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Department of Justice to investigate Alabama jail following SPLC complaint

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the treatment of juveniles at the overcrowded Jefferson County Jail in Alabama a year after the SPLC urged the government to investigate the violence, neglect and abuse of children awaiting trial.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched an investigation into the treatment of juveniles at the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama a year after the SPLC urged officials to investigate the overcrowded jail, where violence, neglect and abuse are common – especially for children awaiting trial.

The investigation was announced by the agency this week. In addition to determining if the jail conditions “pose a serious risk of harm to [juveniles’] physical and psychological well-being,” the DOJ said it will examine allegations that children with mental illnesses and disabilities are placed in solitary confinement for months at a time.

The Birmingham jail houses children awaiting trial in the adult court system. Children as young as 14 can be tried as adults and housed in adult jails in Alabama.

“We’re encouraged that the Department of Justice will look into the treatment of children at the Jefferson County Jail,” said Ebony Howard, SPLC senior staff attorney. “These young people are awaiting trial. They haven’t been found guilty of a crime, but they are being placed in situations where they are constantly in fear of their physical safety as well as their sanity.”

The SPLC notified the DOJ of these conditions in a May 2014 letter. Based on more than 50 interviews with 20 youths under the age of 18, the letter described vicious and brutal conditions. The SPLC asked the agency to investigate civil rights violations pursuant to its authority under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980.

The letter described one incident where a 17-year-old boy was attacked by four adult detainees as he slept on the floor of an overcrowded cell. They beat his head against the floor and cut his throat with razors in an attempt to prevent him from testifying in court. It took two hours for a guard to respond. The teen had to fend off one of his attackers during the wait.

The SPLC also described how young detainees are often targeted for sexual assault. Several children recounted an incident where an inmate known to target youths for sexual assaults called a boy into his cell. The young man, who appeared to be 19, was ordered against the wall and sodomized.

Although the older detainee was put in isolation, he eventually returned to the jail’s general population. The letter noted that the man was in a coercive relationship with another youth who was forced to perform sexual favors to receive food from the older detainee.