Sep 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Alabama trying to use COVID relief funds to expand prisons

Alabama prison

Inside the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., in 2018. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Alabama state lawmakers are trying to funnel up to $400 million of the state's American Rescue Plan funds to pay for a $1.3 billion plan to build and renovate prisons across the state, the Associated Press reports.

Why it matters: Diverting dollars from the COVID-relief package, passed in March, is prompting criticism over misuse.

Details: State lawmakers began a special legislative session Monday on the $1.3 billion construction plan.

  • The proposed plan seeks to build three new prisons, including a women's facility, and renovate others.
  • The new prisons would also have increased space for medical and mental health services.

Republican leaders expressed confidence in appropriating the funds, saying that the American Rescue Plan says states can use the relief dollars to "replace revenue lost during the pandemic to strengthen support for vital public services and help retain jobs," per AP.

The big picture: The Justice Department sued the state last year over violence inside its prisons, per the Associated Press, which critics say repairing and expanding the prison system won't address.

  • The proposed legislation includes policy changes to sentencing and release standards that AP reports would allow up to 700 inmates to apply for reduced sentences.

What they're saying: “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," state Sen. Greg Albritton (R) said Monday.

  • "Directing funding meant to protect our citizens from a pandemic to fuel mass incarceration is, in direct contravention of the intended purposes of the ARP legislation," U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday.
  • Nadler argued that the move will cause particular harm to communities of color, who have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic and over-incarceration.
  • The letter calls on Yellen to "prevent the misuse of ARP funding by any state, including Alabama, that seeks to direct this financial assistance to the expansion of its prison system."
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