MONTGOMERY, Ala. Alabama lawmakers on Wednesday headed toward swift approval of a prison construction package that would take $400 million of the state's pandemic relief funds to assist pay for the construction of three new lockups.
The House of Representatives voted 74-26 for the $1.3 billion construction plan and 75-25 to use $400 million from the state's part of American Rescue Plan dollars to help pay for it. The votes came after Republicans, who have a lopsided majority in the Alabama Legislature, voted to stop debate. The bills are now passed to the Alabama Senate, where lawmakers want to approve them by the end of the week.
It's not easy to address our decades-long prison infrastructure challenges, but doing the proper thing and the hard thing is one in the same way is the hardest thing," Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement after the House votes.
Ivey and GOP legislator leaders compared the construction plan to being a partial solution to the state's long-standing problems in corrections that led the U.S. Department of Justice to sue the country last year. State Democrats criticized the proposal, saying it will not address the prison problems, and that the state has health care and education needs that could be assisted by the $400 million million.
I'm thinking about families and how this money was supposed to be a new inject of resources into the community, he said. All of these people have been suffering, and we're using this $400 million to build prisons," Rep. Merika Coleman of Pleasant Grove said.
Ivey and Republican legislators have stated that the plan is appropriate because the American Rescue Plan claims that states may use some of the funds to replace income raised during the coronavirus epidemic to maintain services.
Mac McCutcheon, the House Speaker, said he believed the money would be well spent to improve prison conditions.
You've got people who are stacked on top of each other. You've got the safety of the inmates and the individuals who care about the prisoners. You've got facilities that don't include proper plumbing. They aren't worth fixing, the Republican stated.
Terri Sewell, the lone Democrat in Alabamas congressional delegation, tweeted that she is concerned her state is using the epidemic money for prisons, "especially as the virus rages in our state."
To be clear, the actual state of the Alabama prison system is terrible, but the use of COVID-19 relief funds to pay for decades of neglect is simply unacceptable, she said.
Last year, the Department of Justice sued Alabama, saying male inmates in the state live in prisons riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-in-presoners violence."
The DOJ revealed in a 2019 article that preceded the case that new prisons will not solve the problems alone in 2019. Dilapidated conditions were a contributing factor to what it called unconstitutional conditions, but they noted that new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconsstitutionality condition of... prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse, according to federal officials.
Chris England, the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party and state Rep. Chris Hampshire, said the prison plan being proposed would not morph into a better system.
We will remain overcrowded as we continue to be overly busy. We will remain understaffed if we get too little personnel. We will be understaffed for the time being. We will be misled if our current commissioner is still working, and unless our former commissioner does not work, we will remain unaffected," England said.
New modern prisons, like as Rep. Steve Clouse of Ozark, would be a foundation for improving the system, if prisoners would have been housed in cell blocks rather than large dormitories with rows of bunks.
It's a piece of the puzzle, he added. Clouse stated that it's a huge piece.
The Alabama prison construction proposal calls for at least three new prisons: one with at minimum 4,000 beds in Elmore County with increased room for medical and mental health care needs, a second of the same size in Escambia County, and ea womens prison as well as renovations to existing facilities. Six prisons would be closed.
The bill also includes a retroactive sentencing modification that may allow up to 700 nonviolent prisoners to seek shorter sentences. After it became doubtful that there was enough Republican support to pass the legislation, the House did not vote on the sentencing bill on Wednesday, killing it for the short special session.
Around 40 people, including some parents of inmates, protested the plan and the use of pandemic funds outside of the Alabama Statehouse. The group said Alabama had other needs in medical care and education, including a banner that read, Stop the Spending Spree."
All they want is to build these prisons, they add. They don't care about reform," Sandy Ray explained, whose son died in a state prison in 2019 following tampering with police.