In September of 2019, Janice Wisener came across two trucks and an SUV sitting in the driveway of her property outside of the small city of Tallassee in Elmore County, Alabama.
“I wondered who they were because they were sitting in my driveway, but when I asked them who they were they couldn’t say,” she said. When she asked them what they needed, they responded only that they weren’t there for her property, but for the property next door.
But when she searched the company online, she put two and two together. “I googled to see who they were and what they did, and it said that they built prisons. And that’s how we found out about it,” she said. “There was no transparency at all. None.”
The proposed Tallassee prison is part of a plan by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey to build three new prisons to hold an estimated 10,000 incarcerated men, more than half of Alabama’s approximately 17,000 male inmates.
In addition to the prison near Tallassee, the other two prisons are planned to be built near Brierfield, an unincorporated community in Bibb County, Alabama, and Atmore, a city of around 9,500 people in Escambia County, Alabama.
The site for the proposed Tallassee prison lies adjacent to Wisener’s property, where she and her husband raise cattle and grow corn, cotton, and hay. They are a few miles outside of the city limits, with a population of roughly 4,700 people. The prison is designed to hold 3,964 incarcerated people, which would nearly double Tallassee’s population, and is more than twice as large as the largest prison currently operating in the state.
If completed, the enormous new prisons would significantly affect the communities that host them, sometimes in ways local residents are not willing to accept.
Alabama’s Systemic Problems
The construction of the new prisons is part of a larger plan to improve the Alabama correctional system, which is facing a lawsuit from the Department of Justice (DOJ).
A 2019 DOJ report concludes that the Alabama Department of Corrections routinely violates incarcerated Alabamians’ 8th Amendment rights “by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sex abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions.” The report continues, “the violations are exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision and overcrowding.”
According to a report summary by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Alabama’s prisons have the highest homicide rate in the country, a rate eight times the national average. The average occupancy rate in Alabama state prisons is 182%, while the ADOC employs only 1,072 officers out of a necessary 3,326.
Governor Ivey’s proposed solution is to pay Core Civic, a private prison company, to build two new prisons near Atmore and Tallassee, and a second developer, Alabama Prison Transformation Partners, to build the third one near Brierfield.
The state would then lease the facilities for at least 30 years, beginning in 2025. The leases for the three prisons will cost $94 million a year, going up to $108.5 million by the end of the contract. In total, Alabama could spend $3 billion over the next 30 years on the prison contracts, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. The Governor has appointed a 15-person panel to consider what to do with the state’s existing 13 prisons for men after the new facilities are built.
Ivey has said that her plan to use private prison contractors is the most affordable way for the state to come into compliance with constitutional standards. “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 in her announcement that the state would begin negotiating with private contractors.
Infrastructure Is Only Part of the Issue
Although the DOJ does cite Alabama’s decrepit correctional facilities as contributing to the unsanitary, unsafe, and unconstitutional conditions of the prisons, the report makes clear that building new facilities will fix only some of the problems.
“It is important to note that new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse.”
Jordan Mazurek, who works with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and helps facilitate the Communities Not Prison coalition called the plan a “money grab.”
“This is fundamentally an ingrown ADOC issue,” they said. “And building shiny new cages is not going to solve that. So right off the bat, they’re latching onto the easiest thing out of the DOJ report without actually acknowledging any of the substance. If you really want to reduce overcrowding, a very simple way to do that is to support sentencing reform that lets people go.”
One of the reasons that Alabama prisons are so overcrowded, Mazurek said, is because of draconian state laws such as Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Law, which has been responsible for sentencing over 500 people to life imprisonment for non-homicide crimes, and has enhanced the sentences of an estimated 6,000 people.
Highly punitive drug laws and long sentences that keep an aging population behind bars well after they are past the typical ages for law breaking also contribute to overcrowding, according to the Alabama Appleseed brief.
Focusing on reentry support, improving parole policies, and investing in community-based treatment are all alternative ways of improving overcrowding and other conditions in Alabama prisons, the brief continues.
