Alabama works to use COVID relief funds to fix state’s prison problems

Published 2:38 pm Monday, September 27, 2021

Facing a Justice Department lawsuit over Alabama’s notoriously violent prisons, state lawmakers on Monday began a special session on a $1.3 billion construction plan that would use federal pandemic relief funds to pay part of the cost of building massive new lockups.

Gov. Kay Ivey has touted the plan to build three new prisons and renovate others as a partial solution to the state’s longstanding troubles in its prison system. The proposal would tap up to $400 million from the state’s $2.2 billion share of American Rescue Plan funds to help pay for the construction.

“I am pleased and extremely hopeful that we are finally positioned to address our state’s prison infrastructure challenges,” the Republican governor said in a statement last week. “While this issue was many years in the making, we stand united to provide an Alabama solution to this Alabama problem.”

But critics of the plan say the state’s prison problems go beyond building conditions and that the state should not be using pandemic relief dollars to build prisons.

“This week, the Alabama Legislature plans to spend $400 in American Rescue Plan funds — money intended to help your local schools, get your kids into affordable childcare, provide a lifeline to your small business, or assist your struggling rural hospital — to build two new mega-prisons. Not only is this a poor decision, it robs our communities of the money they desperately need to rebuild after 18 months of the pandemic,” said Katie Glenn, a policy associate with the SPLC Action Fund, an arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Alabama prison construction proposal calls for at least three new prisons — a prison in Elmore County with at least 4,000 beds and enhanced space for medical and mental health care needs; another prison with at least 4,000 beds in Escambia County; and a women’s prison — as well as renovations to existing facilities.

President Joe Biden’s sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package known as the American Rescue Plan was signed in March, providing a stream of funds to states and cities to recover from the pandemic. The program gives broad discretion to states and cities on how to use the money.

Republican legislative leaders said they are comfortable they can legally use the funds because the American Rescue Plan, in addition to authorizing the dollars for economic and health care programs, says states can use the money to replace revenue lost during the pandemic to strengthen support for vital public services and help retain jobs.

Ivey and GOP legislative leaders have defended the use of the virus funds, saying it will enable the state to essentially “pay cash” for part of the construction and avoid using state dollars as well as paying interest on a loan.

“We don’t have to borrow quite as much money and pay all that money back,” Ivey told reporters last week as she defended using virus funds for prison construction.

The Department of Justice last year sued Alabama, saying the state prisons for men are “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.” The lawsuits came after the Justice Department issued reports describing a culture of violence and listed a litany of incidents including a prison guard beating a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” as the prisoner begged the officer to kill him.

The department noted in a 2019 report that dilapidated conditions were a contributing factor to what it called unconstitutional conditions but emphasized that, “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse.”

The state has disputed the accusations from the Justice Department but has acknowledged problems with staffing and building conditions.

Prison construction is the centerpiece of the special session call, but it also includes two policy changes: proposals to make retroactive both the 2013 sentencing standards and a 2015 law on mandatory supervision of released inmates. Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said they estimated that would allow up to 700 inmates to apply for reduced sentences.