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PLN managing editor comments on DOJ report on violence in Alabama prisons

Sputnik News, April 3, 2019.

DOJ Probe: Violence, Sexual Abuse Occur in Alabama Prisons on ‘Regular Basis'


The Justice Department released a detailed report on Wednesday, revealing that men in Alabama prisons are exposed to horrific violence and sexual abuse "on a regular basis," which gives reasonable cause to believe that prisoners' Constitutional rights are being violated.

Officials are arguing that the conditions in the state's prisons likely violate the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Federal investigators first began looking into the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) in October 2016, focusing their attention on whether or not prisoners there are protected from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners, if prisoners are protected from use of excessive force and sexual abuse by correctional officers and if the ADOC provides prisoners with "sanitary, secure, and safe living conditions."

Throughout the more than two-year-long investigation, officials conducted visits to Alabama prisons in Donaldson, Bibb, Draper and Holman, among others. Approximately 55 ADOC staff members, including wardens, deputy wardens, captains, medical staff, mental health staff and maintenance managers, were interviewed, as were 270 prisoners.

The report notes that since the ADOC did not allow prisoners access to a toll-free number with direct access to DOJ personnel, investigators carried out more than 500 interviews with prisoners and family members via phone and received more than 400 letters from prisoners. "Hundreds of emails" were also obtained from prisoners and family members.

Interviews paint a culture of violence within the state's 13 prisons for men, which altogether house roughly 16,000 inmates in conditions described as severely overcrowded. The report describes how inmates attack one another with knives and other makeshift weapons. It also found that the management system undercounts the number of homicides that occur in the prisons, labelling some deaths as due to natural causes that investigators assessed as likely homicides.

"The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision; overcrowding; ineffective housing and classification protocols; inadequate incident reporting; inability to control the flow of contraband into and within the prisons, including illegal drugs and weapons; ineffective prison management and training; insufficient maintenance and cleaning of facilities; the use of segregation and solitary confinement to both punish and protect victims of violence and/or sexual abuse; and a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive," the report states.

"Our investigation revealed that an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama's prisons on a regular basis. Indeed, a review of a single week in Alabama's prisons — a week in September 2017 — provides a window into a broken system that too often disregards prisoners' safety."

During just that one week, three days before DOJ personnel arrived at the state's Bibb County Correctional Facility for a tour, two prisoners were reported as standing guard in a housing unit known as the "Hot Bay" while two other inmates stabbed another prisoner.

"The victim screamed for help," reads the report. "Another prisoner tried to intervene and he, too, was stabbed. The initial victim dragged himself to the front doors of the dormitory. Prisoners banged on the locked doors to get the attention of security staff. When an officer finally responded, he found the prisoner lying on the floor bleeding from his chest."

The first man that was stabbed later died.

At Staton Correctional Facility, another prisoner who was stabbed multiple times by another inmate was so badly injured that he had to be evacuated to a nearby hospital. During a random pat down at the Ventress Correctional Facility, officers found 17 cigarettes laced with drugs, a plastic bag of methamphetamine and a bag filled with another hallucinogenic drug referred to as "cookie dough."

At Easterling Correctional Facility, a prisoner was sexually assaulted inside a segregation cell, according to the report, which notes that the same inmate who was attacked was "forced at knifepoint to perform oral sex on two other prisoners" four days before.

"These incidents in Alabama's prisons are just some of those reported in ADOC's own records during one week," the report states. "And based on what we learned from our investigation and statements made by ADOC's head of operations, it is likely that many other serious incidents also occurred this week but were not reported by prisoners or staff."

In reviewing more than 600 reported inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults, investigators "did not identify a single incident in which a correctional officer or other staff member observed or intervened to stop a sexual assault." Officials determined that sexual abuse occurs at "all hours of the day and night" in dormitories, cells, recreation areas, the infirmary, bathrooms and showers.

"The Constitution guarantees all prisoners the right to be housed in safe conditions and not be subjected to violence and sexual abuse," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

"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."

Alex Friedman, managing editor for Prison Legal News, told Sputnik on Wednesday that the DOJ's findings aren't a surprise, considering the high rates of prisoner homicides, assaults and suicides occurring in the state's prisons.

The Alabama Dept. of Corrections has a murder rate six times the national average, with a suicide rate twice the national average," Friedman said. "The state's prison system previously settled a lawsuit over high rates of violence in connection with overcrowding, understaffing and inadequate mental health care, yet disturbing levels of violence have continued."

"This could only happen due to the indifference of prison officials who lack the will to take action to reduce the number of violent incidents and provide adequate mental health care to prevent suicides. It also could only happen due to the failure of state lawmakers to reduce Alabama's overcrowded prisons through sentencing reform, parole reforms and alternatives to incarceration," he added. He noted that Alabama's Department of Corrections has already been dragging its feet to fulfil a subpoena by the Justice Department for records on violence and poor living conditions in its prisons.

The AP reported that Ivey has responded to the DOJ's report by promising to work with the department to come to an "Alabama solution."

In its letter to Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL), the DOJ stated that it will be giving the state 49 days to correct its violations. If it fails to remedy the situation, the Heart of Dixie will wind up with a federal lawsuit at its doorstep.

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