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Alabama governor defends plan to use covid relief funds to build new prisons

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) speaks during a news conference in Montgomery, Ala., July 29, 2020. (Kim Chandler/AP)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) is hitting back after criticism over plans to use coronavirus pandemic relief funds provided by the federal government to finance the construction of new prisons in the Southern state.

“The Democrat-controlled federal government has never had an issue with throwing trillions of dollars toward their ideological pet projects,” Ivey said in a statement on Tuesday. “These prisons need to be built, and we have crafted a fiscally conservative plan.”

The fallout comes after Ivey convened a special session of the Alabama legislature on Monday to address the state’s ailing prison infrastructure, which she admitted was “broken.” Using the funding in this way, she said, aimed to provide an “Alabama solution to this Alabama problem.”

The plan, backed by Ivey, to build three new prisons and renovate others will involve using up to $400 million from the state’s share of American Rescue Plan funds, according the Associated Press. Alabama has reported almost 15,000 covid-related deaths, according to the latest state data, making it one of the hardest hit parts of the country from the pandemic.

The mammoth $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, one of the largest economic rescue packages in U.S. history, was approved by Congress in March. The plan provides hundreds of billions of dollars toward vaccination programs, unemployment insurance, personal stimulus checks and state and local government support.

Rescue plan money comes with relatively few restrictions on how governments can spend it, with cities and counties able to use the money to help residents and businesses directly hurt by the pandemic, invest in long-term projects or to supplement budgets hit by the decline in tax revenue, due to shutdown restrictions that curtailed economic activity.

However, the funding plans have been met with some objections. They prompted a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), in which he petitioned the agency to “prevent the misuse of [American Rescue Plan] funding by any state, including Alabama.”

“Directing funding meant to protect our citizens from a pandemic to fuel mass incarceration is, in direct contravention of the intended purposes of the ARP legislation,” Nadler wrote.

Ivey insisted in her statement Tuesday that the American Rescue Plan Act allows for funds to be used in this way.

Elsewhere, Northern Virginia has also taken a flexible approach to the pandemic relief funds, with officials there considering affordable housing, flood mitigation and Internet broadband improvements with the nearly half-billion dollars expected from the rescue plan over the next two years.

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Alabama faces a host of long-standing issues with its prison infrastructure, among them overcrowding and dilapidation, with some advocacy groups urging for deeper reforms to its incarceration system. The nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center said this week that Alabama’s prisons were in “crisis” and called for a reformed justice system rather than new prison construction.

However, many Alabama lawmakers supported the funding proposal.

“I really couldn’t care less about the opinion of Washington liberals,” Alabama state Sen. Greg Reed (R) wrote on Twitter. “We aren’t going to let a New York City politician tell Alabama what we can and cannot do. These funds are intended to replace revenue lost as a result of the pandemic, and are clearly eligible for prison construction.”

State Sen. Greg Albritton (R) also said the funding plan was “the right thing to do.” He added, “We can’t expect to house people, inmates, in conditions that are deteriorating and unhealthy. We’ve got to fix the problems. The prisons are falling in.”