Inside Alabama’s Sick Plan to Spend COVID Cash on Prisons
It’s appalling but not unusual in a state where the prisons are such a human rights disaster that Trump’s Department of Justice sued the state for violating the Eighth Amendment.
It took Alabama lawmakers just five days last week to move a plan to build more prisons—in part, thanks to $400 million in COVID relief dollars—from a bill to a law.
For years, Alabama’s prisons have been among the country’s most inhumane, marked by “an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths… on a regular basis,” according to a 2019 report from the Department of Justice. The well-documented human rights abuses in Alabama’s prisons have only worsened as the state has registered one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the nation.
But instead of addressing the disastrous conditions that typify its treatment of incarcerated people, Governor Kay Ivey and state legislators fast-tracked a prison construction project that is likely to exacerbate over-incarceration—and which misdirects coronavirus rescue funds to boot.
“The only thing that this special session accomplished, other than wasting a lot of money, is establishing that Alabama really doesn’t have the political will necessary to actually address the problems within our criminal justice system,” Democratic House Rep. Chris England told me. “The only thing they could come up with to do is pass a bill to build two prisons that they know won’t address the problems at all.”
Rep. English’s reference to just two new prisons—instead of the three the bill projects will ultimately be built—reflects his skepticism that the project will ultimately be fulfilled in its entirety. Technically, the $1.3 billion bill Gov. Ivey signed on Friday includes plans to construct two new men’s mega-prisons, each with 4,000 beds, both of which will be “much larger than any of Alabama’s 14 current prisons,” in its Phase I. The construction of a new 1,000-bed women’s prison to replace the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, the state’s oldest facility built in 1942, and to undertake renovations on three other currently operational prisons isn’t slated to begin until Phase II.
Raiding the state’s $2.1 billion COVID relief fund allotment will help provide the money to get the first phase rolling, but Rep. England says it’s unlikely the state will have the money to begin Phase II without borrowing money. In the rush to build yet more cages, there seems to be little foresight, or true concern, about actually undertaking the plan’s “best” aspects, such as fixing up buildings that have been neglected and falling into uninhabitable disrepair for decades.
In addition to subjecting incarcerated folks to reprehensible living conditions, Alabama’s prisons have been hit especially hard by coronavirus. (The state overall, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates nationally, saw more deaths than births in 2020 because of the virus, a ratio more grim than during World War II.) At last count, 2,059 incarcerated people had been infected with COVID since the pandemic began, with 1,196 cases self-reported by staff members in the same period. The state reportedly bungled its vaccine rollout in prisons earlier this year, contributing to the increase in cases. Those numbers were cynically cited by officials as justification for the bill’s use of COVID funds.
“The evidence used for lost revenue was the fact that so many incarcerated people and prison employees had gotten sick and some had died. But part of the reason we had such significant numbers is because we went months without testing anyone,” says Rep. English, who is also chair of the Alabama Democratic Party.
“There’s a lack of leadership in our Department of Corrections. It’s mismanaged in every way possible. There were several months when our Corrections Commissioner had tested less than 1 percent of the population in the middle of the pandemic. We shut down visitation at all our facilities, but employees were going back and forth spreading the virus because nobody was being tested. We also had issues distributing PPE to those folks who are incarcerated. And of course, they can’t be socially distant. So you’re using our negligence to create the evidence for lost revenue to spend the money. I think that’s the most shocking part… It kind of captures the spirit of this whole issue. Because they’ve been ignoring the humanitarian crisis in our prisons for years, until that humanitarian crisis could be used to justify spending money” to build new prisons.
Alabama is currently being sued by both the SPLC for “conditions that threaten the health and lives of prisoners,” and the Department of Justice, which last year filed papers alleging the state’s men’s prisons violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment imposed under the Eighth Amendment. (That the lawsuit was filed by the Trump DOJ says it all about the severity of the failure in Alabama’s prisons.) The litigation followed a 2019 report concluding the state “routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners…by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions”; one year later, a follow-up DOJ investigation found conditions unchanged, and cited commonplace abuse, including lethal force, used by guards against prisoners as evidence that the state remained “deliberately indifferent” to the myriad problems in its prisons. (One incident detailed a guard brutally beating a prisoner—who pleaded to be killed to end the violence—while shouting "I am the reaper of death, now say my name!")
The DOJ, while recognizing the role of overcrowding, has previously emphasized that “new facilities alone will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as understaffing, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs, and sexual abuse.” One of the new prisons for men is supposed to include “enhanced space for medical, mental, and other health care needs, substance abuse and treatment space, and educational and programming space,” but elsewhere, there is a conspicuous lack of emphasis on creating the kinds of programs that offer support and prevent recidivism, or which will alleviate staff shortages, a culture of violence and excessive force, and other systemic failures that leave incarcerated people in Alabama living in some of the harshest conditions in the country.
Gov. Ivey has said the new law was critical to addressing overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons while neglecting to promote policies that send more people home. The new construction law places almost no emphasis on decarceration, and an attached bill that would have allowed people who were jailed for nonviolent crimes to have their sentences reviewed under new terms set in 2013 was killed by House Republicans last week.
Rep. English also cited numbers from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles that clearly demonstrate a huge racial divide in both pardons and paroles, with more Black inmates applying for both but nearly twice as many white prisoners being granted both.
“We’re more focused on housing individuals than we are figuring out how to decrease the population. We were actually making progress in that regard, and our prison population was decreasing incrementally over the last five or six years,” Rep. English said until a new chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles was appointed in 2019 and “all of that progress came to a screeching halt. People who are deserving of that review and opportunity, who’ve done everything right go before the parole board and get denied. If someone does everything that’s asked of them and they’re denied, that person loses hope. And if there’s one thing you can’t do, it’s manage a hopeless person. It undermines the system itself.”
There are so many places the coronavirus funds that Alabama has earmarked to keep folks locked up could have gone. The state ranks 47th in education and 45th in health care. Ivey’s refusal to expand Medicaid means its hospitals, particularly those in rural areas—which are publicly begging for a portion of relief funds—are severely underfunded, with budgets further decimated by consequences of the pandemic. A United Nations official who toured the state’s Black Belt in 2017 described “raw sewage flow[ing] from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits,” causing hookworm infections among residents at levels he said he had never witnessed in rich countries. Since April, more than 1,000 Alabama miners have been striking against lax safety standards and obscene pay cuts. And with the federal eviction moratorium ended, more Alabama renters have expressed fear of eviction than folks in any other state. None of that, somehow, superseded the priority of building prisons.
“This money came about because of a pandemic and all the crisis situations associated with it. For example, Alabama had negative 180 emergency room beds in our hospitals for months at a time,” said Rep. England, meaning that more people in the state needed ICU beds than there were ICU beds in the state.
“This money could have been used to help mitigate that disaster. We have businesses that are struggling, and this money could have been used to help them. We’ve had a teacher shortage—a crisis where Alabama’s teachers would be required to use their own leave time, or even take leave without pay, to take off work because someone in their family has coronavirus. And the list goes on. The last thing you should get to on that checklist is a prison crisis that has been in existence now for years.”