U.S. Department of Justice gives Alabama 49 days to fix ‘broken,’ ‘inhumane’ prisons

By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Alabama’s state prison system — considered the nation’s deadliest — is “broken” and conditions are so inhumane they violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asserted in a letter sent to Gov. Kay Ivey on April 2.

Chronic problems

Following a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the Civil Rights Division and Alabama U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, DOJ issued a scathing 62-page report giving the state 49 days to correct the overcrowding, understaffing and other unsafe conditions contributing to the high rates of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse at the state prisons for men. 

Failure to make adequate and timely progress could result in a federal lawsuit, a circumstance with which Alabama prisons are far too familiar. Chronically overcrowded and understaffed, Alabama state prisons currently house about 16,000 male prisoners in varying custody levels and are frequently the subject of federal lawsuits and court orders.

“The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama … concluded there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” the DOJ stated in a news release. “The Department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” 

U.S. Attorney Richard Moore accused Alabama officials of “flagrant disregard” for the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.  

“The failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection on those of us who live and work in Alabama,” Moore said. “We are better than this. We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our State further embarrassment.”

As an example of the systemic violence and conditions they found in Alabama’s state prisons, the DOJ report recounted an eight-day period in September 2017 (see ‘A week,’ below).

As horrific as the number of violent incidents reported that week were, DOJ investigators said the rate of violence throughout the system was in all likelihood much higher. DOJ accused the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) of routinely underreporting incidents and even attributing deaths by violence to “natural causes.”

‘Positive changes’

Ivey and ADOC responded in a news release April 3 noting that DOJ recognized in its report that Alabama “has begun to make some positive changes,” such as plans to build new prisons with enhanced security, better medical and mental health services and safer environments for inmates and staff.

“Our primary objective is to ensure each facility provides a humane, secure and safe environment for inmates, and that reforms already in place and proposed bring about positive, tangible changes throughout the prison system,” ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said. “Efforts for the improved hiring and retention of correctional staff have been bolstered with the Legislature’s $86 million funding appropriations in 2018 and 2019 for hiring additional correctional and health services staff. 

“These efforts continue with a $31 million request for ADOC’s proposed 2020 budget, which would help the department hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay scale for all security personnel,” Dunn said.

Too little, too late

Improvements at the prisons have come too little and too late, however, to save the lives of an extraordinarily high number of inmates who die behind bars as a result of murder, violence or suicide.

“The combination of ADOC’s overcrowding and understaffing results in prisons that are inadequately supervised with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs and weapons,” DOJ investigators found. 

“Prisoner-on-prisoner homicide and sexual abuse is common. Prisoners who are seriously injured or stabbed must find their way to security staff elsewhere in the facility or bang on the door of the dormitory to gain the attention of correctional officers. 

“Prisoners have been tied up for days by other prisoners while unnoticed by security staff. Prisoners are often found in unauthorized areas. Some prisoners sleep in dormitories to which they are not assigned in order to escape violence. Prisoners are being extorted by other prisoners without appropriate intervention of management. Contraband is rampant,” DOJ reported.

“The totality of these conditions poses a substantial risk of serious harm both to prisoners and correctional officers.”

To read the DOJ report on Alabama prison conditions, go to https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1150276/download. 

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A week in Alabama prisons

Friday

Bibb Correctional Facility, Brent: A prisoner is stabbed by two other inmates in an open dormitory and bleeds to death.

Staton Correctional Facility, Elmore: A prisoner is stabbed multiple times and taken by helicopter to a nearby hospital.

Saturday

Elmore Correctional Facility, Elmore: A prisoner is beaten and injured by four other prisoners.

Ventress Correctional Facility, Clayton: Officers pat down a prisoner and find 17 cigarettes laced with drugs, a plastic bag of methamphetamine and a bag filled with hallucinogenic drugs known as “cookie dough.”

Sunday

St. Clair Correctional Facility, Springville: A prisoner asleep in a dormitory reserved for inmates with good behavior awakens when two prisoners start beating him with a sock filled with metal locks; he is injured so severely he has to be transported to an outside hospital for emergency treatment.

Ventress Correctional: A prisoner is punched so hard in the eye by another prisoner that he is sent to an outside hospital. Another prisoner is stabbed by two other prisoners with homemade knives. Yet another prisoner is punched so hard in the face by prisoners with shirts covering their faces that he is transported to an outside hospital for treatment.

Staton Correctional: A prisoner threatens a correctional officer with a seven-inch knife. Another prisoner reports he has been sexually assaulted.

Tuesday

Fountain Correctional Facility, Atmore: A prisoner awakens when another inmate sets his blanket on fire and a fight ensues.

Ventress Correctional: Officers searching a dormitory find 12 plastic bags of an unknown substance, 79 cigarettes laced with drugs, two bags containing the “cookie dough” hallucinogen and a bag of methamphetamine.

Wednesday

Easterling Correctional Facility, Clio: A prisoner is sexually assaulted inside of a segregation cell by an inmate; only four days earlier, this same prisoner had been forced at knifepoint to perform oral sex on two other prisoners.

Thursday

Ventress Correctional: An inmate is so severely assaulted by four other prisoners he has to be transported to an outside hospital. Another prisoner reports being sexually assaulted.

Bullock Correctional: A prisoner is found unresponsive on the floor by his bed and later dies of a drug overdose.

Friday

Ventress Correctional: An officer finds an inmate bleeding from the shoulder due to a stab wound; the prisoner is transported to an outside hospital for treatment.

(Source: U.S. Department of Justice)

Want more information?

For more information on mass incarceration in Alabama and the ministries working in state prisons visit https://tabonline.org/prisons and download “A look at mass incarceration in Alabama.”