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America is finally being exposed to the devastating reality of prison violence

Recent reports show how overcrowding, understaffing, and limited resources are contributing to violence in prisons.

Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California is surrounded by razor wire, tall fences and towers manned by guards with rifles October 13, 2012
Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California. This week, a Department of Justice report and an Ohio lawsuit called new attention to violent conditions in many US prisons.
Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In some US prisons, inmates are subjected to violence and inhumane conditions on a daily basis. This week, a new report and a lawsuit brought renewed attention to that fact.

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice released a damning report on prisons in Alabama, showing that a combination of understaffing, overcrowding, and poor management led to the state’s prison system having the highest number of homicides in the country. The conditions are so severe that they effectively deny Alabama inmates their constitutional rights to be protected from “cruel and unusual punishment,” the report says.

Vox’s German Lopez laid out some of the report’s details:

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 And the prison infrastructure itself is often outdated and in deteriorating condition: Doors often can’t lock, making it impossible to control violent situations, and investigators found open sewage running through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 prisons are plagued by “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive” the Justice Department concluded. The department noted that it could sue the state in 49 days if it does not address the concerns in the report.

While the report has called considerable attention to Alabama, it’s far from the only state with systemic problems of this kind.

Also on Wednesday, two men previously incarcerated at the maximum-security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility filed a lawsuit alleging that guards there failed to take action when they were repeatedly stabbed by another inmate in a bloody 2017 incident that was captured on video. The lawsuit, which argues that the men’s constitutional rights were violated when the officers failed to protect them from violence in the prison, also claims that guards failed to provide first aid for 10 minutes after the incident, and that the men were beaten by guards on other occasions.

Taken together, the Alabama report and the Ohio case indicate that violence in some US prisons is a systemic issue — a fact that impacts thousands of people incarcerated at these facilities every day.

The levels of violence in prisons aren’t fully captured in data, but it’s clear that there’s a problem

There’s no single source tracking every incident of violence in America’s prisons, but in recent years a number of studies and lawsuits have called attention to the ways that understaffing, poor conditions, and overcrowding have collided to create unsafe and at times violent environments in a number of these facilities.

Sometimes these problems come to light because of individual incidents, like the 2018 riot that took place in South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution. In that incident, the AP noted that disputes over territory and money led to a bloody conflict that ended with the deaths of seven inmates and the injury of 17 others.

That riot called attention to a deeper problem in South Carolina prisons, which have been subjected to a number of lawsuits. According to the State, a South Carolina news outlet, prisons are woefully understaffed, and have limited — and in some cases nonexistent —mental health resources for inmates. The result is an environment where people turn to gangs for protection and survival fueling violent incidents.

“They [officials] obviously aren’t providing the constitutionally required safe environment for the inmates,” Carter Elliott, a Georgetown lawyer whose has filed lawsuits for inmates in South Carolina, told the news outlet last year.

In other states, inmates have turned to protests like work and hunger strikes to call attention to the conditions they are forced to live in.

As reports of prison violence in states like New York and California show, dangerous conditions can often lead to severe outcomes for incarcerated people — including homicides, assaults, rape, and drug overdoses — which remain a problem in many prisons and are not limited to any particular region.

For example, the Ohio lawsuit mentioned above references an incident in June 2017, when an inmate in a Louisville prison, Greg Reinke, used a homemade knife to stab four men multiple times. The men were unable to flee because they were shackled to a table. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Shamieke Pugh, was stabbed a dozen times.

The AP notes that the lawsuit against “the warden, two officers and other staff members alleges violations of constitutional rights, including deliberate indifference to potential harm and different treatment of the attacker, who is white, compared with the other inmates, who are black.“

Reinke brutally attacked a prison guard months later, and eventually received an additional 86 years in prison on top of the life sentence he was already serving.

“I hope no other inmates ever have to fight for their lives the way I had to,” Pugh said during a Wednesday news conference, adding that he believes the facility’s guards were responsible for the incident. “I did a crime, and I did my time. But the guards got away scot-free after almost killing me. That ain’t right.”

The facility has denied that its guards acted inappropriately or failed to respond to the 2017 attack.

The issues highlighted in Alabama and Ohio this week, of course, are part of a broader issue in prisons. But while there are plenty of stories highlighting just how severe the problem is in many states, policymakers have not always centered prison reform in broader criminal justice measures. Instead, high-profile efforts to address prison conditions have often centered on specific issues like ending the use of solitary confinement or prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women.

Some of this has to do with the ways many people think of prisons. As a recent New York Times article on Alabama’s notorious St. Clair Correctional Facility noted, national discussion of prisons still often centers around the idea that “whatever treatment prisoners get, they surely must deserve.” One of the barriers to adequately addressing prison violence is the belief that violence is normal or expected.

But in the face of increased scrutiny, and persistent action from prison reform advocates, some states like Alabama are finding themselves under intense pressure to change. In February, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey introduced a plan to create new prisons in Alabama with improved health care capabilities, education and treatment programs, and mental health services. The state says that it was working on reforms before the Justice Department report was released.

While the problems highlighted in Alabama are severe, it is not the only state with these issues. And as evidence of dangerous environments in US prisons continues to emerge, it is likely that more and more local and state governments will be confronted with demands for reform.

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