Despite the lack of community outreach and engagement from the Governor, Janice Wisener and her neighbors are determined to have their say.
Shortly after Governor Ivey announced her plan, community members including Wisener organized No Prison For Tallassee, a group that has fostered conversations with local and state officials, spearheaded a letter-writing campaign, and gathered over 2,700 signatures on a petition to block the prison.
A few counties over, a similar community group called Block the Brierfield Prison has formed in an effort to prevent the new mega-prison from being built in Bibb County, Alabama. Jackson McNeely, one of the founders of Block the Brierfield Prison, says that the organized resistance shown by their community has surprised state officials.
“They knew we were rural, knew we were unincorporated, and didn’t think that we could collectively come together with one voice,” McNeely said. “And I think it’s been a shock to the state that we have. I think they underestimated us as a community.”
Of the roughly 1000 people living in Brierfield, McNeely estimates that seventy-five percent of the community is actively engaged in the fight against the prison. But aside from a current employee of the Alabama Department of Corrections, “there’s not been one person who said they wanted the prison,” she said.
In addition to resistance from the communities of Tallassee and Brierfield, Governor Ivey’s plan has met widespread opposition from state legislators and criminal justice organizations.
Although these groups have overlapping interests, each opposes the prison construction plan on different grounds. Many state legislators agree that new prisons need to be built, but don’t support Governor Ivey’s plan to lease from private contractors.
State Representative Russell Bedsole, whose district includes Brierfield, thinks building new prisons is necessary.
“In my opinion, the way we incarcerate people in the state is truly something of a different era in which these prisons were built,” he said. “If you look at the designs of our current prisons across the state, they’re not designed in a way to effectively manage an inmate population. It’s more about warehousing.”
But he disagrees with Governor Ivey’s plan to lease the prisons from private prison companies. “When we’re investing in an asset as big as a prison, [but] at the end of the term we don’t own anything…at the end of the day we still have an inmate population but we have nowhere to put them…And so when that lease is expired, what do we do with those inmates?” he said.
He and other legislators are working on a plan to build the new prisons on land that the state already owns, which he says would cost significantly less than the 30-year lease.
Residents of Brierfield and Tallassee worry that the mega-prisons, which would have a population roughly equivalent to the city of Tallassee, and 4 times as large as Brierfield, would permanently transform their communities, and not for the better.
In areas that already have limited water and sewage capacity, prisons holding 3-4,000 people could completely overwhelm local resources and infrastructure. Residents also say that the prisons will create light and noise pollution, threaten endangered species, decrease their property values, and increase traffic beyond what their roads can handle.
Janice Wisener and her husband, whose property adjoins the proposed prison site in Tallassee, have been farmers for decades. She says that the prison will threaten her family business, as well as run off the wildlife and destroy the quiet, peaceful community that drew her and her husband to the area in the first place.
“It’s just going to have a negative impact. It will be hard for us to continue with our day-to-day activities,” she said. Another casualty for Wisener and her neighbors will be “peace of mind, just being able to rest.”
“I believe in law and order, I just don’t want it here in my community where it doesn’t make sense,” said Alan Parker who lives outside of Tallassee.
Different Paths of Resistance
The communities of Brierfield and Tallassee have closed ranks in their effort to stop the construction of the prisons, and they have not been fighting alone. Organizations including the Alabama Justice Initiative, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and Alabama Students Against Prisons (ASAP) are working with the Brierfield and Tallassee groups in a coalition called Communities Not Prisons.
Each member of the coalition has their own critiques of Governor Ivey’s plan, from classic Not In My Backyard-ism (NIMBY) to environmental concerns to the ideology of prison abolition, which aims to replace punitive carceral systems with community-based rehabilitative programs.
But though they may agree on little else, the members of the Communities Not Prisons coalition have managed to do what few Americans nowadays are able to accomplish—put aside their differences and collaborate on their shared goal of blocking the prisons.
