by David Reutter
Alabama’s prison murder rate, already the nation’s worst, is on the rise – along with an increase in assaults that do not end in fatalities, as well as prisoner suicides. Prison officials agree that the root problems – mainly overcrowding and understaffing – are correctable. But the state has not fully addressed those problems.
Nationally, about five of every 100,000 prisoners are murdered and another 16 commit suicide. In Alabama the number of prison homicides is over 30 per 100,000 – six times the national average and twice that of the next-highest state – while the number of suicides has risen to 37 per 100,000, more than twice the national rate.
In 2017, a federal district court found the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) had failed to provide prisoners with constitutionally sufficient mental health care, calling it “horrendously inadequate.” As with the homicide rate, the court found the DOC’s “skyrocketing suicide rate” was due to preventable factors that had not been addressed by prison officials due to a “culture of cynicism towards prisoners.”
In October 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into all DOC facilities housing male prisoners, in response to reports of widespread violence and sexual abuse. The state’s prisons operate at 172 percent of capacity even as the DOC has experienced a 20 percent drop in the number of guards it employs. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.1].
“We’re already the most overcrowded,” said DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn. “It won’t be long until we’re the most understaffed and most violent.”
But state lawmakers have been bogged down with competing proposals to address the problems, with the DOC backing a plan to build “large-scale” facilities – a plan that was opposed by representatives of small communities where current prisons would be replaced by the new construction.
Meanwhile, the death toll among prisoners has continued to rise.
Cedric Jerome Robinson, 33, was stabbed to death in September 2017 at the Bibb County Correctional Facility (BCCF), 55 miles southwest of Birmingham. He was serving a six-year sentence for credit card fraud. Another prisoner was injured in the attack. Four men serving time on robbery convictions were charged with capital murder in connection with Robinson’s death: Dominique L. Covin, Roderick DeLaune, Anthony Bright and Byron Epps.
In an earlier assault at the same prison, Jamie Marcus Witherspoon was fatally stabbed.
In May 2018, the DOC reported another murder at BCCF, when Jeveria Odess McCall, 35, was stabbed to death. Keandra Derrod Houston, 29, was charged with killing McCall after officials recovered the makeshift knife he used. McCall was serving a 20-year sentence for first-degree robbery, while Houston is serving life for a murder conviction.
In May 2017, Bullock Correctional Facility prisoner James Edwards Rodgers, 41, was fatally attacked by Christopher Hand, 35, and Paul Johnson, 19. Rodgers was serving a 21-year sentence for robbery and was scheduled to be released in December 2018.
Alabama’s most dangerous prison is the Elmore Correctional Facility (ECF). The violence can come in flurries, such as three homicides in a 24-hour period in February 2017. DeMarko Quinta Carlisle, 36, was stabbed to death at ECF, one day after prisoner David Sanders, 41, was fatally beaten by four other prisoners. Then Grant Mickens, 35, was killed by Demetric Horsely, 31. Carlisle had been imprisoned 20 years for a murder he committed when he was 16; Sanders was serving life for meth trafficking. [See: PLN, June 2017, p.51].
In July 2017, Timothy Robinson, 47, also was stabbed to death at ECF. His killer was Jason Lee Jackson, 28, serving five years for robbery.
Prison administrators said they did not know why the homicide rate is higher at ECF than other facilities. But the same factors common to violence at all DOC prisons are also present at ECF: overcrowding and understaffing. ECF operates at 190 percent of capacity with 1,145 prisoners, but has only 72 of the 169 guards it is authorized to employ. Low pay and dangerous conditions are cited by DOC officials as obstacles to hiring and retaining staff.
At the St. Clair Correctional Facility, where the number of guards has fallen 50 percent since 2011, assaults have increased 1,000 percent. A total of 249 assaults were reported in the fiscal year that ended September 2016. Guards work mandatory 12-hour or even 16-hour shifts, and in some cases prison housing areas are not patrolled for hours at a time.
Under Warden Carter Davenport there was a reduction in activities designed to offset the loss of guards which had been implemented by his predecessor, David Wise – including visits from politicians, a near-constant presence of volunteers from religious groups, anti-violence classes led by prisoners and incentives like meals brought in from outside the facility.
“These are human beings you’re dealing with, not potted plants,” Wise said.
Davenport was transferred to another prison in March 2015, but not before six prisoners were killed during his tenure as warden at the St. Clair facility, and assaults increased four-fold.
Built in 1983 to satisfy a federal court finding that “rampant violence and [a] jungle atmosphere” existed in DOC prisons, the St. Clair facility experienced a riot two years later that left many door locks easily opened with a prison ID card – a problem that has only recently been addressed with $3.5 million in funding to replace the locks.
Meanwhile, segregation often seems safer than being housed in the general population, leading to competition among the facility’s 1,200 prisoners for one of 216 solitary confinement cells. Less than a month after Douglas Simon, 30, arrived at St. Clair in late 2015 – for a violation of work-release rules – he was stabbed in the face and neck by another prisoner who wanted to return to segregation.
“When we let him out of lockup, he said he was going to stab someone to get back in,” Simon recalled he was told by prison staff. “But they didn’t think he was really going to do it.”
Steve J. Martin, a nationally-recognized corrections expert, examined conditions at the facility for a civil rights lawsuit and found “a total breakdown of the necessary basic structures that are required to operate a prison safely.”
“The frequency of assaults resulting in life-threatening injuries is quite simply among the highest I have observed in my 43-year career in corrections,” Martin reported.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of prisoners at St. Clair by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit criminal justice organization based in Montgomery. The suit faulted the DOC not only for overcrowded, understaffed and poorly-maintained facilities, but for “a culture that tolerated violence.” [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.42].
“Until you address that,” said Wise, the former warden, “you can go down to the Legislature and talk about spending a billion dollars all day long, and you’re not going to fix a damn thing. You’re going to have a facility that’ll be tore up in 20 months.”
The St. Clair lawsuit settled in early November 2017. As part of the settlement, the DOC agreed to “implement an internal classification system that will protect incarcerated people and prison staff by ensuring that individuals’ risks and needs are taken into account when assigning them to housing and programs, rather than the current practice of randomly assigning people to the first open bed without identifying conflicts or other potential problems,” according to EJI.
Further, “An incident management system will also be created to help prison officials prevent, track, and respond to violent incidents. The system will be designed by Ken McGinnis, former chief administrative officer of two of the nation’s largest and most complex correctional systems – Illinois and Michigan – and one of the most highly regarded corrections experts in the country. The Inspector General will oversee the prison’s incident management and all violent incidents will be independently investigated to increase accountability.”
Other reforms at St. Clair include replacing faulty locks, installing surveillance video cameras and creating a transitional unit for prisoners released from segregation.
“[The DOC] has agreed to make substantial changes, repairs and reforms that we believe will dramatically reduce the level of violence that exists and ameliorate the deplorable conditions at St. Clair,” stated EJI Director Bryan Stevenson. See: Duke v. Dunn, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 4:14-cv-01952-VEH.
Sources: Associated Press, The New York Times, www.al.com, www.apr.org, www.eji.org
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Related legal case
Duke v. Dunn
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 4:14-cv-01952-VEH|