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Prison Work: Caddell Construction

Building living quarters for a captive audience isn’t as easy as it might sound. Overcrowding is a constant, funding is not.

Caddell Construction built a $27.6 million, 752-bed jail for Jackson County, Mississippi.

Caddell Construction built a $27.6 million, 752-bed jail for Jackson County, Mississippi.

As a construction executive at Montgomery-based Caddell Construction, Jay Jones is more than familiar with the company’s work, including its construction of correctional facilities and prisons.

He knows about the sparse interiors of prisons, with their concrete walls, scarcity of windows, the abrupt sound of electronically controlled doors slamming shut and furniture devoid of any upholstery. Says Jones: “I wouldn’t want to live in the correctional facilities that we build.”

And Caddell Construction has built quite a few —  $1.5 billion in correctional facility work nationwide since a burgeoning prison population began decades ago.

The number of inmates in federal or state prisons and local jails more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2015, from 502,000 to 2.3 million. Largely because of increased drug offenses and longer sentences, the United States now has more prisoners than any country in the world and more per capita than countries considered repressive, such as China, Russia, Cuba and Iran.

America’s prison population peaked a few years ago and is slowly dropping. Yet overcrowded prisons remain an acute issue, as significantly less money is being spent for new correctional facilities.

“Detention work hasn’t been as prevalent as it was in the past,” says Jones, a construction industry veteran.

Jones points to 1990 as the year when construction of correctional facilities went into orbit. In 1980, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons received $6 million in appropriations to build new facilities and renovate existing ones. Ten years later, that appropriation skyrocketed to $1.5 billion.

For the most part, BOP’s annual appropriations for the 20 years that followed were in the hundreds of millions but plummeted during the Obama administration. From 2010-2015, the BOP appropriation was less than $100 million, except for one year when it was $106 million. It increased to $530 million last year.

“There was an increase in the construction of detention centers at the state, county and federal level from 1990 throughout the 2000s,” Jones says. “For a while there, we were building a federal facility at a rate of about one a year. There was a tremendous increase in federal detention centers in various states that gave us the opportunity to work directly with the federal government.

“That’s mainly what we are, a government contractor. That’s most of our market share, the State Department and Corps of Engineers and such. So, our bidding work and being interested in work with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons became easy for us to adapt to.

“They were looking for contractors that had some experience. A few states had actually started before the federal program really picked up. In California and Texas, we were successful in getting business in both those states, and that provided us the opportunity to show that we had experience to bid the federal government work when that building program started.”

In 2011, Caddell completed a female federal prison in Aliceville with an inmate capacity of 1,600. The company was a 50/50 partner on the $193 million project with Mississippi-based Yates Construction.

Some of the other more notable projects on Caddell’s prison construction resume include a $124 million federal penitentiary in McCreary County, Kentucky; a $175 million federal penitentiary in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and a 558-cell maximum security facility in Colorado, built to house the nation’s most violent criminals and known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

Jones credits relationships with architects, engineers and subcontractors for much of Caddell’s success in correctional facility work. “We became very familiar with the subcontractors that are a key to detention facilities, along with the architects and engineers who have a niche or are key to detention-type facilities,” Jones says. “Our name became known in that arena.

“Developing those relationships was very important to us, and we’ve maintained them. Two of the most prevalent subcontractors in the detention facility industry are from Alabama,” says Jones. “Norment Security Group in Montgomery, which does security glazing and controls, has been taken over now by Cornerstone in Huntsville. Cornerstone is one of the premier subs in detention equipment, controls and accessories.”

Jones notes that when prison construction took off more than 25 years ago, many of the existing facilities were antiquated and not equipped with technology used today. There was not widespread use of computers, total video surveillance, advanced locking systems and other technologies utilized now to ensure that inmates and staff remain safe and that inmates don’t escape.

Other innovations that Jones has seen through the years include metal detectors that scan both upper and lower body cavities for weapons; a double fence around prison perimeters that can electrocute and kill anyone grabbing onto it (an idea picked up from security-obsessed Israel), and a “blind feeding system” where meals are served through slots in solid walls.

“The person serving the food can’t see who he is serving in case they don’t like them and might try to do something detrimental to their meal,” Jones says.

There are other aspects of prison construction that people on the outside never think about. “The staff has to have a safe refuge area where they can secure themselves from an incident or riot conditions,” Jones says. “There are armories in detention facilities that are behind two controlled doors, and those armories contain all the weapons and ammunition in the event that there is a need for force to retain control.”

Lesser known, perhaps, are the emotions and heartache of prison life. Jones relates a story of a group of low-risk inmates, or trusties, at a private prison who were allowed to participate in a K9 training program in conjunction with Auburn University.

Jones says that program had nothing to do with any construction that Caddell did. But, “The story I heard from the warden there, when it came time for those dogs to graduate and go off and be in service, those inmates were absolutely crushed because they had put so much time and attention into training their one animal,” Jones says. “They were separated from those dogs, and you’d be surprised how many of those big men cry.”

Caddell is among the companies eyeing contracts for four proposed prisons in Alabama that are in the planning stages. The price tag for those facilities has been bandied about but was initially pegged at roughly $800 million.

Alabama has come under intense criticism for overcrowding in its state prisons. As of April, the state held 22,624 inmates in facilities designed for 13,318. The proposed plan calls for three large, regional men’s prisons, a new facility to replace Tutwiler Prison for women in Wetumpka and for renovations of other facilities.

“We are very interested, and our company has been actively keeping up with the opportunity for the Alabama work, as we believe we are the right contractor for the project, based on location, knowledge and experience,” Jones says. “It is very much needed due to the age and expense of operating the current facilities that would be replaced.”

Charlie Ingram is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.

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