It’s amazing what the Alabama Legislature can do when it puts its collective mind to it.
After years — no, more like decades — of letting the state’s prisons deteriorate and failing to do anything about it, the Legislature has passed a prison construction bill that, if nothing else, will at least deal with the prisons’ dilapidated physical condition.
All it took was a federal lawsuit and a windfall of federal funding.
On Friday, during a special session, the Legislature passed a $1.3 billion prison construction plan that will fund two new super-size prisons, paid for in part with $400 million from the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed this year to help states deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was the right thing for Alabama to do,” said Republican state Sen. Greg Albritton. “We’ve got crumbling infrastructure. We’ve got people housed in places that are filthy. We’ve got individuals working in conditions that are unsafe.”
None of that is controversial. Crumbling infrastructure is one reason the U.S. Justice Department is suing the state for inhumane prison conditions. But tapping the American Rescue Plan distribution is controversial, and some members of Congress would stop Alabama if they could.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has asked the U.S. Treasury Department to step in and prevent Alabama from using rescue plan funds for prisons. Few leaders in Alabama, however, take Nadler’s threat seriously.
It’s Congress’ fault for passing the American Rescue Plan with almost no strings attached — except one forbidding states from using the money to offset tax cuts, a provision that may not survive legal challenge. Alabama is hardly alone in using rescue funding for purposes that have little if anything to do with COVID recovery. Texas wants to use the money for a border wall. And states received the money even though some ran budget surpluses during the pandemic.
Gov. Kay Ivey had little use for Nadler’s complaint.
“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 said.
Enjoy it while it lasts. Spending like Alabama’s may well mean more strings attached the next time taxpayer dollars are funneled through the U.S. treasury.
The more substantive criticism of the prison construction bill the Alabama Legislature passed is it’s only a prison construction bill. It does little to address the deeper issues afflicting the state’s criminal justice system.
“We will still be overcrowded. We will still be understaffed. We will still be under-resourced,” said Democratic state Rep. Chris England. “And if our current commissioner is somehow still working, we will still be mismanaged.”
Also, the state needs more alternatives to incarceration. Republican state legislators say all of that is coming and that the new prisons are just the “foundation” on which more reforms can be built, but with the heavy lifting of building new prisons taken care of, there is no real pressure on lawmakers to act.
Indeed there is every incentive not to act — until the new prisons end up just as bad as the current ones.
If history is any guide, it will take the still pending federal lawsuit to prod the Legislature into further action.