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Alabama moving forward with prison plan

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Governor Kay Ivey's office on Facebook
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Gov. Kay Ivey was surrounded by Republican lawmakers as she prepared to sign the bill allowing the prison construction plan to move forward. The $1.3 billion plan will be used to build three new prisons: one for women on state property near the old Tutwiler facility and two mega-prisons for men. Ivey said Alabama’s prisons still need a lot of work. 

“Folks this is a pivotal moment for the trajectory of our state’s criminal justice system. Addressing these challenges through the construction of new prison facilities is the legal and fiscally sound thing for us to do. It is also morally, the right thing to do,” she said. 

Critics of the plan say that building new prisons is not the right way to go. Dillon Nettles is with the ACLU of Alabama. He said the state has a lot more issues than the actual facilities. 

“Those news buildings will not address those issues. Those buildings will take three to five years from now before they’re even erected, but today we have to address staffing and rehabilitation and the training that we need to change the culture in the facilities that was outlined in the DOJ reports that have been published over the last few years,” he said. 

Nettles said this isn’t the first time Alabama has looked at new buildings as the answer to its prison problems. 

“We’ve been down this road before, building new prisons because of crumbling old ones, and just like last time, they’re putting the cart before the horse by focusing on infrastructure instead of the management, corruption, and the culture problems that really urgently need to be addressed now,” he said. 

Lawmakers will use $400 million from the American Rescue Plan to help foot the bill. This has also been a serious bone of contention. Nettles said that money could be used elsewhere. 

“That’s $400 million that won’t go toward housing or education or healthcare for Alabamians. It will go towards new buildings which again, we have seen historically, ultimately are only going to end up overcrowded once again, ultimately are going to end up the subject of litigation once again, and the state may be facing the threat once again of federal intervention in order to get our act together,” he said. 

That federal intervention Nettles referred to is the lawsuit against Alabama filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. After an investigation they found the conditions of the state’s prisons to be unconstitutional. Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said using the pandemic relief funds will help the state move forward. That means the prisons could be built faster. Another issue is to avoid that federal intervention. 

“The Department of Justice has filed a court action against the state of Alabama that we must correct our facilities. When you look at the history of other states that have gone through this, the federal government comes in, if the judge so chooses, he can mandate to us in Alabama what we’re going to have to do,” he said. 

McCutcheon also said building the new facilities will address many of the issues the state is facing in the lawsuit and then some, including the ability to have space for treatment facilities inside the prison. 

“The ability to have a safe environment for inmates to be able to sleep at night and be able to move and go through the day. The ability for the corrections officers to be able to take unruly inmates out of a dorm setting and have space to segregate them,” he said. 

McCutcheon stated that lawmakers have been looking at this plan for a while and there should be no problem using that money for the prisons. 

“It has been well thought out and we’re moving forward. Hopefully we’ll be able to satisfy that an in the process of this, we’re using some of the money that’s coming back to the state. According to the department of the treasury and legal teams that have been working on this for months and months and months. We have clearance to use this money and the money will be well spent and it is something that is needed,” he said. 

It looks like the state is going to be moving move quickly on the project. The plan bypasses the normal bidding process and says the state can negotiate directly with companies that pursued the work earlier. Lawmakers say this will allow the state to incorporate the prior work, saving both time and money. However, avoiding federal entanglements may be easier said than done. Congressman Jerry Nadler chairs the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. He wrote Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to stop States from misusing COVID relief dollars to build new prisons. Nadler mentioned Alabama in the very first line.