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Equal Justice Initiative Files Suit Over High Levels of Violence at Alabama Prison

Equal Justice Initiative Files Suit Over High Levels of Violence at Alabama Prison

by Joe Watson

The Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) filed suit against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) on October 13, 2014, alleging the department had done nothing to stem what the non-profit organization called an “increasingly dangerous security situation” and “extraordinarily high rate of violence” at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama, which gave the prison the dubious distinction of having “one of the highest rates of homicide violence in the nation.”

EJI said it asked then-ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas to investigate “the alarming rate of homicides and assaults at St. Clair” under the leadership of Warden Carter Davenport, but Thomas never took action. Following its initial request, EJI reported the murder of two more prisoners at the severely overcrowded facility, and noted that during Warden Davenport’s tenure, “fatal and non-fatal stabbing incidents have escalated at St. Clair, with at least six homicides in the past thirty-six months and multiple inmates suffering near-fatal injuries that have required extended offsite hospital treatment.”

The number of homicides at St. Clair is just one indicator of dangerous conditions in Alabama’s state prisons, according to a six-month investigation by EJI into hundreds of complaints by prisoners across the state, prompting the organization to call for a review by the U.S. Department of Justice. For example, in June 2014, St. Clair prisoner Jodey Wayne Waldrop, 36, was found stabbed to death in his cell; another prisoner, Timothy Duncan, was killed three months later; and on April 17, 2015 up to 30 prisoners refused to return to their cells and assaulted guards, some using improvised weapons.

“Alabama’s prisons are more dangerous today than a decade ago,” stated an EJI report, released on November 11, 2014. “Seventeen prisoners have been murdered in Alabama prisons since 2009. The homicide rate in Alabama prisons is more than three times the national average. The number of assaults on Alabama inmates has increased 598 percent since 2008.”

The report cited “widespread corruption, misconduct, and abusive behavior” by guards at the five state prisons where conditions are the worst, calling special attention to “an underground economy in contraband goods” facilitated by guards that has resulted in “many homicides and stabbings ... related to unpaid debts.”

“EJI has identified dozens of correctional officers working at Ventress, Elmore, Holman, Bibb, and St. Clair correctional facilities who have smuggled drugs and other contraband into the prison or indirectly profited from this underground enterprise in exchange for money and/or sexual favors,” the organization found.

Further, the report noted, the culture of misconduct extended to extortion of prisoners and their families by guards: “In particular, EJI investigated more than a dozen instances in which a correctional officer confiscated a cell phone without following protocol and then threatened disciplinary action against the inmate unless the prisoner or his family paid the officer several hundred dollars.”

EJI determined that guards managed the contraband economy through brutality. “In several instances, officers sold confiscated contraband to other inmates. This widespread distribution of contraband by prison staff is policed by physical violence, leading to a dramatic rise in serious physical assaults, stabbings, and homicides in ADOC facilities during the past year.”

The report placed the responsibility for conditions in Alabama prisons squarely at the feet of Commissioner Thomas. “ADOC officials have done very little to hold institutional wardens and leaders accountable for problems within prisons,” the EJI investigation concluded. “Poor leadership” was to blame for “contributing to a lack of progress and reform.”

Thomas fought back against the allegations.

“Everybody in my agency knows this sort of behavior is not going to be tolerated,” he stated prior to announcing his retirement in January 2015. “We’re going to investigate these things and they’re going to be prosecuted.”

Thomas said the ADOC was reviewing at least 10 reported incidents involving physically and sexually abusive guards at three facilities, and that results of forensics tests performed by prison investigators in two cases of alleged sexual abuse were submitted to district attorneys for prosecution. One of the cases occurred at the Bibb Correctional Facility, the other at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.

“If they are making recommendations to prosecutors, if they are looking at that number of events, I think that is encouraging,” said EJI executive director Bryan Stevenson. “All we want is to create a climate where no correctional officer believes that they can engage in the kind of misconduct that we’re talking about with impunity.”

But he cautioned, “Ultimately, you’ve got to move forward. If the commissioner is not in the position ready to implement these issues, we need someone who is.”

EJI also alleged that the ADOC failed to comply with federally-mandated protocols and procedures under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which require underage offenders to be housed separately from adults. “The Alabama Department of Corrections continues to house children prosecuted as adults in adult facilities where they face an increased risk of sexual assault and violence,” the EJI report said. Despite complaining numerous times to prison officials, “no reforms have been implemented.”

According to the report, there were multiple instances at the Bibb and Donaldson prisons in which guards coerced young male prisoners into performing sex acts by threatening them with disciplinary violations if they refused. One of the Bibb prisoners alleged that he was ordered into a restroom and forced to perform oral sex on a guard. He also told EJI that after he reported the assault to the prison’s internal investigation unit, he received no response.

The ADOC convened an investigation into what EJI termed a “dangerous group” of guards at the Elmore Correctional Facility, for “targeting restrained prisoners for severe physical abuse.” One prisoner reported in early 2013 that he was beaten by multiple guards in three different wings at Elmore as he was handcuffed and in leg shackles, which was just one of “nearly a dozen instances where prisoners were handcuffed, stripped naked, and then beaten by several guards,” the report stated. “Several prisoners were beaten so severely that they have required hospitalization and suffered permanent injuries.”

Though he disputed EJI’s findings that prisoners “were taken to isolated areas and stripped,” Thomas said the ADOC “vigorously investigate[s] matters when they come to our attention.”

The EJI report also cited prison officials for the agency’s “failure to provide adequate positive, rehabilitative, or recreational programming, the lack of treatment and services for drug addiction and mental illness, and restrictions on religious and volunteer programming [which] contribute to a culture where violence, abuse, and corruption thrive.”

Further, the report continued, the ADOC’s leadership has fostered an anti-family culture. “Over the past decade, facilities across Alabama have implemented practices that make it increasingly difficult for poor, hard-working families to communicate and maintain ties with incarcerated family members,” arbitrarily restricting visitation and implementing exorbitant costs, not for security, but for profit. “Phone rates and the cost of basic hygiene supplies are greatly inflated to subsidize prison budgets and generate profits,” EJI found.

The report recommended the formation of an independent committee comprised of non-governmental employees, medical professionals and community members tasked with monitoring and reporting on prison conditions, citing the importance of including the “active and integrated participation of independent advocacy organizations ... in both the design and enforcement of better sexual abuse and safety protocols and policies.”

Finally, EJI called on Alabama’s governor to create a reward system for prison wardens who excel. “Just as ADOC fails to hold wardens accountable for corruption and abuse of power, it fails to reward wardens who achieve low rates of misconduct and help inmates prepare to reintegrate into the community and their families,” the report stated. “Creating the right incentives for wardens and officers would significantly curb violence and help to effectively manage staff and reduce recidivism.”

On February 17, 2015, a federal district court denied the ADOC’s motion to dismiss EJI’s lawsuit over high levels of violence at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, with the exception of one prisoner’s claims. The case remains pending. See: Duke v. McDonnell, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 4:14-cv-01952-VEH-HGD.

Meanwhile, homicides and violence at the St. Clair prison continue. On November 9, 2015, prisoner Timothy Bradford Latham, 30, was stabbed to death following a fight with another prisoner, Justin Jamall Jackson. The murder occurred less than a week after a guard was stabbed at the facility.



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Related legal case

Duke v. McDonnell