Groups seek probe of Alabama use of virus funds for prisons

December 18, 2021 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Nearly two dozen organizations have sent a letter asking the U.S. House Financial Services Committee to investigate Alabama’s plan to use $400 million in coronavirus pandemic relief funds to build two super-size prisons.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, The Sentencing Project and others signed on to a letter arguing that prison construction is an improper use of COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan. It asks Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters to hold hearings on the matter.

“Directing COVID relief funds to a massive prison construction plan that long predates the pandemic is an absurd and inappropriate use of (American Rescue Plan) funds,” the organizations wrote.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation in October to tap $400 million of the state’s money from the federal plan to help build two super-size prisons. The Republican governor at the time called the construction plan “a major step forward” for the prison system, which faces various federal court orders and a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice.

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The Alabama prison construction proposal calls for three new prisons — one north of Montgomery 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 south Alabama’s Escambia County and to replace the current women’s prison in Elmore — as well as renovations to existing facilities. Many existing facilities would close.

Republican legislative leaders and Ivey have said they are confident that they can use the pandemic money for prison construction 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.

But the opposed organizations argued that was not the intent of the money.

“Building more prisons is a gross misuse of funds that were sent to help the people of Alabama, not punish them,” said JaTaune Bosby, executive director of ACLU of Alabama, in a statement.

Bosby added that, “There seems to be no urgency from elected officials to provide relief to the people incarcerated in their facilities.”

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The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Alabama over a prison system “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.” The Justice Department noted in an earlier report that dilapidated facilities were a contributing factor to the unconstitutional conditions but wrote “new facilities alone will not resolve” the matter because of culture, management deficiencies, corruption and violence.

The department updated its complaint this year, saying conditions in Alabama prisons have not improved since the federal government warned of unconstitutional conditions earlier and that male inmates continue to live in deadly and dangerous conditions.

Ivey’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.