MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama has the nation’s deadliest prisons, where violence is “too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive” the Department of Justice found Wednesday in a scathing report that said male inmates are housed in unconstitutional conditions.
During a single week in Alabama’s prison system, one inmate bled to death after being stabbed repeatedly as two others stood guard at a dormitory’s doors. Another stabbed inmate had to be evacuated by helicopter. A prisoner in a dorm reserved for those with good behavior was attacked with a sock filled with metal locks.
The Justice Department said inmates endure an “extraordinarily high rate of violence at the hands of other prisoners,” with the number of inmate-on-inmate attacks spiking dramatically in the last five and a half years. The department gave Alabama 49 days to begin to correct the violations or possibly face a federal lawsuit.
“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who leads the department’s civil rights division, said in a statement.
The report lays out in unsparing detail a culture of violence across the state’s 13 prisons for men, which house roughly 16,000 inmates in dangerously understaffed prisons that are also among the nation’s most overcrowded. It chronicles inmate rapes, beatings and fatal stabbings at the hands of fellow prisoners and decries a management system that undercounts homicides and fails to protect prisoners even when warned of a problem.
In February 2018, one prisoner was killed the day after telling prison officials he’d been threatened in a dispute over a cellphone. In another prison that same month, an inmate who’d been repeatedly disciplined for knife possession fatally stabbed another prisoner in a fight.
Rapes happen day and night in all corners of the prisons — dormitories, cells, showers and recreation areas — and are “too often undetected or prevented” by prison staff, according to the report. Investigators reviewed more than 600 reported inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults from late 2016 through April 2018, the report said, and “did not identify a single incident in which a correctional officer or other staff member observed or intervened” to stop it.
The prison system documented 24 prisoner homicides between January 2015 and June 2018, but the Justice Department said that high number was an undercount: It identified three more, and said the state sometimes classifies violent deaths as arising from natural causes.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement that the federal investigation identified some of the same issues the state has been trying to address, including the need to hire additional officers to combat high rates of violence.
“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 said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center shared with The Associated Press photos from someone inside an Alabama prison that showed inmates stabbed and bloody or dead in their cells. In one photo, a knife sticks out of a man’s back. Other images show what appears to be the aftermath of fires set by inmates and knives confiscated by officers.
The Justice Department report said the assaults and a homicide during a single week in September 2017 are “a window into a broken system that too often disregards prisoners’ safety.”
In one incident that week in a unit nicknamed the “Hot Bay” for housing inmates with disciplinary infractions, an inmate bled to death after being stabbed while two prisoners stood guard at the dormitory door. The inmate screamed for help as prisoners banged on the door to try to get the attention of officers.
“One Hot Bay resident told us that he could still hear the prisoner’s screams in his sleep,” the report stated.
The findings are the latest blow to the state’s troubled prison system. The Justice Department in 2015 ordered changes at the state’s only prison for women. A federal judge in 2017 ruled that the state has provided “horrendously inadequate” care to mentally ill inmates and ordered changes. The same judge this week is weighing whether to order the state to take immediate action after 15 inmate suicides in 15 months.
“The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns,” Dreiband wrote. The letter included dozens of recommendations, among them the immediate hiring of 500 new corrections officer and eventual addition of up to 1,500 more.
This year, the prison system requested legislative funding to hire 500 additional corrections officers.
Ivey said she appreciates the “open lines of communication,” and said the state has already been trying to address problems, citing her proposal to build three new large regional prisons for men and the state’s work to hire additional officers.
That statement of cooperation is undercut by notations in the letter that showed the state and federal government disagreed on turning over some documents. The department says it still can’t determine whether Alabama’s prisons are protecting prisoners from excessive force and sexual abuse from staff, because its petition to enforce its subpoena for relevant documents remains pending in court.
This investigation opened in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration, which launched wide-ranging probes of troubled police departments and corrections systems. Some led to agreements to make changes under federal oversight. The Trump administration has been more hands-off, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime Alabama senator, limited the use of such consent decrees before he left office.
“I don’t think there is any dispute that the conditions in Alabama prisons are desperate. They are the worst I’ve seen in 35 years. There is an immediate need for reform,” attorney Bryan Stevenson said. His Equal Justice Initiative asked the Justice Department to investigate the men’s prisons after the department intervened in Alabama’s only prison for women.
Stevenson said state officials have been talking about prison issues for some time, but he said doesn’t think they’ve shown enough urgency in addressing the violence and corruption.
“People are being murdered on a regular basis,” Stevenson said.
Alabama also has been trying to address crowding through sentencing reform, but the threat of a federal lawsuit will force the state to address other issues such as sexual assaults said Republican state Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs a legislative prison oversight committee.
“We don’t have much of a choice. Something has got to happen,” Ward said.