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DOC commissioner details development plans for Limestone facility

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

Department of Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen admits there is a gleam in his eye, and it's not coming off the shimmer of sunlight on razor wire at Limestone Correctional Facility.

It's coming off the land.

Allen said he wants to be a partner with a residential or commercial developer to sell 500 to 600 acres DOC owns at its Limestone prison to help offset a $26.6 million budget shortfall.

Allen, speaking at a Daily editorial board meeting Thursday, said housing inmates in Louisiana and a 7 percent pay raise that the state is not fully funding have contributed to the shortfall. Allen said Gov. Bob Riley also directed DOC in June to balance its budget without land sales, although DOC can use land sales for capital needs.

"But we were counting on using land sales to end the year balanced," Allen said.

Allen said the state would take bids on any sales, including his Limestone proposal. He wants to find a developer who would put streets and utilities on the property and allow DOC to participate in the lot sales.

"That's all that plan is now is a gleam in my eye, but that's what I'm pushing for," Allen said.

The property has appraised at $25,000 an acre, Allen said, but if DOC could get in on lot sales, it could make up to $100,000 an acre. The prison would maintain a buffer of 200 to 300 acres between it and the developments.

Those with doubts that people would live or shop near a state prison have not seen the booming growth in eastern Limestone County.

The prison is on Nick Davis Road at Sanderson Road. Creekside Elementary School is on Sanderson Road 1.4 miles from the prison.

Huntsville has annexed acreage in Limestone County and is developing a subdivision north of Creekside. Across from Creekside are two subdivisions in the county with 143 lots, according to Limestone County Engineer Richard Sanders.

On Nick Davis Road near Old Railroad Bed Road, also called County Line Road, are two more subdivisions in the county with 57 lots.

"The prison property is in the county now, but a developer could buy it and have it annexed into Huntsville," Sanders said.

In addition to Limestone's prison land, Allen wants to sell more than 6,000 acres DOC owns at various sites and about 2,000 head of cattle statewide as well as other livestock.

DOC spokesman Brian Corbett said Limestone has 160 head of cattle, and made $102,000 this week when it sold 130 calves.

"We're getting out of the farming business," Allen said, "but we're only going to sell the land we have to sell. The governor's philosophy is the state has a lot of land that is not being used and is not being productive."

Not having to maintain the land also will cut expenses.

In addition to selling property and livestock, Allen plans to attack the shortfall by returning 900 male and 400 female inmates from Louisiana prisons to Alabama facilities by November. He said DOC spends over $12 million a year to house prisoners in Louisiana.

Allen doesn't want to build more prisons to house these inmates. He wants to renovate facilities, accelerate transfers to work-release and minimum-security facilities, implement a supervised re-entry program and open a therapeutic education center.

The local impact will be an additional 300 work-release inmates for the Decatur work-release center, and 300 more inmates at Limestone.

DOC has spent $250,000 to renovate a warehouse at Limestone to house its additional inmates. Limestone has about 2,000 now. Allen wants it to start housing more inmates in September.

"I had this idea last April, but it's just now getting to the point where we can start using (the warehouse)," Allen said. "I need a faster turnaround on these projects, but the state gave the contractor a nine-month contract. We're not building the Pentagon."

Allen said one delay on that project was getting steel needed for items like drains.

"It has to be the type that the inmates can't break, so we had a 10-week delivery time on that," Allen said.

Despite time delays, Allen hasn't stopped thinking of more projects.

Allen said DOC will convert a warehouse in Decatur to house the 300 additional inmates there. Currently, Decatur can house up to 430 work-release and minimum-security inmates. As of Thursday, it was full with 273 on work-release and 157 in minimum custody.

DOC will lean on faith-based programs and sponsors for the supervised re-entry program. Allen said that program requires inmates who qualify to have a sponsor and job and live with family, with the sponsor or at a faith-based halfway house for a year. They will be under curfew and must report to one of 10 sergeants throughout the state.

The therapeutic education center in Columbiana is a joint venture between DOC and the Department of Postsecondary Education. The center will house 400 inmates, who will get life skills and job training, drug rehabilitation and the opportunity to get a General Educational Development diploma. DOC is funding $3 million for it. Allen did not know Postsecondary's share.

A spokeswoman for Postsecondary was unable to get that department's cost for the project Thursday.

Qualifying inmates will go to this center before going to work-release. Postsecondary will supply the instructors.

"The inmates will be able to get jobs as welders or carpenters making $18 to $20 an hour," Allen said.

That benefits DOC, which gets 40 percent of what an inmate makes. Another 40 percent goes for restitution and court costs, and the inmate keeps 20 percent.

Allen said DOC used to make $18 million to $19 million annually off work-release inmates, but that was before the implementation of a second parole board that paroled the inmates who qualified for work-release.

DOC now makes between $7 million and $8 million annually off 1,100 inmates.

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