Updated at 12:52 a.m. to clarify one of Dr. Goodson’s statements was in response to McNeely’s statement involving impact of a pump.
In April of 2019, the Department of Justice notified the state of Alabama that the Alabama Department of Corrections was in violation of the constitution for its failure to “protect prisoners from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; and maintain facilities that are sanitary, safe, or secure.”
According to Alabama Appleseed, this marked “the first time in the 39-year history of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (“CRIPA”), the U.S. Department of Justice found an entire state prison system for men operating in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
In what is seen as a response to this report, several prisons were closed down, and plans to construct three new prisons were announced.
For many living in the small, unincorporated community of Brierfield, the news that there were plans to construct a prison there came as a surprise – and not a pleasant one.
The plan to construct a prison in the area was announced by Gov. Ivy on Sept. 3 and was the first that the residents living there had heard of it. This caused a large deal of displeasure for many of the residents, leading to the formation of the “Block the Brierfield Prison” group on Facebook, and a petition on change.org.
As of Nov. 17, the Facebook page had a little over 1,000 followers, and the petition had around 2,300 online signatures.
Jackson McNeely, the main coordinator for the “Block the Brierfield Prison” Facebook group, questioned why ADOC wouldn’t make renovations to the current prison in Bibb County and stated that the prison would have a negative impact on the water situation.
In an email to The Alabamian, ADOC stated that “after thorough evaluations by correctional and independent experts, it has been determined that repairing or renovating each of our existing facilities is neither operationally nor financially feasible.”
The email went on to say, “our current facilities are structurally failing, were never designed to provide comprehensive, evidence-based rehabilitation, and, in some instances, have been fully or partially decommissioned due to risks of continued operation.”
The Alabamian asked the ADOC how they would address the concerns McNeely and others had surrounding the water source and other environmental concerns, but received no answer.
Many Brierfield residents draw their water from wells, and according to McNeely, a prison the size of the one proposed would need a pump that could affect up to ten miles of underground water sources.
“We don’t have sewer; Brierfield residents are on septic,” said McNeely.
Dr. Kenya Goodson, a professor of UM and a board member for the Cahaba River Society, told The Alabamian in an interview that she agreed she was concerned, but did not know enough details to say for certain whether McNeely’s statement on the pumps potential impact was accurate.
“It is unclear [to] me where they are going to be getting their water source from, but from what I understand, if they are taking water from that aquifer that is a potential drinking source, so it may have an impact on the drinking water in that community. But as I [said], I don’t know where they are getting their water source from,” said Goodson.
Goodson clarified during her interview that while she was a member of the Cahaba River Society, she was not representing the organization and was only expressing her own views.
For Goodson, one of the largest questions about the prison revolved around whether an NPDES – National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System – permit had been obtained.
According to epa.gov “The NPDES permit program, created in 1972 by the Clean Water Act (CWA), helps address water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants to waters of the United States.”
Goodson explained that one of the requirements for obtaining an NPDES permit requires that the affected community must be given notice and time to leave comments online.
“There’s not a lot of transparency, from my understanding, with this project,” said Goodson. “…you potentially have a federal regulation violation if you have a permit that’s issued without any kind of knowledge given or information given to the community.”
Currently, it is not clear if a permit has been acquired or when it would be acquired.
“It could potentially be an environmental justice issue because the citizens of Brierfield were not notified that this prison was going to be there until Kay Ivey made this announcement,” said Goodson.
An even larger complaint for McNeely and other residents of Brierfield was the lack of notice. Most residents found out about the prison through newspapers.
McNeely stated that her group had attempted to set up a public question and answer session with the ADOC, but ADOC cancelled because of a conflict with the originally planned time. They offered to have a private meeting, but McNeely refused, insisting that it needed to be public.
As part of its correspondence with The Alabamian, ADOC stated that they “look forward to reaching the point in the procurement process when we can provide more information that assuages potential concerns, and begin to build strong relationships akin to those that exist with the communities in which our current facilities are located.”
University of Montevallo President Dr. John W. Stewart III said that he found out about the prison through a news article around the same time as many of the residents of Brierfield. Stewart met with Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner, Jeff Dunn on Sept. 9 to discuss the prison.
According to Stewart, Dunn was “very forthcoming” about the developing prison. One of the main questions that Stewart had for Dunn was whether the prison was “something that could be changed.”
Based upon Dunn’s response, Stewart believes that it is most likely that the prison will be constructed somewhere in Brierfield, but he also said that Dunn told him that nothing was “set in stone” yet.
Regarding the concerns voiced by groups such as “Block the Brierfield Prison” about ecological impact, Stewart said that he did not have enough information to make a comment.
“Obviously, we have concerns about our ecology,” said Stewart.
While Stewart was unable to give any information on the potential effects of the prison on the surrounding wetlands, he did say that he believed that the ADOC was aware of the concerns, and expressed hope that they would be addressed.
Stewart did not endorse or condemn the prison’s construction in Brierfield, but he did say that the University would work to make the best of things if the prison was constructed there.
“If it is determined that the final choice for it is the Brierfield location, we’ll have to determine if there are opportunities for students,” said Stewart.
Specifically, Stewart said the University would look for “opportunities for academic programs involving the prison that could serve students like criminal justice, law, and with existing programs like management, social work and counseling.”