Alabama to use Covid rescue funds to build prisons

MONTGOMERY, Alabama – Amid a nationwide debate over the use of pandemic relief funds, Alabama lawmakers on Friday quickly approved a plan to tap $ 400 million into the US bailout for help build two sizeable prisons, fending off criticism from Congressional Democrats that the money was not intended for such projects.

The Alabama legislature has given final approval to the plan to build a $ 1.3 billion jail and a separate bill to channel $ 400 million of the state’s $ 2.1 billion rescue funds to pay it off.

With the legislative leaders behind her, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bills soon after. The Republican called the construction plan a “big step forward” for the prison system, which faces various orders from federal courts and legal action from the US Department of Justice.

“This is a pivotal moment in the trajectory of our state’s criminal justice system,” said Ivey.

President Joe Biden’s massive $ 1.9 trillion Covid19 bailout was signed in March, providing a flow of funds to states and cities to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama’s plan to use nearly 20% of its US bailout funds to build prisons has drawn criticism from some Congressional Democrats, including US Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama, who argued that that was not the intention of the relief program. But state Republicans have argued that the spending meets a need for public safety and is permitted under a provision to replace lost revenue and bolster state services.

Republican Senator Greg Albritton said the funds “will go a long way” to address the state’s longstanding problems in prisons.

“It was the right thing to do for Alabama. We have a crumbling infrastructure. We have people staying in dirty places. We have people working in hazardous conditions, ”Albritton said.

The plan met with opposition from many Democrats in the House of Representatives, but had few dissenting votes in the State Senate, where Senators approved the use of pandemic money by a 30-vote. 1 and the overall construction plan by a 29-2 vote.

Democratic Representative Juandalynn Givan of Birmingham, who voted against the bills in the House, said she hopes the federal government will step in and tell the state that spending is not allowed.

“There are a lot of needs here in the state of Alabama and there are a lot of people who need these funds,” she said. “But they (Republicans) saw an opportunity to take Biden’s money, that $ 400 million, because it was like liquid water running through their hands and say, ‘OK, let’s jump on it.’ “said Givan.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York this week sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking her to “prevent the misuse of funding from the ARP by any state, including Alabama “to build prisons.

Asked about Alabama’s plan on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “I would be surprised if that was the intention of the funding.”

Republican legislative leaders said they were comfortable being able to use the funds legally because the US bailout, in addition to allowing dollars for economic and health care programs, says states can use money to replace income lost during the pandemic to strengthen support for public services and help maintain jobs.

The US Department of Justice has sued Alabama for a prison system “riddled with violence between prisoners and prison guards.” The Justice Department noted in a previous report that dilapidated facilities were a contributing factor to the unconstitutional conditions, but wrote that “new facilities alone will not solve” the issue due to cultural issues, cultural deficiencies. management, corruption, violence and other issues.

The Alabama jail construction proposal calls for three new prisons – one in Elmore County with at least 4,000 beds and improved space for medical and mental health needs; another prison with at least 4,000 beds in Escambia County and a women’s prison, as well as renovations to existing facilities. Six current facilities would close.

The package of approved bills includes modest reform measures: the state will buy a vacant private prison and use it to house parole offenders – instead of sending them back to jail – and offer rehabilitation programs there. to try to fight against recidivism.

Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the construction plan was both the “right thing to do” and would help the state “with respect to the DOJ, with other litigation.”

Advocacy groups argued that the state needs to undertake broader reforms.

“The Alabama Legislature has proven its resolve to spend $ 400 million in US bailout funds to build two mega-prisons while we have one of the highest Covid death rates in the world.” said Katie Glenn, political associate at the SPLC Action Fund, an arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This will not solve the problems plaguing the prison system. Only decarceration can do it.

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