Alabama lawmakers approve using $400M pandemic funds to build new prisons

Published 8:52 pm Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Alabama lawmakers on Wednesday headed toward swift approval of a prison construction package that would tap $400 million of the state’s pandemic relief funds to help pay for building three new lockups.

The House of Representatives voted 74-26 for the $1.3 billion construction plan and 75-25 to use $400 million from the state’s share of American Rescue Plan dollars to help pay for the construction. The votes came after Republicans, who hold a lopsided majority in the Alabama Legislature, voted to cut off debate. The bills now move to the Alabama Senate, where lawmakers hope to approve them by the end of the week.

“Addressing our decades-long prison infrastructure challenges is not easy, but sometimes, doing the right thing and the hard thing are one in the same,” Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement after the House votes.

Ivey and GOP legislative leaders touted the construction plan as a partial solution to the state’s longstanding problems in corrections that led the U.S. Department of Justice to sue the state last year. The proposal brought sharp criticism from state Democrats, who argued it will not remedy the prison problems and said the state has needs in health care and education that could be helped by the $400 million.

“I’m thinking about families, and how this money was supposed to be an additional injection of resources into the community. All of these folks that have been hurting, and we’re using this $400 million to build prisons,” said Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman of Pleasant Grove.

Ivey and Republican legislative leaders have argued that the plan is appropriate because the American Rescue Plan says states can use some of the funds to replace revenue lost during the coronavirus pandemic to maintain services.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said he thought the money would be “well spent” to improve conditions in prisons.

“You’ve got people who are stacked on top of each other. You’ve got the safety of the inmates and the people taking care of the inmates. You’ve got facilities that don’t have good plumbing. They are not worth fixing,” the Republican said.

The lone Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, wrote on Twitter that she is disturbed her state is using the pandemic money for prisons, “especially as the virus rages in our state.”

“To be clear, the current state of the Alabama prison system is abhorrent, but the use of COVID-19 relief funds to pay for decades of neglect is simply unacceptable,” she said.

The Department of Justice last year sued Alabama, saying male inmates in the state live in prisons “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.”

In a 2019 report that preceded the lawsuit, the DOJ made it clear that new prisons alone will not solve the problems. Federal officials wrote 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 … prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse.”

Alabama Democratic Party chair and state Rep. Chris England said the prison plan being proposed would not translate into a better system.

“We will still be overcrowded. We will still be understaffed. We will still be under-resourced. And if our current commissioner is somehow still working, we will still be mismanaged,” England said.

Republican Rep. Steve Clouse of Ozark said new modern prisons — in which prisoners would be housed in cell blocks instead of large dormitories with rows of bunks — would be a “foundation” for improving the system.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle. It’s a big piece,” Clouse said.

The Alabama prison construction proposal calls for at least three new prisons: one with at least 4,000 beds in Elmore County with enhanced space for medical and mental health care needs; a second of the same size in Escambia County; and a women’s prison — as well as renovations to existing facilities. Six prisons would close.

The package of bills also includes a retroactive sentencing change that could allow up to 700 nonviolent inmates to seek shorter sentences. The House did not vote on the sentencing bill Wednesday, effectively killing it for the short special session, after it became doubtful that there was enough Republican support to pass the bill.

Outside the Alabama Statehouse, about 40 people, including some parents of inmates, protested the plan and the use of pandemic funds. Carrying a banner that read, “Stop the Spending Spree,” the group said Alabama had other needs in medical care and education.

“All they want is to build these prisons. They don’t care about reform,” said Sandy Ray, whose son died in a state prison in 2019 following a confrontation with officers.