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Alabama lawmakers weigh using virus funds to build prisons

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, shown at a news conference.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, shown at a news conference.
(Associated Press)

Alabama is considering whether to use $400 million in pandemic relief funds to build new prisons, a proposal Gov. Kay Ivey and Republican legislative leaders say would save state taxpayers money, but that critics argue is not what the funds are supposed to be used for.

Lawmakers on Monday begin a special session focused on a $1.3-billion plan to build at least three new prisons and renovate others. The projects would be done in phases and funded with a $785-million bond issue, $150 million in general fund dollars and $400 million from the state’s $2.2-billion share of American Rescue Plan funds.

Ivey and Republican legislative leaders have defended the use of the virus funds, saying it 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.

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“We don’t have to borrow quite as much money and pay all that money back,” Ivey told reporters this week as she explained why the virus funds should be used for prison construction.

With the election eight months away, voters are finally getting a clearer picture of the June 2022 contest to replace Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Republican state Sen. Greg Albritton, who chairs the Senate general fund budget committee, said legislative leaders are comfortable they can legally use the money for prison construction. Albritton said part of the federal dollars are to replace revenue lost during the pandemic. He said that pot of funds “has many, many fewer restrictions” on how it is used.

Dev Wakeley, a policy analyst with Alabama Arise, said while the state may be legally able to use the money for prison construction, the purpose was to do things that “will help everyday Alabamians in their lives, and to smooth out the recovery.” Alabama Arise is an advocacy organization for low-income families.

He said the money could be used for items such as an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program to provide medical coverage to previously uninsured Alabamians and child care programs.

“Congress surely did not contemplate state governments deciding that well, you know, we’re just not going to use this money to actually improve lives of people ... instead we’re going to blow $400 million on building fancy new prisons that don’t even really get at the problems” of the state incarceration system.

State Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) said there are “obviously better uses of the money.”

President 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.

A spokesperson said the U.S. Department of Treasury does not pre-approve any specific uses of the funds and has not issued a final rule on usage. Treasury officials say the department is monitoring all proposed expenditures and expects any state or local government that uses state and local funds in violation of the eligible uses to repay the misused funds to the federal government.

Dozens of activist and progressive investor groups this week sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking the administration to forbid states to use the pandemic relief funds for prison construction projects. They argued the aid should be allocated to communities in greatest need that have been “disproportionately affected by the crushing impacts of COVID-19.”

“If permitted to use federal dollars, the state will squander a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our communities for productive infrastructure like K-12 and early childhood education, access to high quality and affordable healthcare, clean water and sanitation, as well as promoting a green economy through the transition to renewable energy sources,” read the Sept. 23 letter signed by the Ordinary People Society, Worth Roses, Justice Capital and other organizations.

The Alabama prison construction proposal calls for at least three new prisons — at least a 4,000-bed prison in Elmore County with enhanced space for medical and mental healthcare needs; another at least 4,000-bed prison in Escambia County; and a women’s prison — as well as renovations to existing facilities.


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