The ACLU of Alabama and other local organizations and individuals are challenging the use of COVID-19 relief funds for the construction of new prisons.
The ACLU is joined by 23 local organizations and dozens of individuals in sending a letter demanding that U.S. House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters investigate the state’s plan to spend $400 million dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to build new state prisons, about 20 percent of Alabama’s funds.
“Building more prisons is a gross misuse of funds that were sent to help the people of Alabama, not punish them,” said JaTaune Bosby, executive director of ACLU of Alabama. “Furthermore, the DOJ has already sued because of the ongoing civil rights violations in our state prisons, and yet, there seems to be no urgency from elected officials to provide relief to the people incarcerated in their facilities. These people deserve a chance to come home to their families and friends again, but right now, any sentence could be a death sentence.”
The letter lays out reasoning that the organizations find the use of these funds to build prisons as inappropriate:
- Prison construction does nothing to help the state be more responsive during the pandemic;
- Alabama is one of the poorest and hardest hit states in the country and is in desperate need of ARPA funds for actual COVID-19 relief;
- The State is only using these funds to offset interest costs for issuing bonds to fund the rest of the construction, and;
- The Department of Justice (DOJ), in filing its lawsuit against the State and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) in December 2020 for routinely violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of incarcerated people, specifically noted that prison construction would not remedy the state’s constitutional violations.
Lawmakers have stated that these prisons will be completed no earlier than 2025. However, the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice published a new report, revealing that 2021 has been the state’s deadliest year on record. With two weeks still left in the year, at least 34 incarcerated people have died from violence, suicide or suspected drug-related causes in 2021. The same conditions caused 25 such deaths in 2020, 27 in 2019, and 22 in 2018, bringing the total number of lives lost from violence and drugs in a four-year period to 108.
“The buildings aren’t the issue,” said Swift Justice, an incarcerated organizer and co-founder of Unheard Voices O.T.C.J. “The existing policies and the culture are the problem. Buildings won’t change that. The buildings have not caused any of these deaths. What ADOC and the Governor can do is give hope back to those inside. Give all who are eligible incentive good time so they can return to society. Give them some agency over their fate and I promise you the violence, suicides and overdoses will decline.”
The letter urges the House Financial Services Committee “to investigate this proposed use of ARPA funds, call witnesses, confer with the Treasury Department, and issue statements related to this use of funds.”
The full letter is available online here: https://www.aclualabama.org/en/press-releases/alabama-organizations-call-us-house-financial-services-committee-halt-use-covid-19
The Campaign for Smart Justice report is online here: https://www.alabamasmartjustice.org/reports/2021-marks-deadliest-year-for-alabama-prisons