MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is calling lawmakers into special session later this month to vote on a prison construction plan that would use part of the state's virus relief funds to jumpstart the building of three new lock-ups.
In a letter to lawmakers announcing the special session, Ivey painted the construction project as a partial solution to the state's longstanding prison woes — that have included a Department of Justice lawsuit over violence and a separate federal court order to improve mental health treatment behind bars.
“We face an urgent need to address Alabama‘s long-standing prison infrastructure challenges,” Ivey wrote to lawmakers. “Failure to timely resolve these issues outlined in federal lawsuits could result in detrimental consequences for our state. Achieving an Alabama solution to these problems — rather than a federal court-ordered solution — is paramount.”
While proponents said the construction would be a partial solution to the state’s long-standing prison problems, one lawmaker said it would put “old problems in new buildings” unless the state made additional reforms.
"Just building prisons without engaging in some sort of comprehensive criminal justice reform is the definition of kicking the can down the road," Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said. On the use of federal virus funds on the project, England said there are “obviously better uses of the money.”
Ivey said the special session would begin Sept. 27
The proposal calls for three new prisons — at least a 4,000-bed prison in Elmore County with enhanced space for medical and mental health care needs; another at least 4,000-bed prison in Escambia County; and a women’s prison — as well as renovations to existing facilities. The projects would be done in phases and partly funded with $400 million from the state’s $2.2 billion share of American Rescue Plan funds, a key lawmaker who drafted the proposal said.
“Right now, it looks like we’ve got the votes, but you never know until you get into session,” said Republican Rep. Steve Clouse, who is sponsoring the legislation.
Clouse said construction is a “piece of the puzzle” in fixing the prison system and said this could be a defining moment for lawmakers.
Tapping some of the state's virus relief funds will enable the state to get started immediately with cash instead of waiting for a bond issue, Clouse said.
“The stakes are high – without taking action on this issue, the federal government could take control of our prison system at a high cost to Alabama taxpayers, and could even result in the forced release of prisoners. It’s time to finally resolve this issue for the people of Alabama," Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Reed said in a statement.
The U.S. Department of Justice has sued Alabama over conditions in the state’s prisons, saying it is failing to protect male inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said the Justice Department is concerned about more than just buildings.
“Buildings alone will NOT address the DOJ concerns. We need real leaders who will,” the ACLU of Alabama wrote in a tweet.