The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and all three U.S. attorneys in Alabama say men’s prisons in the state are unsafe for inmates to an extent that is likely unconstitutional.
In a statement last week, the DOJ noted Alabama prisons “fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse,” adding that inmates in multiple facilities are being housed in “unsafe conditions.”
“The Constitution guarantees all prisoners the right to be housed in safe conditions and not be subjected to violence and sexual abuse,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband wrote. “Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”
Conditions in Alabama’s prisons have been the subject of concern for a number of years, but much of that focus has been on the lack of adequate medical and mental health services, prison overcrowding and the state’s insufficient number of prison guards.
Some of those issues have been addressed through federal mandates in a pending lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but Wednesday’s announcement revealed the DOJ has been conducting a tandem investigation into the state’s prison system as well.
Pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, the investigation was initiated in October 2016. Its findings related to prisoner safety come on the heels of a string of inmate deaths and suicides in state correctional facilities.
The DOJ’s report noted “an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama’s prisons on a regular basis.” It goes on to detail dozens of instances of assaults, murders and rape in state prisons between 2016 and 2018.
“Alabama’s prisons have the highest homicide rate in the country,” the report concludes. “During fiscal year 2017, ADOC [the Alabama Department of Corrections] publicly reported nine homicides in its men’s prisons, which house about 16,000 prisoners (a rate of homicide of 56 per 100,000 prisoners). This is approximately eight times the 2014 national rate.”
Despite having the highest homicide rate in the country, the DOJ noted that state prisons are most likely underreporting the true number of homicides because they don’t have “a reliable system of tracking the deaths.” Investigators identified at least 30 deaths ADOC did not disclose to the DOJ — something ADOC was unable to explain.
In a statement announcing the DOJ’s findings, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Richard Moore said “the failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection” on the state and its citizens.
“The U.S. Constitution bans ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ but the conditions found in our investigation of Alabama prisons provide reasonable cause to believe there is a flagrant disregard of that injunction,” Moore added. “We are better than this. We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our state further embarrassment. The task is daunting, but one we must embrace now without reservation.”
However, Moore said he was confident state lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey understand the seriousness of the problem and are committed to finding solutions. He also said the DOJ would be working with the state of Alabama throughout that process.
Ivey’s office has since released a joint statement with ADOC and said her administration had already begun trying to address some of the issues in the state’s prison system highlighted in the DOJ’s CRIPA investigation.
The statement also downplays the idea the DOJ’s findings were some kind of revelation, adding that many of the areas addressed had been “the subject of ongoing litigation and the target of significant reforms by the state.” Ivey also said the state aims to continue those reform efforts.
“Over the coming months, my administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution,” Ivey wrote.
In her inaugural address in January, Ivey unveiled a plan that would see three new, state-of-the-art correctional facilities built across the state — facilities designed to “safely, effectively and humanely manage and meet the needs of a diverse inmate population.”
According to Ivey, Alabama prisons are operating at 160 percent of their intended capacity.
Proposals are currently being sought to get a better idea of what that plan might cost, but preliminary estimates from ADOC put the figure at around $900 million. The Legislature has yet to consider the prison plan or ADOC’s annual budget in the current session.
Alabama legislators have taken some steps to address the situation, though, including an $86 million appropriation to ADOC in 2018, which was used to hire more mental health and medical staff members in state prisons. This year, ADOC is seeking an additional $31 million.
Commissioner Jeff Dunn said ADOC has worked to improve correctional officer hiring and retention and develop more effective prison management plans, including efforts to curtail the entry of contraband.
According to Dunn, ADOC has continued to work with multiple law enforcement agencies on security operations in Alabama prisons. He noted one recent operation at the St. Clair Correctional Facility utilized “drug detection dogs” and “drone technology” to confiscate contraband at prison facilities and “improve safety among inmates and correctional staff.”
Dunn said ADOC voluntarily helped the DOJ with its investigation and has been independently working to improve conditions in men’s correctional facilities across the state as well.
“In response to DOJ’s findings, it is important to understand all the current efforts ADOC has taken and will continue to take to improve the conditions of confinement within the male prison system,” Dunn said. “Our primary objective is to ensure each facility provides a humane, secure and safe environment for inmates, and that reforms already in place and proposed bring about positive, tangible changes throughout the prison system.”
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