Ivey defends use of virus funds for prisons, bills advance

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday defended her state’s plan to use pandemic relief funds to build new prisons —saying the $400 million expenditure is both allowed and needed — while a legislative committee swiftly advanced the construction plan.

Ivey issued a response to U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who urged Treasury Department Secretary Janet Yellen to block the expenditure, saying prison construction was not the intention of the American Rescue Plan.

“The fact is, the American Rescue Plan Act allows these funds to be used for lost revenue and sending a letter in the last hour will not change the way the law is written. These prisons need to be built, and we have crafted a fiscally conservative plan that will cost Alabamians the least amount of money to get to the solution required,” Ivey said.

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

The $1.3 billion construction plan would tap $400 million of the state’s $2.2 billion share of American Rescue Plan dollars. The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday approved the appropriations bill plus a separate bond issue. At least two lawmakers, both Democrats, voted against the use of pandemic funds.

Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, said during a public hearing that the proposal doesn’t address a staffing crisis or most of the issues identified by the U.S. Department of Justice in its lawsuit and reports against the state.

“Buildings are not killing people,” Crowder said. She said the Justice Department reports are “primarily concerned with unabated violence, homicides, sexual assaults, excessive force by guards and introduction of contraband by staff.”

The Department of Justice last year sued Alabama, saying the state prisons for men are “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.”

“Alabama has never built 4,000-bed prisons. We can’t staff 1,000-bed prisons. This bill does nothing to address the staffing crisis that has been unmet,” she said.

Rep. Steve Clouse, chairman of the budget committee, said the new prisons would be the base for the changes to the corrections plan.

“It’s just a piece of the puzzle. We feel like it’s a big piece that is building the foundation. There are several different pieces, but we’ve got to get this foundation,” Clouse said. The Ozark Republican said he believed safer facilities will allow the state to better retain staff.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday advanced legislation that makes presumptive sentencing guidelines approved in 2013 retroactive, thus allowing nonviolent inmates sentenced before 2013 to ask for a new sentence.

Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, estimated that up to 700 inmates might be eligible to request new sentences.

Some lawmakers have argued the state should take on more comprehensive sentencing changes.

“It’s incumbent on us to figure out different ways to manage our system, so we can actually reserve space for the people who need it,” said Rep. Chris England, a Tuscaloosa Democrat.