On Dec. 9, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections and State of Alabama over “unsafe conditions” in state prisons.
The lawsuit cites violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. It alleges that a number of state prisons for men failed to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, failed to protect prisoners from the use of excessive force from prison staff and failed to provide safe conditions on confinement in violation of the Constitution.
The prisons named in the lawsuit are Bibb Correctional Facility, Bullock Correction Facility, Donaldson Correctional Facility, Draper Correctional Facility, Easterling Correctional Facility, Elmore Correctional Facility, Fountain Correctional Facility, Hamilton Aged and Infirmed, Holman Correctional Facility, Kilby Correctional Facility, Limestone Correctional Facility, St. Clair Correctional Facility, Staton Correctional Facility and Ventress Correctional Facility.
The lawsuit alleges that in April of 2019 the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section and three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Alabama notified the state that prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons for men were at serious risk of death, physical violence and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners in violation of the Constitution.
The lawsuit also alleges that the DOJ and state engaged in negotiations with the state but Alabama has “failed or refused to correct the unconstitutional conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men.”
The DOJ alleges that Alabama’s prison system was already overcrowded in 2016 and is more so in 2020 and that prisoner-on-prisoner homicides, violence and sexual abuse have increased and the facilities themselves “remain inadequate” and that “use of excessive force by security staff is common.” It also states that staffing rates at these prisons “remain critically and dangerously low.”
The lawsuit alleges that the “State of Alabama is deliberately indifferent to the serious and systemic constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prisons for men.” It also states that the DOJ has determined that the state cannot or will not comply by voluntary means, so “judicial action is, therefore, necessary to remedy the violations of law identified in the United States’ Notices and to vindicate the rights of the individuals incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons for men.”
The DOJ’s lawsuit states that Alabama’s prison system had the highest homicide rate in the nation among prison systems. It states that in 2019, “at least” 14 prisoners in Alabama’s prisons for men were killed by other inmates and nine prisoners have been killed in 2020, according to the ADOC’s publicly available data.
It also alleges that ADOC in October 2019 stopped publicly reporting numbers each month for inmates seriously injured but that there had been 825 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults from September 2019 until June 2020. Some of these assaults included a prisoner “stabbed repeatedly in the face with a broken pen” and one prisoner who suffered “serious burn wounds when another prisoner microwaved a mixture of baby oil, shaving powder and coffee granules and poured it on his face and body while he was sleeping.”
The DOJ is alleging that contributing factors to these assaults include the “dangerously low level” of security staffing at prisons, failure to prevent the smuggling in of contraband, the overcrowding of Alabama’s prisons for men and that prison staff “fail to provide adequate supervision of prisoners.” The lawsuit states that Alabama’s prisons for men were designed to house approximately 9,882 men but as of September 2020 these prisons hold approximately 12,297 prisoners.
The lawsuit claims that ADOC doesn’t accurately classify causes of deaths that occur within the prison system and even classifies some prisoner deaths as occurring by “natural causes” when the death was prisoner-on-prisoner violence. The DOJ also claims that the ADOC fails to “adequately protect prisoners from death even after ADOC officials have advance warning that certain prisoners are in danger from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” It even states that security staff sometime watch violent incidents unfold without intervening.
Some of the alleged violations involving correctional staff include the accusation that a supervisor assaulted two handcuffed prisoners with a baton and a number of examples of prisoners that died as a result of “use of force” by security staff.
The DOJ’s 24-page lawsuit is signed by U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Following the filing of the lawsuit, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement expressing her disappointment in the decision to do so.
“This is disappointing news, as the state has actively been negotiating in good faith with the Department of Justice following the release of its findings letters,” Ivey stated. “Out of respect for the legal process, we unfortunately cannot provide additional comment at this time.
“We will, however, push forward with our plan to reimagine and rebuild Alabama’s correctional system from the ground up through the construction of three new regional men’s prisons. The comprehensive efforts underway will go a long way in addressing the long-standing challenges faced by the Alabama Department of Corrections.”
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall also issued a scathing statement in regards to the lawsuit.
“DOJ’s decision to file suit against the state, particularly at this time, is illogical, at best,” Marshall said. “This move both discounts the hundreds of hours that have gone into settlement negotiations thus far and disregards the immense progress that the state has made in improving our prisons since DOJ first released its findings in early 2019.
“Much of what the DOJ is still demanding, as its lawyers well know, goes beyond what federal law requires, in other words, these demands are unenforceable. The state will not yield to this brazen federal overreach. We look forward to our day in court.”
The full 24-page lawsuit can be viewed, at https://tinyurl.com/y3k56xly.