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A prisoner's hands inside a punishment cell wing at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. Photo taken in...

What’s in the DOJ’s scathing report on Alabama prisons

A report from the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday accused the state of Alabama of failing to provide adequately safe conditions for their male inmates. The department says it has “reasonable cause” to believe that Alabama’s prison conditions violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The 56-page notice, addressed to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, pointed to understaffing and overcrowding at prison facilities as key factors that lead to physical and sexual violence between inmates.

Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., with 840 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2016. That figure is 27 percent higher than the national average, and the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth.

More than 16,000 people are packed inside Alabama’s 13 prisons, at a systemic occupancy rate of 165 percent, according to the DOJ’s investigation, which spanned more than two years. Last November, the report said, one Alabama prison housed 1,407 inmates, despite having been designed to fit just 440 beds. That’s an occupancy rate above 300 percent.

In a statement released yesterday, the governor said that her administration would be “working closely” with justice officials to make sure “mutual concerns” are addressed in the following months. “This Alabama problem has an Alabama solution,” she wrote.


What led up to this report

The DOJ opened its investigation into the state prison system in 2016, though it does not explicitly say in its report what prompted the probe. Alabama has been hit with multiple lawsuits in recent years over the physical and sexual violence experienced by inmates.

In 2014, the Equal Justice Initiative filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates at St. Clair Correctional Facility after prisoner Timothy Duncan was fatally stabbed on his 45th birthday. Duncan was the sixth inmate to be murdered in  the course of about two and a half years. In response to the suit, Kim Thomas, then-commissioner for Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC), released a statement saying that safety was a “top priority” and that the ADOC would continue to “make improvements.”  

Five weeks ago, an inmate was stabbed to death after a knife fight at St. Clair — adding another fatality to the state with the highest prison homicide rate in the nation, according to DOJ data. During the 2017 fiscal year, ADOC’s public records showed a prison homicide rate of 56 per 100,000 prisoners across the state, a number roughly eight times the 2014 country-wide rate.

St. Clair and three other Alabama prisons each have less than a third of the “authorized” number of correctional officers, according to the DOJ’s recent findings. Another three facilities in the state have less than 20 percent of the “authorized” staffing.

One of Alabama’s women’s prisons has also been scrutinized and held accountable for its treatment of prisoners in the last decade. In 2014, the Justice Department concluded that correctional staff at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women had demonstrated a pattern of sexual abuse — including rape, voyeurism and verbal abuse — toward the inmates. A 2015 settlement required that the prison “protect women from sexual abuse and sexual harassment by ensuring sufficient staff to safely operate Tutwiler and supervise prisoners, supplemented by a state-of-the-art camera system,” according to a DOJ statement.

Mitch McGuire, an attorney who has worked with incarcerated people and their families in Alabama for eight years, called the most recent conclusions by the Justice Department “not at all surprising.”

“It is a shame, it is disappointing — it goes beyond the human toll that is represented in the people that have died in Alabama’s prisons,” McGuire said. “It affects families all across the state of Alabama who love these individuals and look forward to them coming home someday.”


The state’s solution for overcrowded prisons

In February 2019, Gov. Ivey announced a plan to construct three new prison facilities for men, with two of them allowing a capacity of 3,000 to 3,500 inmates. It’s a project estimated to cost the state $900 million.

However, advocacy organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have voiced concerns that such a construction plan does not “address the roots” of Alabama’s overcrowding in prisons.

Ebony Howard, a senior supervising attorney for the SPLC, said state leaders could either use the DOJ’s report “as a wake up call, or could not, and end up in federal court.”

“You don’t need to build mega prisons, you need to increase the number of correctional officers that are working in your prison,” Howard said. “You need to deal with issues of violence and sexual assault. You need to engage in more sentencing reform to further drive down the population, so that you’re not at 160 percent capacity. But, instead, the answer that we got was: build, build, build.”

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In its rebuttal to the governor’s prison construction plan, the SPLC also advocated for better mental and medical health care for inmates, and access to rehabilitative programmings, noting that 95 percent of incarcerated people in Alabama will one day return to their communities.

“If you put people in a state where they are constantly fighting for survival and they’re constantly warring against being physically and sexually assaulted and raped,what does that person act like, be like, feel like?” Howard said.”How are they going to be when they get out of prison?”


What’s next?

Alabama has 49 days after receiving notice from the DOJ  to “satisfactorily” address the issues. The report enumerates “long-term” measures as well as “immediate” measures, such as a conversation among the Alabama Department of Corrections heads, the director of the National Institute of Corrections and DOJ officials within two weeks.

Initial discussions like this one may help gauge the parties’ willingness to negotiate and work with each other, said Chiraag Bains, who worked in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division from 2010 to 2017 under the Obama administration.

How enforceable any of these potential reforms outlined in the DOJ report would be is a crucial and unanswered question.

If DOJ and the state come to a resolution on necessary reforms, they may draw up a settlement agreement. That would be a private accord that DOJ would have to monitor and potentially initiate a separate lawsuit to enforce.

In order to trigger the oversight of a federal judge with independent enforcement authority, the agreement would have to be submitted to a federal court. If accepted, the agreement would then become a “consent decree,” under which the Justice Department could seek to hold Alabama in contempt if they do not follow through with the negotiated measures.

“You get a federal judge involved, then you don’t have the danger of having political leadership that isn’t committed to the work,” said former justice official Bains.

When asked by PBS NewsHour if the department planned to negotiate and pursue a consent decree in this case with Alabama, Kelly Laco from the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs declined to comment.

One wrinkle: In November 2018, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a former Alabama senator — severely limited the efficacy of consent degrees, as one of his last acts at the Justice Department. For instance, Sessions constricted the duration of the “obligations” of consent decrees to “generally” no more than three years.    

Bains says that it “takes a long time to turn around broken prison systems” and that it would be “very harmful” for the DOJ to only oversee reforms for three years.