With state prisons near double capacity, Perry County facility resembles ghost town

UNIONTOWN — In a state where most prisons are packed to nearly twice their capacity, warden Jim Mullins presides over a correctional ghost town.

Whole wings of Perry County Correctional Center sit darkened and empty. Closed-circuit cameras scan seemingly vacant rooms. In the prison's broad courtyard, built for 250 and watched by guards from a secure control room, there are barely enough inmates to get up a three-on-three game of basketball.

"If you were here on a day when this was at full capacity," Mullins said. "It would be impressive, to say the least, how smoothly it operates."

Perry County Correctional is a private, for-profit prison just outside of tiny Uniontown. It never belonged to the state, or to Perry County, but Alabama once leased hundreds of beds here — a pressure valve for a prison system where more than 25,000 people live in institutions built for 13,000.

Today, Perry County Correctional houses just 30 inmates, all of them federal. The prison has 734 beds, Mullins said, and 26 people on staff.

The owner of the prison, Louisiana-based LCS Correction Services, is trying to persuade the state to buy the nearly-empty prison, or at least bring back the prisoners who once lived here. Lawmakers don't seem too interested. With both options, they run into the same problem.

"We just don't have the money," said Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, vice chairman of the Joint Legislative Prison Committee, which oversees prison policy for the Legislature. The idea of a new prison is appealing, Farley said, but he can’t imagine how the state would pay for it.

Farley and other members of the committee were scheduled to tour Perry County Correctional on Thursday morning, then meet at the prison to discuss their regular business. The tour was canceled when only two members, Farley and committee chair Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said they'd show up.

For years, the committee has grappled with the problem of overcrowding in the state's prisons. There are more than 32,000 people in custody of the prison system in Alabama. Roughly 25,000 are in aging state prisons. Thousands more are in other facilities such as work-release programs, county jails or leased prison space like the beds the state once rented at Perry County Correctional.

State officials fret that overcrowding could eventually lead to a court order to reduce the prison population. Building a new prison could cost as much as $100 million, state officials have said. The state's $389 million prison budget barely has enough money to pay for security upgrades at Tutwiler Prison for Women, which has been roiled by allegations of sexual abuse of inmates by employees.

Lack of money is the reason the state pulled its prisoners out of Perry County Correctional, state officials say. Alabama housed 449 inmates there at one point in 2011, according to Department of Corrections statistics. The next year, there were only seven. This year, none.

The state paid only $32 per day to house each inmate at Perry County Correctional, prison statistics show. That's less than the $42-per-day cost of the average state prisoner.

Still, Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said, moving inmates to the prison doesn't save money, because it doesn't reduce the operating cost of the prison they're leaving. With a high population at every state prison, he said, there's no room to reduce staff at a prison when a relatively small number of prisoners get transferred.

"Our cost to run our prisons is pretty fixed, if you will," Corbett said. "If you took out 100 inmates and put them in Perry County, all you're doing is adding a new expense."

Meanwhile, Mullins oversees an eerily quiet prison where staff nearly outnumber inmates. Inmates eat at a pair of fold-up tables in the corner of a cafeteria built for 250. Most of the prison's inmates live in a single 64-man pod in one of the prison's wings. There are enough beds that each could have a bottom bunk, if he wanted.

"People talk about this place like it's the promised land," said Steven Marks, the only person walking on the track in the prison's courtyard Thursday morning. Marks said he's awaiting the outcome of a charge under the federal racketeering law known as RICO. He described the prison as a positive change from the last jail he was held in.

"Mobile Metro has five people to a cell," he said.

Calvin Watts was an inmate at the prison years ago, when it was nearly full. Now he's back, waiting to hear where he'll be sent to serve out a six-year sentence for a drug crime.

It's better with fewer people, he said.

"When you get a lot of people, tempers flare," Watts said.

Watts and Marks are here courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service, the only agency that has a contract with Perry County Correctional now, according to Mullins. The warden said most of those inmates are either awaiting trial or waiting for word on what prison they'll be assigned to.

The prison once housed hundreds of undocumented immigrants who'd been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That contract was canceled because of budgeting concerns at the federal level, Mullins said.

Most Alabamians, if they know Perry County Correctional at all, know it because of a 2009 prison break by two inmates, who were captured in North Dakota after a shootout with police. Seven members of the staff were fired after an investigation found security lapses leading to the escape, according to press accounts from 2009.

Mullins, who was promoted to warden after those firings, said the escape wasn't the reason for the cancellation of the state contract. Corbett and other state officials said the same.

Running a nearly-empty prison is costing LCS money, company officials acknowledge. They won't say how much.

"That's something we normally don't discuss," said LCS spokesman Richard Harbison. "But it doesn't take an Einstein to see the effect it could have."

Harbison wouldn't discuss how much it cost to build the prison. He acknowledged that the company has hired lobbyist Steve Windom, a former lieutenant governor, to persuade the state to buy the prison or lease space again.

Neither Harbison nor Windom would discuss a potential price tag for the prison.

"It's a great facility, and it's an economic engine for the area," Windom said.

Perry County, 100 miles southwest of Birmingham in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt region, is one of the poorest counties in the state. Mullins said there have been layoffs as the prison population declined. A few years ago the prison had 84 employees, he said.

The prison can no longer claim it houses an inmate at $32 per day, Mullins said. The cost of running the prison for just 30 inmates has skewed those numbers.

Asked if his inmates, blessed with ample space, still get into fights, Mullins nodded and shrugged.

"It's a prison," he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

University of Alabama graduate student Ryan Phillips contributed reporting.