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Alabama wants to use its COVID relief funds to build new prisons

MONTGOMERY, Alabama (AP) – Facing a Justice Department lawsuit over Alabama’s notoriously violent prisons, state lawmakers began a special session on a $ 1.3 billion construction plan on Monday who would use federal pandemic relief funds to pay part of the cost of building new lockdowns.

Governor Kay Ivey has touted the plan to build three new prisons and renovate others as a partial solution to the state’s long-standing problems in its prison system. The proposal would use up to $ 400 million of the state’s share of US bailout funds to help pay for construction.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Republican Senator Greg Albritton said of the construction plan.

“We can’t expect people to come to work when they don’t know they are going to be able to leave work alive. We cannot expect to house people, detainees, in deteriorating and unsanitary conditions. We have to fix the problems. The prisons are collapsing.

But critics of the plan say the state’s prison problems go beyond construction conditions – and have urged the state to consider more radical sentencing reforms. They also argued that the state should not use pandemic relief dollars to build prisons.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York on Monday sent a letter to Treasury Department Secretary Janet Yellen asking the Treasury to “prevent the misuse of funding ( of the US bailout) by any state, including Alabama “to build prisons.

“Directing funding to protect our citizens from a pandemic to fuel mass incarceration is in direct violation of the goals of ARP legislation,” Nadler wrote in the letter.

The Alabama jail construction proposal calls for at least three new prisons – one in Elmore County with at least 4,000 beds and improved space for medical and mental health needs; another prison with at least 4,000 beds in Escambia County; and a women’s prison, as well as renovations to existing facilities.

Senator Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, said he had concerns about building prisons with money he says has been set aside to alleviate the ongoing pandemic crisis.

“Remember, we are now still number one in the country for deaths,” Hatcher said of Alabama’s COVID-19 death rate that recently dominated the country.

Republican legislative leaders said they were comfortable being able to use the funds legally because the US bailout, in addition to allowing dollars for economic and health care programs, says states can use money to replace income lost during the pandemic to strengthen support for public services and help maintain jobs.

Ivey and GOP legislative leaders said the use of the money would allow the state to “pay in cash” essentially for part of the construction and avoid using state dollars as well as to pay interest on a loan.

Last year, the Justice Department sued Alabama, claiming state prisons for men are “riddled with violence between prisoners and prison guards.”

The department noted in a 2019 report that the dilapidated conditions were a contributing factor to what it called unconstitutional conditions, but stressed that “the new facilities alone will not resolve the factors contributing to the condition. General unconstitutional of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs and sexual abuse.

The state disputed the Justice Department’s charges, but acknowledged problems with personnel and construction conditions.

Legislative leaders said action was needed to avoid further intervention by the courts in the system.

“We have a huge effort to move forward with a good plan. It is not a one-off solution. It is not a bandage. I hope the courts will see this, ”said Speaker Mac McCutcheon.

While prison building is the centerpiece of the special session, it also includes two policy changes: proposals to make both the 2013 sentencing standards retroactive and a 2015 mandatory supervision law. released detainees. Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said they estimated it would allow up to 700 inmates to seek reduced sentences.

Some lawmakers had hoped for broader sentencing reforms and to address the sluggishness of state parole.

Minority leader Anthony Daniels said he expected the prosecution’s amendments to attempt to broaden the sentencing bill, but said it was a “start”.

“I think we have to go further than where we are going. … But what are you doing? Are you taking 700 lives to change or are you doing nothing? Daniels said.

Sandy Ray, the mother of an inmate killed in a state prison in 2019, came to the Statehouse on Monday and showed lawmakers a photo of her son’s beaten face following an altercation with guards.

New prisons could help, she said, but broader changes are needed, otherwise it will “always be the same problems in new buildings”.

“They are still killing people in the prison system and it’s worse than in 2019 when my son died,” she said.

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