The dysfunction in Alabama’s prison system — one that operates at about 192 percent capacity and with only a fraction of the correctional officers required to keep prisoners safe — has been well documented over the last several years. So word last week that the Department of Justice had begun an investigation into the condition at the state’s men’s prisons came as no surprise to anyone involved in corrections and justice.
“There is a hostile environment in prisons, and we have been saying this for years,” said Kenneth Glasgow, a spokesperson for the Free Alabama Movement, a group of prisoners who want to shine a light on what they call inhumane conditions in most of Alabama’s prisons.
The D.O.J. investigation into the conditions in Alabama’s 14 prisons for men will focus on whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.
Glasgow, a former inmate in Alabama and Florida who now advocates for improved re-entry assistance for released prisoners, said he expects the investigation to uncover serious infractions in each of those areas. “The Alabama Department of Corrections is not going to be able to hide the deplorable conditions, lack of medical treatment and the brutality that has happened in those prisons,” he said.
Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative said his organization welcomes the investigation. “We are seeing an unprecedented number of murders, rapes, torture and abuse in state prisons, sometimes by officers or with officer involvement, and immediate reforms are urgently needed,” he said. “Officers are not safe, prisoners are not safe and the public is not being well served.”
This is not the first time allegations of abuse and inhumane conditions has brought about an investigation of an Alabama prison. The D.O.J. in 2014 concluded a two-year investigation into sexual abuse allegations at Tutwiler Prison for Women, which found that prisoners had been subjected to a pattern of sexual abuse by correctional officers.
That DOJ investigation lead to many changes in the administration at Tutwiler and called for the creation of a new position — deputy commissioner of Women’s Services — and mandated that the prison would put into place a quality assurance program to track and analyze data to ensure that sexual abuse and harassment is being adequately prevented, detected and responded to.
“Our obligation is to protect the civil rights of all citizens, including those who are incarcerated,” said U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District of Alabama in a statement last week regarding the current investigation. “This investigation provides us with an opportunity to work collaboratively with the state of Alabama to assess current conditions and ensure constitutionally sufficient conditions exist for all prisoners.”
Too many inmates to be safe
Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded and this is the prevailing cause of the escalating violence and failing sanitary conditions, experts said. The state’s incarceration rate is the fourth highest in the country as of 2014. There are 26,000 inmates housed in a system that is designed to hold 13,300 prisoners, according to a report of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The state prison system is at about 192 percent capacity rate. The national average for capacity is about 135 percent.
Alabama Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who has lead a statewide task force on prison reform since 2014 and is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the overcrowding in the state’s prisons have been ignored for decades, along with the system’s aging facilities, and it will take years to fix.
Ward has pushed forward a bill that focused on Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposal to build at least two new prisons for men and one new prison for women. Alabama has not built a new prison since the mid-1990s, Ward pointed out. Some of the current prisons are 50 years old.
Bentley’s bill for the bond issue to build the prisons failed in May. Now, Ward said, the state has to get to work on solving the problem of overcrowding while being under the watchful eye of the Department of Justice.
Ward thinks that barring a mass release of prisoners, it will definitely take new construction, more correctional officers and a minimum of five years to make a significant dent in overcrowding. “By 2020 the state could be at 155 percent capacity,” Ward said.
“There is a hesitancy to vote on new prisons,” he said. “People don’t like to talk about cutting money for roads and public safety to build prisons.”
Too many bodies in one place can lead to inadequate basic hygiene and substandard care, experts said. “The vulnerability of a prisoner makes it even more important that basic hygiene and safe accommodations are afforded the inmates,” said U.S. Attorney George L. Beck Jr. of the Middle District of Alabama.
Victims on both sides
E.J.I. in the last three years has filed complaints with the Alabama Department of Corrections that assert severe physical and sexual abuse and violence at the Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore; Donaldson Correctional Facility in west Jefferson County and Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent.
The group also sued A.D.O.C. for failing to act on allegations of mistreatment and poor conditions at St. Clair County Correctional.
“We are very pleased that the Justice Department is getting involved in Alabama’s prison crisis. In over 30 years of working in Alabama’s prisons, I have never seen the kind of pervasive violence, abuse and frustration that we are seeing today,” Stevenson said.
Holman Prison in Atmore has seen violence erupt several times this year, with both prisoners and corrections officers getting caught in the clashes.
Last month Kenneth Bettis, a corrections officer at Holman in Atmore, died two weeks after an inmate stabbed him. In August three inmates were stabbed during an altercation in a dorm; the prison was locked down following that incident. And in March, riots erupted at Holman. The warden and a corrections officer were stabbed.
The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama are conducting this investigation. Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the department via phone at (205) 244-2001 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As of publication time, a spokesman for ADOC had not responded to a request for comment.