BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - An examination of violence inside Alabama prisons paints a gruesome picture that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but now a federal document detailing the nightmare puts state leaders on notice. Fix the conditions, or face a lawsuit and possible federal takeover.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into Alabama prisons paints a disturbingly grim picture of life inside facilities that are so violent and overrun by overcrowding that Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) stands in violation of the Eighth Amendment, subjecting prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment.
The 56-page findings letter concludes a sweeping, 30-month investigation into Alabama’s 13 maximum security prisons for men. The DOJ announced the investigation of “unparalled scope” in October 2016 with the hope of working cooperatively with the ADOC, but as we reported in January 2019, court records reflected a contentious battle between the two sides.
The focus: whether ADOC adequately protects prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse and provides prisoners with sanitary, secure living conditions. The investigation into excessive force and sexual abuse by ADOC staff is ongoing with a subpoena for documents still pending in court.
“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 said.
During the investigation, experts visited four facilities, interviewed 270 prisoners and 55 ADOC staff members, conducted 500 interviews with prisoners and family members through a toll-free number set up by the Department, and reviewed more than 400 letters from prisoners. In terms of scope and size, this was the largest civil rights investigation of its kind for Alabama’s Northern District, according to U.S. Attorney Jay Town.
“I found what we discovered to be very troubling, serious and disturbing,” said Town. “I think everyone agrees this is unacceptable. The good news is we’ve identified the Constitutional issues within the Alabama Department of Corrections, and we can move forward with an Alabama solution.”
What an Alabama solution looks like is expected to be a major issue for lawmakers, Governor Kay Ivey and ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn. In February, Governor Ivey announced her plan to build three new mega-prisons for $900 million. Ivey issued a news release shortly after the DOJ findings were released, stating that her administration will work closely with the DOJ to ensure that their mutual concerns are addressed.
“Alabama Department of Corrections plan to build new prisons will allow for enhanced security through updated structures and the implementation of current technology resources. Such facilities will also allow for the integration of medical and mental health services and provide safer environments for inmates and staff,” the Governor’s release stated.
ADOC plans to hire additional correctional and health services staff, and a $31 million request for ADOC’s proposed 2020 budget would help the department hire 500 new correctional officers.
The DOJ report concludes with five pages of immediate and long term measures ADOC must take to address overcrowding, violence, contraband, sexual abuse and facility conditions.
“We are obligated to advise you that 49 days after issuance of this letter, the Attorney General may initiate a lawsuit pursuant to CRIPA to correct deficiencies identified in this letter if State officials have not satisfactorily addressed our concerns,” the letter concluded.
U.S. Attorney Jay Town did not want to comment on any specific plans, including the Governor’s proposed prison construction idea, but said there is a high expectation that whatever measures are taken will resolve the Constitutional issues identified in the report.
“I think it’s premature to attribute any one idea as being a solution," said Town. "I welcome all ideas as potential solutions and hopefully in some omnibus capacity, we’ll be able to resolve these issues.”
The report describes Alabama prisons as having the highest homicide rate in the country, roughly eight times the 2014 national rate. 24 homicides were reported by ADOC between January 2015 and June 2018, according to the report. DOJ identified three homicides that were improperly categorized as natural deaths. In addition, DOJ found ADOC doesn’t have a reliable system to track the deaths of prisoners. During its investigation, DOJ found at least 30 deaths that weren’t disclosed.
The DOJ documented its findings of horrific violence, weapons and drugs during one week in September, 2017:
"The “Hot Bay” at Bibb was a housing unit populated exclusively with prisoners with disciplinary infractions. On a Friday in September 2017, two prisoners stood guard at the doors of the Hot Bay, an open dormitory housing men in bunkbeds multiple rows deep, watching for rarely-seen correctional officers. At the back of the dormitory and not visible from the front door, two other prisoners started stabbing their intended victim. The victim screamed for help. 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 prisoner eventually bled to death. One Hot Bay resident told us that he could still hear the prisoner’s screams in his sleep.
That same day, at Staton, a prisoner was stabbed multiple times by another prisoner and had to be medically evacuated by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The following day, at Elmore, a prisoner was beaten and injured by four other prisoners. At Ventress, officers performed a random pat down on a prisoner, finding 17 cigarettes laced with drugs, a plastic bag of methamphetamine, and a bag filled with another hallucinogen drug referred to as “cookie dough."
On Sunday, a prisoner asleep in the honor dormitory—a dormitory reserved for prisoners with good behavior—at St. Clair was woken from sleep when two prisoners started beating him with a sock filled with metal locks. The victim was injured so severely that he was transported to an outside hospital for emergency treatment. That same day at Ventress, a prisoner was punched so forcefully in the eye by another prisoner that he was sent to an outside hospital. Another prisoner was stabbed by two other prisoners with homemade knives. A different Ventress prisoner was punched so hard in the face by prisoners with shirts covering their faces that he was transported to an outside hospital for treatment. At Staton, a prisoner threatened a correctional officer with a knife measuring seven inches in length. And another prisoner reported that he had been sexually assaulted by a fellow prisoner after he had only agreed, in exchange for three store items, to lower his pants for that prisoner to view his buttocks while masturbating.
