Perry prison moving along

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 8, 2005

It may not look like much right now, but by this time next year the Perry County Correctional Facility will be home to 650 inmates and approximately 135 employees – and that’s just phase 1.

The prison, which is being termed a private prison by some, is actually a county prison.

“We designed and built it, and the Jail Commission will lease it from us for $1 a year for 25 years,” explained Richard Harbison, vice president of LCS Corrections Services Inc.

Email newsletter signup

Because of a state law passed in 1999, privately owned prisons are not allowed in the State of Alabama. However, the law does not prevent the county from contracting with an outside company to manage the prison.

“The county let bids for the construction, and we were the lowest bid, then they let bids for the management of the facility and we were the lowest bidder on that too,” Harbison said. “Our company is a full-service corrections company.”

All employees, however, will be employees of the county.

The facility, which is being constructed on Highway 80 West, east of Uniontown, will be the first of its kind in Alabama, and may lead to more if things go well with this one.

“We will be under a microscope by everyone,” Harbison said. “They will be watching to see if it’s run right – is it clean, is it safe, how is the money being spent.”

If that microscope turns up good results, Alabama could see more quasi-private prisons going up, or may even go as far as to repeal the law that bans private prisons.

“If this goes well, if the state is happy with us and we’re happy with the state, there could be more,” he said.

LCS already operates two facilities in Texas and four in Louisiana, all of which are home to state and federal inmates.

“We have around 2,000 federal inmates in Texas,” Harbison said. The Perry County facility will also house federal inmates, though Harbison said the majority of inmates will probably be state inmates.

“We take inmates on a first come first served basis, but because this is in the State of Alabama, and the state is helping us, they’ll pretty much have first dibs,” he said.

That comes as a relief to Alabama, which has had a growing problem of crowded prisons and no money with which to properly fix the problem.

“They need more prisons, but they don’t have the money to build,” Harbison said. “This arrangement gives them that additional prison and at no cost to the state.”

This prison is a bit different than those already established in Alabama, beginning with recreation.

“You can see the basketball courts, the walking track and in the back will be the baseball diamond,” Harbison said, indicating several concrete and grassy areas behind the administrative and trustee buildings.

During a tour of the facility, the first rooms entered were vocational and technical classrooms.

“We believe in teaching, not just housing, inmates,” Harbison said. “We work on rehabilitating and training them. We have classrooms and a computer lab, we teach adult education and GED as well.”

The facility will also feature a full medical area, with around-the-clock care.

“The medical area includes an exam room and a room for dental care. We will have one RN (registered nurse) and five LPNs or nursing assistants providing care 24-7,” Harbison said. “We will contract with a physician through the hospital in Demopolis and that physician will come two to three times a week to do sick call.”

Harbison explained that the nurses will take care of minor ailments such as colds or bumps and bruises, but more serious ailments will be put on a sick call list for the doctor.

“And of course, if there is an emergency the inmate will be taken to the nearest hospital,” he said.

A commissary provides snacks and other needed items for inmates to purchase.

“We say it’s like the 7-11 store, inmates can buy cookies, underwear, cigarettes – basically anything they might need, you name it they can buy it,” he said. “And the prices are about what they would be in a convenience store, $.60 or $.70 for a candy bar, the prices will be average.”

Each dorm has two microwaves , natural lighting through vents in the walls “so it doesn’t have that claustrophobic feel,” and air conditioning and heating.

“We believe if an inmate is comfortable they’re less likely to start trouble,” Harbison said.

Inmates eat good too, as all meals are hand cooked from scratch.

“This kitchen runs nearly 24 hours,” Harbison said. “When the evening meal is over, around 7 or 8 p.m., the evening crew cleans everything up. At 1 a.m. the baking crew comes in to start the baking for the next day – bread, cakes, pies, whatever is needed. Then, at 4 a.m. the morning crew comes in to start fixing breakfast. It’s going almost all the time.”

All employees are required to eat in the mess hall and are not allowed to bring their own food.

“If an inmate sees a guard bring their own food, they think the food isn’t any good and they won’t want to eat there,” Harbison said. “So all the guards eat in here with the prisoners, and the food is really that good.”

He said the food is adjusted to reflect the local cuisine.

“In Louisiana we serve gumbo, but in Texas where we have a high Latino population, they won’t eat that. So we modified our menus,” he said.

“The inmates are served three hot meals a day, based on the 2400 calorie diet. We serve things like chicken, hamburgers, pot roast – it’s really good food.”

Inmates earning trustee status have their own dorm which allows a little more freedom, including private shower stalls, the freedom to go to the bathroom at any time rather than waiting for a guard to escort them, TVs, phones that are operational from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the week and until midnight on weekends.

However, they are still closely monitored, and the control center from which they are monitored is a self-contained locked area with a bathroom and anything else the officer might need.

“Even though these guys are trustees, they’re still convicts and can’t be trusted,” Harbison said. “If they’re here, they did something to deserve it, but if they are trustees they’re not completely bad guys.”

Though it sounds like the inmates at Perry County Correctional Facility have it made over other inmates in the state, the facility is still a prison and includes such security.

The prison will be surrounded by a double fence of 12-feet-high chain link fences, topped with three rows of razor wire and a dog walk in between the two fences.

“Security will be outstanding,” Harbison said.

A large visitation room allows for 20 or more prisoners to visit with family, friends and others, but with windows and solid concrete walls between them.

“We do not have contact visitation,” Harbison said. “If you don’t allow contact, there’s no way they can have things slipped to them – it cuts down on the contraband.”

Each dorm includes a control center, from which guards can watch everything going on in the dorm on cameras that pick up everything except the bathrooms. Those individual control centers, as well as the remainder of the facilities, are monitored by a Central Command Center. From this central location, a guard can see all recreation areas, the walkways and dorms. It also includes cameras that again, see everything.

Access to the dorms requires entry to a sally port, or holding area, by entering one door, waiting for it to be locked, then entering the dorms. Windows are made of glass that is impenetrable even by a .357 magnum fired at point blank range. The walls are made of concrete blocks which then have reinforced steel rebar inserted in the holes and concrete poured in them.

“Even though this will be a minimum security prison, it will have maximum security measures in place,” Harbison said.

The final product is still a ways off though, with the expected open date estimated at early March or April of next year.

However, LCS is looking at opening a temporary office in Marion where it will take resumes and do interviews. The Alabama State Employment Office in Selma will also be taking applications and doing screenings.

“For guard positions we require a high school graduation or GED – that means they have to be able to read and write – and they must pass a drug test,” Harbison said. He said an applicant does not have to have experience, because LCS will provide the training.

“We will put them through a three-week training class where we will teach them self defense, how to handle an inmate and other things,” he said.

That process is expected to begin in early- to mid-November. Once the facility is open, the office staff in Marion will move to the Uniontown facility.

Harbison said the facility will host an open house when construction is complete, and the facility will be open to the public for tours.

Once phase 1 is complete, construction will begin on phase 2, which when completed will bring the total number of inmates housed to 1,200 or 1,300 and the employees to about 200.

Harbison said phase two will be completed much quicker than phase 1 because the infrastructure will have been laid.

“That will be just a dorm, all the infrastructure will be in place, so it will probably take about six months,” he said.