MONTGOMERY, AL (WBRC) - In a release sent to Fox6 on Monday, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) says it will file a class action lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday on behalf of men incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville.
EJI is the same legal nonprofit that sounded alarms about the conditions at Tutwiler Prison for Women nearly three years ago.
EJI says it is filing this latest lawsuit because of "failure of the Alabama Department of Corrections to respond to dangerous conditions and an extraordinarily high rate of violence at St. Clair, including six homicides in the past thirty-six months."
EJI says the complaint will assert that violence at the severely overcrowded facility can be traced to poor management, noncompliance with protocols and procedures, and corruption.
The release says EJI's investigation into conditions at St. Clair revealed mismanagement, poor leadership, and frequent verbal and physical abuse by some officers, including several high ranking supervisors. EJI says it has documented serious and chronic lapses in security, including broken and non-functioning locks on the majority of cell doors.
In April 2014, EJI says their troubling findings were shared with Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas. In the release to Fox6, EJI says Commissioner Thomas was asked to investigate the escalating violence at St. Clair. In June 2014, after another murder, EJI says it renewed its "formal request" for the immediate removal of St. Clair Warden Carter Davenport and asked for the appointment of correctional staff who can address the violence at the prison.
Another homicide in September 2014 lead to EJI to initiate court action.
"We believe we've been very patient with prison authorities, but they have taken no action to address these urgent problems," said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson, who filed the lawsuit. "ADOC's failure to manage its prisons safely is not about a lack of money, but a lack of will to act responsibly. The situation at St. Clair is getting worse and immediate action is required."
Court records indicate ADOC officials have done very little to hold wardens and guards accountable for problems within prisons. Tutwiler Warden Frank Albright remained in office despite dozens of reports of rape, sexual abuse, and assault of incarcerated women by correctional staff that have been confirmed by investigations conducted by EJI, the National Institute of Corrections, and most recently, the U.S. Department of Justice.
"There has to be greater accountability for serious increases in violence within state prisons," said Stevenson. "Unless something is done to change the priorities of institutional leaders, the culture of violence and dysfunction at St. Clair and other facilities with excessive levels of violence, abuse, and misconduct will continue to cost lives and threaten public safety."
We asked Stevenson if Commissioner Kim Thomas should be replaced.
"Well I like Kim Thomas. He's been very open and responsive to us but he has not been able to create the kinds of changes and reforms that I think are necessary and if he can't do it then we need someone who can. I don't think we can continue talking about money and talking about the legislature when there are clearly things that could be done and should be done to improve conditions that we're not doing," he said.
ADOC spokesperson Kristi Gates said on Monday, "we have not had the opportunity to review the complaint yet, so it is premature to comment at this time."
Thomas released this statement to our sister station WSFA:
We have not yet received a response for comment from Governor Bentley's office.
The ADOC website says the St. Clair Correctional Facility opened on June 2, 1983 with a capacity for 1,324 maximum and below custody inmates. The facility is located on 600 acres with 62 acres fenced with the Department's first electronic perimeter security. St. Clair maintains about 365 life without parole inmates.
According to the site, The Alabama Correctional Industries operates a vehicle restoration and a chemical plant inside St. Clair. The facility provides on-site classroom settings for academic/vocational educational programs through Gadsden State Community College.