Alabama officials have approved a plan to fund $1.3 billion in prison construction and renovations using COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan, among other sources. The state plans to build a pair of 4,000-bed “megaprisons” for men, to be located in Elmore and Escambia counties, plus a 1,000-bed prison for women in Elmore County, and to renovate several existing state prisons.

The funding bills for the program state that contracts for the design and construction of the two prisons for men may be awarded to any person that was part of a team qualified by the Alabama Dept. of Corrections under a June 2019 request for qualifications, with responses that were due by Aug. 2, 2019, or the state may issue a request for design-build proposals.

State lawmakers who backed the plan say the new prisons are necessary because current facilities are in “critical need” of renovation. Last December, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Alabama alleging prison conditions were so unsafe they were unconstitutional. The DOJ said at the time that an investigation uncovered prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, excessive force from prison staff and unsafe and unsanitary conditions in Alabama prisons.

Gov. Kay Ivey signed the prison infrastructure bill package on Oct. 1. The funding approved by state lawmakers includes $785 million in bonds to be issued, about $150 million from the state’s general fund and $400 million from federal COVID-19 relief money sent to Alabama.

“Let me be clear, while more reform of the system can and does need to be addressed in the future – and I am committed to that as are many legislators – today’s bill signing on the construction part of this issue is a major step forward,” Ivey said in a statement.

Opponents of the Prison Plan

Alabama is receiving $2.1 billion from the American Rescue Plan. Opponents of the prison plan say it’s not how the COVID-19 relief funds were intended to be spent.

“The current state of the Alabama prison system is abhorrent, but the use of COVID-19 relief funds to pay for decades of our state’s neglect is simply unacceptable,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said in a statement.

Proponents say there’s nothing in the American Rescue Plan that prevents the money from being used this way, as it will help support public safety. State Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ala.), who sponsored the bill to use the $400 million in relief funding for the prison projects, said during an interview on Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal” on Sept. 10 that the money will allow one of the two megaprisons to be built without borrowing, saving the state money on interest it would have otherwise had to pay.