DOJ: Alabama prisons unimproved, remain violent and deadly

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice says conditions in Alabama prisons have not improved since the federal government warned the state of unconstitutional conditions three years ago and that male inmates continue to live in deadly and dangerous conditions.

The Justice Department last Friday filed an updated complaint in their ongoing lawsuit against Alabama over prison conditions. Justice Department officials wrote that violence remains unabated in facilities that are both overcrowded and “dangerously” understaffed.

“In the two and a half years following the United States’ original notification to the State of Alabama of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama’s Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners,” the Justice Department wrote in the complaint signed by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The lawsuit accuses the state of operating prisons where conditions are so poor they violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and accuses state officials of being deliberately indifferent to the situation. While Alabama has acknowledged problems in state prisons, the state is disputing the Justice Department’s allegations of unconstitutional conditions and is fighting the lawsuit in court.

The Justice Department’s latest filing came after a federal judge directed the department to be more specific about its accusations. The filing said dozens of inmates had been killed by other inmates in recent years and listed some of the specific incidents.

In one case, a 53-year-old prisoner at Donaldson died after being strangled and a note was found on the prisoner indicating he feared for his life because another prisoner had ordered a “hit” on him, officials wrote.

The filing says at least 33 inmates were killed behind bars in 2018, 2019 and 2020. While the department reported no 2021 homicides in monthly reports, at least 10 prisoner-on-prisoner homicides “have been reported by the media and advocates in calendar year 2021,” officials wrote. The prison system does not include in its numbers deaths that are still under investigation.

The Justice Department listed seven inmate homicides in 2021 where prisoners were stabbed, smothered or choked to death.

The Associated Press in September sent a records request asking for the number of inmate deaths under investigation as a potential homicide. The department responded Nov. 2 that it did “not label any death investigation as a ‘potential homicide’ so we cannot provide that information.”

The Justice Department wrote there is a pattern of excessive force by prison guards that is fueled by a dangerous mix of overcrowded prisons and too few officers.

“Overworked security staff in the overcrowded prisons lack sufficient backup and support to manage prison security, which results officers’ increased fear of prisoner threats and excessive force,” the department wrote.

The department said, “most of Alabama’s prisons had correctional staff vacancy rates of over 50%” in the first quarter of 2021. The Justice Department also described a litany of safety and sanitation problems with buildings, including that “not one of the 13 Alabama’s prisons for men has a functional fire alarm system.”

A state lawmaker, who has called for the firing of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, said Wednesday that the prison system is in crisis.

“I’ve said it a million times. There is no leadership over there,” said Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey this fall signed into law a plan to use $400 million in pandemic relief funds to help build two 4,000-bed prisons and a new prison for women and renovate other facilities.

Ivey and GOP legislative leaders touted the construction plan as a partial solution to the state’s longstanding problems in corrections. Critics argued buildings alone will not remedy the prison problems and said the state has needs in health care and education that could be helped by the $400 million.

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