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Justice Department releases damning report on Alabama’s gruesome, violent prisons

One week in Alabama’s prisons: stabbings, beatings, sexual assault, and a bed set on fire.

A guard escorts an inmate in an Alabama prison.
A guard escorts an inmate in an Alabama prison.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

First three people were stabbed, one to death. The next day, a person was beaten. The day after that brought three beatings, a stabbing, and a sexual assault. The next day, a person’s bed was set on fire. The day after that came another sexual assault. The final day, there was another beating, another sexual assault, and a deadly drug overdose.

That was just one week in September 2017 in Alabama’s prisons, according to a new report by the US Department of Justice. It found that Alabama’s prisons violate inmates’ constitutional rights, citing the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.” And if anything, the report’s authors cautioned, the findings only give part of the picture: “[I]t is likely that many other serious incidents also occurred this week but were not reported by prisoners or staff.”

The investigation into Alabama’s prisons, which are under state control, began near the end of President Barack Obama’s administration and continued under President Donald Trump. It involved visits to four prisons and interviews with 270-plus inmates over more than two years.

The report concluded that the prison conditions create an environment in which attacks, sexual abuse, and drug use are rampant, culminating in “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive.”

American prisons are, in general, horrible places. Just last year, a bloody riot in South Carolina’s prisons drew national headlines. Deaths are frequently reported in prisons from New York to Texas to California.

But the Justice Department report makes the case that Alabama’s prisons are particularly bad, with the facilities seeing murders and rapes at much greater frequency than others in the US.

“Alabama’s prisons have the highest homicide rate in the country,” the report concluded, noting that the state’s prisons “have approximately eight times the 2014 national rate.” It could be worse, the Justice Department cautioned, finding that homicides commonly go unreported.

The Justice Department said it could sue within 49 days if the state does not address issues raised in the report.

“In particular, we have reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions,” Justice Department officials wrote in a letter to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. “The violations are exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision and overcrowding.”

The problems, the investigators said, are tied to a severe lack of staffing and resources. There simply aren’t enough guards in a system where major prisons are, on average, at 182 percent capacity and staffing levels can fall below 20 percent of authorized positions. And the prison infrastructure itself is often outdated and in deteriorating condition: Doors often can’t lock, making it impossible to control violent situations, and investigators found open sewage running through prisons.

The results are horrifying. As Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan reported for the New York Times, “One prisoner had been dead for so long that when he was discovered lying face down, his face was flattened. Another was tied up and tortured for two days while no one noticed. Bloody inmates screamed for help from cells whose doors did not lock.”

Alabama officials also don’t take rape and sexual assault seriously due to homophobia. Justice Department investigators found “a tendency to dismiss claims of sexual abuse by gay prisoners as consensual ‘homosexual activity’ without further investigation, implying that a gay man cannot be raped.”

Separately, the Times reported, the Justice Department “is still investigating excessive force and sexual abuse by prison staff members, an investigation that former federal prosecutors say could lead to criminal indictments.”

The state has been aware of the problems for years, but it has yet to take adequate steps to address the crisis.

Gov. Ivey told the Times that in the coming months her administration will work with the Justice Department “to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”

That could, however, come down to how much pressure the Justice Department puts on the state. Under Trump, the Justice Department has moved away from getting heavily involved in overseeing, for example, local police departments. It’s unclear if the situation in Alabama is bad enough to push a typically apathetic Trump administration to serious action.

Read the Justice Department’s full report on Alabama’s prisons.

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