The Communities Not Prisons coalition has used a variety of organizing tactics in order to prevent the construction of the three prisons. In addition to showing up in force at city council meetings, contacting state and local representatives, and organizing petitions and letter-writing campaigns, the coalition has taken aggressive legal and financial actions.
The coalition successfully targeted the financial institutions that were the underwriters of the CoreCivic deal, putting the company’s ability to find adequate funding for the project in doubt.
The coalition has also filed a lawsuit to block the contracts with CoreCivic, claiming that the Governor’s plan to lease the prisons from a private contractor without legislative approval violates state law.
The Economic Argument
Mayor Hammock is among those in Tallassee who are supportive of the prison. Although he said that he never expected the prison to actually be built near Tallassee, he sees it as an opportunity for the community.
“Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter if I was for it or if I was against it, it was going to go where it was going to go, so my job is to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “You have to look at the economic impact. This is 7,000 jobs, an injection of $30 million in payroll into our area, the things that are going to come with it, utility sales, a big purchaser of water and sewer services and gas.”
But Wisener is skeptical. “He’s betting on enough money coming out of the prison to redo his town, get a new sewage system, and hopefully do everything else, bring more jobs here. But I’m not seeing that happening at all.”
She says that even though the prisons will certainly create jobs, she doesn’t believe that they will go to people from her community. “I think they’ll go to people that are already in the Department of Corrections, and they’ll be transferred from other prisons,” she said. “You’re not going to go out and hire new people when you already have those capable people in the DOC.”
Studies show that the economic impact of building prisons in rural communities is uneven at best, and that “new prisons may be doing more harm than good in vulnerable counties.”
After nearly 4 decades of constant rural prison expansion, evidence shows that most prison jobs do not go to people living in the communities, and prisons do little to drive other economic growth.
“We did our research,” said Jackson McNeely from Brierfield. “You constantly hear the same dog and pony show. Oh, it’s going to be great. They’re going to build infrastructure. They’re going to have jobs. It’s going to be fabulous. And it’s constantly the same lie wherever you look in the United States.”
Fighting a Bigger Fight
For McNeely, working with the coalition has been a transformative experience. “I think nobody here in our little area realized how bad the prison conditions were,” she said. “You don’t realize how bad something is if you don’t watch it, and then it falls into your lap and you are shocked by it. Our main goal as a coalition is to block the building of these prisons, but also going forward, our goal is prison reform.”
The future of Alabama’s justice system is also at the forefront of David Zell and Morgan Ducket thoughts, two of the co-founders of Alabama Students Against Prisons (ASAP), a prison abolitionist group of nearly 400 students from more than 30 colleges, universities, and law schools around the state.
When asked about Governor Ivey’s plan to build three new prisons in order to correct the human rights abuses cited in the DOJ lawsuit, Zell and Ducket pointed to a similar lawsuit in Alabama’s not-too-distant past.
In the 1976 court case Pugh vs. Locke, a judge found that conditions in Alabama prisons were unacceptable, citing similar problems to those outlined in the 2019 DOJ report. Alabama built 5 new prisons from 1978-1984, but lawsuits over the living conditions of incarcerated Alabamians were filed repeatedly, including cases in 2002, 2004, 2009, and 2014.
The new prison construction did not end the dangerous and overcrowded conditions in Alabama state prisons. “Instead, the population rose from about 5,000 in the 1970s to more than 32,000 at its peak in 2012, with six times as many Alabamians exposed to the violence and harm of the prison system,” according to a brief from Alabama Appleseed. The brief continues, “building new prisons did not meaningfully improve prison conditions or resolve constitutional violations. It simply led to more people being in prison.”
“The DOJ says that the Department of Corrections here have a systemic indifference to violence. There are serious organized efforts to deter reporting of abuse. There’s no recourse for guards who brutalize and attack people who are incarcerated,” said Zell. “The question is, do you want to put a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, or do you want to stop getting shot?”