• Brandon Colvin

Alabama calls lawmakers into special session with plans to build prisons using COVID-relief funds



On September 23, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced that she would be summoning the state's lawmakers for a special legislative session to begin on September 27. The reason for the emergency meeting of legislators: an unresolved financing plan for a $1.3 billion prison construction and renovation proposal and a pressing need for criminal sentencing reform.


Legislators in the Alabama House of Representatives met briefly yesterday to mark the first day of the special session. The Alabama Senate kicked off its first session convening at 9 a.m. this morning. The House will convene for its second day at 4 p.m. this afternoon. Members of both chambers anticipate being able to meet the session's goals of finalizing prison funding and securing the governor's sentencing reform aims by the end of the week. Special legislative sessions in Alabama are limited to 12 legislative days within a 30-calendar day span.


The issue of passing sentencing reform legislation during this session appears to be relatively uncontroversial and straightforward, however, some legislators have expressed dismay over the limited range of reform covered by the session, arguing that more reforms are needed, especially for Alabama's Parole Board. The parole board has been the recipient of great criticism for routinely denying about nearly 90% of parole applicants. The proposed reforms will allow inmates sentenced before 2013 to apply for re-sentencing under revised sentencing guidelines and expand the number of incarcerated individuals who are eligible for supervised release under a revised 2015 law. While such efforts are significant, only a small number of inmates will be affected. According to a report released last week by the Alabama Sentencing Commission, a mere 700 inmates will be impacted by the special session's proposed reforms. For context, Alabama's prison system houses just under 18,000 incarcerated individuals.


House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, told the press yesterday that he would like to see "a total reform" of the state's parole board and an expansion of sentencing reform proposals, but noted that small action is greater than none at all. "What do you do?" he said. "You take changing 700 lives, or you do nothing."


Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, “These new prisons are very much needed. We have people living in inhumane situations. We definitely need to update our facilities [but] we cannot build our way out of this situation. So, we must find a way to end the revolving door of recidivism, and develop programs to provide non-violent offenders with alternatives.”


The ACLU of Alabama, which has been a vocal critic of the state's prison and criminal justice systems, also expressed dissatisfaction with the narrow scope of the special session.


"We are disappointed that Governor Ivey is limiting the upcoming special session to prison infrastructure and only one minor sentencing reform, instead of focusing on more substantive solutions to Alabama's broken criminal justice system," said Dillon Nettles, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Alabama. "Alabama needs new policies, not new buildings,"


A sign placed in the window of an inmate's cell calls for "HELP" during a visit by state officials last year. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., long criticized for its conditions, will be largely decommissioned. (Kim Chandler/AP)


The state's effort to overhaul its prison facilities will undoubtedly present more complex challenges for legislators than sentencing reform, as the lawmakers finalize the intricate financing details for the billion dollar project. The current spending proposal covers the construction of two new men's prisons in Alabama's Elmore and Escambia counties and the potential renovation of other facilities including Alabama's infamous Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Together, the new facilities would will house about 8,000 incarcerated individuals with numbers split evenly between the buildings.


Under the currently proposed plan, the state government will meet the $1.3 billion cost by combining funding from three sources: a state issued bond for $785 million, $400 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act's COVID-relief program, and $150 million in relief dollars from Alabama's General Fund budget.


Already, questions about the particulars of the funding plan have threatened its smooth passage. The proposal's option to apply $400 million in federal coronavirus relief funding has raised both eyebrows and questions among some legislators.


Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, expressed concerns that the state may place its citizens at greater risk if COVID relief dollars are re-allocated for prison construction. Hatcher also noted that his constituents have been sharing similar concerns, especially in light of the devastation COVID-19 has caused in Alabama.


"We are still number one in the country now for (COVID) deaths," Hatcher said. "Can we justify it?"


Alabama Democratic Party Chair, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, a staunch critic of the state's prison system did not hold back when asked about the proposed reform plans.

"For me, building prisons without dealing with your pardons and paroles system and the leadership there, building prisons without dealing with the lack of leadership in the DOC, and building prisons without sentencing reform that helps us properly identify who really deserves long sentences, it’s just going to result in us putting old problems in new buildings,” said England.


During this year's regular legislative session, England introduced legislation requiring quarterly reports from the Alabama Department of Corrections detailing staffing issues, inmate deaths, possession of contraband, and sexual violence in the state's prison facilities.


State Finance Director Bill Poole has said that the state will be able to justify its use of federal COVID funding for prison construction. His justification hinges on a provision of the American Rescue Plan Act that allows states to apply relief dollars toward certain government-related expenses provided that the state certifies that it has lost revenue due to COVID. According to Poole, the state plans to certify to the federal government that it has sustained financial losses totaling at least $400 million as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The state's special session rush to enact prison reform has been spurred largely by lawsuits filed against Alabama by the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ's most recent suit was filed on December 9, 2020, and outlined several problems in Alabama prisons, noting that inmates in state facilities are, “at serious risk of death, physical violence, sexual abuse and death at the hands of other prisoners.” Another suit filed by the DOJ in 2019 deemed Alabama's prisons to be in such poor shape and so dangerous that they were in direct violation of inmates' rights as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Sending people to Alabama's prisons, according the Justice Department, amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment."


If the Alabama legislature does not successfully pass the proposed prison construction and renovation plan, the state could lose its federal court case which could lead to federal oversight of the Alabama's prison systems. And it would not be the first time the state lost control over its prisons.


From 1976 to 1988, the federal government took over Alabama's carceral system, overhauling some of the state's prison facilities to improve sanitation, security, and healthcare for incarcerated individuals. With only 10 more legislative days to approve a plan, political observers will not have to wait long for an outcome.


Voting on the special session's prison reform and financing package could take place as early as Wednesday morning in the House.

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