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State asks feds if COVID funds can be used for prisons

Alabama is asking federal officials whether COVID-19 recovery funds can be used to improve state prisons with “better, enhanced, and/or extended infrastructure.”

The Montgomery Advertiser reports that Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn sent a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department asking the question. Lawmakers have previously said they want to know if pandemic recovery funds can be used for prison construction and renovations. The question arose after Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to lease prisons fell apart because of financing concerns.

“The average age of ADOC’s facilities is over 43 years old, and while many have expanded, most have exceeded, in the past, the original design capacity,” the letter said. “Because of this, medical and mental health care and programming space is limited in many of ADOC’s facilities.”

Dunn’s letter said prison improvement would comply with guidance in federal rules that the money, along with financially helping households and businesses, can help with “systemic public health and economic challenges that may have contributed to more severe impacts of the pandemic among low-income communities and people of color.”

Dunn wrote that almost all prisoners are considered indigent and more than half are “people of color.”

“These disadvantages were further exacerbated by the communal living situation,” he wrote.

The letter says the prison system could use the money to increase space in prisons for health care staffing and programming, and expand broadband to offer more remote learning.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year sued Alabama over conditions in the state prisons, saying the state is failing to protect male inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

The lawsuit alleges that conditions in the prison system are so poor that they violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment and that state officials are “deliberately indifferent” to the problems. The state is disputing the Justice Department’s allegations.

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