Roughly 200 miles northeast of Mobile, 150 concerned citizens gathered just three days before a presidential election to make a political statement.
It had nothing to do with Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Tommy Tuberville or Doug Jones. It was to oppose Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposal to locate a new prison near Tallassee, an East Alabama town that straddles the Elmore and Tallapoosa county line on the Tallapoosa River.
Elmore County has a long-standing commitment to Alabama’s prison facilities that dates back to the 1830s. The problem is the Ivey proposal would have new facilities built on the opposite side of Elmore County.
Similar pushback has come from residents in Bibb County, another location for a new facility in Alabama. In recent years, Bibb County has become a bedroom community for Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.
As one might imagine, people who have bought homes with the intent of raising their families in a relatively rural part of the state are opposing that component of the governor’s effort.
Closer to home, up in Escambia County, State Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, revealed that some of his constituents are not happy about the third location of Ivey’s new prison plan, which is within his State Senate district. It just has not been as public, he maintains.
At this point in time, there is not much if anything the Alabama Legislature can do to stop Kay Ivey given they are out of session until February, and Ivey is expected to sign an agreement before February.
Ivey is in a precarious position regarding the prison issue.
The Department of Justice has threatened Alabama on numerous occasions over violations of the Eighth Amendment. Alabama’s three U.S. Attorneys have, on multiple occasions, hinted at possible legal action, which could result in the feds, under an order of a U.S. District Court, “fixing” the problem for the state and sending taxpayers the bill.
Past governors and Legislatures have failed to resolve the problem and over time, it has gotten worse.
The origins of the current situation go back to the early 1980s under Gov. George Wallace, who faced a similar dilemma. While under control of the federal government, Wallace turned new prison construction into an economic development program and built facilities all around the state.
While those prisons have served some community economies well around Alabama, having multiple facilities spread out around the state has created a situation that has been difficult for state officials to manage, given resources have to be shared by facilities separated by hundreds of miles in some cases.
Under Ivey’s plan, there will be consolidation. However, the Alabama Department of Corrections would lease new construction instead of owning it.
Historically, the Legislature would pass a bond issue and use those proceeds to build prisons the state would own, maintain and staff. Under these circumstances, the state government would still staff the new prisons, but it would pay rent for 30 years to private companies that would own and supposedly maintain the facilities.
According to proponents of the proposal, the cost savings would pay for the governor’s plan, and therefore, it could be done without the Alabama Legislature’s approval.
Some members of the Legislature question the governor’s math for a plan. What if there are cost overruns? Would the state be on the hook, which could require appropriations from future Legislatures?
Furthermore, the pushback from voters in areas where new prisons are slated to be built could threaten the plan. Officially, now that the 2020 presidential election is behind us, the 2022 election cycle is upon us, and all statewide constitutional offices and legislative seats are on the November 2022 ballot.
If the backlash is enough, could that force the Legislature to pass a bill with some language that would forbid these facilities’ construction? It is almost as if the governor and her chief of staff, Jo Bonner, did not learn the lessons of the toll bridge fiasco.
Sometimes it takes more than force through executive fiat to get things done.
If the Legislature should pass something that would hamstring the Ivey administration — and remember, a simple majority can override the governor’s veto — it would create problems for Alabama.
It could force the Department of Justice to act. Ask California how that worked out when the feds forced their hand.
In a fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, California was mandated to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates.
Whatever number is assigned by the federal courts should Alabama face similar circumstances would be too much for many Alabamians.
Taking inmates who have not been fully rehabilitated and releasing them on the streets without employment or economic prospects is a recipe for disaster and could result in a spike in crime.
Governor Ivey suddenly has a lot of things working against her. If the go-it-alone approach falls apart because of opposition, what is the backup plan? Will it be like this administration’s approach with the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge?
When that failed because local governments got engaged, Ivey and her Alabama Department of Transportation director, John Cooper, walked away, never to be heard from again. Walking away will not be an option on the prison issue.
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