Alabama lawmakers appear to accept new $1 billion price tag for Elmore County prison

Cost estimate jumps $300 million; state officials say inflation, design costs led to increase

By: - March 17, 2023 12:09 pm

Alabama legislators upset at spiraling prison construction cost but accept it as a consequence of inflation.

Several Alabama legislators Thursday appeared resigned to a $300 million jump in the price of a prison under construction in Elmore County.

The Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority (ACIFA) this week voted to increase maximum funding for the prison from $625 million to $975 million, an increase of 57% that state officials blame on inflation and changes to the project itself.

“A couple of things are driving that,” said Bill Poole, the state finance director, during an interview Thursday. “As the design has matured, the initial cost estimates have changed as smaller components of the project have gone to bid.”

The Associated Press first reported the increase.

Poole said that the number reflected a ceiling for prison spending.

“All that ACIFA did was increase the spending authority via a parameter’s resolution to $975 million,” Poole said. “We don’t have a bill for $975 million, but we are increasing our spending authority, so that as work packages continue to come in and be received, ACIFA has the authority to expense funds to satisfy the bids and continue with the project.”

A true cost for the project will not be known until the state receives a “guaranteed maximum price,” which Poole said will come around the summer.

“We are clearly going to get a better idea where that maximum price is going to land as these bids for the work packages bid out, but we can only speculate,” Poole said. “Nobody knows right now how that bid process is going to come out.”

Democratic legislators and prison reform advocates have criticized the project as expensive and an ineffective solution for the problems in the state prisons. Carla Crowder, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed, said Friday that “this billion-dollar prison is more evidence that Alabama cannot afford mass incarceration.”

“The state just signed a $1.06 billion contract for prison medical care and the ADOC already swallows nearly a quarter of the state’s general fund with its $700 million annual budget,” she said. “If this was a wise use of tax dollars and effective public safety, why is gun violence so high?”

Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections pushed for new prisons for years, saying current facilities were unsafe and lacked space for educational and rehabilitation services for inmates. The Legislature in 2021 approved a $1.3 billion package to build two new men’s prisons in Elmore and Escambia counties. Each one will be designed to hold at least 4,000 inmates.

Legislators accept increase

Legislators Thursday expressed dismay and frustration at the growing price tag, but said it is an expense they will have to accept to update the prisons and address overcrowding that has fed a crisis of violence in the state’s correctional system and brought a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We’ve seen it in everything. It’s not unexpected,” said Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville. “I mean, I wished it wasn’t up there. But inflation has hit us pretty hard over the last few months, and I think that’s certainly a reflection of that.”

The state used $400 million from its first round of American Rescue Plan Act funding to help pay for the prisons, a move that brought criticism from U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York. Alabama also struggled to sell bonds to finance the prisons last year.

The project has been underway as some construction on the site has already begun. As the work continues, Alabama Department of Corrections officials have been bidding out the work to contractors to further develop the site.

Poole said the scope for the site has increased to include additional accommodations.

“For instance, we have substantially increased the amount of space, square footage, and content for the vocational and educational spaces,” Poole said. “That is very important. That has an added cost.”

Those changes became necessary partly because of recent litigation.

Another example is that there will also be more cells compared to dormitory space than what is available at current facilities.

“We have been trying to address the court orders, and that has been a fluid situation as we have gone through,” Poole said.

The state finance director said officials overseeing the project tried to anticipate future cost increases as the project continued but record inflation has simply outpaced their estimates.

As the more substantial parts of the project went out for bid, Poole said, it became clear the project would come in at a significantly higher price point than what was originally envisioned.

“Thing about this is because of the way it was written, we could use some of that money simply because it was money that would account for lost revenue,” Ledbetter said of ARPA. “And we’ll have more flexibility on that particular tranche than we did this one. So I do believe that will carry forward what the plan was. I mean, there might be some adjustments made along the way but as all you know, we’ve got to do something.”

“That’s this plague that we have upon us that’s been given to us by the feds,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, the chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund. “That’s the greatest gift, I guess. I don’t know. But anyway, it’s harmful. It’s hurting us, it’s eating away at our resources, but we have to deal with it.”

House Ways and Means General Fund chair Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, said he knew “that we were going to have to increase those funds.

“We didn’t see that coming when we first voted on both the bond money going to the bond market and then the allocations we did out of the second round of ARPA, and so it was tough,” he said.

Crowder said it was “clear that Alabama politicians will pay whatever it costs to perpetuate the myth that expensive new prisons will shield us from accountability to the federal courts.”

“But I don’t think anyone expected Alabama to be the home of the billion-dollar prison, especially when the ‘initial guaranteed maximum price’ was $623 million,” she said. “So that’s curious.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.