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U.S. Sues Alabama Over Prison Conditions

The lawsuit is “illogical,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) shot back, making demands that “go beyond what federal law requires.” In July 2020, he refused to enter negotiations with DOJ, setting the stage for the lawsuit to be filed. If the state loses, its prisons could be placed in full or partial receivership.

Meanwhile Gov. Kay Ivey (R) pressed forward with $3 billion plan for two new “mega” prisons on February 1, 2021, signing 30-year leases for the facilities near Tallassee and Atmore, which will be constructed for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) by CoreCivic, the nation’s second-largest private prison firm with 2019 revenues of nearly $2 billion.

Just one day earlier, on January 30, 2021, prisoners Ephan Moore and Robert Earl Council, also known as Kinetik Justice, had to be airlifted to a hospital trauma center from Donaldson Correctional Institution after a violent confrontation that left two guards with stab wounds as well. Three guards were placed on leave while the Federal Bureau of Investigation looks into the incident, the latest in a string of bloody battles dating back at least to 2016, when DOJ initiated its investigation into Alabama’s prison conditions.

It issued a letter on April 2, 2019, with its finding that “overcrowding and understaffing” at DOC “results in prisons that are inadequately supervised with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.’’ (See PLN, September 2019, p.44)

In a follow-up letter on July 23, 2020, DOJ notified Alabama of Constitutional violations from frequent use of “excessive force on prisoners housed in all [of] Alabama’s prisons for men, except for the Hamilton Aged and Infirm Correctional Facility.” (See PLN, Nov. 2020, p.30)

DOJ’s new lawsuit says Alabama’s prisons are now more overcrowded than in 2016, and that in the 20 months since its initial notification of unconstitutional conditions, “Alabama prisoners have continued daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners.”

DOC operates 13 major prisons designed to house about 9,882 men. In September 2020, it reported a total population in those prisons of 15,297 prisoners. DOJ attributes to that overcrowding to “a high rate of prisoner-on-prisoner violence that is serious and systematic.”

The lawsuit notes that 10 Alabama prisoners were killed in 2018, “the highest homicide rate in the nation for a state prison system.’’ Another 14 prisoners were killed in 2019, and nine more in the first six months of 2020. In addition, from September 2018 to September 2019, at least 280 prisoners suffered assaults resulting in injuries serious enough to require hospital treatment.

DOC quit issuing monthly reports of serious injuries from prisoner-on-prisoner violence in October 2019. Yet, DOJ found publicly available information revealing at least 825 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in Alabama prisons from September 2019 to June 2020. A “factor contributing to the violence,” it further alleges, “is the dangerously low level of security staffing.’’

In 2018, DOC reported it employed 1,072 guards out of 3,326 authorized positions. A federal court on June 8, 2020, found DOC had increased total guards to 1,413 but decreased supervisors to 313. See: Braggs v. Dunn, USDC, M.D. Alabama, Case No. 2:14-cv-00601.

According to DOJ’s lawsuit, DOC guards allegedly fail to protect prisoners from violence even when they have advance warning, and they “sometimes watch a violent or troubling incident unfold and do not intervene.” In other cases, their lax supervision means they discover prisoner victims only after violence and injuries occur.

To “obscure the level of harm from violence’’ within its prisons, DOC has allegedly misclassified deaths from prisoner-on-prisoner violence as a result of “natural causes.” DOJ further alleges that the possession and use of weapons by DOC inmates is widespread due to a failure to effectively control contraband, which “contributes to the high rate of violence, sexual abuse, and violence.’’

Victimized prisoners also are “discouraged” from reporting incidents of violence or threats of violence due to DOC’s failure to have an established grievance system.

These acts and omissions fail to prevent prisoners from extorting other prisoners and their family members. In some cases, “prisoners have been ‘kidnapped’ by other prisoners and forcibly held, against their will, for multiple days while prisoner-captors extort the hostage-prisoner’s family and friends,’’ the lawsuit alleged. The lack of an effective prisoner classification system and the failure to prevent uncontrolled prisoner movement were faulted as contributing to the violence that prevails within Alabama prisons.

The lawsuit also alleges that DOC has failed to quell prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse. From late 2016 to April 2018, over 600 cases of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assault were documented by DOC. Understaffing, outdated physical plant design, failure to prevent contraband introduction and an insufficient prisoner classification system contribute to these types of assaults, according to DOJ, which also alleges that DOC fails to conduct adequate investigations of these incidents.

It further alleges that guards frequently use excessive force on prisoners, citing a federal jury’s indictment of four guards at Bibb Correctional Institution who used excessive force on a prisoner and filed false reports to conceal their misconduct. The deaths of two prisoners from use of force by guards — one at Donaldson Correctional Institution in October 2019 and another at Ventress Correctional Institution in December 2019 — were also cited.

Finally, DOJ alleges that DOC fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions within its prisons for men, noting many broken or defective door locks, non-existent or malfunctioning security cameras, and many blind spots that exist in the physical plants. Many prisons “have perimeters that are not adequately protected or supervised,” allowing “accomplices’’ to throw contraband over the fences.

Overcrowding in open dormitories results in the sharing of showers and toilets that exceed capacity. Many fixtures are not properly working and flooding from poor plumbing is routine, the complaint alleges, resulting in heightened tensions and more prisoner-on-prisoner violence

DOJ alleges the State of Alabama is “aware of the dangerous conditions’’ but it has not seriously addressed the problems. Its lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy the unconstitutional conditions within DOC. See: United States v. Alabama, Case No. 2:20-cv-01971, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.) 


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Related legal case

United States v. Alabama