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DOJ: Conditions in Alabama prisons likely unconstitutional

The Alabama prison system is already fighting a years-long SPLC lawsuit over the neglect of prisoners with medical and mental health needs. Now, the U.S. Justice Department is threatening to sue the state because its prisons are beset by “rampant violence,” “unchecked extortion,” and “severe and widespread sexual abuse.”

After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, the DOJ concluded in a blistering, 56-page report released today that the conditions it found likely violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Department of Justice’s findings letter describes an enormous breadth of violent conditions in Alabama prisons that amount to nothing less than torture,” said Ebony Howard, a senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “That these conditions persist in the 21st century is an embarrassment to the state.”

If the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) does not take steps to address the concerns, the U.S. attorney general may sue the state in 49 days to correct the problems, the DOJ said.

The DOJ report contains graphic descriptions of scores of incidents of violence and sexual assault among people incarcerated in Alabama. Some were forced to perform sexual acts on other prisoners at knifepoint. One person was tied up and strangled to death. Others died as the result of stabbings, beatings and the ingestion of toxic synthetic drugs.

The DOJ found “hundreds of grave injuries to prisoners that were inflicted out of the sight of ADOC correctional officers,” and reviewed more than 600 recent sexual assault incident reports. One warden told investigators that staffing levels are “barbaric” and that “both prisoners and correctional officers in Alabama’s prisons are in extreme danger.”

Chronic overcrowding and understaffing are major contributors to the problems, the DOJ said. Alabama’s prisons are currently at 182 percent capacity. Meanwhile, they employ only about a third of the authorized correctional officer force of 3,326.

“It is clear from the number of deaths, fights, and stabbings in Alabama’s prisons that ADOC is failing to protect its prisoners and nature is taking its course,” the report says.

For years, high-level ADOC officials have known about the problems in the prison system, especially with its infrastructure, which, according to the DOJ, “do not provide adequate humane conditions of confinement.” But they have been unable or unwilling to improve conditions. For instance, the DOJ identified “relatively simple physical plant corrections” that could have been made but were not.

“As the DOJ makes clear, and as advocates have said for years, Alabama cannot simply build its way out of this crisis,” Howard said.

In order to abate the violence and the violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights, Alabama must dramatically increase staffing in its prisons and follow an order by the federal judge overseeing the SPLC case by 2020, the DOJ investigators wrote. In that case, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in June 2017 that mental health care provided to prisoners in Alabama is “horrendously inadequate” due to the dual problems of overcrowding and understaffing.

Other measures that could alleviate the brutality in Alabama’s prisons, according to the DOJ, include:

  • Consulting with an expert with experience in removing low-risk, nonviolent prisoners to local oversight;
  • Within six months, hiring at least 500 additional officers to provide security;
  • Within six months, studying the feasibility of transferring prisoners to non-ADOC facilities in order to immediately address overcrowding;
  • Ordering officers to conduct security rounds at least once per hour in all living areas in prisons and at least once every half-hour in special management areas, such as mental health facilities;
  • Within three months, reclassifying every prisoner by sexual safety needs and separate potential predators from potential victims.

“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a press release. “The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns.”

The DOJ’s report, however, notes that Alabama has so far been slow to respond.

“Security problems have persisted despite ADOC’s awareness of our investigation and our numerous onsite inspections of several facilities,” the report says. “In fact, the majority of the examples of unconstitutional conditions described throughout this letter occurred after we began our investigation.”

Howard said, “In the next 49 days we will learn whether ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, Governor Kay Ivey, and the Alabama Legislature will face the reality they have avoided for so long. The only solution to Alabama’s crisis is to safely reduce the prison population while increasing the quality of care and protection provided to incarcerated individuals.”

Brynn Anderson/AP Images