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‘For Cruelty’s Sake’: State of Alabama diverts $400 million in COVID funds to build prisons, leaving many in dire straits

Jenny Eisenberg is an unemployed writer – but not by choice. The market she writes for has “dried up,” and her husband, who holds a doctorate in literature, also cannot find work due to a saturation of academics pursuing few opportunities. Their financial situation is “not the best,” and providing for a family of six has led them to live off food stamps.

At the same time, states across the country are using their share of the $350 billion in State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to support families and businesses struggling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, to maintain vital services and to invest in communities.

But in Alabama, rather than focusing on poverty, education equity or affordable housing, the Legislature directed $400 million of its $2.2 billion in COVID relief to help fund the construction of three new mega-prisons, further embracing a failed system of mass incarceration that for generations has disproportionately harmed communities of color and people living in poverty.

The fact that Alabama chose to divert about 20% of its COVID funding to build new prisons doesn’t surprise Eisenberg, given Alabama’s history of choosing incarceration over programs that fight poverty and, potentially, lead to less crime. Alabama is the fifth-poorest state in the country, with nearly 17% of its population living in poverty.

“The government is being cruel for cruelty’s sake,” Eisenberg, 44, told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Making prisons out of COVID funds when the state could’ve helped people is cruel, and as long as Alabama accepts that cruelty – which is how it’s always worked here – we won’t be able to move forward to solve issues such as poverty, racism, homophobia or sexism.”

Eisenberg – who has two older children and 8-year-old twins – is just one of many who could have benefited from the COVID funding.

SPLC Policy Associate Katie Glenn said that when the Alabama Legislature earmarked the funds to build mega-prisons, the state made clear its priority is to keep as many Alabamians locked up as long as possible.

“These funds were meant to support struggling hospitals, provide a lifeline to small businesses, create access to education for rural communities and much more,” Glenn said. “They were not intended to finance Alabama’s latest prison construction boondoggle. Unfortunately, our legislators and Gov. Kay Ivey chose to line the pockets of prison construction companies instead of putting Alabamians first.”

System in crisis

There’s no denying that Alabama’s vastly overcrowded prison system is in crisis.

The prisons are notorious for putting the health and lives of people in their care at risk through rampant violence and the lack of adequate health care.

An SPLC report – Cruel Confinement: Abuse, Discrimination and Death Within Alabama’s Prisonsfound that many people incarcerated in Alabama are condemned to penitentiaries where systemic indifference, discrimination and life-threatening conditions are the norm.

In 2014, the SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed suit to force the state’s prisons to provide proper health care. The litigation continues but has already led to a sweeping order to overhaul the prison system’s mental health care. In that ruling, a federal judge declared mental health care in Alabama prisons to be “horrendously inadequate” – an unconstitutional failure that has resulted in a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among incarcerated people. In addition, an agreement was reached in 2016 to ensure that people with disabilities receive treatment and services required by federal law.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice also sued the Alabama Department of Corrections for failing to meet its obligations under the Eighth and 14th amendments.

The DOJ contends that the state has failed to prevent violence and sexual abuse among incarcerated people, protect incarcerated people from excessive force by security staff and provide constitutionally safe conditions of confinement.

It’s a prison system with the highest homicide rate in the country – eight times the national average.

But, as many states across the country look to reduce prison populations by reforming overly harsh sentencing laws, Alabama appears bent on doubling down on mass incarceration. It has some of the harshest criminal laws – and highest incarceration rates – in the country, and this year its parole board is granting parole in only 11% of the cases that come before it.

“The state is not looking for real solutions to reform our prison system,” said Glenn of the SPLC. “The United States Department of Justice in its own investigation of the Alabama Department of Corrections made clear that building new facilities won’t solve our issues; only decarceration can do that.”

‘Do better’

Eisenberg is a parishioner at First Christian Church in Montgomery, where Shane Isner serves as senior minister.

The pastor is a passionate supporter of affordable health care and insists that the $400 million in COVID funding should have gone to expanding Medicaid, helping people who have medical issues or dealing with the rising costs of inflation.

“There are families who have severe and long-term health issues that they avoid dealing with because they don’t have the finances to do so,” Isner said. “If these funds had gone to expanding Medicaid, these families’ futures would’ve been transformed, and they would be on the cusp of surviving.”

Isner also believes that it’s not just individuals committing crimes, but the systems of power that put people on a path to prison. He believes Alabama could have used its COVID funding to ensure that schools are adequately funded, so fewer young people are susceptible to incarceration through the school-to-prison pipeline.

“The state doesn’t have the dignity to admit we have a systemic justice problem and that we can do better,” Isner said. “Alabama should allow this money to help fix rural and urban poverty. My tradition wants me to think of giving mercy to those who’ve made a mistake and creating equity. Building prisons doesn’t make any of that possible.”

Those who have essentially been robbed of COVID funds are disproportionately Black communities, families with multiple children – like the Eisenbergs – and the elderly people living on fixed incomes.

“If Alabama had redirected these funds to help others, it would change the odds,” Isner said. “We want to move the needle. Instead, we are paying to punish people – and that’s tough.”

From poverty to prison

Jay Williams, program coordinator for the Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama, is concerned with how the state has ignored affordable housing during a time when inflation is rising.

“Currently, Alabama lacks 73,000 affordable homes that haven’t been built,” Williams said. “The flexibility of these funds could’ve been applied to a broad variety of housing activities, such as Section 8 housing and other housing insecurities within the state.”

Williams, like Eisenberg, is appalled by the state of Alabama’s prisons.

“There’s no denying that Alabama’s prisons are horrific,” Williams said. “We’re bordering on human rights violations and opting to employ cruel and unusual punishment behind bars. People die of heatstroke, by suicide and by preventable health conditions that go ignored inside of our prison network.”

But Williams calls poverty the “most pervasive cause of crime.” With poverty, people cannot provide for themselves.

His solution? Invest in affordable housing – not prisons.

“In order to prevent crime – the goal of the criminal justice system – we have to invest in resources, like homes and affordable housing,” Williams said. “Stability is then just steps away.”

The stability that Eisenberg wants for her life is so far out of reach, however, that she and her family of six are barely surviving, even as the prison system is preparing to embark on a construction spree.

“Basically, you’re in prison for being poor,” she said. “And if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that Alabama doesn’t care.”

Photo at top: Jenny Eisenberg (Credit: Hillary Andrews)