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August 8, 2022

Alabama to borrow $725 million to help fund prison construction

Alabama officials approved a $725 million bond sale on Thursday to help finance construction of two supersize prisons, housing up to 4,000 inmates each, as part of a building plan that also relies on a portion of the state’s pandemic relief dollars.

The Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority, which is chaired by Gov. Kay Ivey, met briefly at the Alabama Capitol to approve the sale of the bonds. That money will be added to $135 million in state funds and $400 million in pandemic relief dollars that the state already agreed to put toward the project.

Alabama officials are pursuing construction of new prisons to replace aging facilities, calling that a partial solution to the state’s longstanding troubles in corrections. The U.S. Department of Justice has an ongoing lawsuit against the state over prison conditions.

Critics of the construction plan argue the state is ignoring the bigger issues — prison staffing levels and leadership — to focus on buildings. State officials maintain the new facilities will replace aging and expensive-to-maintain prisons and provide a safer environment for both inmates and staff.

“We are not adding beds. We are not adding, rather we are replacing and modernizing with facilities that will utilize modern design to meet modern prison standards We will have enhanced health care and mental health facilities. We will have enhanced vocational facilities,” Finance Director Bill Poole told reporters after the meeting. He said the state will go to the bond market next week.

Alabama lawmakers approved the construction plan in October, including tapping $400 million from the state’s share of American Rescue Plan funds to help pay for the work.

The two new prisons are to be located in Elmore and Escambia counties. Some site work has gotten underway using the available funds. “We have some simple dirt work underway with the projects and we’ll be excited to move up with the ground-up construction as soon as possible,” Poole said.

The approval comes after the construction plan — which was pursued under two different administrations — hit various snags over the years. An earlier version of the plan would have seen the state lease prisons built and owned by private companies. But that fell through after underwriters withdrew under pressure from activists to not be involved with private prison companies.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Alabama over a prison system it says is riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence. The Justice Department noted in an earlier report that dilapidated facilities were a contributing factor to the unconstitutional conditions but wrote “new facilities alone will not resolve” the matter because of problems in culture, management deficiencies, corruption, violence and other problems.

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