Alabama bypasses bid process to move fast on prison builds

Morgan Duckett speaks during a protest of the prison plan outside the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. Alabama lawmakers have begun began debate on a prison construction package that would tap $400 million of the state’s pandemic relief funds to help pay for building three new lockups. The Alabama House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bills Wednesday evening. (Jake Crandall /The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

Alabama intends to move quickly on building new prisons under a plan that taps pandemic relief funds and could skip the normal bidding process for the construction of two supersize facilities.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey Friday signed into law the $1.3 billion construction plan to build two 4,000-bed prisons and a new prison for women and renovate other facilities. The plan taps $400 million from the American Rescue Plan — money the state has already received — and could steer the construction contracts toward companies that previously qualified for the work.

The construction bill signed into law bypasses the normal bidding process for the two 4,000-bed facilities. It specifies that the state instead can negotiate directly with entities that were part of development teams that qualified for the projects under a lease plan that Ivey’s administration had pursued but abandoned. Those entities include Birmingham-based construction giant BL Harbert International and Montgomery-based Caddell Construction. Caddell and BL are each expected to be the main contractors for one of the two prisons, Republican Sen. Greg Albritton said.

Lawmakers said working with those companies will allow the state to incorporate the prior work, saving both time and money.

“The main thing is time, and time is of the essence. This is going to enable us to start these projects 12 months in advance, and time is money,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Steve Clouse.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, defending the selection language, said the companies previously went through a selection process under the lease plan. The law specifies that if the state doesn’t reach an agreement with one of those companies, officials will start over with a fresh selection process seeking bids on the work.

Alabama officials will have the money to start construction after lawmakers approved $400 million in virus funds and another $150 million from the state’s general fund, in addition to agreeing to borrow $785 million through a bond issue.

“We can start this construction now with the money we have on hand now … without having to wait to float bonds,” Albritton said. “I believe we’re going to see dirt flying in January.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Alabama over a prison system “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.

Dozens of advocacy groups objected to the prison construction plan.

“We do not believe the issues facing Alabama’s prisons are about the buildings,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

“We think it’s entirely about leadership, culture, and the practices,” Stevenson said. “I just think engaging in a costly effort around new prisons is not going to solve the problem and worse is distracting us from dealing with the prisons.”

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.