BRIERFIELD — If Jackson McNeely is correct, the future site of one of Alabama’s new prisons is hard to see.
She marks the boundary of what she and others in Brierfield believe is the new prison site by the two-lane road running around the parcel; the site of a former Baptist church, and gates that break up the long tree line obscuring the property.
With scant local news media and spotty internet service, McNeely and other residents are struggling to get a clear view of a project that could forever alter their community.
“People here may not necessarily know or see it online,” said McNeely, a framing company owner and former Republican legislative candidate. “It becomes a coconut telegraph, with everyone picking up the phone and talking.”
“The main entry road going into the prison you will be able to see from my backyard,” said Leslie Ogburn, who lives near the site of a proposed Elmore County prison. “We all loved it here, to be in the country, to be away from everything, (and) not to have a big prison light the country nights.”
Gov. Kay Ivey and Jeff Dunn, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, see the new facilities as a way to stem violence and overcrowding in the state’s prisons. In July, the U.S. Department of Justice said it found “systemic unconstitutional conditions” throughout the state prison system and detailed numerous instances of excessive force. The state faces lawsuits over mental health treatment for inmates, and the possibility of ceding control of Alabama’s prisons to federal authorities.
According to the U.S. Census, somewhere between 700 and 1,800 people live in Brierfield, an unincorporated community near Bibb County’s border with suburban Shelby County. Two-lane highways run past woods and fields that dominate the landscape. A gas station has the area’s only store, and a meat-and-three place is the only restaurant in Brierfield.
“We have satellite internet,” McNeely said. “Most of the people here have a line cut into their front porch, to position their cell phone and (mark) where their cell phone will work.”
Those interviewed expressed many different concerns about the prison. Several worried about prisoner escapes. Some wondered about the potential for drugs, weapons and other contraband getting into the facility. Others worried that the roads in the area could not support the traffic needed to support a prison that could house twice as many people as live in the surrounding community.
Many wondered how an area without sewer lines would be able to provide the hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that the prison could consume each day.
“Pick somewhere with better resources,” said David Kline, a police officer who lives in Brierfield. “Pick somewhere with a larger infrastructure. Pick somewhere with a larger law enforcement community.”