Black lawmakers, reform advocates, cry foul as Alabama GOP funds prisons with COVID-relief dollars
In recent weeks, Alabama has been grabbing headlines for its controversial plans to use COVID-earmarked funds from the American Rescue Plan to cover a portion of the state's prison upgrade initiative. Last Friday, that plan became law as Governor Kay Ivey, flanked by several Republican elected officials, signed the $1.3 billion dollar legislation.
On September 23, Governor Kay Ivey issued a call to the state's legislators requiring them to report to Montgomery for a special session. The lawmakers were tasked with approving funding for the $1.3 billion prison plan which included two sentencing reform initiatives—one that expands the number of prisoners eligible to complete the final portion of their sentence under supervised release, and another that allows inmates with certain convictions to apply for re-sentencing. As news of the plan's details begin to emerge in public, African-American leaders from across the country took to the airwaves and social media channels to voice their displeasure with Alabama's proposed approach to funding its prison system, especially since the plan included the diversion of $400 million in COVID-relief funding to support the state's prison expansion plans.
Opposition to Alabama's prison construction plan within the Black community is underscored by the state's alarming prison statistics, many of which point to the over-incarceration of Black Alabamians. In fact, state's prisons are populated with inmates that are disproportionately Black and male. Black men comprise over half of the total number of prisoners in the state, 12,654 inmates, even though only 27% of people in Alabama are Black. Significant disparities also exist in the state's pardons and parole system. In 2021, 9 out of 10 black parole applicants in Alabama were denied parole. White parole applicants fared slightly better with 23% being granted parole. It is against this backdrop, that reform advocates, political observers, and elected officials are crying foul.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL District 7, was one of the first high-profile lawmakers to weigh in on the proposed prison plan. Shortly after reports began to emerge that Alabama would be considering the use of funds from the American Rescue Plan for prison construction, the congresswoman released a public statement.
“I am deeply disturbed to learn that the State of Alabama is considering a plan to use $400 million of COVID-19 aid from the American Rescue Plan to build prisons, especially as COVID-19 rages on in our state! Alabama currently has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country. To be clear, the current state of the Alabama prison system is abhorrent, but the use of COVID-19 relief funds to pay for decades of our state’s neglect is simply unacceptable.
“COVID-19 relief money should be used for COVID-19 relief. Period,” said Sewell.
Attorney Brian Stevenson, prominent civil rights attorney and founder of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), called the plan a misguided use of public funds and criticized the state for ignoring the underlying causes of Alabama's prison woes.
“There has been an inattention to the truth of what’s happening in our prisons,” said Stevenson.
“Our prisons are not violent because the walls are shabby or because the pipes aren’t good. Our prisons are dysfunctional not because they’re old. Our prisons are dysfunctional because we have allowed a culture of violence to prevail. We have no accountability. There’s no supervision. There’s no oversight. The management is poor. We have not done what most states have done, to implement best practices in creating more secure and healthier spaces. We just haven’t. Those issues are not going to be fixed by new prisons.”
Alabama Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greenville, a frequent critic of Alabama's criminal justice system, voted in favor of the prison plan but not without qualifying his support. “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,” Singleton said.
One of the state's rising political stars, House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said he generally supported the plan, telling reporters, “I do think it’s a very good step in the right direction...and I just hope that we continue to commit ourselves on the reform side and focus on reform and focus on rehabilitating.”
“I think we need to go farther than we’re going,” Daniels said. “But when you get in a race, you’ve got to start somewhere.” Daniels ultimately voted in favor of the proposal.
Daniels' fellow House member, State Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro, voted against the prison bill and panned the proposal for its lack of adequate measures to address issues beyond failing buildings.
"This bill will do nothing to put a dent in the overall growth of the Alabama prison population and the need to reduce recidivism in the system," mused Howard.
"All we are doing now is warehousing prisoners. They should be engaged in productive activities while they are in the system. [Meanwhile], we have school buildings in this state that are older than our prison facilities and in need of repair. I would rather spend state dollars on improving education facilities than building more prisons.”
During last week's debate in the Senate, where the measure passed unanimously, Senator Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, took to the floor in an impassioned plea for her colleagues to consider drafting much needed legislation to support the state's hospitals and healthcare providers. Her speech highlighted the impact that the diversion COVID-relief funds would have on the state.
Coleman did take care to acknowledge the need for prison reform, but never downplayed her point that using COVID funds for anything other than pandemic support would ultimately deprive Alabamians of important healthcare resources, echoing the sentiments of Congresswoman Sewell.
Although several prominent Black lawmakers from Alabama seemed to be aligned in critique of the proposed prison reforms, their criticism failed to prevent the plan's eventual passage and signing into law. In fact, only one of the proposed prison reforms made it through the legislature asRepublican opposition squelched the initiative to allow non-violent offenders to apply for re-sentencing. The plan's other reform proposal to increase the number of inmates eligible for supervised release did pass and was ultimately signed into law.
The finalized plan will fund the construction of two new prisons, both of which will be more than twice as large as any of the state’s 14 existing prison facilities. Alabama has not built a new prison since the mid-1990s, but now plans to break ground within the next two years on two 4,000 bed buildings.
One of the buildings will be constructed in Elmore County and include space for medical and mental health services. The other 4,000-bed facility will be built in Escambia County.
The move to fund such a large prison reform project was spurred, in part, by a series of legal actions filed against the state by the United States Department of Justice. One lawsuit alleges that Alabama's prison system routinely violates the constitutional rights of inmates. A separate filing alleges that poor conditions in Alabama prisons alongside the inhumane treatment of inmates in the state's care amount to "cruel and unusual punishment." In response to the DOJ's actions against Alabama, the state has scrambled to address the issues brought forth in the lawsuits, with the hope of avoiding a federal takeover.
Now that the state has passed its prison funding package, the DOJ will surely be monitoring Alabama's progress as it moves toward more substantive prison reform.