By David Zell
In 2014, the French government decided to overhaul its public transit system. They doled out $20 billion on 1,860 new express trains. The plan was reviewed by government officials, transit experts, and railway operators alike. But when the trains arrived, there was a small problem—they didn’t fit on the tracks.
What does this have to do with Governor Ivey’s mega-prison plan? Sometimes, even when the stakes are high, people miss the obvious.
On February 1st, Governor Kay Ivey announced she’d signed the contracts to pay private prison company CoreCivic more than $2 billion to build two mega-prisons in Alabama and lease them back to us. She and her team have argued that these new facilities will solve our overcrowding problem. Critics disagree, and argue that $2 billion dollars is too much to ask the taxpayers of Alabama to pay in rent.
Whether or not you think Ivey’s plan is good for our state, there’s a bigger problem—it’s illegal.
You read that right. In order to build new prisons, Ivey’s team is breaking the law. The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
Section 14-1-1.2 of the Code of Alabama was amended in 1999 to “require the consent of the Legislature before a penal institution is leased, transferred, or placed under the management of a nongovernmental entity.”
Ivey and her team were willing to pay a corporation three times what it would have cost to build the same prisons ourselves. Ivey and her team were willing to do this without the input of the taxpayers or a vote in the legislature. What Ivey and her team weren’t willing to do, apparently, was read their own laws. That, or they think we’re all morons.
Alabama law explicitly requires the consent of the legislature before the Department of Corrections enters into a lease. The law does not specify whether it bars us from leasing a prison to a corporation or a corporation leasing a prison to us. It simply says a prison may not be leased without first obtaining the consent of the legislature—something Governor Ivey hasn’t even attempted to do.
According to State Auditor, Jim Zeigler, “They missed the obvious and I’m not surprised. I don’t know whether they misread it or ignored it, but it’s right there. Ivey’s plan is flat-out illegal.” It may seem unlikely. How could our Governor, her team, and Alabama lawyers push forward a $2 billion plan without following the law? Well, France spent $20 billion on trains that didn’t fit the tracks.
David Zell is a graduate student at The University of Alabama, a University Fellow, and a member of the school’s Blackburn Institute. He is the co-founder of Alabama Students Against Prisons and a policy research intern at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.