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DOJ Probe Finds Alabama Men’s Prisons Overcrowded, Plagued by Ongoing Violence

by David M. Reutter

In April 2019 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released the results of a three-year investigation into men’s prisons operated by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), finding that conditions in the facilities violate prisoners’ guarantee of protection from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

“The violations are severe, systematic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies” in virtually every area of prison operations, the DOJ reported.

The investigation, which began in 2016, focused on whether the ADOC adequately protects prisoners from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners, and from the use of excessive force and sexual assaults by guards. Also at issue was whether prisoners are provided with sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.

The DOJ found that due to a toxic combination of overcrowding and understaffing, ADOC facilities are “inadequately supervised, with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.”

In 2014, the homicide rate in U.S. prisons averaged seven per 100,000 prisoners. In fiscal year 2017, the ADOC reported a rate eight times higher, tallying nine homicides among a prison population that was then 16,000. The actual murder rate may be higher, the DOJ noted, since it found several cases where prisoners’ autopsy reports cited homicide as the cause of death but prison officials attributed the deaths to natural or other causes.

The number of violent prisoner-on-prisoner incidents has increased dramatically over the last five-and-a-half years. Further, ADOC reports indicate that since 2017, guards have been “stabbed, punched, kicked, threatened with broomsticks and knives, and had their heads stomped on.” Before the DOJ began its investigation, a guard was stabbed to death at the Holman Correctional Institution.

“Walking out of these gates, knowing you’re still alive, that’s a successful day,” a Donaldson Correctional Institution guard told DOJ investigators.

While overcrowding in itself is not unconstitutional, the DOJ said the fact that ADOC facilities held 16,327 prisoners in 2016 – the number swelled to 20,948 by April 2019 – in prisons designed to hold 9,882, exacerbated conditions that violate the Eighth Amendment. Severe understaffing only makes the problem worse. In February 2019, the ADOC admitted it had only 1,072 guards to fill 3,326 authorized positions.

The warden at the Holman Correctional Institution said on any given day she has “probably 11” guards per shift, including supervisors, for the entire facility, which houses 800 prisoners. The warden at the Bibb Correctional Institution – known as “Bloody Bibb” – said he has 66 guards spread over four shifts to supervise 1,800 prisoners.

The DOJ report cited incidents where prisoners were held hostage and tied up in cells due to drug debts or extortion. In one case, a prisoner was found tied to a bunk and strangled to death. Rapes, torture and assaults occur in blind spots. In so-called “hot bays,” which house prisoners with disciplinary issues, staff members do not enter “unless someone is killed and they have to clean up the aftermath,” the DOJ wrote. When investigators inspected the “hot bay” at the Bibb Correctional Institution, a captain warned them, “Enter at your own risk.”

The DOJ found that drugs are rampant, with drug debts placing “prisoners and their families at risk of extortion.” ADOC officials acknowledged that staff sometimes smuggle in contraband, and DOJ investigators noted that employees are not searched upon entering the prisons.

Another problem uncovered by investigators was that the ADOC discourages reports of sexual assaults and violence, often punishing the prisoner who makes such reports while taking no action against the perpetrator.

Physical plant issues such as defective locks, insufficient or ineffective cameras, a lack of mirrors, and deteriorating electrical and plumbing systems, as well as structural design problems such as blind corners and weaknesses in buildings and perimeters, rounded out the DOJ’s findings.

The department’s April 2, 2019 report gave the ADOC 49 days to correct the noted deficiencies or face a lawsuit. Governor Kay Ivey convened a Study Group on Criminal Justice on July 22, 2019 – 111 days after the DOJ report was released.

“We are working hard to avoid litigation,” promised Ivey, whose administration is also studying the construction of up to four new prisons.

The governor’s representative on the study group, former state Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, argued that the state needs to be “tough on crime” but also “smart on crime.”

Attorney Bill Lunsford, who represents the state in its negotiations with the DOJ, said he didn’t expect a resolution before the end of 2019, but offered that the level of overcrowding at ADOC prisons did not create unconstitutional conditions.

Other members of the study group took issue with that.

“I really do believe we have an overcrowding problem,” countered Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton.

“I’ve toured every prison in this state, and I can tell you how I know it’s overcrowded: I’ve seen it first-hand,” agreed state Senator Cam Ward, another study group member, who added that those denying the problem were “like an ostrich with their head in the sand.”

Even ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn admitted that while Lunsford may be correct from a legal standpoint, “we evaluate overcrowding from an operational perspective.”

“What’s the design capacity of our system in relation to how many inmates we have in custody,” Dunn explained. “Right now, we are overcrowded.”

He added that $40 million appropriated by lawmakers earlier in 2019 would be used mainly to boost guard pay in an effort to increase staffing levels by at least 500 additional guards statewide.

“We’re addressing the contraband, we’re addressing the violence issue, and we’re addressing the inmate safety and the staff safety issues,” Dunn promised.

In addition to conditions within ADOC prisons, the study group will examine possible reforms to sentencing guidelines and other changes to lower recidivism rates. It planned to meet again in August 2019 for a tour of a state prison.

The ADOC is currently under a federal court order to improve mental healthcare after a judge ruled in 2017 that the care the state had been providing was “horrendously inadequate.”

PLN has previously reported that ADOC prisons have the highest homicide and suicide rates in the nation, and that the Equal Justice Initiative filed suit over high levels of violence at the St. Clair Correctional Facility. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.24; Aug. 2018, p.30; Dec. 2015, p.42]. The Free Alabama Movement, a group of activists both incarcerated and on the outside, has long called for reforms in the state’s prison system. 

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Sources: montgomeryadveriser.com, wrbl.com, altoday.com, U.S. Department of Justice, freealabamamovement.wordpress.com