By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers on Thursday continued to advance a $1.3 billion prison construction plan that would be partly funded with pandemic economic relief dollars, saying they are comfortable that the expenditure is allowed.
The Senate Finance and Taxation Committee approved the construction plan and related financial bills, including using $400 million of the state’s $2.1 billion from the American Rescue Plan to pay for part of the construction.
The approval put the bills in line for a final vote Friday in the Alabama Senate.
Republican Sen. Greg Albritton said the $400 million for prisons is a necessary expenditure and represents a fraction of the billions in pandemic relief dollars that have come into the state, payments ranging from stimulus and unemployment for individuals to grants for government.
“Alabama’s need on the prison matter is acute, and it’s necessary,” Albritton said.
Democratic Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison said she believed some of the money should go to the “self-contained petri dish” that prisons are, but questioned whether state had done enough for health care services.
“I’m concerned right now about hospitals closing, especially in rural areas. When hospitals close in rural areas, that’s a long distance for people to travel and a loss of lives, possibly,” Coleman-Madison said.
The $400 million comes from a segment of the American Rescue Plan funds that provides money to replace revenue lost during the pandemic. The Treasury Department said the money can be used for infrastructure and to strengthen support for vital public services.
“Now without saying, ‘Yes, Alabama, you can build a prison,’ I think that pretty clearly says, ‘Yes, Alabama, you can build a prison,'” Kirk Fulford, deputy director of the Legislative Services Agency, told lawmakers during a presentation.
The proposal calls for at least three new prisons — one with at least 4,000 beds in Elmore County that would have enhanced space for medical and mental health care needs, another with at least 4,000 beds in Escambia County and a women’s prison — as well as renovations to existing facilities. Six existing prisons would eventually close, a prospect that has brought objections from some lawmakers.
Sen. Democratic Sen. Billy Beasley of Clayton said his district has three prisons, all recruited to provide jobs in the isolated rural area.
“If I lose my facilities, then it’s going to be a devastating blow to the economy of Clayton and Clio and Barbour County, for that matter — and Bullock County,” Beasley said.
Beasley also unsuccessfully tried to decrease the maximum number of inmates the prisons would house, questioning the feasibility of safely running and staffing two 4,000-bed prisons. The committee tabled the proposed amendment.
“I think it’s in the best interest of the correctional officers. I think it’s in the best interest of the inmates,” Beasley said of having smaller prisons.
To pay for construction, the state would also borrow $785 million through a bond issue and tap $150 million in general fund dollars.