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Analysis

Alabama Using Covid Funds to Build New Prisons

This is also not the first time Alabama has injected stimulus funds into mass incarceration.

Last Updated: October 13, 2021
Published: October 23, 2021
exterior of a prison with watchtower
Getty

This article was origin­ally published on The Hill

Against the trends on both sides of the aisle, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently signed legis­la­tion that directs COVID-19 stim­u­lus funds to the build­ing of new state pris­ons. That’s an unmis­tak­able embrace of mass incar­cer­a­tion, the phenomenon that has ruined the lives and the communit­ies of millions. Funnel­ing money meant for economic recov­ery into new pris­ons flies in the face of the nation­wide, bipar­tisan effort to rewire the crim­inal justice system and bring mass incar­cer­a­tion to an end. The Biden admin­is­tra­tion must ensure that other states don’t follow Alabama’s lead. 

Alabama plans to put $400 million — nearly 20 percent of its federal COVID fund­ing — towards the construc­tion of two men’s mega pris­ons, with about 4,000 beds each. The federal govern­ment should have stepped in to stop Alabama from alloc­at­ing stim­u­lus funds for prison build­ing. Now it must stop other states from doing the same.  

Alabama is making a disastrous mistake. Pris­ons as well as jails are some of the least safe places to be in this pandemic. As of Oct. 11, more than 2,600 people incar­cer­ated in prison and more than 200 correc­tional staff have died nation­wide from COVID-19. Alabama has the highest state prison death rate due to COVID-19 in the coun­try, accord­ing to UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Project. The Prison Policy Insti­tute recently gave Alabama a fail­ing grade for its response to COVID-19 in pris­ons — the only state where they could not find evid­ence of the correc­tions depart­ment provid­ing masks to those behind bars. As late as this August, Alabama correc­tions offi­cials were not required to wear masks. 

This is also not the first time Alabama has injec­ted stim­u­lus funds into mass incar­cer­a­tion. Follow­ing the finan­cial crisis of 2009, Alabama supplanted close to 30 percent of its correc­tions budget with federal dollars from the 2010 Amer­ican Recov­ery and Rein­vest­ment Act, which provided states with billions of dollars in emer­gency stim­u­lus funds. 

Although newer federal grant programs such as the Second Chance Act have helped those released from prison and jail rein­teg­rate more success­fully into their communit­ies, federal funds have played an outsized role since the 1960s in the ever-grow­ing size and scope of the correc­tional appar­atus that exists today. This fund­ing mech­an­ism has fueled local crim­inal justice policy toward the goal of more enforce­ment and has resul­ted in more arrests, more community sanc­tions such as proba­tion and parole, higher incar­cer­a­tion rates, and an over­all larger carceral foot­print in Amer­ica. 

Thanks to laws like the Law Enforce­ment Assist­ance Act of 1965, the Omni­bus Crime Control and Safe Street Act of 1968, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and the 1994 “Crime Bill,” the federal govern­ment has inves­ted billions of dollars to support and grow a system of mass incar­cer­a­tion where dozens of states are now poorly managing prison networks that are over­crowded, unhygienic, and burst­ing at the seams. 

But the solu­tion to inhu­mane condi­tions should­n’t be to build new pris­ons using federal COVID fund­ing. 

It’s true that Alabama’s pris­ons are atro­cious, and in dire need of atten­tion. Most of the state’s correc­tional facil­it­ies don’t have air condi­tion­ing, and a 2019 Depart­ment of Justice report docu­mented showers covered in mold and without hot water. Last year the DOJ sued the Alabama Depart­ment of Correc­tions for fail­ure to protect pris­on­ers from viol­ence and sexual abuse, fail­ure to protect them from excess­ive force by staff, and fail­ure to provide safe condi­tions of confine­ment. And in a July 2020 report, the federal govern­ment found viol­a­tions of excess­ive force rules in 12 of the 13 Alabama pris­ons reviewed. 

Using federal dollars earmarked for COVID relief funds to finance part of a prison construc­tion plan should have been uncon­scion­able to Alabama lawmakers. The state should instead invest resources in divert­ing people away from the crim­inal legal system and support­ing drug treat­ment, mental health program­ming, and re-entry services. 

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has options for making sure that states don’t use COVID-19 relief funds to build more pris­ons. House Judi­ciary Commit­tee Chair­man Rep. Jerry Nadler recently called on Treas­ury Secret­ary Janet Yellen to “take all appro­pri­ate steps” to prevent states from misus­ing COVID fund­ing for pris­ons. The Treas­ury Depart­ment over­sees the creation of guidelines for how states use these funds, and it should imme­di­ately order specific rules prohib­it­ing states from using these dollars to build pris­ons. Addi­tion­ally, the White House can condemn states for spend­ing this money to subsid­ize mass incar­cer­a­tion. 

Congress approved billions of dollars in relief money to support communit­ies across the coun­try and help them thrive — not to lock more people up. The Biden admin­is­tra­tion must uphold its commit­ment to redu­cing mass incar­cer­a­tion and prevent other states from spend­ing COVID money on pris­ons.