The U.S. Department of Justice says Alabama prisons have not improved despite years of warnings and that inmate homicides have increased
MONTGOMERY, Ala, — Alabama prisons remain deadly and dangerous two years after federal officials warned the state of unconstitutional conditions, the U.S. Department of Justice said, noting that inmate-on-inmate homicides have increased from already high levels.
Failed negotiations make it clear that Alabama will not voluntarily bring prisons into compliance and judicial intervention is needed, the Justice Department wrote Wednesday in an amended complaint in its ongoing lawsuit against the state.
The Justice Department sued Alabama in December after issuing findings in 2019 and 2020 warning that conditions in state lockups are so poor that they violate the U.S. Constitution.
“Since the United States notified the State of its findings, Alabama’s Prisons for Men have remained extremely overcrowded, prisoner-on-prisoner homicides have increased, prisoner-on-prisoner violence including sexual abuse has continued unabated, the physical facilities have remained inadequate, use of excessive force by security staff has remained common, and staffing rates have remained critically and dangerously low,” the amended complaint signed by Attorney General Merrick Garland stated.
In an emailed response, the Alabama Department of Corrections said the Justice Department is relying upon “anecdotal narratives” while ignoring the state’s efforts to improve conditions.
“The state remains, however, disappointed by the DOJ’s unwillingness to acknowledge the substantial investments and improvements made by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) with the additional resources made available by Governor (Kay) Ivey and the Legislature,” a statement from the prison system read.
The state has increased funding to the prison system and boosted pay for correctional officers and created new categories of positions as part of an effort to increase staff. Ivey’s office is also pursuing the leasing of three large prisons that would replace aging and dilapidated facilities.
The lawsuit contends Alabama is violating the constitutional rights of prisoners, including the ban on cruel and unusual punishment, by failing to prevent excessive levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, failing to protect prisoners from the use of excessive force by security staff and failing to provide safe conditions of confinement.
The state has acknowledged problems but denied that conditions are unconstitutional.
The Justice Department said the homicide rate in Alabama’s prisons for men in 2018 was more than seven times the national average for prisons and in fiscal year 2020 at least 16 prisoners were killed by other prisoners, according to available state data. Federal officials also said the prison system is not accurately reporting prison deaths.
The Justice Department said a prisoner at Kilby Correctional Facility died from multiple stab wounds to his head, abdomen, back, and arm, but the state classified the prisoner’s death as “natural.” A 2017 autopsy revealed a prisoner at Elmore Correctional Facility died from blunt force trauma to the head. ADOC classified the death as “natural.”
The filing listed a litany of incidents that federal officials said demonstrate a “pervasive pattern of life-threatening violence.” Those included that:
— A prisoner at Easterling Correctional Facility in February was stabbed multiple times by two other prisoners in the head, neck, and shoulders and had to be airlifted to a hospital.
— A prisoner at Easterling in August was seriously burned after another prisoner microwaved a mixture of baby oil, shaving powder and coffee granules and poured it on the victim’s face and body while he was sleeping.
— A 23-year-old prisoner was stabbed to death by another prisoner at Fountain Correctional Facility a day before he was scheduled to be released. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that was one of three inmate deaths in a single week from suspected inmate-on-inmate assaults.