Alabama lawmakers plan to use almost 20% of the state's federal pandemic relief money to build three new prisons and renovate four others. Lawmakers in the state, which has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country, initiated a special session Monday to discuss the $1.3 billion plan, to be partly funded with $400 million of $2.1 billion received through the American Rescue Plan, with a vote expected by Friday, per AL.com and the Guardian. Details:
- Republican Gov. Kay Ivey has said federal relief funds will be used to address safety concerns in prisons "so we don't have to borrow quite so much money and pay all that money back," per AL.com.
- Alabama has one of the most violent prison systems in the country. A Justice Department lawsuit describes prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse and "excessive force at the hands of prison staff."
- State Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn has argued the allocation could help with "systemic public health and economic challenges that may have contributed to more severe impacts of the pandemic among low-income communities and people of color" while noting that half of state inmates are "people of color."
- But Democrat Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, argues expanding prisons "will particularly harm communities of color who are already disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration and this public health crisis," per the Guardian. He wrote to the Treasury Department on Monday to ask it to "prevent the misuse of [relief] funding by any state, including Alabama."
- Other opponents say the relief funds are desperately needed elsewhere, including in hospitals facing an ICU bed crisis, per Alabama Political Reporter. "Building prisons was not the intended use of these funds and will leave our communities without the lifeline the American Rescue Plan was supposed to be," reads a letter signed by 40 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, per Vanity Fair.
- While the argument could be made that a less crowded prison system would be safer considering how COVID-19 spreads, prison capacity is not expected to increase under the construction plan as five smaller prisons would close, per the Guardian. However, the outlet notes the House is also debating two sentencing reform bills "that could offer reduced sentences to as many as 700 inmates."
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