Violent Incidents Follow Settlement to End Dangerous Conditions at Alabama Prison
Within a year after a settlement was reached between the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to address violence at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, three prisoners were killed and a guard was assaulted.
Following six homicides over a three-year period and an extraordinary high rate of violence at St. Clair, EJI filed a class-action lawsuit in 2014 to force ADOC officials to do more than just write reports chronicling dangerous conditions at the facility. There were 249 reported assaults at St. Clair in 2016.
The suit claimed that “mismanagement, poor leadership, overcrowding, inadequate security, and unsafe conditions, including broken and nonfunctioning locks on the majority of cell doors, have led to an extraordinarily high homicide rate, weekly stabbings and assaults, and a culture where violence is tolerated, creating conditions of confinement that violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
The October 2017 settlement in the case was intended to make the facility safer for prisoners.
“ADOC had 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,” EJI director Bryan Stevenson said in a November 9, 2017 statement.
The settlement agreement requires implementation of two management systems. The first is an internal classification system to ensure a prisoner’s risk and needs are taken into account when being assigned to housing and programs. This replaces the prior practice of assigning the first open bed without identifying conflicts or other potential problems. The ADOC will work with prison classification expert Dr. James Austin.
The second change was the creation of an incident management system to allow prison officials to prevent, track and respond to violent incidents. The ADOC’s Inspector General will oversee that system, and all violent incidents will be independently investigated to increase accountability.
The settlement, which was a private agreement and not a court-enforced consent decree, also called for the replacement of broken and non-functioning locks on cell doors, the installation of video cameras, a new protective housing unit and a transitional unit for prisoners leaving solitary confinement. See: Cheatham v. Thomas, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 4:14-cv-01952-VEH.
Changes in the institutional culture at a prison take time to materialize, however, and that was evident when several violent incidents occurred on the heels of the settlement in the EJI’s lawsuit.
An unidentified St. Clair guard was attacked on December 27, 2017 by prisoner Daryl Rowell, 27. As he was being escorted to a lounge area, Rowell, serving life without parole for murder, used an improvised weapon to cut the guard, who suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Rowell now faces additional charges.
Then, on February 9, 2018, Travis Lamar Wilson, Jr., 25, was fatally stabbed by fellow St. Clair prisoner Cruz Caldwell. Wilson was serving time for a 2011 killing; Caldwell, who is serving 20 years, was charged with his murder.
Seven months later, in early September 2018, prisoner Terry Pettiway, 29, serving a 10-year sentence, was found with a stab wound and later died at a hospital. His death remains under investigation. Later that same month, Rogarius Bray, 33, was stabbed to death at St. Clair by 42-year-old prisoner Brandy Harris, who now faces a first-degree murder charge.
According to EJI, “Per capita, Alabama’s rate of just over 34 homicides per 100,000 people incarcerated is more than 600 percent greater than the national average, and more than five times greater than the rate Alabama itself saw from 2001 to 2014.”
As these incidents demonstrate, reforms cannot come quickly enough to resolve high levels of violence at the St. Clair Correctional Facility.
Sources: www.nytimes.com, www.alabamanews.net, www.wbrc.com, www.wvtm13.com, www.eji.org, www.al.com