For the past few months, I have been working with Alabama Students Against Prisons, a movement of students and community members across Alabama who oppose Governor Kay Ivey’s private prison plan. We believe that these prisons would be a blight on Alabama, completely failing to address the Department of Justice’s recommendations for how to mitigate the unconstitutional cruelty and violence that mar our state’s facilities. We know that new buildings won’t stop decades of patterns in racism and abuse. Since I began this work, I have been moved every day by the urgency of this mission, largely because Alabama is my home. For the first time in my life, I truly understand what it means for the personal to be political. What I didn’t realize, though, was that this prison plan is not only connected to my state but to my university, too.
Two key figures in the construction of three new private prisons in Alabama are Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Prison Transformation Partners. Ivey, in addition to being Alabama’s governor, presides over Auburn’s Board of Trustees, a role which is required by law for her to fill. She is tasked with appointing different members to the board, meaning that she — or any governor — plays a significant role in shaping Auburn’s Board of Trustees.
Alabama Prison Transformation Partners is a company created by B.L. Harbert International alongside other companies, built specifically to profit from private prison construction. B.L. Harbert International’s founder Billy Harbert is a native of Alabama, and he is also the cousin of Auburn’s Board of Trustees member Raymond Harbert. Raymond Harbert, Chair of the Finances Committee on the Board, is a member-at-large who was reconfirmed to the Board of Trustees by the Alabama Senate under Ivey’s tenure. Raymond has worked at and operated numerous subsidiary companies under the Harbert name, much like his cousin Billy.
In short, the Harbert family operates countless companies with the Harbert name, all tangentially related to each other.
The connection that B.L. Harbert has to Auburn through Raymond has no doubt been advantageous: after all, they have been contracted to build multiple buildings on campus, including South Donahue Residence Hall and Horton Hargraves. Now, it would seem, their connection to Governor Ivey will pay off, as she has contracted them to build one of her new prisons.
If you go to B.L. Harbert International’s Community page, you can find a section about their Community Service Competition, which states, “Every job site is challenged to give back to the communities in which we are working. Our goal is to leave every community in better shape than the way we found it.”
If B.L. Harbert, a company created by Alabamians, has such a deep commitment to community service, why don’t they start on their own? The communities in which these proposed prisons will be built are outraged, citing long-standing infrastructural issues that would only be exacerbated by the presence of a mega-prison in their town.
Though no contract has yet been signed, Alabama Prison Transformation Partners is slated to build a new prison in the community of Brierfield. Despite the complete absence of any environmental impact reports — any public ones, at least — Morrow Water Technologies has now drilled two water wells at the proposed site. Many residents in the highly rural town rely on wells for drinking water and agricultural use, and it is unclear how an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 gallons of water per day used by the prison facility would affect these citizen’s lives. Not to mention, environmental organizations fear that run-off from construction and lack of ground absorption capacity could lead to water pollution, no small threat when living in a rural and agriculturally-dependent area.
B.L. Harbert says it wants to leave every community in better shape than they found it, but how can they do so if they charge full force into a massive construction project where the potential risks to the surrounding community have not been surveyed?
Unfortunately, that’s only the tip of the iceberg: Ivey’s plan is now estimated to cost Alabama taxpayers $3.7 billion, which is $2.6 billion more than the previously proposed $900 million public option. The Department of Justice maintains in their lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections that the construction of new buildings will not address Alabama’s carceral issues.
For Alabama citizens, this prison plan is a bad deal. However, for B.L. Harbert, it will be a lucrative one.
A substantial chunk of that $3.7 billion will go to B.L. Harbert in construction costs. Instead of giving back to Alabamians, like B.L. Harbert says they intend to do, they will literally be taking millions of our dollars in a deal that will not even address the issues of our carceral system. This isn’t community service; it is community deceit, and if they are willing to do it in their own backyard, it becomes difficult to believe they uphold these standards anywhere.
Our Board of Trustees has extensive ties to this private prison plan, and Auburn students are made complicit in the process, against our will and to our great dismay. By allowing Ivey to preside over our Board of Trustees without addressing her plan and by continuing a relationship with B.L. Harbert, Auburn University is standing for a prison plan that will exhaust Alabama’s paltry general fund for decades to come, ultimately doing nothing to address the unconstitutional cruelty of our prisons.
When I first came to Auburn, I learned about the Auburn Family. It is an enduring quality of Auburn: the idea that we are all connected through our shared experience of calling this place home, at least for a little while.
I used to feel a certain sense of comfort in that familial connection, and I hoped that, even if misguided, those in charge of Auburn looked out for our community and state’s wellbeing. I now fear that our leadership looks out primarily for their own interests, and that the Auburn family, to them, means only the people they will do business with to turn a quick profit.
That isn’t the family that I want, nor is it the family that I think we have the potential to be.
So, I call on the Board of Trustees to sever any and all connections to profiting from mass incarceration, including ongoing financial dealings with B.L. Harbert International. I call on Ivey to represent the interests of her state and Auburn University. As a governor and elected official, it is your duty to represent the interests of the people, not do business with your colleagues and friends at the expense of others. Auburn students may not be able to dictate who serves in our Board of Trustees, but we will not be made complicit in the exploitation and abuse of Alabamian prisoners without a fight.
Board of Trustees, I charge you here and now to have the difficult conversations that you must in order to make Auburn a place that aligns its actions with its values.
Chloe McMahon is an Auburn student majoring in English literature, and the editor-in-chief of the Auburn Circle.
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