DOJ Finds Frequent Use of Excessive Force in Alabama Prisons
The DOJ’s July 23, 2020, report is the second one it has issued that found systematic constitutional violations exist in ADOC prisons. In April 2019, the DOJ issued notice that it had reason to believe that ADOC violates prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights by “failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe and sanitary conditions.” That report found the “serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision, and overcrowding, contribute to and exacerbate these constitutional violations.” [See PLN, September 2019, p. 44.]
DOJ’s latest investigation was extensive. It interviewed 55 staff members and 270 prisoners during on-site visits at four prisons, conducted over 800 telephone interviews with prisoners and family members, and received and reviewed over 400 letters from prisoners. It also received hundreds of emails from prisoners and family members.
ADOC houses about 16,600 prisoners at 13 prisons. The report “identified frequent uses of excessive force in 12 of the 13 Alabama prisons” DOJ reviewed.
As it reported in the April 2019 report, DOJ found “severe overcrowding and understaffing present in Alabama’s contribute to the patterns or practices of use of excessive force.” The overcrowding “increases tensions and escalates episodes of violence between prisoners’ which lead to uses of force.” Understaffing prevents guards from “us[ing] a show of force and command[ing a] presence to discourage fighting among prisoners or to quickly end fighting through sheer force of their numbers.”
The report detailed 10 incidents since 2017 where guards used excessive force on prisoners who were either restrained or compliant. In each case, the prisoner suffered severe injuries. ADOC records showed that only in one case were the guards prosecuted and in another a sergeant was terminated. It was unclear whether any action was taken in the other cases, even where it was concluded by ADOC that the use of force was excessive or unnecessary.
The report detailed five cases of guards unlawfully using force as punishment or retribution.
Two examples of guards inappropriately using chemical spray were detailed. The DOJ noted the number of examples it detailed was not indicative of the depth of the problem or number of cases. It was merely trying to detail the egregious use of excessive force.
The investigators further found that the ADOC lacks accountability in reviewing uses of force. “While ADOC’s use of force regulation is relatively robust, it is not effectively implemented or consistently enforced by correctional supervisors,” the report stated. “It is often ignored by correctional officers.”
All too often, a use-of-force investigation is handled on the institution’s level, which limits any action taken to administrative sanctions or discipline rather than review by ADOC’s Intelligence and Intelligence & Division.
Guards often fail to report or accurately document the use of force. Some instances were only uncovered after reviewing video. “We also found evidence that following a use of force, officers sometimes placed prisoners in segregation for extended periods, so that any injuries can heal unobserved and undocumented,” the report stated. It also found the Intelligence & Division did not open a use of force investigation when a case was referred to it by a warden.
The DOJ found “ADOC rarely suspends or dismisses correctional officers for uses of excessive force where such action would be warranted.” Over a two-year period, “ADOC considered suspending or dismissing only one employee for excessive force.”
The DOJ further determined that use of force investigations are inadequate. It found Intelligence & Division closed a significant number of cases early, it sometimes takes few steps to interview potential witnesses as part of its investigation, and when it conducts an investigation, there is often minimal documentation. DOJ found Intelligence & Division’s review standard problematic. Its reviews for “potential criminal liability and requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt in order to refer a use of excessive force for criminal prosecution.” That standard “limits the number of uses of force that are reviewed by outside prosecutors.”
The DOJ said that since its April 2019 notice of unconstitutional conditions within the ADOC, overcrowding has actually increased. Staffing levels are below 50% and some prisons are well below that number. ADOC needs to hire about 2,000 guards to adequately staff its men’s prisons, the DOJ said.
The report outlined remedial measures required to meet the state’s constitutional obligations, and said a lawsuit may be filed if the deficiencies were not cured. See: Investigation of Alabama’s State Prison’s for Men, U.S. Department of Justice.