Alabama Senate Approves Plan to Build Prisons With COVID Funding, 3 Vote Against

The Alabama Senate approved a plan that will use hundreds of millions of the state's allotted COVID-19 relief to help fund the construction of two large prisons, the Associated Press reported. The bipartisan vote saw just three vote against the prison construction plan and 27 vote for it, returning the bill to the House of Representatives as it awaits a final approval expected to come Friday.

Alabama was given $2.2 billion total in American Rescue Plan funds. In a separate vote, the Senate opted 30-1 to use $400 million of the COVID relief to help cover the costs of the prison construction.

Congressional Democrats are pushing back against plans like Alabama's to use their COVID relief for projects not directly linked to fighting the virus and its impact, the AP reported. Alabama leaders seem to be brushing the criticism and allegations of misuse aside, including Republican Senator Del Marsh, who said that Alabama has to "deal with our prisons" and that the COVID relief is "one-time money."

"I would rather use the one-time money on something that solves a problem and is a one-time ask," Marsh said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Alabama Jail
The Alabama Senate approved a plan that will use hundreds of millions of the state’s allotted COVID-19 relief funds to help fund the construction of two large prisons. A sign reads, "HELP," in the window of an inmate cell seen during a tour by state officials at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, on October 22, 2019. Kim Chandler/AP Photo

President Joe Biden's sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package was signed in March, providing a stream of funds to states and cities to recover from the pandemic. Alabama's plan prompted sharp criticism from some congressional Democrats who said prison construction was not the intent of the relief bill. Republicans said the rules give them discretion to spend the money on what they see as their greatest need.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Alabama over a prison system "riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence." The Justice Department noted in an earlier report that dilapidated facilities were a contributing factor to the unconstitutional conditions but noted "new facilities alone will not resolve" the matter because of problems in culture, management deficiencies, corruption, violence and other problems.

Democratic Senator Linda Coleman-Madison of Birmingham said she supports building prisons because the state has to "do something" about its corrections system, but has reservations about using the pandemic money.

Coleman-Madison said she wants a commitment that more money will soon be steered to health care providers that have been struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

"With rural hospitals in the shape they're in, they may not last," Coleman-Madison said.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York this week sent a letter to Treasury Department Secretary Janet Yellen asking Treasury to "prevent the misuse of [American Rescue Plan] funding by any state, including Alabama" to build prisons.

Ivey fired back her own letter, writing, "The Democrat-controlled federal government has never had an issue with throwing trillions of dollars toward their ideological pet projects."

Asked Wednesday about Alabama's plan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, "I would be surprised if that was the intention of the funding."

Republican legislative leaders said they are comfortable they can legally use the funds because the American Rescue Plan, in addition to authorizing the dollars for economic and health care programs, said states can use the money to replace revenue lost during the pandemic to strengthen support for vital public services and help retain jobs.

The Alabama prison construction proposal calls for three new prisons—a prison in Elmore County with at least 4,000 beds and enhanced space for medical and mental health care needs; another prison with at least 4,000 beds in Escambia County; and a women's prison—as well as renovations to existing facilities. Six current facilities would close.

Alabama Approves New Prison Constructions
The Senate approved the use of $400 million to build the new prisons. Kay Ivey, Alabama's current governor questions Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas during a committee meeting at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama, June 20, 2012. Dave Martin/AP Photo