Attorney General Steve Marshall is slamming a report released today by the U.S. Department of Justice documenting “frequent uses of excessive force” in 12 of its 13 state prisons for men which “give rise to systemic unconstitutional conditions.”
“Uses of force are so commonplace in Alabama’s prisons that officers, even supervisors, watch other officers brutally beating prisoners and do not intervene,” the DOJ report concludes. “Throughout our investigation, we identified numerous examples of officers standing by and watching serious uses of excessive force occur and never speaking up or physically intervening. Uses of force happen so regularly in Alabama’s prisons that some officers appear accustomed to that level of violence and consider it normal. In short, in Alabama’s prisons, cruel treatment of prisoners by staff is common and de-escalation techniques are regularly ignored.”
The report (see below) is the third resulting from an investigation the DOJ began in 2016, pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Last year, the agency released reports finding male inmates are vulnerable to preventable violence and sex abuse in state prisons, while the state also fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions to inmates in the facilities.
The investigation involved several visits to state prisons, hundreds of interviews with inmates, staff and family members, plus the review of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and data from 2015-2019. In the latest report, the DOJ lists several specific incidents of excessive force — noting two may have resulted in inmate deaths — and reaches four main conclusions: Excessive force “is far too common in Alabama’s prisons;” the Alabama Department of Corrections “lacks accountability in reviewing uses of force;” use of force investigations are frequently inadequate and; conditions in state prisons contribute to the use of excessive force.
In this report and the last, the DOJ cited “severe levels of overcrowding and understaffing” for contributing to the conditions, noting both can contribute to conflicts between corrections personnel and inmates.
“By failing to adequately staff its prisons, Alabama is contributing to dangerous conditions that give rise to uses of excessive force,” the report found. “These conditions, combined with the lack of a grievance system for prisoners or a central way to track repeated allegations of uses of force against particular correctional officers, increases the likelihood that there are officers who repeatedly use excessive force with little or no repercussions.”
While the DOJ also lists a number of remedial recommendations for the state, it is under no obligation to adopt them. But it also warns that within 49 days, the U.S. Attorney General “may initiate a lawsuit pursuant to CRIPA to correct deficiencies identified in this letter if state officials have not satisfactorily addressed our concerns.”
Later this afternoon, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote the state was “ambushed” by the report, even though the state “has been diligently working towards a settlement agreement with the DOJ based on its previous findings.”
The state has acknowledged deficiencies in the prison system and late last year, Gov. Kay Ivey authorized a request for proposals to find a private partner to construct three new prisons and lease them back to the state. In May, Gov. Kay Ivey announced two developers responded. After further evaluation, one is expected to be chosen soon and financial negotiations should be complete by the fall.
“It is no secret that our current facilities, which were constructed decades ago, are structurally failing, no longer can safely house inmates, and simply cannot provide the critical, 21st-century programming and rehabilitative services this population desperately needs to successfully reenter society,” Ivey said at the time.
Today, Marshall said while the state takes the DOJ report seriously, it will not “under any circumstances enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit.”
“The state of Alabama has worked, and will continue to work, both to improve our prison facilities to meet the standards of the U.S. Constitution and to negotiate with the federal government in good faith,” Marshall wrote. “But Alabama will not be bullied into a perpetual consent decree to govern our prison system, nor will we be pressured to reach such an agreement with federal bureaucrats, conspicuously, fifty-three days before a presidential election. In short, a consent decree is unacceptable and nonnegotiable. The state of Alabama shall retain her sovereignty.”
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