The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for a federal investigation into the use of COVID-19 relief funds to build and expand jails and prisons, including the Penobscot County Jail.

The ACLU of Maine joined eight affiliates and the national organization this week in a letter to the U.S. Department of the Treasury requesting the investigation.

“We are writing with deep concern about dozens of plans across the country to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) COVID-19 relief funds to build or expand jails and prisons, which is expressly prohibited by the Department of Treasury,” the letter says. “Allowing these plans to continue would divert hundreds of millions of dollars from their intended purpose of rebuilding communities and local economies. This improper use of recovery funds would exacerbate the crises that predated the pandemic and those that developed as a result of it.”

The letter asked the federal government to require all state and local governments to redirect funds currently dedicated for jail and prison construction to “the community-supportive resources that are permitted by ARPA and are so badly needed by communities impacted by the pandemic.”

The letter also calls on the federal government to investigate projects in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The Penobscot County Commissioners shared a brief response to the letter in a written statement Friday.


“Penobscot County has allocated a portion of funds from the American Rescue Plan for important repairs to our correctional facility,” the statement says. “These funds were allocated from the portion of ARPA funding which was released under the revised Treasury rules for county government capital expenditures. Penobscot County provided necessary repairs to our correctional facility to provide for the health and safety of our inmates and staff.”

The Penobscot County Jail is 160 years old and routinely exceeds its capacity of 157 people. The letter says the county received $29.5 million in ARPA funds in 2021 and considered using a portion to add 100 beds to the jail. Ultimately, the county allocated nearly $1.2 million to repair the jail elevator, buy a body scanner and update the jail control room.

The Treasury Department issued rules for how the ARPA money could be spent. Those rules say building a new correctional facility would not be an appropriate use of the funds.

“In addition, construction of new congregate facilities, which would generally be expected to involve expenditures greater than $1 million, would generally not be a proportional response to mitigate or prevent COVID-19, because such construction is generally expected to be more costly than alternative approaches or capital expenditures that may be equally or more effective in decreasing spread of the disease,” the rules say.

But the rules do allow the money to be used for some improvements in public buildings and congregate settings.

“The American Rescue Plan Act was intended to support local governments in responding to the impacts of COVID-19 on their communities,” said Carol Garvan, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “Instead, Penobscot County has improperly set aside nearly $1.2 million for jail construction projects. Those dollars were intended to support public health, to provide affordable housing, or to build critical infrastructure such as broadband access. The US Department of Treasury bars their use for building or expanding jails or prisons.”

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