Last week, less than 24 hours before the start of the 2021 legislative session, Gov. Kay Ivey signed two 30-year lease agreements that will likely set in motion the construction of two large men’s prisons in Alabama.
The facilities will be located near Atmore in nearby Escambia County and near Tallassee in Elmore County. A third prison lease is expected to be signed by the governor for another facility in Bibb County near Brierfield.
The move by Ivey has united elements of the left and the right in opposition to the plan.
Some conservatives question the unprecedented use of executive power by Ivey for inking a 30-year deal without the Legislature’s consent, reportedly with a price tag of $3 billion, with annual payments starting at $94 million and increasing every year.
Republicans in Montgomery are divided on the issue. According to GOP leadership in the Legislature, Ivey is acting within her power. More outspoken critics like State Reps. Rich Wingo and Arnold Mooney question the lack of transparency.
Some, including State Auditor Jim Zeigler, say the effort is a violation of separation of powers. In theory, the legislative branch has the power of the purse strings, and therefore, obligating expenditures from future general fund budgets is unconstitutional.
According to House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, there is an effort by Andalusia State Rep. Mike Jones that would use Ivey’s construction plan but finance it through bond issue instead of leases while rates are at all-time lows.
To further complicate the issue, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is in the process of taking action against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) for violations of the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” provision.
While Republicans’ responses are mixed, the Democrat minority is united. They oppose this new prison construction plan on ideological grounds. The question from State Rep. Christopher England, who is also the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, is how new prisons will stop violence, corruption and abuse within the Alabama prison system.
Democrats argue prison overcrowding is solved by not adding more prison beds (although it’s not clear the Ivey plan results in a net increase in prison beds), but with sentencing reform and other tweaks to statutes that would lessen the burden on the prison system.
A quick scan of the Alabama House of Representatives’ website shows a few bills filed by House Democrats pertaining to ADOC. Reps. England, Laura Hall and Rolanda Hollis seek to tweak prison oversight and sentencing and prohibit certain practices regarding pregnant female inmates.
All are honorable gestures, but missing is legislation that might prohibit ADOC from entering into the long-term agreement imposed on the state’s taxpayers.
There are eight Democrat members of the Alabama Senate and 28 Democrats in the Alabama House. None of them have filed a bill that would prohibit the state of Alabama from entering into a lease-build agreement.
Granted, Democrats are in a super minority. However, if the language were simple and there were no strings attached, there might be enough Republicans to go along with it.
Supporters of the governor’s lease-build plan are quick and right to point out the Alabama Legislature has failed on numerous occasions to tackle its prison problem.
However, it is used as justification — ironically by certain legislators — for the Ivey administration to go it alone without the legislative branch’s consent.
Past efforts failed for different reasons. First, Republicans tend to be ideologically opposed to prison construction. The prevailing wisdom is, if you do the crime, you have to do the time, and if the conditions are rough, so be it. You should have thought about that when committing the crime. But why use precious resources on prisons when schools and other state agencies are experiencing shortfalls?
Second, like many things with this state, we are still paying for the past sins of George Corley Wallace. In the 1980s, the Wallace administration faced similar problems as the DOJ had found Alabama’s prison system to be substandard.
Wallace took those unfortunate circumstances and made them a justification for using Alabama’s corrections system as an economic development program. For that reason, instead of having one, two or three centralized prison facilities, there are several scattered throughout Alabama.
Forty years later, those prisons are still the main economic engine in some communities. And their elected representatives on Goat Hill have been unwilling to agree to any compromise that would mean those facilities go away.
Governor Ivey is going to overcome all those obstacles and do an end run around the Legislature. She will likely be successful, because, as far as anyone can tell, there’s a lot of griping from Republican and Democrat lawmakers, but no efforts to make any laws that would stop the governor’s proposed long-term lease deal.
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