Alabama’s new prison plan includes using $400 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds

Gov. Ivey urged legislators to support the plan, saying the state is at risk of federal intervention


By Mike Cason
al.com
        
The Alabama House Republican caucus met yesterday to discuss a new plan to build two men’s prisons and one for women, the latest effort to fix what Gov. Kay Ivey called Alabama’s “longstanding, yet urgent” problem with overcrowded, understaffed, and aging prisons.

The Republican caucus holds 76 seats in the 105-seat House and will have a strong say in the fate of the proposal, developed by legislative leaders and the Ivey administration.

Legislators said the overall response was favorable at the meeting, although the caucus did not poll its members on whether they supported it.

A corrections officer walks through the faith dormitory at Kilby Corrections Facility in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. The facility would be closed under the new prison plan.
A corrections officer walks through the faith dormitory at Kilby Corrections Facility in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. The facility would be closed under the new prison plan. (Montgomery Advertiser)

“We had a very positive meeting,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon of Monrovia said. “There were some great questions asked today.”

McCutcheon and House General Fund budget chairman Steve Clouse said they believed the funding plan, combining a bond issue, federal COVID-19 relief funds, and state General Fund appropriations, was sound.

“We’re going to take advantage of federal dollars that’s going to be made available to us, as well as savings that we have in the General Fund,” McCutcheon said.

The draft bill calls for construction, renovations, and closing of prisons. Phase 1 includes:

  • A 4,000-bed prison for men in Elmore County that would specialize in medical care, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and educational and vocational programs.
  • A 4,000-bed prison for men in Escambia County

Phase 1 also includes closing four prisons within one year after the two new ones are finished:

  • Elmore and Staton prisons in Elmore County.
  • Kilby prison in Montgomery County.
  • Hamilton prison for the Aged and Infirmed in Marion County.

To pay for phase 1, the bill authorizes a bond issue of up to $785 million. In addition, Clouse said the state expects to use $400 million in federal dollars from Alabama’s allocation from the American Rescue Plan, a COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress. Alabama is receiving $2.1 billion for state government under the American Rescue Plan. Also, the plan will use about $150 million from the state General Fund, Clouse said.

State officials have talked about the possibility of using American Rescue Plan funds for prisons for some time.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Ivey urged legislators to support the plan, saying the state is at risk of federal intervention if it does not fix its decades-old problems with prisons. The Department of Justice sued Alabama last year, alleging that the state’s violent prisons violate the constitutional rights of inmates to a safe environment.

Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said after today’s meeting that lawmakers must keep in mind the impact of their decisions on the people locked up and those who work in the state’s prisons.

“There are a lot of questions about the financial process, the fiscal responsibility, and we talked about that for a great deal of time,” Rowe said. “And at some point, it just became appropriate to talk about other issues, which is how you treat people that you lock up. How you treat the correctional officers who are responsible for seeing about those people.”

Rowe said she was encouraged that the bill was generally well received by the caucus.

“I’m very hopeful,” Rowe said. “I think we’ve got to do something. We absolutely have to do something or we do risk federal intervention. And no one wants that. I certainly don’t. I think we’ve got to show a little less talk, a lot more action. And I think this plan gives us the opportunity to do that.”

Lawmakers are not in session now. Clouse and McCutcheon said if it becomes clear that the plan has support, they believe Ivey could call a special session to consider the proposal.

“I think by the first of next week we’ll be taking a head count and let the governor know if the votes are there and let her make the decision on when to call a special session,” Clouse said.

McCutcheon said Clouse would sponsor the bill.

Phase 2 includes a new 1,000-bed prison for women to replace Julia Tutwiler Prison in Elmore County. The second phase also includes renovations to Donaldson prison in Jefferson County, Limestone prison in Limestone County, and one of the prisons in either Barbour or Bullock counties.

Phase 2 would start when the first phase is 60% completed and certification by the finance director and legislative budget chairs that money is available.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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