Southern Poverty Law Center Policy Director Brandon Jones thought he’d nailed the perfect example. On Sept. 27, Jones cited Alabama’s embattled prison system as the culmination of the kind of broken structure facing much of the South.
“Because it has been embarrassed in federal court over the deplorable condition of its prisons, Alabama is headed to special session. Other Southern states are due a similar reckoning. The Bible belt will either get serious about redemption or Uncle Sam will do it for us,” Jones warned on Twitter.
Jones was referencing the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s suit against Alabama and the state’s Department of Corrections after a wave of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse. It also sued the state for unsafe, unsanitary prison conditions and unconstitutional abuse by prison staff.
“The United States Constitution requires Alabama to make sure that its prisons are safe and humane,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division, who added that violations “have led to homicides, rapes, and serious injuries.”
Alabama legislators entered a special session to fix the problem 10 days after Jones’ warning. It was there the governor and legislators passed a bill funneling Covid relief funds towards building new prisons.
Primarily white GOP lawmakers intend to blow $400 million of their $2.1 billion allotment from the federal pandemic rescue plan to build two 4,000-bed prisons, plus a women’s correctional facility. U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-New York, called the diversion an abuse of funds, claiming it “will particularly harm communities of color who are already disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration and this public health crisis.” Nadler then asked the U.S. treasury department to disrupt the blatant “misuse” of pandemic-related funding by any state, particularly Alabama.
By raiding Covid funds to fix their problem Alabama lawmakers demonstrated how to grab the lowest hanging fruit on the vine. They were already planning to build two 4,000-bed prisons as Phase 1 of a bigger plan to mitigate the DOJ suit and were preparing to authorize a $785 million bond issue to fund construction. Now they’ve diverted funds meant to fortify families and businesses shaken by the pandemic to avoid taking on new debt. This cynical move comes after both Alabama senators famously voted against passing the relief bill earlier this year.
“I voted against this bill today because it could further wreck the economy and ignite inflation. This legislation includes a host of non-COVID-related left-wing policies,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby in March. This was seven months before his state caucus proposed using the same money for non-COVID-related right-wing policies.
Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hypocrisy was even more breathtaking: “Instead of targeting funds to the people, communities, and businesses who actually need it, this bill sends billions to bail out poorly managed states …” Months later, Tuberville’s “poorly managed” state would supply a prime example on how to do exactly that. Not surprisingly, the senator’s website has not released a statement opposing the bailout.
The Alabama ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund immediately slammed the plan with a letter of opposition signed by 40 organizations.
“Building prisons was not the intended use of these funds and will leave our communities without the lifeline the American Rescue Plan was supposed to be,” they wrote.
Critics say the move by the governor and her cohorts is typical for Alabama, considering its history. Alabama is a heavily incarcerated state, and Black people disproportionately represent the inmate population. African Americans comprise 26 percent of the state population but they represent 43 percent of people in jail and 54 percent of people in prison. The Vera Institute of Justice reveals the state’s prison problem to be a self-inflicted wound, with the total jail population increasing 307 percent since 1970. Seventy percent of that consisted of pretrial detainees who have not even had their day in court.
Jones used Alabama as a future case scenario for his own state of Mississippi because of the similarities they share. Like Alabama, African Americans overrepresent Mississippi’s prison population according to the non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative. Black people represent almost 38 percent of the state’s population, but 67 percent of its prison population.
Brandon’s state also compares to Alabama through its own spate of prison injuries and killings, having drawn several suits for abdicating its responsibilities to protect its countless state wards. Occupants at Mississippi’s infamous Parchmen prison (formerly a plantation and still growing crops with prison labor) sued the prison over “barbaric” living conditions. At least 30 prisoners died before the end of 2019 alone. Additionally, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division announced an investigation into prison conditions in four of Mississippi’s prisons in 2020. More recently, Disability Rights Mississippi filed a class action lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections and its contractors for failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners with disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.