Veronica Johnson of the Alabama Justice Initiative has been fighting against a proposal to build three new prisons in the state. She has an uncle serving a 60-year prison sentence. In 2020, Johnson, who is Black, traveled to rural Brierfield, Al., to talk to residents about a new prison the state was planning to put in their community. That campaign jump-started Communities Not Prisons, a coalition of grassroots activists, faith leaders, farmers, and national organizations, that halted the proposed prison.
The activists believed they had won, but COVID-19 hit, bringing a flood of federal relief money to Alabama—and, with it, renewed talk of prison expansion, reports The Appeal. The injection of funds was triggered by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package signed by President Biden shortly after he took office.
The money was intended to help the economy to rebound from the pandemic, but jurisdictions nationwide are using the funds to recruit police, weaponize SWAT teams, and build jails, which opponent call a cash grab by law enforcement and its allies.
In his State of the Union address on March 1, Biden 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.
Alabama legislators last year approved $400 million in ARPA money to fund the prison projects Johnson and others thought they had stopped. Officials across the U.S. are pursuing similar plans with funds ostensibly meant for COVID relief.
Some people are organizing against the spending spree, succeeding 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.
“Republicans have easily, barely lifting a finger, pushed Democrats into an ‘anti-police’ corner,” Kay Whitlock, co-author of the new book “Carceral Con: The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform.”
Biden and top Democrats are going beyond denouncing the “defund” slogan and are calling to substantially increase funding for law enforcement.
At a meeting last month with New York City Mayor 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.”
In many cities, says The Appeal, police are looking to pad their budgets by using federal dollars to pay for general expenses and new gadgets. In Fresno, Ca., police submitted a proposal requesting $6.8 million in ARPA funds to make improvements to the department’s headquarters and to purchase 33 patrol cars, 20 undercover vehicles, 15 SWAT sniper rifles, and a license plate reader, among other expenses.