New motion says prison staff at St. Clair Correctional Facility work in fear

Published: Jun. 3, 2016 at 6:03 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 3, 2016 at 11:18 PM CDT
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SPRINGVILLE, AL (WBRC) - A motion filed in federal court details new allegations against St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of inmates against Alabama's Department of Corrections.

The motion, filed by attorneys at Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, seeks class action status for all current and future inmates. The suit, originally filed in 2014, argues severe overcrowding, understaffing and dangerous conditions violate the prisoners' constitutional rights.

The motion cites numerous violent incidents from 2015 as evidence that the facility is not only dangerous for inmates, but also employees. Severe understaffing is cited as a major reason behind the violence with the motion reporting "St. Clair's staff-to-inmate ratio is among the highest ratios in U.S. Prisons."

"Understaffing creates a dangerous environment, not only because these staffing levels make it impossible to complete critical security functions including regular, systematic facility-wide searches, but also because the staff that are at the prison work in fear," the motion claims.

Read the entire motion here:

The latest staffing data available on the ADOC website lists the total staffing level at St. Clair Correctional at 59.5% in February of this year.

The motion cites an example of the dangers faced by prison staff created by staff shortages from May 15, 2015, in which an inmate punched a female kitchen steward three times in the mouth while an officer was not present.

The woman "had to have five teeth pulled and is still in the process of undergoing extensive dental work," the motion claims, but "despite the serious nature of the incident, Warden Estes classified this as a non-serious assault on staff."

The steward began working at the prison in July 2008, the motion alleges, and for approximately the first year of her employment at St. Clair, there were two officers assigned to the kitchen at all times.

"Beginning in 2009, however, the number of officers assigned to the kitchen was reduced to one. With only one officer assigned to the kitchen, there were long stretches during (her) shift where she did not see an officer."

WBRC conducted an exclusive interview with an officer at St. Clair Correctional earlier this year, who said drugs and weapons are rampant at the prison. In April, a correctional officer was stabbed and severely injured while trying to break up a fight between inmates.

The motion also cites reports from four corrections experts; all studied documents and depositions related to the prison and at least two visited the facility and interviewed prisoners. Each report notes the level of violence at the prison, characterizing it as "astounding" and "extraordinarily high." The motion cites security lapses, including broken locks on cell doors and blind spots throughout the prison, and lists 12 incidents between 2012-2015 in which inmates were killed, sexually assaulted, burned, strangled or robbed in their own cells.

"The failure to remedy this situation demonstrates deliberate indifference on the prison's part," the motion alleges.

Steve J. Martin, a former Texas correctional officer and General Counsel in the Tulsa District Attorney's Office writes, "The frequency of assaults resulting in life-threatening injuries is quite simply among the highest I have observed in my 43-year career in corrections."

A high number of sexual assaults is also cited in the motion, as well as a lack of support for victims. Seven prisoners have been held at knifepoint and sexually assaulted in the last 18 months, however, due to misreporting, the actual number of sexual assaults may be much higher, according to the motion. It also cites a lack of mental health care for victims and the use of solitary confinement as punishment against victims of prison sexual assault.

ADOC's method for reporting sexual abuse is a hotline, where inmates leave a message. The motion argues this system lacks urgency and creates "inconsistent and lengthy response times."  It cites an incident in which a prisoner was raped and called the hotline to report the assault. "For the next two days (he) remained in the immediate vicinity of his knife wielding assailant before St. Clair's PREA representative responded to his report," the motion states.

Michelle R. Bonner, a U.S. Department of Justice Certified Auditor for compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) notes that ADOC representatives have participated in multiple PREA trainings, but "despite the training, the Defendents deliberately choose again and again not to evaluate the facility's level of sexual safety for corrective action and choose not to make even little to no-cost changes to its practices, resulting in repeated acts of sexual violence."

The allegations sound similar to constitutional violations and a "rape culture" spelled out in a federal lawsuit against Tutwiler Prison for Women in 2012. ADOC settled that case with the DOJ in 2015, agreeing to implement a list of reforms. It is unclear how the suit against St. Clair Correctional will play out.

ADOC responded to our inquiries about this story by saying will defer all questions about the case to the Alabama Attorney General's Office.

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