Alabama cities and counties may soon be competing for the chance to build mega-prisons for the state, but St. Clair County officials seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I don’t think there’s anything going on yet,” said state Sen. Jim McClendon, a Republican who represents Springville in the Legislature.
Just outside Springville lies St. Clair County Correctional Facility, a 1,275-bed maximum-security men’s prison with an uncertain future.
Alabama’s prisons are packed to around 170 percent of their intended capacity, and the state hasn’t built a new prison in decades. State officials say overcrowding is partly to blame for spate of violent outbreaks in various men’s prisons last year, including a stabbing that left a prison guard dead.
Gov. Robert Bentley wants to build three large new prisons, each with about 4,000 beds, to alleviate the overcrowding. Most other prisons in the state would be closed to have money, under the Bentley plan — and St. Clair Correctional, with 191 employees, is as likely to face the budget ax as any facility.
A modified version of Bentley’s plan passed the state Senate last week, and is on its way to the House in April. Under the bill, local governments that want one of the mega-prisons in their backyard can join together with other local governments to borrow money and build prisons for lease to the state. After two such prisons are underway, the state would take out a loan to build a third.
At least one county government is already gearing up for what could be a competition to host a mega-prison.
“A year ago, when the governor first proposed this idea, we started getting prepared,” Troy Stubbs, chairman of the Elmore County Commission, said.
Elmore County, just north of Montgomery, is home to three men’s prisons — Draper, Staton and Elmore — and Tutwiler Prison for Women. According to Stubbs they all employ about 700 people. Stubbs said the county’s economic development authority created a Prison Task Force to look into the county’s options.
“I don’t think anybody stands to lose as much as we do,” Stubbs said.
Last year, when the task force was formed, lawmakers were still considering a plan that would have the state building four large prisons — three for men and one for women — after taking out an $800 million bond. The new plan, which would have local governments taking on the risk of building prisons, appears to be concession to communities like Elmore, where officials hope to be able to save prison jobs.
McClendon, the state senator, said he plans to talk to city and county officials about the prison bill and the county’s options next week. County Administrator Laura Lawley said the county commission has yet to discuss the idea of building a new prison.
“I think they’re waiting to see how the prison deal will affect the county,” Lawley said.
McClendon noted that bill has yet to be debated by the House, which could change it significantly, if it passes it at all.
“It may be a little premature to plan in detail right now,” he said.
Don Smith, director of St. Clair County’s Economic Development Council, said the county’s best argument for a new prison is the fact that there’s already a prison there.
“We’ve already proven it’s a good match for us,” Smith said.
St. Clair may not need prison jobs as desperately as some other counties with prisons, many of which are thoroughly rural. Leaders in Bullock County, where unemployment was at 8.3 percent in January, referred to the prison there as “our Hyundai.” St. Clair, snuggled against populous Jefferson County, beat the state average with 6.1 percent unemployment in January.
“Losing any jobs is terrible,” Smith said. “But we do have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.”
If communities end up competing for the chance to build prisons, availability of empty land will be a factor. Stubbs, the Elmore County commissioner, says a large tract of state-owned land next to Tutwiler Prison for Women would be perfect for a 4,000-bed prison.
Calhoun County’s biggest empty tract — the unused portions of the former Fort McClellan — seems to be off the table. Years ago, the McClellan Development Authority signed off on a policy that would prevent it from seeking prisons on the former U.S. Army post. Local officials in recent weeks have considered dissolving the MDA, but board chairman Phil Webb said that push has nothing to do with the prison-building bill.
Webb said local officials would have to think carefully before even considering a prison in Anniston. It’s not just about the jobs a prison would create, he said, but about the way a prison might affect future efforts to recruit more jobs.
“If we’re looking at job creation, how much can a prison hurt you?” he said. “That’s a question I really can’t answer.”