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Alabama Uses Federal Stimulus Money to Prop up Prison System

Alabama allocated 11% of its federal education stimulus funds to its prison system. Of the $1.1 billion the state received from the U.S. Department of Education from 2009 to 2010, the state gave more than $118 million to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).

Not a penny of that money went to educational or rehabilitative programs for prisoners, however; instead, it partly funded the salaries and benefits of about 4,200 guards and other prison employees for three-and-a-half months. The rest was spent on costs related to health care for the state’s 26,000 prisoners.

The stimulus money allocated to the ADOC amounts to around $4,500 per prisoner – about four times what is spent on each student in kindergarten through the 12th grade in Alabama. Some critics said the money would have been better spent on education for children.

“If we had that $118 million,” stated Alan Lee, superintendent of the Baldwin County school system, “we could have given the prisons less business.” Studies have repeatedly indicated that students who fail or drop out of school are more likely to end up in prison.

With 62,000 students, Mobile County’s school system is the state’s largest. It received the second-greatest amount of federal education stimulus funds behind the ADOC – about $77 million, or approximately $1,233 per student.

States were allowed to use up to 18% of their federal stimulus money on public safety or other government services. Other than the 11% provided to the ADOC, all of Alabama’s stimulus funds went to the state’s education department.

Absent the injection of stimulus funds, the ADOC would not have been able to operate some of its 31 prisons. “We’ve done ‘what if’ drills before. We would have had to release 40% of our inmates,” said ADOC Associate Commissioner Steve Brown. “That’s not a viable option.”

While the state’s prison system continued to operate overcrowded and understaffed facilities even with the stimulus money, Mobile and Baldwin counties have slashed programs and laid off more than 1,000 teachers due to budget cuts in recent years.

Mobile County schools Superintendent Roy Nichols saw a political taint to the state’s priorities when it came to divvying up the stimulus funds. “The governor wouldn’t have looked good if he had to let prisoners out,” he noted.

The state’s federal stimulus money ran out at the end of September 2011, and the ADOC was expected to take a budget hit in 2012. Of course that didn’t happen, as the prison system is considered the “third rail” of state politics. The ADOC’s budget for 2012 was $377 million, an increase from the department’s $339 million budget in 2011. Other than Medicaid, the ADOC receives the largest share of the state’s General Fund.

Sources: Press-Register, Huntsville Times

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