Alabama DOC asks if COVID-19 funds can be used for prison enhancements

The current prisons are past their useful lifespans and are unsafe for prisoners and staff, says ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn


By Brian Lyman
Montgomery Advertiser
        
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Department of Corrections asked the U.S. Treasury Department this past week whether the state could use COVID-19 recovery funds for "better, enhanced, and/or extended infrastructure" to address the fallout from the pandemic in the prison system.

The letter from ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, which framed the request as enhancing health care and programming for inmates, reflects ongoing discussions by legislators about using pandemic recovery funds for prison construction, following the collapse of Gov. Kay Ivey's proposed build/lease program for new facilities. The issue that will likely be the focus of a special session later this summer.

"The average age of ADOC's facilities is over 43 years old, and while many have expanded, most have exceeded, in the past, the original design capacity," the letter said. "Because of this, medical and mental health care and programming space is limited in many of ADOC's facilities."

Overcrowding has been a habitual problem in Alabama's prisons. This 2003 photo shows the E Block of the Kilby Correctional Facilty filled to capacity.
Overcrowding has been a habitual problem in Alabama's prisons. This 2003 photo shows the E Block of the Kilby Correctional Facilty filled to capacity. (Tamika Moore)

Questions about the letter were sent to DOC on Friday afternoon.

Inmates describe the Alabama prison system as a "war zone" and accuse correctional officers and staff of ignoring widespread drug use, excessive force, and violence among and directed at prisoners in the system. Homicides have increased by 200% since 2015.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state last year, arguing conditions in men's prisons violated inmates' Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

The state allowed prisons to become overcrowded decades ago. Dunn has argued the current prisons are past their useful lifespans, unsafe for prisoners and staff, and lacking in space for educational and rehabilitation programs.

Efforts to build new prisons have been unsuccessful. The Alabama Legislature failed to pass bond issues for new prisons in 2016 and 2017. Gov. Kay Ivey pursued a plan to contract with private companies to build three new prisons that the state would lease for 30 years. But the plan aroused opposition from legislators and people in communities where the prisons would go. A major underwriter withdrew from the project this spring, and a closing date passed without any action.

Ivey and legislative leaders have met over the last several weeks to develop a plan for new prison construction, which could include new prisons or renovations to existing facilities. House Ways and Means General Fund chair Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said earlier this week that lawmakers were looking at the possibility of using recovery funds to pay for new prison construction. No decisions have been made on the scope of the project or financing, though legislators have signaled they don't want to spend the estimated $94 to $108 million a year the lease program would have cost the state over three decades.

Amid the outbreak, DOC stopped admitting new prisoners, suspended family visitations, and ended work release programs. As of July 13, DOC had confirmed 1,664 COVID cases among its inmate population of roughly 17,000 inmates as of April. By the end of March, 63 inmates and three staff members had died from the disease. DOC says nearly 11,000 inmates had received vaccinations through early July.

Dunn's letter argues that Alabama's incarcerated population reflected a statement from an interim rule on the use of COVID funds that said that the impacts of the pandemic fell hardest on "low-income communities, people of color and tribal communities," who faced greater threats to their physical health and economic well-being than other communities. The letter said the "typical incarcerated person" comes from "a low socio-economic background with limited education," and "often has a prior history of substance abuse (estimated 75-80% of incarcerated persons) and/or mental illness."

The letter also said more than half of Alabama inmates "are persons of color," and that "nearly all incarcerated persons would be deemed to be indigent, and would remain so until his/her release."

"Most incarcerated person would, therefore, be part of the class described in the Interim Rule even prior to incarceration," the letter said. "These disadvantages were further exacerbated by the communal living situation."

Dunn also wrote in the letter of challenges in following social distancing guidelines within a prison, and cited administrative decisions such as the ongoing suspension of in-person visitations and the end of work release programs - in which inmates earn money to buy goods from a canteen or pay off court costs - as a burden on inmates.

"Logically, incarceration during the pandemic caused an extra layer of strain on the population than persons who enjoyed more freedoms," the letter said.

The letter said most rehabilitation and educational programs declined in prisons during the pandemic. Dunn wrote that the number of inmates getting GEDs dropped 47%, with vocational certificates dropping 29%. Completion of drug treatment programs fell 43%.

"It will take several months, if not years, before the correctional system is back to "normal" and operating at pre-pandemic functionality, due to its limited infrastructure," the letter said.

The letter says DOC could use the money to increase space in prisons for health care staffing and programming, and expand broadband to offer more remote learning.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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