Alabama is building a new supersize prison that will cost over $1 billion – the most expensive incarceration facility in U.S. history.
The Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority late last month approved a final price of $1.08 billion for the 4,000-bed prison now under construction in Elmore County.
The final amount is in. The State of Alabama will spend $1.082 billion for a new prison, the most expensive prison ever built in the United States. $270,500 per bed.
— Alabama Appleseed (@AlaAppleseed) September 26, 2023
And Alabama isn’t the only state moving forward with plans for larger, pricier prisons, with proponents of such facilities citing the need to address issues of overcrowding, poor sanitation conditions and a lack of mental health resources in the current facilities.
Nebraska is building a new $350 million, 1,500-bed prison to replace the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Supporters say it will alleviate the overflow of inmates in the state’s prisons, which hold about 50% more people than they were designed for.
“This investment is a key part of our community,” Rob Jeffreys, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, told CBS affiliate KOLN. “It [provides the] ability to keep people safe.”
In Georgia, officials have been tasked by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to find the funds for a $1.69 billion facility with 4,500 beds to replace the current Fulton County Jail — known to locals by its address, Rice Street — which many advocates say is beyond repair.
“It’s an obligation that we have,” Commissioner Bob Ellis told Atlanta News First.
Supporters of the prisons say the new facilities will relieve issues that have long plagued jails, making them more susceptible to homicides, virus outbreaks and abusive conditions that, in the most extreme instances, have prompted the Department of Justice to step in.
“The new prison facilities being built in Alabama are critically important to public safety, to our criminal justice system and to Alabama as a whole,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.
However, prison reform advocates say building newer prisons without addressing the underlying causes of the problems that plagued the old facilities will only put a temporary Band-Aid on an issue that needs a long-term solution.
“No experts have said that newer jails will solve our prison crisis,” Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment and racial injustice, told Yahoo News.
Morrison and other advocates also argue that the lack of meaningful rehabilitation in many prisons is a contributing factor to the overall decline of conditions inside. They suggest that other reforms aimed at speeding up processing times for inmates and reducing the number of people incarcerated for minor infractions could also help ease overcrowding.
“If you have a football team that’s losing year after year, a new stadium doesn’t make it better. You need new leadership,” Morrison said.
Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a nonprofit dedicated to dismantling the prison industry, believes “the more beds there are, the more people will be put in them.”
“The issue is not the building,” Tylek told Yahoo News. “It’s the system and the system actors in it.”
Tylek, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the prison industry, adds that a lack of transparency from jails on inmate deaths and other serious uprisings conflated with a system that disproportionately locks up people of color and poor people is reason enough to take a harder look at the underlying issues.
Other critics have balked at Alabama lawmakers’ willingness to spend $1 billion on a prison when 1 out of 4 children in the state — one of the poorest in the country — and 17% of adults there struggle with food insecurity.
“Many in Alabama don’t have access to food, running water, and health care,” Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, in September.
Many in Alabama don’t have access to food, running water, and health care.
It is unconscionable that state leaders would spend over $1 billion to construct the most expensive super-prison in the nation.
This should outrage everyone! https://t.co/nZ5pwdJy1J
— Rep. Terri A. Sewell (@RepTerriSewell) September 28, 2023
“It is unconscionable that state leaders would spend over $1 billion to construct the most expensive super-prison in the nation,” Sewell’s post continued. “This should outrage everyone!”
Some have also raised questions about who will pay for the prisons in Alabama, Nebraska and Georgia, with opponents objecting to making taxpayers foot the bill.
The Alabama prison is expected to be completed in May 2026, according to the contract terms. In Nebraska, construction is expected to begin in the fall of 2024. The expected opening date for the Georgia prison, once plans are approved, is 2029.
At the same time, plans for additional prison construction projects, including a new jail to replace New York City’s notorious Rikers Island, are also beginning to take shape.
Real prison reform requires comprehensive change
“Make no mistake about it, the primary purpose of this prison construction plan is not to efficiently build prisons that will solve the litany of issues that currently plague our prison system. If that were the goal, the plan being discussed today would be a hybrid, comprehensive plan that involved renovations of current facilities, new construction and upgrades to medical, mental health and job training facilities.” — Josh Moon, Alabama Political Reporter
New prisons will be better for those living — and working — inside them
“This is about not just creating a safer environment for the inmates. This is about a safer environment for our corrections officers to work in.” — State Rep. Rex Reynolds, chairman of the Alabama House General Fund Budget Committee, to the Associated Press
The Alabama project has been “cloaked in secrecy”
“From the beginning, this project has been cloaked in secrecy. The state and the firms it has hired have denied public information requests that could reveal what exactly tax money is buying or who is getting paid. They have refused to show so much as what this prison would look like, citing security issues. … What seems clear now is that no one ever really knew how much this was going to cost.” — Kyle Whitmire, AL.com
Jailing people in the current facilities is “inhumane”
“At a certain point, we have an ailing correctional facility in the penitentiary. And it becomes inhumane to incarcerate people in that facility.” — Sen. Anna Wishart, a member of the Appropriations Committee, to Nebraska Public Media
New prisons fail to address the real issues
“Let’s begin with the key question: Why is the jail overcrowded in the first place?” — Fulton County Commission Chair Robb Pitts, the Georgia Sun
Meaningful change should focus on rehabilitation
“Normalizing prison environments with evidence-based programming, including cognitive behavioral therapy, education and personal development, will help incarcerated individuals lead successful lives in the community as family members, employees and community residents.”