A damning new report by the Department of Justice found that Alabama men’s prisons—and the depraved conditions inmates have been forced to endure—likely violate the Eighth Amendment, which protects prisoners from “cruel and unusual punishments.”
As part of a two-and-half-year investigation, the DOJ determined that Alabama prisons have the highest homicide rate in the nation and that the violence behind bars has increased dramatically in the past five years.
“The United States 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,” U.S. Attorney Richard Moore said.
Within one week inside Alabama state men’s prisons, the DOJ recorded numerous violent attacks, sexual assaults, and contraband, such as methamphetamine and weapons.
During one horrific incident described in the report, two prisoners stood guard—watching for “rarely-seen” correctional officers—while two other prisoners stabbed a fellow inmate.
“The victim screamed for help. Another prisoner tried to intervene and he, too, was stabbed,” the report reads. “When an officer finally responded, he found the prisoner lying on the floor bleeding from his chest. The prisoner eventually bled to death. One... resident told us that he could still hear the prisoner’s screams in his sleep.”
The investigation found that a combination of crowding and understaffing has facilitated violence and illegal activity between inmates. Prison officials told investigators they are often unable to protect inmates even when given warning.
“The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision; overcrowding; ineffective housing and classification protocols,” the report reads.
In addition to the excessive amount of violence, sexual assault, and prisoner deaths, investigators found widespread reports of hostage situations and extortion between inmates, calling it a “significant problem.” The DOJ established a toll-free number for prisoners to report extortion by their fellow inmates, but inspectors found that the prisons were unable to prevent or protect prisoners from the tactic.
When one prisoner reported that he was being forced into sexual acts by other prisoners while being extorted for drug money, a resource officer told him that because he was in debt to a fellow prisoner, nothing could be done.
Another inmate reported being held hostage for several days in a dormitory over a debt. Upon finally escaping, the prisoner was so badly beaten he was immediately sent to the emergency room and required two facial surgeries.
The mother of one prisoner reported to the DOJ that she and her son were being extorted for money to pay off an alleged $600 debt to another prisoner. Through texts, the extorter threatened to “chop her son into pieces and rape him if she did not send him $800.”
Investigators also found unsanitary living conditions at several of the facilities. Plumbing in dormitories were often found to be clogged, with standing sewage water on the floors.
Inmates reported rats and maggots in kitchen facilities—and when one DOJ official entered a kitchen to inspect it, he became sick from inhaling toxic cleaning chemicals fumes.
“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division.
When DOJ experts’ shared preliminary conclusions with prison management, officials “rarely, if ever, asked substantive questions,” and the violence in Alabama’s prisons has only increased since then, the report says.
In ongoing litigation, the Alabama prison system—which houses over 16,000 prisoners, but is designed to hold only 9,882—has admitted to being dangerously understaffed. In February 2019, the system indicated that it needs to hire over 2,200 correctional officers and 130 supervisors over the next four years.
According to the report, if, after 49 days, the prison system has not corrected “deficiencies identified” in the report, the attorney general may file a lawsuit.
In response to the report, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said they are making efforts to improve hiring and retention of correctional staff. The department has requested $31 million dollars in their 2020 budget, which Dunn says will allow them to hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay scale for all security personnel.
“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. “(The governor’s) commitment to working closely with the Legislature to resolve this generational problem will ultimately lead to a 21st Century prison system.”
Read the full report below: