Gov. Kay Ivey gives the State of the State Address to a joint session of the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday, February 4, 2020, in the old house chamber of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.
CNN  — 

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is defending her proposal to use the state’s allotment of coronavirus relief funds to build new prisons in the state after receiving criticism from Democrats.

Ivey, a Republican, on Monday convened a special session of the Alabama legislature to discuss how to fix what she has called a decades-long problem. As part of the solution, Ivey has proposed using up to $400 million of federal Covid-19 relief money, up to $785 million in bonds and no more than $154 million from the state General Fund to add new prisons and renovate others in the state.

The federal rescue package was enacted to help states plug budget holes in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Biden administration has issued broad guidance on how the funds can be used, including offsetting revenue losses to protect “vital public services.” The administration has also encouraged state and local governments to use some of the funding to address a summer rise in violent crime.

The use of federal money on prisons would help all Alabamians, according to Ivey, who pitched the idea as lessening the burden for taxpayers while prisons are built.

“The Democrat-controlled federal government has never had an issue with throwing trillions of dollars toward their ideological pet projects,” Ivey said in a statement posted on Twitter Tuesday, calling the state’s prison infrastructure “broken.” “The fact is, the American Rescue Plan Act allows these funds to be used for lost revenue and sending a letter in the last hour will not change the way the law is written. These prisons need to be built, and we have crafted a fiscally conservative plan that will cost Alabamians the least amount of money to get the solution required.”

Ivey was responding to a letter from House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, asking her on Monday to “take all appropriate steps to prevent the misuse” of the funds by Alabama and other states.

“Directing funding meant to protect our citizens from a pandemic to fuel mass incarceration is, in direct contravention of the intended purposes of the ARP legislation and will particularly harm communities of color who are already disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration and this public health crisis,” Nadler wrote. “It should not be used to worsen our national problem of over-incarceration.”

CNN has reached out to the Treasury Department for comment.

“We could be using this money on mental health, on our sewage system. Covid is still going on, we should be using this money on our health care system,” Pastor Robert White, who runs the Legal Advocacy Group, which lobbies for inmates’ rights, told CNN. “We’re not saying the prisons don’t need to be built. We’re saying that this money needs to go to mental health, education, not a plantation in the middle of nowhere. The problem doesn’t change. The murders don’t stop.”

White, who was part of a coalition that includes the Legal Advocacy Group as well as a group of college students from Communities Not Prisons that successfully lobbied against the building of private prisons several months ago, says his focus is now on keeping CARES Act money from being used to build these new prisons.