Silhouette of concertina barbed wire on a prison fence

Stock / The Outlook

Alabama's House of Representatives voted 74-27 on a prison overhaul Wednesday involving the construction of two men's prisons, one in Elmore County and one in Escambia County, with a new women's prison down the road.

The plan will be funded with a $785 million bond issue, a $154 million general fund allocation and, most controversially, $400 million of Alabama's federal COVID-relief funding, pending the package's approval by the senate.

The special session called by Gov. Kay Ivey for this week is the legislature's second attempt this year at a prison overhaul. The previous plan, to build and lease two new men's prisons — one near Tallassee — from private prison company CoreCivic, to be operated by the state, fell apart in June when CoreCivic's financiers backed out.

Ivey, the Department of Corrections and house and senate Republicans urged lawmakers to back their plan B when the specs came out earlier this month, citing the "urgent" crisis across the state prison system.

According to the ACLU of Alabama, more than 30 state prisoners have died by homicide, suicide or drug overdose in 2021 so far.

An ongoing lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice alleges the DOC has repeatedly violated the constitution's 8th Amendment, prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment," for the prisoner-on-prisoner violence caused by overcrowding and mismanagement.

Proponents of the bill, including local Rep. Ed Oliver (R-Dadeville) who voted "yea" Wednesday, defend the use of federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds for the construction of prisons.

According to Oliver, the plan resolves "decades-old problems within the state corrections system, and it utilizes federal dollars, which takes much of the burden off the Alabama taxpayers."

With the justice department lawsuit hanging over the DOC's heads, the plan is also necessary to stop federal intervention, Oliver said.   

"Just as importantly, it will prevent federal judges from taking over our prison system and ordering the release of dangerous criminals, as they did in California," he told The Outlook. "Its passage will preserve the public's safety, bring our prisons up to constitutional muster, and fund them in a manner that is both conservative and fiscally responsible."

Opponents say new buildings would not address staffing and mismanagement issues, with only enough funding to cover the first phase of prison construction.

They also challenge the use of ARP money — allocated for public health spending, premium pay for essential workers, the replacement of lost public sector revenue, addressing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic, and new water, sewer and broadband infrastructure — for the construction of new prisons.

According to the DOC, prison reconstruction falls within the allowable uses as it addresses the overcrowding that makes social distancing impossible.

Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) called the $400 million ARP use "morally wrong," in his argument on the house floor Wednesday.

"It's ironic to me we're using the argument of lost revenue from the many lost lives as a result of our negligence," he said. "That's so Alabama."

According to England, the state has enough pandemic-related issues to take priority.

"I don't think you can find a state in this country that had a more awful pandemic response than us," he said, naming Texas, Florida and Mississippi as possible exceptions. "And instead of finding an appropriate way to use this revenue to protect the citizens of Alabama, we're using it to incarcerate people."

The three bills for the construction plan, ARP spending and general fund allocation are now headed to the senate, with a vote as soon as Friday.

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