Alabama Corrections expects final price tag on new prison in two months
Department still struggling with staffing
An officer is seen in the yard of Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama on Oct. 22, 2019. (File)
The commissioner of the Department of Corrections (DOC) told the Joint Prison Oversight Committee Tuesday that he expected a final price tag on a new Elmore County prison in the next two months.
Three months after legislators learned the prison could be $350 million more than what they expected, John Hamm said the construction company has given the department a preliminary guaranteed price, but there might be some deviation.
“The (Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority) board approved $974 [million] – it’s going to be somewhere north of that or somewhere right around that,” said Hamm. “It’s premature to say because there’s a lot of information we have to go through.”
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Hamm said the initial increase in funding was because of inflation and the increased demand for construction work in the state, and there will “probably” be the need for additional funding next year.
“Instead of vendors having to chase work, work is chasing vendors,” he said.
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, the chair of the committee, said that the engineers designing the prison and contractors are going back and forth, exchanging preliminary designs and price estimates.
“Ultimately, what you did is a better product for the lowest price,” Chambliss said.
Only Chambliss and Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, attended the meeting. Both lawmakers support tougher legislation to combat crime, and most of the questions for Hamm revolved around construction logistics.
Simpson did ask about the price per bed, which would be roughly about $250,000. There will be 8 beds per unit, which means each housing unit will cost about $2 million dollars.
Simpson said there’s “all kinds of rumors” surrounding the price tag.
“When the average family home in Alabama is $170,000, that kind of can get lost in the message of why are we spending $250,000 a bed on some of this stuff,” Simpson said.
Hamm declined to give the new prison a final price tag, saying it would be speculation.
Bill Poole, the state’s finance director, said the increase was necessary because the initial cost estimates changed as smaller components of the project went out for bid.
The true cost of the prison construction project will not be known until the state receives a guaranteed maximum price for the project, according to Poole, which should be coming shortly.
Democratic legislators, along with criminal reform advocates, have been critical of the project. Gov. Kay Ivey has been promoting the new prison to address the overcrowding in many of the facilities operating under the auspices of the ADOC.
In 2021, the Legislature voted to approve a $1.3 billion package to build two new prisons to house male inmates in Escambia and Elmore counties. Each one is designed to accommodate 4,000 inmates.
Lawmakers allocated about $400 million from its first round of funding from the American Rescue Plan, which brought criticism from U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York.
It has been difficult for the state to generate funding for the project. Last year, the state struggled to sell bonds it issued to help finance the construction cost.
Lawmakers have criticized Hamm over the project but have largely agreed to his budget requests. He last addressed lawmakers in a formal setting when he presented his funding request to members of the budget committees back in February.
At a February budget meeting, Hamm asked for an additional $122 million from. Much of the money would go toward infrastructure and health care needs for inmates, as well as the costs required because of ongoing litigation. Gov. Kay Ivey approved a budget with a $58.8 million increase, from $602 million to $661.7 million (a 9.8% increase).
Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections have been spearheading the effort to construct a new prison for the past few years to address the overcrowding issue that has plagued the department.
At the same time, the ADOC has struggled to maintain its staffing levels. Corrections has been losing staff in fact despite concerted efforts to recruit and retain corrections officers.
Hamm said that the department hired 61 correctional officer trainees, who will begin training July 10. He said there are more than 800 applications in the applicant pool. The department also has 350 applicants for correctional security guard positions.
According to a status report filed in Braggs v. Hamm, an ongoing lawsuit over medical and mental health services for Alabama inmates, a staffing report submitted on June 1, 2023 said that excluding cubical control officers, the department had a total correctional staff, officers and supervisors, of 1,205.5 full-time employees (FTEs) – a loss of 68 from the previous quarter.
This 5.6% loss within the last quarter aligns with the continued trend of staff loss experienced over the last two years. The current staff size of 1,205.5 FTEs marks the lowest in over two decades.
A lack of staffing has contributed to a wave of violence in men’s prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Corrections in 2020, claiming the conditions of the prisons have violated the inmates’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
The salary increases have also attracted former correctional officers, he said. The department rehired 25 officers.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but from where we were, it’s very encouraging,” he said.
Corrections also face lawsuits dealing with the medical care and mental health treatment that some inmates are receiving in prison.
So far in 2023, the department denied 50% of medical furlough applications. Medical furlough is a program that allows the release of certain inmates based on terminal illnesses, geriatric, or incapacitated conditions. Of the 22 applications submitted since January, the department approved four, about 18% approval rate.
In 2022, the department approved nine of 24 applications, about a 38% approval rate. The same year, it denied about 42% of applications.
Hamm said he puts “a lot of thought” in making decisions on applications and public safety is first thing in his mind when reviewing and approving or denying applications.
“There’s three categories geriatric, incapacitated and terminally ill. Geriatric and terminally ill – some of those individuals – we feel could be a danger to public safety, so I take that very seriously,” Hamm said.
He referenced a recent denial of a terminally ill inmate, and said that “nothing in [his application]” led him to grant a medical furlough as he felt the inmate was “very capable of committing a crime.”
“It’s not that we half- haphazardly denied these individuals medical furlough,” he said.
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