Alabama legislators today put a temporary hold on the Alabama Department of Corrections’ plans to pay a company $10 million to design new prisons and analyze the system’s needs in preparation for the possible construction of three prisons.
The Legislature’s contract review committee can hold contracts for up to 45 days but cannot stop them.
At today’s meeting, senators and representatives had plenty of questions for Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn about whether the contract with Hoar Program Management was a sound use of money considering that plans to build prisons failed in the Legislature in 2016 and 2017.
Dunn said the contract was a necessary step in a larger, overall plan tentatively aimed at building three large, regional men’s prisons and closing most of the existing men’s prisons. Dunn said it’s a better use of taxpayer dollars than putting money into most of the state’s aging prisons.
“What we’re paying for here ultimately is the analysis, the architectural, the engineering and the design services needed to be able to put out a request for proposal to the market, if the decision is made to go forward with building these new facilities,” Dunn said. “It’s a step that we have to do in order to give the governor the option to go forward.”
Dunn said all of the men’s prisons in the state have serious infrastructure problems.
“Over 70 percent of them, according to our analysis, are well beyond their useful life and must be replaced,” Dunn said.
Dunn said the current concept is a modification of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative proposed under former Gov. Robert Bentley. That plan also called for several large prisons and closing most existing ones.
Dunn said one of the three prisons under the new plan would be for prisoners with various special needs.
“Two of these facilities are going to be very similar, and then one of them is going to be a special facility that houses the majority of our high-need mental health, high-need medical, our elderly, our very high-security requirement inmates, those types of things,” Dunn said.
The specialty facility is needed, in part, because of the issue of mental health care for inmates. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled last year that mental health care in prisons was “horrendously inadequate” and failed to meet constitutional standards. The Legislature increased funding for prisons by $80 million over two years, partly to increase mental health staffing. Lawyers representing inmates are asking the judge to hold the state in contempt of court for failure to meet deadlines on increasing staff. That issue is pending in court.
Today, several lawmakers said they were concerned about committing to the contract in pursuit of a long-range plan because there is not yet a definitive list of which prisons would close.
Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, who has three prisons in his district, and Sen. Tom Butler, R-Huntsville, both raised that concern. Beasley made the move today to put the contract on hold. It only takes one member of the committee to delay a contract. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, joined Beasley in calling for the contract to be delayed.
In response to questions, Dunn said the projected total cost of the plan with the three new prisons would be slightly under $1 billion. Dunn said it would be about 10 percent more than the estimated costs of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative proposed by Bentley, which was pegged at about $800 million. Lawmakers considered several versions of it but none passed.
England said the chances of an almost $1 billion prison plan passing the Legislature seemed bleak.
“It seems to me that the chances of this going through are even less than the chances of the last package going through,” England said. “But yet, we’re going to spend $10 million to get to a point where we already currently are.”
Hoar Program Management has already completed the first phase of its work for the ADOC. The company was first hired earlier this year for about $1.5 million. The contract under review would bring the total to about $11.5 million through February 2020.
Dunn said the first phase of Hoar Program Management’s work included an assessment of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative and whether its concept of paying for new prison facilities with savings from prison consolidations was feasible. Dunn said the company concluded that the plan was feasible, that the ADOC could save an estimated $50 million a year through consolidation.
A key component of the plan is that newer, better designed prisons could be effectively staffed with fewer correctional officers. The ADOC faces a chronic shortage of officers and will spend close to $40 million this year on overtime, Dunn said.
Dunn also said the ADOC is planning to present a correctional officer compensation package to the Legislature this year intended to help the overcome the staffing problem.
“We have two serious problems before us, the staffing issue and the facilities issue,” Dunn said. “And we can solve, I believe, both of those problems. But it is going to take additional resources. It is going to take a concerted effort by the state over a several-year period to address both the staffing and the facility issues.
“If we get the support we need to address the staffing issue, we can fund the vast majority of the facility issue with consolidation.”