Alabama trying to use coronavirus relief funds for new prisons

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 share of American Rescue Plan funds to help pay for the construction.

"It's the right thing to do," Republican Sen. Greg Albritton said of the construction plan. "We can’t expect people to come to work when they don’t know they’re going to be able to leave work alive. We can’t expect to house people, inmates, in conditions that are deteriorating and unhealthy. We’ve got to fix the problems. The prisons are falling in."

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But critics of the plan say the state’s prison problems go beyond building conditions — and urged the state to look to more sweeping sentencing reforms. They also argued 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," 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.

Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, said he has some concerns about building prisons with money that he said was set aside to mitigate the ongoing pandemic crisis.

"Remember, we are now still the No. 1 country for deaths," Hatcher said of Alabama's COVID-19 death rate that recently led the country.

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 said using the money 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.

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 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.

While prison construction is the centerpiece of the special session, 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.

Some lawmakers had hoped for broader reforms on sentencing and to address the state's slow rate of paroles.

Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said he expects floor amendments to try to expand the sentencing bill, but said it's a "start."

"I think we need to go farther than where we are going. ... But what do you do? Do you take changing 700 lives or do you do nothing?" Daniels said.