Alabama is still facing a federal lawsuit alleging inhumane conditions in its state-run prisons.
Months after the federal Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against Alabama and its infamously violent penitentiaries, the state’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, signed off on legislation reappropriating coronavirus relief funds for the construction of new state prisons.
The legislation, says Newsweek.com, would allocate about $400 million in COVID-19 relief funds to the state’s prisons system.
“This is a pivotal moment for the trajectory of our state’s criminal justice system,” Ivey said.
“Let me be clear,” she added, “while more reform of the system can and does need to be addressed in the future—and I am committed to that as are many legislators—today’s bill signing on the construction part of this issue is a major step forward.”
As LegalReader.com has reported before, Alabama has been criticized for the harsh conditions present in many of its state-administered prisons.
In 2020, the federal Department of Justice filed a suit against the state, saying its prisons system is “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.”
The Justice Department noted that its investigators believe that, while poor infrastructure may exacerbate the violence in Alabama state penitentiaries, “new facilities alone” will not resolve the problem.
Ivey’s prisons plan, says NBC News, has already been condemned by in-state Democrats, who said that the Biden administration’s relief funds were not meant to build prisons.
Democratic state Rep. Juandalynn Givan, for instance, said she hopes that the federal government intervenes.
“There are many needs here in the state of Alabama and there are many people who need these funds,” said Givan, who represents the Birmingham area. “But [Republicans] saw an opportunity to take the Biden money, that $400 million, because it was just like liquid water flowing through their hands, and say, ‘OK, let’s jump on it.’”
It appears the federal government is already considering taking action.
Late last week, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking her to “prevent the misuse of [American Rescue Plan] funding by any state, including Alabama,” to build prisons.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki further said she would be “surprised” if the construction of prisons is what Congress intended to fund when it passed the $1.9 relief package.
However, Ivey and her supporters, including Republican state Sen. Greg Albritton, say the funds will go a “long way” in relieving violence behind bars.
“This was the right thing for Alabama to do. We’ve got crumbling infrastructure,” Sen. Albritton said. “We’ve got people housed in places that are filthy. We’ve got individuals working in conditions that are unsafe.”
Nevertheless, prison rights activists and public policy advocates have said that Alabama’s prisons will not improve unless and until the state reconsiders its approach to criminal justice.
Katine Glenn, policy associate at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund, told NBC News that the state’s priorities seem misplaced.
“The Alabama Legislature has proved its determination to spend $400 million of American Rescue Plan funds to build two mega-prisons when we have one of the highest COVID death rates in the world,” Glenn said. “It won’t solve the problems plaguing the prison system. Only decarceration can do that.”