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Civil rights group objects to using federal COVID aid for prisons

By: and - January 23, 2023 10:31 am

Photo by Alex Potemkin | Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the Treasury Department to take a harder line on states and local governments using federal American Rescue Plan Act money to build and expand correctional facilities.

One of the projects it cited is in Arizona, where prison officials said they planned to spend $4.2 million to renovate executive and administrative offices.


The ACLU is asking the Treasury’s office of inspector general to investigate and reiterate to governments “that they may not use those funds to build or expand jails, prisons or other detention facilities and that there will be consequences for doing so.”

The money, the ACLU says, is intended to help governments respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter included the signatures of ACLU officials in nine states, Arizona’s Jennifer Allen Aroz.

The Treasury Department has given conflicting signals about the legality of using ARPA funds for prisons, including a project in Iowa’s Scott County to build a new juvenile detention center.

In an article in The Nation magazine last July, an official in the department’s inspector general’s office said the county’s intended use of ARPA funds was not permissible. However, in September, the Quad-City Times reported that the department cleared the way for use of the funds and that it said The Nation was mistakenly given information that conflated two separate parts of the law.

In its letter, dated Jan. 18, the ACLU says the treasury department “must give clear guidance on what is prohibited under each of these categories.”

Pete McRoberts, policy director for the ACLU of Iowa, said in an interview that it’s not legal to use ARPA funds for the Scott County project. The ACLU, along with other groups, had previously objected to the county.

“We could read the law,” McRoberts said Thursday.

The ACLU of Iowa also has objected to expansion of the facility, McRoberts said, because it allows the county to incarcerate more juveniles, which is harmful, especially on racial grounds. The organization has cited figures saying that in Scott County “1 out of every 22 Black children is detained, versus 1 out of every 457 white children.”

County officials have said they have an obligation to detain juveniles who are ordered held by the court system, and that it is better to have them in the community rather than send them to facilities in other parts of the state.

The new facility would essentially double the number of beds and replace a four-decade old juvenile facility in downtown Davenport that all sides agree is inadequate.

Other projects cited by the ACLU in its letter are in Maine, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Alabama.

In Alabama, the state is building two new 4,000 bed prisons for men, with plans for a future women’s prison. It plans to use $400 million in ARPA funds, 20% of its total allocation, the ACLU said.

The ACLU says the federal government has gone after individuals for misuse of ARPA funds, including criminally charging more than 1,000. But it says the federal government hasn’t exercised the same kind of scrutiny with state and local governments.

“The focus on investigating and acting against those who have misused COVID-19-related funding should include state and local government entities, and not be limited to individual bad actors,” the ACLU letter said.

This story was originally published by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sister publication of the Arizona Mirror and a member of the States Newsroom network of local news organizations.


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Ed Tibbetts/Iowa Capital Dispatch
Ed Tibbetts/Iowa Capital Dispatch

Ed Tibbetts has covered Iowa politics, government and trends for more than three decades. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.