We are risking a 30-year mistake that would cost us $2.6 billion.
Governor Kay Ivey is just days away from signing contracts that will saddle taxpayers with a minimum $2.6 billion bill for leasing three new mega-prisons for 30 years. In the end, we will own equity in the prisons of exactly ZERO. The companies that held these lucrative leases will own the prisons, and we, the taxpayers, will have to start completely over and pay for the prisons a second time – pay 100% again.
We would shell out billions of dollars but own nothing in the end. We Alabamians cannot let this happen.
That is why I am calling for an independent management audit of Alabama’s Department of Corrections. I invite my fellow state leaders to join me in this call for transparency.
Is that too much to ask when our state currently allocates a whopping 25% of our general fund budget to the prisons? That’s $624 million in 2020, folks! And you can bet your bottom dollar that percentage will keep rising.
Next week, ADOC will present their proposed budget to the legislature in the budget review committee meeting. I implore our elected officials to thoroughly interrogate the spending practices and promises of the money-eating ADOC.
Given that ADOC is so heavily funded and is about to be hit with an additional $88 million a year expense for 30 years, it seems prudent for legislators to have a chance to evaluate the underlying data that supposedly justifies the prison lease plan.
ADOC says they need new prisons rather than renovate the existing ones. They insist it will be cheaper to pay $88 million in annual rent payments for 30 years–totaling $2.6 billion–than to fix and maintain the existing structures or to have the state build new prisons using bond funds.
ADOC claims that the “consolidation cost savings” associated with closing old prisons and opening new ones will cover the $88 million price tag. Their conclusion is based on a 100% confidential study done for nearly $20 million by for-profit companies Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood and Hoar Program Management.
If the claimed “consolidation cost savings” end up being overstated, ADOC will have to come crawling to the legislature licking their wounds when they inevitably need more taxpayer money. Even if ADOC does manage to scrape together the money within their current budget for the first few years, what happens when these private prison owners hike up the price after 10,000 inmates have been transferred in? The leases must be renegotiated every year. Alabama will have little choice but to pony up whatever amount the owners ask for. This is a 30-year mistake.
Beyond these likely problems, the failure of ADOC to do its basic job — keeping society, staff, and inmates safe — should have us all asking, “What exactly is ADOC doing with that $624 million anyway?” An independent management audit of ADOC finances would allow legislators and the public at large to look behind the curtain and expose any misuse of our tax dollars.
As it stands, the prison lease plan–one of the largest public expenditures in state history–will be pushed through with little opportunity for legislative or public scrutiny unless we halt it now.
Despite ADOC efforts to conduct the entire process in secrecy, anyone who’s paying attention knows enough to see what a terribly wasteful and irreversible deal this is for Alabama.
Our elected legislators have never laid eyes on the ADOC plan, and they won’t be given an opportunity to do so until Alabama is already locked in. The checks and balances by the legislative branch have been eliminated in the prison lease plan.
ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn promised they would release the proposed contracts for these prisons by the end of 2020. Here it is, almost the end of January 2021, and nothing. Is it because ADOC doesn’t want to give the legislators any time to address their dealings in their upcoming session?
ADOC insists secrecy is needed to negotiate the best deal possible with the private developers who will build and own the three mega-prisons. The more likely explanation is that ADOC wants to push this lease deal through without answering anyone.
There are no good reasons why we’re jumping into bed with for-profit corporation CoreCivic—a company with a record of abuse and mismanagement. Just ask Kansas, Tennessee, and Idaho if they would ever sign up to work with CoreCivic again.
A brief dive into ADOC public records reveals wasteful, unaccountable spending for decades. Since 2012 ADOC has spent $32.5 million on outside law firms, despite having an internal legal team.
As for wage costs, ADOC pays over $30 million in overtime pay per year–more than four times the next highest paying agency.
How easy it is for these government bureaucrats to spend our money!
Given that we are the only state prison system in the country currently facing a prison lawsuit by the Department of Justice, we must be doing something wrong.
Other states know better than to let their prisons run unchecked. Many conduct needed audits to catch problems before they balloon out of control.
Take Mississippi, a state that recently conducted a thorough audit of its prison system. Like in Alabama, Mississippi’s prisons were under investigation by the DOJ for alleged unconstitutional treatment of inmates. In response, their commissioner called for an independent management audit to root out wastefulness or corruption.
The resulting report detailed hundreds of thousands in wasteful expenses in the Mississippi DOC budget, including massage chairs, Himalayan salt lamps, and six TVs for the commissioner’s executive suite. When the findings were released, the prison system adopted all 18 recommendations within the report aimed at fixing the abuses.
“Without the [audit], it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to uncover some of the misspending here,” Mississippi State Auditor Shad White said. “It is encouraging to see [the DOC’s]proactive approach to fixing the problems.”
So far, Mississippi has avoided a DOJ lawsuit.
Alabama has not been so blessed. In December 2020, the DOJ officially sued Alabama following findings of unsafe conditions, rampant violence, and excessive use of force on inmates. What ADOC conveniently ignores is that buildings will not address the failed ADOC leadership, from Commissioner Jeff Dunn on down.
Before suing, the DOJ tried to negotiate with Gov. Ivey, Dunn, and Attorney General Steve Marshall. That went nowhere. In fact, prison conditions have worsened since the DOJ released its initial investigative report in April 2019. Like moving into a new house to save a broken marriage, new buildings will do nothing to address the real problem: failed leadership.
We are inching closer and closer to the federal government taking over the Alabama prison system — a process that means the Feds call all the shots, but we foot the unlimited bill.
Perhaps the only way to avoid a statewide takeover is to convince the DOJ that Alabama is actually trying to address its prison problems like Mississippi did. And that starts with a transparent and honest conversation about resource allocation.
If the Alabama State Auditor’s office (my office) had the authority to order such an audit, it would have already been done. But a past legislature took away such authority from the Alabama State Auditor’s office. In Mississippi, the State Auditor does have authority for a management audit, and it is producing excellent results for the taxpaying public.
If Gov Ivey really wants to find an Alabama solution to this Alabama problem, she will encourage a management audit of ADOC.
Jim Zeigler has been the Alabama State Auditor since 2015.