Alabama governor defends plan to use COVID relief funds on prisons

Alabama legislators are in a special session to address prison construction projects, which...
Alabama legislators are in a special session to address prison construction projects, which could include the use of up to $400 million in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds. A New York congressman is asking the Treasury Department to take steps that would prevent states from “misusing” the money by building prisons.
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 11:37 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2021 at 7:36 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama legislators have gathered for a special session in Montgomery where they’re working through proposals to build several new prisons, but a congressman from New York is questioning the possible use of federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds toward the project.

Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, who serves as the chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen Monday urging her to take steps that would prevent states from “misusing” money from the American Rescue Plan to build new prisons.

Nadler specifically cited Alabama’s plans for using ARP money as the basis for his letter, and noting the state’s special session on the matter, urged Yellen’s “immediate consideration and action.”

“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 and will particularly harm communities of color who are already disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration and this public health crisis...,” Nadler wrote. “The ARP is a historic effort to provide urgent assistance in a time of great suffering. It should not be used to worsen our national problem of over-incarceration.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey fired back on Tuesday.

“The Democrat-controlled federal government has never had an issue with throwing trillions of dollars toward their ideological pet projects. Their political agenda is glaringly obvious to send a letter to the U.S. Treasury on the first day of our special session asking the federal government to ignore the laws they themselves wrote and to overstep our Alabama-driven plan,” the governor said. “I would suggest to the New York Congressman, and for that matter the federal government, that they worry more about avoiding the pending government shutdown and running the country.”

It’s unclear at this point what steps Yellen could or would take to attempt to limit the use of the funds, but Ivey and Alabama Senate Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, believe the state is on firm legal ground as legislators mull a $1.3 billion prison project, of which about $400 million in ARP funds could be used.

“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 is clearly eligible for prison construction,” Reed said, adding the special session was underway to protect the people of Alabama from a costly federal intervention, and I really couldn’t care less about the opinion of Washington liberals..”

“The fact is, the American Rescue Plan Act allows these funds to be used for lost revenue, and sending a letter in the last hour will not change the way the law is written,” Ivey added. “These prisons need to be built, and we have crafted a fiscally conservative plan that will cost Alabamians the least amount of money to get to the solution required. While our prison infrastructure is broken, our ability to govern is not. Same can’t be said for D.C.”

Legislators enter the second day of a maximum 12-day special session on Tuesday that includes plans for three prisons, as well as two prison reform bills.

During the House Ways and Means Committee meeting representatives questioned committee chair Rep. Steve Clouse about the justification for using these funds.

“I can’t think of any other place where you cannot social distance more so than in a prison,” Clouse said. “Along with the issue of violence and the other issues in our prisons due to dorm-style facilities, these (new facilities) will be in cells, so they will be able to be separated not only because of the violence standpoint but because of respiratory issues also.”

Clouse also said the state is not in violation of the use of the funds. The House will meet Wednesday morning where representatives can add amendments to the bill.

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