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Settlement in Alabama Prison Overcrowding and Violence Suit

A class-action lawsuit that alleged conditions at Alabama’s Donaldson Correctional Facility (DCF) placed prisoners “at a substantial risk of injury due to violence, lack of security, understaffing, corruption, and severe overcrowding” has concluded with a settlement agreement designed to address deficiencies at the prison.

DCF opened in 1982 with a capacity of 700 prisoners. A subsequent renovation gave it a “design capacity” of 968; however, by December 2008 the population had reached 1,681. This was accomplished by placing bunks in open dormitories “so close together that a prisoner can reach out his hand and touch the person in the next bunk.” Three prisoners were crammed into cells designed for two, which did not allow them to sit upright on their bunks or provide adequate room to dress.

In those cell blocks, grooming and hygiene activities often took place in the hallway. Due to an overtaxed plumbing system, the smell of feces permeated those areas of the prison due to regular overflows of toilets into adjacent cells. The heat and lack of ventilation left prisoners lying on their “sweat-dampened mattresses” during the summer months. When their pleas to guards to be moved were ignored, some prisoners would commit “assaults on other prisoners so as to be moved to another area of the prison.”

The number of guards at DCF was insufficient to properly run the prison due to overcrowding. The guard shortage was described as a “crisis” by former DCF Warden Stephen Bullard in a letter to the former commissioner of the Alabama DOC. A guard’s grievance in May 2008 noted there were two guards for 288 prisoners in one area of the prison, while in another unit there were only two or three guards for 520 prisoners.

Staffing shortages created many problems, including guards working overtime, which was not only an economic drain on DCF but also left the guards exhausted and “less likely to remain alert or able to respond adequately to normal or exigent security needs.” Often, the exhausted guards fell asleep on duty.

Guards working in DCF’s stressful environment “have become disrespectful, short-tempered, and often violent towards prisoners, contributing to the overall volatility of the prison,” according to the lawsuit. Nine cases of excessive force by guards were cited in the complaint. The suit also stated there were numerous assaults on guards by prisoners; as a result, guards “already fearful of walking into prisoner living areas have become even more reluctant to enter the open dormitories where they are greatly outnumbered, often leaving these areas largely unsupervised.”

Reports from prisoners stated that “other prisoners smoke crack cocaine or inject methamphetamines on a near-daily basis in the open areas of some cell blocks.” Corruption by guards contributed to this problem, as many DCF employees “bring drugs, cell phones, cell phone chips, and other contraband into the prison.”

Further, violence was rampant. The complaint described 52 critical incidents at DCF in 2008 and 2009. The vast majority of those incidents were stabbings or other assaults by prisoners on prisoners. The lawsuit also claimed there had been “a number of sexual assaults” reported. “Investigations into violent incidents are often perfunctory or happen not at all,” the complaint charged. “Much of the violence at [DCF] goes unreported. Certain prisoners act as ‘doctors,’ sewing up prisoners’ wounds.”

The settlement in the class-action suit provides relief in many areas. It prohibits the use of triple-bunked cells. A contractor will implement repairs, improvements, renovations and upgrades at the facility. Those improvements include an energy management system upgrade, better lighting, air cooled condensing units, HVAC motor replacement, ice machine counter-flow heat exchangers, and new water fixtures and controls.

Further, the settlement requires DCF to have 258 guard positions. There is to be at least one guard physically present in the dormitories and cell blocks at all times, absent an emergency or exceptional circumstances. DCF has also requested technical assistance from the National Institute of Corrections to reduce the presence of illegal drugs, weapons and other contraband.

Beds in open dorms are to be configured to provide clear lines of sight and unobstructed passageways for guards. Prisoners will be required to wear wristbands to identify their housing location to prevent their movement to unassigned areas. Guards are to search prisoners and the housing areas regularly, completing a “shakedown form” for each search.

Guards entering the facility also will be searched; they will be required to walk through a metal detector and their property is subject to inspection.

Additionally, the settlement contains a use-of-force section, which prohibits “intentional overhead strikes with a baton to vital areas of an inmate’s body unless reasonably necessary to defend oneself or others from an imminent threat of death or serious injury.” Efforts are to be made to avoid head strikes.

Prisoners who are subject to uses of force will be afforded an opportunity to make a written statement “as soon as reasonably possible after an application of force.” Photographs of prisoners’ injuries shall be taken in color and attached to the incident report. The settlement specifies criteria for use-of-force investigations.

The prisoners’ attorneys are to receive monthly reports on use-of-force incidents, violent or sexual assaults, investigative reports, all logs required by the settlement agreement, staff rosters and reports on recovered contraband. They will also receive $66,860.10 in attorney fees and costs.

The class was represented by Sarah Geraghty, Lisa Kung and Melanie Velez of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Herman A. Watson, Jr. and Rebekah Keith McKinney of the Huntsville law firm of Watson, McKinney & Artrip, LLP. The April 2011 settlement provides for the suit to remain on the court’s administrative docket until March 28, 2012; after that time it may be dismissed if the terms are met. See: Hicks v. Hetzel, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:09-cv-00155-WKW-WC.

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Related legal case

Hicks v. Hetzel