By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced last week that one of three privately built “mega prisons” will be located in Escambia County. The other two will be built in Bibb and Elmore counties.
According to a press release, the new 3,000-bed facility will be located on a site “near Bell Fork Road in Escambia County.” But Atmore Mayor Jim Staff said last week the massive correctional facility will actually be located “south of Interstate 65 and east of Rivercane,” near the location where the community’s new hospital is to be built.
An Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) official was quoted by WEAR television as saying, “the procurement process has now entered into a confidential negotiation period to ensure and secure the best possible value for the State, (so) we cannot disclose additional details regarding the proposed site in Escambia County at this time.”
Ivey said new prisons are a necessary part of a larger plan to fix a system that is plagued by violence, a shortage of correctional officers and overcrowding.
The Ivey administration expects construction of the three new prisons, which are expected to cost a total of $1 billion, to save the state about $89 million a year in maintenance expenses and payroll costs by allowing ADOC officials to close aging, outdated prisons and consolidate operations.
Atmore Mayor Jim Staff said he was proud to learn that the state’s southern-tier prison would be located near the city. He said the most important aspect of that would be saving the estimated 380 jobs that currently exist at Holman and Fountain correctional facilities, just outside Atmore, although he admitted that few are actually local jobs.
“I think it’s fantastic, especially after all the waiting we’ve been doing,” Staff said of Ivey’s announcement. “It’s true that most of the jobs out there are filled by folks from Monroe, Clarke, Mobile, Conecuh and other counties, but they’ll be spending their money here.”
Jess Nicholas, who was with Coastal Gateway Economic Development Alliance when the effort to have the prison built here was launched more than four years ago, agreed that retention of jobs is the most important component of the announcement.
“I’m very happy to know that the jobs here in Escambia County are going to remain in Escambia County,” said Nicholas, now president and CEO of Centerfire Economic. “The city and county have been great partners, and everybody who could have played a role in this, did, including the governor, the legislature and the department of corrections.”
Nicholas said he doesn’t expect much change in the number of jobs at the new prison when it is built.
“We’re expecting the same amount or more of permanent jobs than we have presently,” he said. “We expect it to be a larger facility, so we’re not anticipating any job reduction.”
However, according to figures released by state officials, the state’s revamped prison system will consist of five Level IV and Level V facilities and will require a total of 2,807 jobs (2,336 security; 471 support). That is 959 less jobs than currently required for the 13 institutions at those levels (3,866).
Nicholas said the biggest economic boon to the immediate area would come when construction gets under way in 2021.
“There will be a substantial temporary impact with construction jobs, from motels, hotels, restaurants and rental properties,” Nicholas said. “It’s not uncommon to have 1,000 to 2,000 jobs in a construction project of this size.”
In fact, according to estimates provided in the governor’s press release, the project is expected to create 2,800 construction jobs over the estimated two-plus years it will take to build.
The three new prisons will be privately built and leased to the state. ADOC will operate and staff the facilities, but developers will provide infrastructure maintenance and life-cycle replacement for the duration of the leases. Financial terms of the leases will be made public later this year.
“Given the failing state of the ADOC’s existing infrastructure and that the Department already is faced with more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance costs alone, pursuing new construction without raising taxes or incurring debt is the fiscally sound and responsible decision,” Ivey said.
ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn expressed similar sentiments.
“It is no secret that the ADOC is facing real, longstanding challenges, most of which are decades in the making and rooted in inadequate, crowded, and structurally failing facilities,” Dunn said. “Building new facilities that improve safety and security for staff and inmates and allow for effective inmate rehabilitation is the right and only path forward.”