Prison lawsuit

(File) Leslie Ogburn, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and founder of No Prison for Tallassee, addressed the Tallassee City Council in December 2020 to speak out against prison’s construction.

Alabama State Auditor, Republican Jim Zeigler, and Democratic Rep. John Rogers, jointly filed a lawsuit in Montgomery Circuit Court this week challenging the legality of Governor Kay Ivey’s prison construction plans under Alabama law. They are joined as plaintiffs in the suit by Leslie Ogburn, a resident of the rural community of Tallassee where one of the privately-owned prisons is slated to be built, as well as by grassroots leader Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, from The Ordinary People Society in Dothan. The National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, a prison abolitionist organization, has spearheaded the legal strategy, highlighting the national significance of the case.

“As your state auditor, it is my constitutional duty to ensure that public funds are appropriately spent and properly accounted for,” Zeigler said. “After carefully reviewing the issue, it is clear to me that Governor Ivey’s plan to spend more than $3 billion renting private prison facilities does not fall within the bounds of Alabama law. As a steward of your tax dollars, I am compelled to take action to prevent this misuse of public funds. I am proud of this bipartisan effort to stand up against Governor Ivey’s overreach in trying solve Alabama’s prison problems through a back room deal.”

The private prison construction plan that Zeigler and others are challenging involves the proposed construction of three privately-owned mega prisons in rural communities of Bibb, Elmore, and Escambia counties, which the State of Alabama would then be contractually obligated to lease for 30 years at an estimated cost of over $3 billion. These privately-owned prisons would be staffed and run by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), which is currently facing multiple federal lawsuits related to how they staff and run prisons. The lawsuit highlights how this project plainly violates the establishing text for the ADOC in the Alabama Code (section 14-1-1.2) which states that “an institution over which the department exercises control may not be leased, transferred, or places under the supervision of management of any nongovernmental entity without first obtaining the consent of the legislature”.

“It’s not just that we don’t want these privately-owned prisons in our backyard. It’s that we don’t want these prisons in anyone’s backyard,” said Jackson McNeely, a resident of Brierfield in Bibb County and the founder of Block the Brierfield Prison. “I am very excited to see this lawsuit filed, because these mega prisons are ill-conceived, irresponsible, and do nothing to address the problems that they allegedly intend to. Since the moment we discovered that Governor Ivey intended to build a mega prison on top of our community, people in Brierfield have been screaming that we do not want it. Nobody asked us - we had to find out about it in the newspaper. Nobody did an environmental impact study or infrastructure assessment. It’s ridiculous. If Governor Ivey and other elected officials won’t listen to the people in these rural communities, then I suppose they’ll just have to listen to us in court.”

Local resistance to the prisons in the rural communities where they are slated to be built has been widespread. “If this prison gets built in Tallassee, it will be incredibly damaging to the small business I run,” said Leslie Ogburn, director of a tree farm adjacent to the proposed construction site in Elmore County and founder of No Prison for Tallassee. “It’s just not right. I think that Governor Ivey selected our rural communities for this shady prison deal because she thinks we are the path of least resistance. I think she picked us because she didn’t think we were powerful enough to fight back. She’s dead wrong, and she’s got another thing coming to her.”

“As formerly incarcerated women, we know the harm that prison can cause in compounding trauma and shattering families,” said Andrea James, executive director of The National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. “We are dedicated to reimagining communities -- not prisons -- and so stand proudly with all people who oppose prison construction. We are happy to provide organizing and legal expertise to pave the way for the billions of dollars the Governor wants to spend on prisons to be used to support education and jobs, to keep people from ending up on a prison bunk to begin with.”

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, a plaintiff who is the founder and director of The Ordinary People Society, agrees about the national significance of this prison project. “I have been doing criminal justice work for more than twenty years, and this massive prison construction project is unlike anything I have ever seen. People all across the country are watching this project with horror, knowing that it could set a precedent that haunts us for generations. But we will beat it. We have to.”