Above Photo: A CERT guard walks down a cell block at Holman Correctional Institute in Atmore, Ala., on March 14, 2016. The prison saw its second disturbance in three days on Monday. (Submitted to AL.com)
The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into violence, rape, overcrowding and other problems within the men’s prisons in Alabama, the DOJ announced today.
The investigation will focus on whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions, according to the DOJ announcement.
“The Constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division stated in the announcement. “We hope to work cooperatively with the state of Alabama in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that the state’s facilities keep prisoners safe from harm.”
The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama are conducting this investigation.
“Our obligation is to protect the civil rights of all citizens, including those who are incarcerated,” U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District of Alabama. “This investigation provides us with an opportunity to work collaboratively with the state of Alabama to assess current conditions and ensure constitutionally sufficient conditions exist for all prisoners.”
“The vulnerability of a prisoner makes it even more important that basic hygiene and safe accommodations are afforded the inmates,” said U.S. Attorney George L. Beck Jr. of the Middle District of Alabama.
“I am very pleased to have my office join the Northern and Middle Districts of Alabama as well as the Civil Rights Division in opening an investigation into the Alabama prison system,” said U.S. Attorney Kenyen R. Brown of the Southern District of Alabama. “All citizens, even those who are incarcerated, should expect sanitary conditions of habitation that are free of physical harm and sexual abuse.”
The department has not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in this matter, according to the statement.
But the DOJ warns the state could face a lawsuit if the violations are found and the state doesn’t work to correct them, according to a Thursday letter from DOJ notifying Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley of the investigation.
In the letter the DOJ states that if no systematic violations are found, that they will notify the governor. But if there are violations then DOJ will work with the state to remedy them, including finding any financial or technical help. In the many years of enforcing the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act the good faith effort of state, county, and local officials “have routinely enabled us to resolve our claims without resort(ing) to contested litigation.”
Bentley issued a statement saying he welcomes the opportunity to continue to work with the DOJ and continue the efforts to make Alabama prisons better. “This issue of overcrowding is a decade’s old issue that must be addressed. I am looking forward to again working with the Alabama Legislature to permanently solve this problem,” the governor stated.
The Alabama Department of Corrections has 14 men’s prisons and one women’s prison (Tutwiler). The DOC also operates a number of other sites, including community corrections and re-entry facilities.
The investigation will not include federal prisons located in Alabama.
The investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Under CRIPA, the department has the authority to investigate violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights that result from a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.” The department has conducted CRIPA investigations of many correctional systems, and where violations have been found, the resulting settlement agreements have led to important reforms.
Jefferson Dunn, the commissioner of Alabama’s prison system, said in a release this afternoon that the system understands “the seriousness of the DOJ investigation and will cooperate fully. We will dedicate the necessary time and resources to enable the investigators to complete their work,” he said.
Dunn’s statement says he has identified longstanding problems in Alabama prisons caused by overcrowding, understaffing, and outdated facilities.
“We have been working to provide solutions to the problems faced by the department and will work with the DOJ on recommendations to improve conditions in the Alabama Department of Corrections,” Dunn said.
The DOJ asks that individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the department via phone at (205) 244-2001 or by email email@example.com.
Overcrowding, violence, rape, correctional officer abuse, and other issues have been scrutinized at prisons in recent years by state officials in the wake of a federal report.
Alabama’s in-house population in July of 2016 was 23,692. That’s 1,438 women, 22,254 men.
In-house capacity is 13,318. That’s a 178 percent design capacity this summer, down from 193 percent in 2014. But projections show that the prisons will be at 158 capacity in 2020 under the state’s prison reform initiative.
The most overcrowded high security large men’s facility is Kilby at 266 percent capacity in July. That’s 1,169 inmates in July in a space designed to hold 440. The same state report for July shows Kilby employs 141 correctional staff employees, or about 60 percent the recommended correctional staff level.
The Alabama Legislature in May failed to pass Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to build new state prisons. That plan initially called for borrowing up to $800 million to build three new men’s prisons and a new women’s prison to replace Julia Tutwiler Prison.
Before the legislation failed a conference committee scaled the plan back to two men’s prisons, the women’s prison and a total bond issue of up to $550 million.
The man who led prison reform efforts in the legislature knew the DOJ might launch an investigation.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Shelby County, said of the DOJ investigation. “This is something I’ve been warning about for quite some time,” he said.
The state has initiated new sentencing guidelines to cut down on overcrowding, said Ward who is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that has been at the center of the prison reform movement in state government. But that won’t be enough and new prisons are needed to deal with overcrowding and prisoners who have mental health issues, he said.
Alabama can’t run prisons that meet constitutional standards in aging facilities, Ward said.
“Either we do it in the most cost efficient way or have a (federal) judge tell us how to do it and we still have to pay for it,” Ward said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a statement regarding the investigation.
“Only the most egregious of conditions would prompt the federal government to open a major investigation into our prison system,” SPLC president Richard Cohen stated in the press statement.
The SPLC has a lawsuit pending that alleges Alabama is failing in its constitutional obligation to provide adequate mental health and medical care to Alabama prisoners. The state is also facing multiple lawsuits about rampant violence in its prisons and strikes by prisoners and correctional officers, the SPLC states.
“Alabama’s prisons are out of control because the state incarcerates too many people and the prisons are poorly managed,” Cohen stated. “Governor Bentley thinks the answer is to spend $1.5 billion on building new prisons, but the problems the Alabama Department of Corrections is facing can not be solved by construction. If we embark on a costly and ill-planned massive prison construction plan without carefully calibrating it to coincide with continued, significant decreases in the state’s prison population, we’re likely to end up where we started — with too many prisons and an unnecessarily high prison population that uses state resources that could be better spent on increasing public safety and improving the lives of all Alabamians.”
Initially federal authorities took a look at Tutwiler, the prison for women in a 2014 report. In May of 2015 the DOJ filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montgomery alleging the the state “subjected prisoners at Tutwiler to a pattern and practice of confinement” that violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. At the same time Alabama and the DOJ filed a joint motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit and for the judge to retain jurisdiction to enforce the terms in the agreement.
Riots, including fires, and stabbings, however, in the past year have plagued two of the largest men’s prisons – Holman in Escambia County and the correctional facility in St. Clair County.