/Letter to the editor: Wake Up Alabama…We’re Getting Robbed Blind

Letter to the editor: Wake Up Alabama…We’re Getting Robbed Blind

Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison expansion deal will cost Alabama billions we don’t have…and guarantee a federal takeover of our facilities. 

Wake up Alabama. We’re getting robbed blind. Our Governor’s prison expansion plan means we’re going to pay companies more than $3.7 billion to build three new facilities. They’ll lease them back to us over a 30-year period. That’s right—as soon as we’re done forking over billions of dollars we don’t have, we won’t own a thing in the end. We’ll be right back where we started—with unconstitutional prisons and dwindling options—just an extra three billion in the hole. 

If $3 billion seems like a lot of cash for three buildings to you, you’re onto something. We know how much it would cost for us to build them ourselves: $900 million. So, what’s the difference between this and Ivey’s plan? Besides the fact that we’d actually own these prisons, there isn’t one. Kay Ivey wants the taxpayers of this state to dole out an extra $2.8 billion dollars to rent the same product we could own. 

Let’s get this straight. First, we’re told that building new prisons ourselves will cost less than a billion dollars. Then, Ivey starts working without the Legislature to craft secret deals with private corporations. Afterward, the cost of the construction for the same plan triples. Finally, just before the contracts are signed, the cost goes up another billion. We’re getting robbed, people.  

Ivey just thinks we’re too dumb to put the pieces together.  

Everyone knows that when a liar is caught, they’ll try to lie their way out. Our Governor is no different. When Ivey announced the signing of these contracts, she put out a “fact sheet” that said without her plan, the Feds will take our prisons over and release criminals onto the streets. If Ivey really is concerned about a federal receivership, she’s doing a poor job of showing it. Her $3 billion backroom deal is a one-way ticket to a federal takeover.  

The truth is out there, folks. Ivey just thinks we won’t be bothered to read.  

The DOJ report and lawsuit told us exactly why our prisons are unconstitutional—because the Alabama Department of Corrections can’t run a prison. Aside from notes about broken locks and cameras, none of their complaints had anything to do with physical concerns over the facilities. Instead, they told us we don’t have the staff to make it work. We have 33% of the staff we need. We’ve been dealing with understaffing and high turnover for the last 20 years. Even if we hired as many guards as we’ve hired over the last decade, our prisons would still be understaffed. How can we expect the same department that left a man to die gasping out the window for cool air as he cooked in a 109-degree cell and routinely beats people beyond recognition to do a better job with newer buildings? These are the reasons the DOJ found our prisons unconstitutional. Our Department of Corrections, the same one that takes 25% of our State’s discretionary spending and still manages to run the most dysfunctional prison system in America, has got to change. Simply put, the charges laid out by the DOJ are problems new prisons cannot solve.  

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has had half a decade to address this problem. Whether he’s inept or just doesn’t care is beside the point. As long as Dunn is behind the wheel, the Feds will take over our prisons no matter what we do. 

There’s more folks. That same DOJ report actually gave us a step-by-step plan to evade their crosshairs. They gave us 5 pages of recommendations. Not one of them mentions new construction. 

What assurance do we have that ignoring every one of the DOJ’s recommendations and having the same incompetent Department of Corrections operate new facilities will get them to stand down? Why don’t we know what it would cost the State to just do what the DOJ told us to? Even if we spend the billion dollars it would take to handle all of our deferred maintenance (not just repairing locks and cameras), we’d have the funds to fix our staffing problem, prevent a federal takeover, and still have money left over. If we build new facilities without addressing the real reasons our prisons have been targeted by the DOJ, we’re putting a $3 billion dollar Band-Aid on a bullet wound—guaranteeing a federal takeover. 

Before we do anything, the taxpayers of Alabama need to ask themselves two things. First, can the ADOC get their act together just because they’ve got new buildings? Second, how much would it cost to actually follow the DOJ’s requests? Governor Ivey cannot spend billions our State desperately needs until we have these answers. The only way we’ll get them is with a public audit of the ADOC and a cost estimate of the DOJ-endorsed policies. Until then, here’s what we know: Governor Ivey cannot move forward with her plan to rent new prisons when the best ways to address the DOJ lawsuit come at a fraction of the cost.

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David Zell is a Junior at the University of Alabama and Co-Founder of Alabama Students Against Prisons, a coalition of nearly 300 Alabama students from 28 colleges, universities, and law schools. He is a Policy Research intern at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a University Fellow, and a member of UA’s Blackburn Institute.