. From left to right: Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm; Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore (with back to camera); Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville; Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Director Cam Ward, and Gov. Kay Ivey.

The legislation did not provide a dedicated funding source for anything but the new men’s prisons.

The Elmore County facility should include major medical, training and rehabilitation programs. The Escambia County facility would not have programs of the same scale.

Critics of the project argue Alabama’s prison crisis stems from culture, not buildings and say the new construction will not address the culture of violence in the prisons.

Alina Arbuthnot of Maynard Nexsen, which has represented the state in the construction process, estimated Tuesday that costs had gone up by approximately $500 million. Arbuthnot said inflation, including the increased cost of construction materials, had played a role, but additions to the project had also affected it.

“We’ve added interior programming space, as well as vocational and educational space,” she said. “Some other items that were required by court order, as well as making a couple of changes that will help us save money on lifecycle and maintenance over the course of the service life of the facility. Maybe some upfront costs now that should save us annually.”

Ivey, who chairs the ACIFA, said in a statement that the prisons are “critically important to public safety, to our criminal justice system and to Alabama as a whole” and blamed inflation for the price increase.

“We have not built new prisons in more than 30 years, and if it was easy, it would have been attempted by a governor before me,” the statement said. “No doubt this is a major undertaking, but we are pressing on.”

Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund chair Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said he was “concerned” about the additional price tag.

“I think we started out low,” Albritton said after the meeting. “I think we didn’t go back and revisit what we should have done. That was an error.”

The state is paying for the prison with $400 million in COVID relief money; $135 million in money appropriated from the General Fund, and about $500 million in borrowing. The Elmore County Prison is expected to be completed in May 2026.

The fate of the Escambia County prison and other projects are less certain. Albritton said “we’ve got to find the path,” and Reynolds said legislators would watch the progress of the Elmore County project.

“We’ll have to see on time and on what the market does,” he said. “I think it’s too early to answer that. They will just monitor that until February.”