October 4, 2021, by Kimberly Tsoukalas, LHC Program Coordinator
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
The state of Alabama operates the most crowded prison system in the United States, with some facilities operating at 272% capacity. The state also ranks last nationally in the amount of funding allocated per prisoner and has the fifth-highest incarceration rate nationally per capita. The combination of these facts has resulted in several civil, humanitarian, and health crises and subsequent lawsuits against the state, including a class-action lawsuit alleging abuse and inhumane conditions toward female inmates at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, which was later settled by the state.
In the last few years, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997. The report determined Alabama prisons to “routinely violate the constitutional rights of prisoners” and failed to provide “adequate, humane conditions of confinement.” Additionally, a federal court ruled that the Alabama Department of Corrections failed to provide adequate mental health resources, suicide prevention, psychotherapy, programming, and out-of-cell time, resulting in a significantly higher rate of suicide and violence.
Former governor Robert Bentley proposed legislation in 2016 and 2017 to build new prison facilities; however, no bills were ultimately passed before Bentley left office.
Alabama House Bill 4, proposed by Rep. Steve Clouse, allows the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority to issue bonds up to $785 million to “implement a prison modernization plan” that will construct two 4,000-bed men’s facilities and a 1,000-bed women’s facility while closing several smaller correctional facilities in the process. It also provides funding for the renovation and/or improvement of several remaining facilities across the state. Alabama House Bill 5, also proposed by Rep. Steve Clouse, authorizes the use of $400 million from the American Rescue Act (intended to be used for emergency assistance related to the COVID-19 pandemic) to assist in constructing these prisons. Lastly, Alabama House Bill 6 appropriates an additional $135 million from the State General Fund to assist prison construction projects.
The construction of new prison facilities is expected to have significantly improved medical, mental health, and rehabilitation services. According to Fraser (2009), overcrowding in prisons results in lowered access to health care services, increased gang activity within prisons due to territorial disputes, an increase in individual mental health issues, an increase in violence and racism, higher spread of disease, and greater risk and stress to prison facility staff.
The rise of the coronavirus pandemic brought about new issues related to overcrowding as COVID infections spread in prisons over three times the rate of the general population. As of October 1, 427,326 inmates across the nation had tested positive for the virus resulting in 2,603 inmate deaths, while 114,275 prison facility staff had tested positive, resulting in 218 staff deaths. While the state of Alabama prioritized inmates and prison staff during the vaccination rollout, only 43% of prisoners have received the vaccine, ranking last in the nation. Diseases like COVID-19 spread rapidly in congregate settings, and prison overcrowding is a serious risk to public health in incarcerated populations.
The main point of contention regarding HB4, HB5, and HB6 came from the allocation of funding provided by the American Rescue Act. Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL) released a statement through her office criticizing the allocation of COVID-19 resources.
“I am deeply disturbed to learn that the State of Alabama is considering a plan to use $400 million of COVID-19 aid from the American Rescue Plan to build prisons, especially as COVID-19 rages on in our state! Alabama currently has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country. To be clear, 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.
“COVID-19 relief money should be used for COVID-19 relief. Period.”
It is unclear how or if the appropriation of ARP funds for prisons will impact the state’s response to COVID in the future.
While the Alabama House of Representatives and Senate have passed the bill, it will now go to Governor Kay Ivey to be signed into law. Ivey has been a strong supporter of the bill and is expected to sign with no objections. If you want to make your voice heard on this or future legislation, click here to identify your elected officials.
Want to learn more about Alabama prison reform? We recommend following these organizations: