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Facing a Justice Department trial over Alabama’s notoriously violent prisons, state lawmakers on Monday began a special session on a $1.3 billion construction plan largely to pay for the cost of building the new lockup. Pandemic Relief Fund will be used.

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Gov. Kay Ivey has shelved plans to build three new prisons and renovate others as a partial solution to the state’s long-standing problems in its prison system. The proposal would tap up to $400 million from the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan fund to help pay for construction.

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“It’s the right thing to do,” Republican Sen. Greg Albritton said of the construction plan. “We can’t expect people to come to work when they don’t know they’ll be able to leave work alive. We can’t expect people, prisoners, to live in deteriorating and unhealthy conditions. We can’t fix the problems.” Will. Prisons are falling down.”

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But critics of the plan say the state’s prison problems go beyond a state of construction — and urged the state to look at more comprehensive sentencing reforms. He also argued that the state should not use pandemic relief dollars to build prisons.

“This week, the Alabama Legislature plans to spend $400 in American Rescue Plan funds—to help your local schools, get your kids into affordable childcare, provide a lifeline to your small business, or help your struggling rural hospital. Funds to assist – two to build new mega-prisons,” said Katie Glenn, a policy associate with the SPLC Action Fund, a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Alabama prison building proposal calls for at least three new prisons – one prison in Elmore County with at least 4,000 beds and increased space for medical and mental health care needs; another prison in Escambia County with at least 4,000 beds; and a women’s prison – as well as the renovation of existing facilities.

President Joe Biden’s comprehensive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package, known as the American Rescue Plan, was signed in March, providing a stream of money to states and cities recovering from the pandemic. The program gives states and cities wide discretion over how to use the funds.

Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, said he has some concerns about building prisons with money he said was set aside to ease the ongoing pandemic crisis.

“Remember, we’re still the No. 1 country for deaths,” Hatcher said of Alabama’s COVID-19 mortality rate that most recently led the country.

Republican legislative leaders said they are comfortable they can use the money legally because the US rescue plan, in addition to authorizing dollars for economic and health care programs, says the state is trying to strengthen support for critical Can use the money to replace revenue lost during the pandemic. Help maintain public services and jobs.

Ivey and GOP legislative leaders have said that using the money would enable the state to essentially “pay cash” for part of the construction and avoid paying interest on the loans as well as using state dollars. Will happen.

The Justice Department sued Alabama last year, saying the state’s prisons for men “are prone to prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.”

The department noted in a 2019 report that dilapidated conditions were a contributing factor to unconstitutional conditions, but emphasized that, “the new facilities alone will not address the factors contributing to the overall unconstitutional status of ADOC prisons.” , such as ignorance, culture, management. loopholes, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illegal drugs and sexual abuse.”

The state has denied the Justice Department’s allegations, but acknowledged problems with staffing and building conditions.

While prison construction is the focus of the special session, it also included two policy changes: a proposal to retroactively both the 2013 sentencing standards and the 2015 law on compulsory supervision of released prisoners. Bennett Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said he estimates 700 inmates will be allowed to apply for the reduced sentence.

Some lawmakers had hoped to address sweeping reforms on sentencing and the state’s slow rate of parole.

Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said he expected floor amendments to try to expand the sentencing bill, but said it was a “beginning”.

“I think we need to go further than where we are going. … But what do you do? Do you change 700 lives or do you do nothing?” Daniel said.