If you’re from inner-city Birmingham, Alabama, there’s a “99-percent chance” you have a family member or friend who has been incarcerated, according to Veronica Johnson, deputy director for the Alabama Justice Initiative, which has been fighting against a proposal to build three new prisons in the state. She has an uncle serving a 60-year prison sentence.
“I’m a regular person,” she told The Appeal. “There’s nothing special about me.”
In the fall of 2020, Johnson, who is Black, traveled to rural Brierfield, Alabama—“deep into Trump country,” she said—to talk to residents about a new prison the state was planning to put in their community. It was a Sunday, and Johnson, who was wearing a headwrap with locks hanging out of the front, recalled wondering, “Do I look too ethnic?” As she went from door to door, the people she spoke to largely agreed that their community didn’t have the infrastructure to handle a 3,100-bed prison.
“Those people stood by our side—we crossed political lines,” Johnson said proudly. It was the “ultimate satisfaction.”
That campaign jump-started Communities Not Prisons, a coalition of grassroots activists, faith leaders, farmers, and national organizations, which eventually halted the proposed prison. The activists believed they had won the fight, but then COVID-19 hit, bringing a flood of federal relief money to Alabama—and, with it, renewed talk of prison expansion.
This injection of funds was triggered by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden shortly after he took office. The money was intended to help the economy to rebound from the pandemic, but jurisdictions nationwide are moving to use the funds to recruit police, weaponize SWAT teams, and build jails—a move activists are calling a cash grab by law enforcement and its allies. During Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, he said that as much as $350 billion from ARPA could be used to “fund the police,” a line that drew bipartisan applause from members of Congress.
In Alabama in 2021, the state Legislature approved $400 million in ARPA money to fund the prison projects Johnson and others thought they had stopped. Officials across the US are pursuing similar plans to fortify the carceral state with funds ostensibly meant for COVID relief.
These moves come at a time when punitive responses to crime are facing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy. People in communities of all sizes are organizing against the spending spree, building coalitions that cross racial and political lines. Some have even succeeded in using ARPA funds to build up mental health crisis response, behavioral health treatment, and other supportive services, which they say are more effective at improving public safety than police and prisons are.
Funding The Police
The effort to funnel federal COVID relief dollars toward law enforcement began less than a year after protests in 2020 in response to George Floyd’s murder made “defund the police” a national rallying cry. More than 20 cities took action to reduce police budgets on the heels of that movement, though many have failed to follow through on those cuts.
As the midterm elections approach, Republicans and Democrats now appear to be competing to see which party can be the most outspokenly pro-police. Republicans have blamed Democrats for recent increases in violent crime, which they say are a result of reduced police budgets—though, in reality, there appears to be no correlation between crime rates and law enforcement funding. Biden and leading Democrats have disputed claims that they want to “defund the police,” holding up the ARPA funds given to law enforcement as proof.
At a meeting last month with New York City Mayor (and former NYPD captain) Eric Adams, Biden encouraged cities and states to use ARPA funds “to keep our communities safe by hiring more police officers for community policing and paying police overtime.”
Somebody Didn’t Win
In Alabama, the fight over using ARPA funds for prisons could set a precedent for similar spending projects in other states.
Before the pandemic, the push for prison expansion in Alabama came to a head in 2019, when the U.S. Department of Justice released an investigation that found violence, deaths, and sexual abuse were occurring on “a regular basis” in state prisons.
Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, responded with a plan to build three large new prisons, in Elmore County, Escambia County, and Bibb County, where Brierfield is located. Although the facilities were to be situated on state property, they would be financed by private underwriters and constructed by private companies, including CoreCivic—the second-largest private prison company in the U.S., reporting in 2021 revenue of $1.69 billion.
In 2020, Johnson’s organization, Alabama Justice Initiative, founded by LaTonya Tate, launched the Communities Not Prison coalition to oppose the new prisons. They set up meetings with investors to convince them not to back the project. “It was on the cusp of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,” Johnson said. “We told the banks not to participate in these unjust things.” One by one, they convinced the banks, and, in May, 2021, Stifel Financial Corporation was the last financier to back out. Activists hoped that the proposal was defeated.
When ARPA funds started flowing, however, backers of Alabama’s prison plan saw a new opportunity. In late September, 2021, the Alabama Legislature passed a $1.3 billion prison construction package that included $400 million from the American Rescue Plan—five times the amount budgeted for hospitals.
Communities Not Prisons and its allies sent a letter to Biden administration officials calling on them to block the spending.
In January, the Treasury Department released its final rule on the matter, stating that the construction of new correctional facilities was “ineligible” for ARPA dollars. But Alabama, apparently following its own rules, claimed that its proposal was “not impacted” by the decision.
The two sides are now in a standoff. As Johnson put it, “We feel like we won. They feel they won. Somebody didn’t win.”
If Alabama simply ignores the Treasury’s guidance, supporters of proposals for prisons and jails in other states may feel emboldened to follow suit.
“It’s a Money Grab”
In Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, Sheriff Ron Cramer announced a plan in the fall of 2021 to use $6.2 million in ARPA funds to expand the local jail, arguing that the expansion was needed to manage COVID-19 risks. David Carlson, co-founder of C.C. We Adapt, a local agency that provides peer support and mentorship, said the plan reeks of opportunism.
“There was no concern about COVID-19 for months into the pandemic, [and] now Sheriff Cramer is using social distancing as his reason for building out the jail,” Carlson said.
“It’s a money grab,” he added.
Author’s note: Inspiration for this article came, in part, from Champaign County, where the Democratic-majority county board last fall approved a $20 million jail plan, $5 million of which comes from ARPA funding. Interested community members can watch how jail renovations take shape in the coming year.
This is a shortened and edited version of an article originally published in The Appeal on March 23, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
Brian Dolinar is an independent journalist based in Urbana. His writings have appeared in Truthout, In These Times, and Prison Legal News.
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