On Tuesday, at Fountain, a prisoner set fire to another prisoner’s bed blanket while he was sleeping, leading to a fight between the two men. Officers searching a dormitory at Ventress found 12 plastic bags of an unknown substance, 79 cigarettes laced with drugs, two bags containing “cookie dough,” and a bag of methamphetamine.
On Wednesday morning, a prisoner at Easterling was sexually assaulted inside of a segregation cell by an inmate. Four days prior, this same prisoner had been forced at knifepoint to perform oral sex on two other prisoners.
On Thursday, at Ventress, a prisoner was so severely assaulted by four other prisoners that he had to be transported to an outside hospital for treatment. A different Ventress prisoner reported being sexually assaulted.
At Bullock, a prisoner was found unresponsive on the floor by his bed and later died; his death was caused by an overdose of a synthetic cannabinoid. On Friday at Ventress, an officer observed a prisoner bleeding from the shoulder due to a stab wound; the prisoner was transported to an outside hospital for treatment."
Experts found drug trafficking and the smuggling of contraband are contributing factors to the ongoing violence. An ADOC investigator told DOJ, “without a doubt” the number one way contraband is getting into prisons is “by staff smuggling it in.”
In October, 2018, ADOC’s Director of Investigations and Intelligence told WBRC he believed corruption within ADOC staff was “very limited” and officers involved in smuggling contraband represented a small amount of overall ADOC staff.
The report also pointed out that ADOC is one of the most overcrowded systems in the nation with a system-wide occupancy at 165%.
Experts believe the extreme lack of space and supervision gives way to violence, drugs, and extortion. The dwindling staffing ratios create opportunities for prisoners to injure others, who go untreated.
“Prisoners who are seriously injured or stabbed must find their way to security staff elsewhere in the facility or bang on the door of the dormitory to gain the attention of correctional officers," the report says. “Prisoners have been tied up for days by other prisoners while unnoticed by security staff.”
The lack of staff also creates a security threat for officers.
“Since 2017, correctional officers have been stabbed, punched, kicked, threatened with broken broomsticks or knives and had their heads stomped on,” the report said. It also pointed out dozens of ADOC officers have been arrested over the last 24 months due to misconduct.
The report includes multiple findings about specific facilities, including this account about Bibb Correctional Facility:
During our tour of Bibb, also referred to by prisoners as “Bloody Bibb,” we learned that to gain the attention of correctional staff, who are rarely present in the Hot Bay, prisoners must bang on the door or chain on the door until someone responds. Prisoners reported that rapes, torture, and physical assaults occur in the back of the dormitory, where there are blind spots preventing the line of sight for correctional staff to view activities through the windows. Many prisoners stated that officers do not ever enter the Hot Bay, with one noting, “unless someone is killed and they have to come clean up the aftermath.”
The Hot Bay at Bibb has since been closed.
DOJ found that ADOC was unable to protect prisoners who gave advance warning that their safety was in jeopardy. The report lists multiple examples where prisoners who sought help were murdered.
In February 2018, a prisoner was killed at Bullock—one day after expressing concern for his safety to prison officials. On the day prior to his death, the prisoner entered the Shift Commander’s office and informed officials that he had been threatened over a cellphone that another prisoner had stolen while he was guarding it. The prisoner said that he had been “slapped a few times” for nonpayment related to the missing cellphone, and was afraid. The autopsy classified his death as a homicide by blunt force head trauma that caused intracranial bleeding, as well as hemorrhages in the brain stem.
DOJ also found that ADOC punishes some prisoners who report threats or are victims.
“In some cases, it appears that ADOC disciplines prisoners simply for refusing to name the individuals who they fear may harm them, which requires the prisoner to choose between discipline and the danger he may face from retaliation if he identifies his assailant," the report stated.
The report goes into detail about how prisoners and their families are being extorted by other prisoners, who target the family members of prisoners that owe drug or money debts, demanding that they send money or they will inflict physical or sexual violence on their loved one.
ADOC’s own incident reports also document sexual abuse “occurring in the dormitories, cells, recreation areas, the infirmary, bathrooms and showers at all hours of the day and night," the report said. The DOJ investigation found ADOC’s investigations into sex abuse are inadequate.
The investigation also found the deplorable conditions of some facilities create a hazard, including broken locks, insufficient cameras, deteriorating electrical and plumbing systems and structural design weaknesses. The report suggests some easy fixes that ADOC has not implemented, like adding more mirrors or removing visibility barriers that conceal prisoner activity. A February 2017 inspection noted that not a single facility has a working fire alarm.
All of these factors, taken together, amount to “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive,” the report stated.
ADOC is the midst of litigation over its failure to provide adequate mental health care to people in its custody. This week, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson is holding a trial on how to address ongoing suicides in ADOC. 15 people have committed suicide in Alabama prisons in the last 15 months.
Maria Morris, senior supervising attorney for Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) represents the prisoners with mental illness. She pointed out that 95% of people in ADOC will return to society at some point, so solving Alabama’s prison crisis is in everyone’s interest.
“People make mistakes, people do bad things, but we still are human,” said Morris. “If we have systematically dehumanized them for the years they spent in the department of corrections, what are we doing for the safety of our communities?”