Ala. inmates sue feds for not stopping state from building prisons with stimulus money

Critics claim earmarking stimulus money for new prisons is an "improper expenditure" for the funds


By Howard Koplowitz
al.com

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Several dozen state inmates filed a lawsuit against the federal government on Monday, alleging the U.S. Treasury Department is not stopping Alabama from using $400 million in stimulus money to help build two new men’s prisons, which the inmates say is an improper use of the funds.

The lawsuit from 66 state prison inmates at facilities affected by the plan against the Treasury Department and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen filed in federal court in Montgomery was one of two legal actions filed in that court Monday seeking an injunction against the $1.3 billion prison plan.

“Flying in the face of both the letter and the spirit of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), the state of Alabama has elected to use emergency federal funds to build two new mega-prisons,” the lawsuit states, using the formal name for the COVID-19 stimulus package.

“The Treasury [Department] has a duty to stop this action, and its failure to do so is contrary to law, arbitrary and capricious, and constitutes an abuse of discretion under” the Administrative Procedure Act.”

Another lawsuit filed by 15 inmates Monday in Montgomery federal court that also lists the Treasury Department and Yellen as defendants along with Gov. Kay Ivey and other state officials seeks an injunction against the project until an environmental impact study is conducted.

Alabama is planning to fund part of the prison construction with $400 million in stimulus money; the state has previously argued the stimulus allows flexibility on funds that replace tax revenue lost during the pandemic.

Alabama lost $537 million in revenue under a formula set by the U.S. Treasury Department, state officials said.

Critics, including the 66 inmates, claim earmarking stimulus money for new prisons is an “improper expenditure” for the funds.

Protesters at the Alabama State House speak out against a plan to build two 4,000-bed prisons and the use of federal coronavirus funds to help pay for them.
Protesters at the Alabama State House speak out against a plan to build two 4,000-bed prisons and the use of federal coronavirus funds to help pay for them. (Photo/Mike Cason of AL.com via TNS)

[RELATED: Advocates denounce Ala.'s plan to fund new supersize prisons]

“It is our position that the federal government should intervene before Alabama wastes over $1 billion on building new prisons,” Richard Rice, an attorney representing the 66 inmates, told AL.com.

“If Alabama moves forward with this construction project, then thousands of individuals will be denied relief from overcrowding, understaffing and corruption within the department. Alabama will continue to be in defiance of a court order to improve its mental and medical care to those most in need. If Alabama really cared about providing relief to its citizens, then they would have listened it to the federal government about how to properly spend the money instead of finding pet projects for their top donors.”

Rice was referring to the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit filed against the state in December 2020, charging that the levels of violence, drugs, weapons, corruption, and poor supervision create conditions that violate the Constitution.

The Ivey administration and legislative leaders have said new prison facilities — including the two 4,000-bed prisons planned for Elmore County and Escambia County — are an essential component in fixing the prisons.

In April, the state signed a contract with Caddell Construction of Montgomery to build the Elmore County prison for $623 million. The ADOC has not announced a contract for the prison in Escambia County.

The DOJ lawsuit against the state could be years away from a resolution. U.S. District Judge David Proctor has issued a scheduling order in the case in May telling lawyers to be ready for trial in November 2024.

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