Editor’s Note: Sancia Dalley is senior vice president of strategic partnerships and investor engagement at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an international social justice organization based in Washington, DC. Christina Hollenback is CEO of Justice Capital, an advisory and investment firm that invests toward safe, thriving Black, Brown and systems-impacted communities. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
Nearly 60 years after Alabama stood in the national spotlight for its resistance in ending racial segregation in American schools, the state’s current governor, Kay Ivey, signed into law earlier this month a string of bills that will use coronavirus relief funds to build new prisons.
In a state where 28% of residents are Black, yet constitute 43% of people in jail and 54% of people in prison, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, this use of relief funding is an outrageous and discriminatory action and demonstrates an appalling lack of progress in the matter of racial justice for the state and the country.
During a special legislative session late last month, state lawmakers, against calls from their own communities, quickly pushed through a measure approving the use of $400 million in Covid-19 federal relief funds to build new prisons and renovate others as part of a massive $1.3 billion boondoggle.
This comes months after a group of investors, business leaders and social justice advocates successfully pressured Barclays, KeyBanc and others to pull out of financing a $630 million taxable municipal bond offering by the Alabama Department of Corrections that would have built two new prison facilities with the private prison firm CoreCivic.
What’s more, it comes as the state faces a US Department of Justice lawsuit over its notoriously violent prisons, alleging predominantly Black and Brown people are repeatedly subjected to unconstitutional use of force.
Despite this, and despite outcry from the local Communities Not Prisons coalition, as well as other investors and advocates, who have cited the move as both cruel and fiscally irresponsible, Gov. Ivey and Alabama lawmakers remain hellbent on building prisons – and using Covid relief funds to help do it– rather than mitigating a pandemic in a state that has only in recent weeks climbed out of its deficit of ICU beds, and where 79% of hospitalized adults are unvaccinated.
Covid relief funds should be spent to hire and pay health workers, expand hospital facilities and beds to care for critically ill patients, support public health campaigns to increase vaccination rates and much more. Not put more people in cages.
Yet, Ivey has defended the move as a fiscally conservative one, noting that, “while our prison infrastructure is broken, our ability to govern is not.”
That convoluted logic must be quickly turned on its head. Using federal relief dollars to build prisons sets a dangerous precedent, enabling, even encouraging, other states to follow suit. Moreover, it will ensure that vital pandemic relief in Alabama (and potentially across the nation, if other states take Ivey’s lead) remains unaddressed – causing perhaps catastrophic long-term economic and human consequences.
The move is a vivid example of a troubling pattern by Republicans in conservative bastions to use the money for politically charged wish lists. In Galveston County, Texas, county commissioners are spending $6.6 million in Covid relief funds for security on the US-Mexico border wall. In Wyoming, one GOP lawmaker suggested using the funds to push back against President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses.
In 1963, Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general, helped harness the power of his brother John F. Kennedy’s presidential bully pulpit to push through and enforce groundbreaking changes in racial relations, actions that ultimately led to the introduction of civil rights legislation.
Biden must break his silence on this egregious misuse of taxpayer dollars, particularly in Alabama, a state that is woefully behind the curve on all aspects of social services, from public health access and care, to wastewater infrastructure to education for children and more, and that accounts for one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
Building more prisons does not make communities safe, and it never has. Instead, it reinforces the trap of our nation’s racially biased criminal legal system, which disproportionately draws those who are poor, Black, Brown and Indigenous into the system, inflicting upon them physical and psychological harm in the process, separating and destabilizing families, creating barriers to employment and erecting systems that result in recidivism.
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Bailing out the Alabama Department of Corrections by using Covid relief dollars sorely needed elsewhere feeds and reinforces the corruption and mismanagement that has plagued the agency for decades. This includes human rights abuses inflicted on the largely Black prison population.
Only by explicitly prohibiting any state from using federal dollars for these purposes, will we finally center communities of color who have been disproportionately affected by the crushing impacts of Covid-19 to recover and achieve economic prosperity.
Inaction on this issue is nothing more than injustice.