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Alabama Incarcerates Blacks More Than Three Times Rate of Whites; DOJ Lawsuit Says State Prisons Fail to Adequately Protect Inmates

Widespread violence and sexual abuses are prevalent inside Alabama’s 13 men’s prisons and state officials have not taken enough measures to protect inmates, according to a recent federal complaint lodged by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr filed the lawsuit on Dec. 9 in U.S. District Court, accusing Alabama state officials of turning a blind eye to rampant violations of prisoners preying on one another and corrections officers using excessive force against inmates.

The state and its Department of Corrections were both named in the DOJ suit, which also cited overcrowding, a shortage of prison guards, crumbling infrastructure, violent prisoner deaths being underreported, and an influx of drugs and weapons pouring into the state lock ups. The complaint asked the federal court to enjoin state and DOC officials, requiring them to adhere to the Justice Department’s litany of demands to fix Alabama’s prison system.

“The state of Alabama is deliberately indifferent to the serious and systemic constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prison for men,” the lawsuit alleged.

Alabama Department of Corrections claims it was caught off guard by the federal complaint. The state agency issued a Dec. 10 statement responding to the Justice Department’s lawsuit. Corrections officials claim they felt they’ve been making “good progress” in their efforts with DOJ to clean up the prison system and said the federal government gave them no indications they were unsatisfied with the state.

“This move was not made in the spirit of good faith, and only serves to undermine many months of productive conversations that were moving toward a mutual resolution,” the statement read.

Inmates listen to an instructor during a writing class in an Alabama Prison. (Photo: Alabama Department of Corrections)

Alabama’s incarceration rate of 946 prisoners per 100,000 residents was the fifth-highest in the nation in 2018. The state locks Black people up at an even higher per-capita rate of 1,788 per 100,000 people, according to Prison Policy Initiative. That’s more than three times the incarceration rate for whites in Alabama and well over twice the rate for Hispanics.

Alabama operates 13 men’s prison facilities. In 2016, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the DOJ investigation into whether conditions at those state penitentiaries violated the Civil Rights of Institutional Persons Act, a federal law intended to protect the rights of prisoners in state or local lockups.

Ten male prisoners were killed by other inmates in Alabama in 2018, the highest homicide rate for any state prison system in the nation. The state saw another 14 prisoner homicides in 2019 and nine more through the first six months of 2020.

According to the lawsuit, a 48-year-old inmate at the Bullock Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility in Union Springs, was stabbed to death in an open dormitory Nov. 9 — just 24 days shy of a scheduled parole hearing. The man had been eligible for parole for more than eight months at the time of his death, the complaint indicated.

Alabama’s state lockups have been particularly perilous for Black prisoners.

In 2020, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice advocacy group examined six years worth of the state’s prison homicides. There were 48 killings behind penitentiary walls between June 2014 and September 2020. Black men were the victims in 37 of the homicides, while 11 white prisoners were killed in that span, the study revealed. It showed that Black inmates were 3.3 times more likely than their white counterparts to die violently in Alabama prisons.

The Alabama Appleseed Center projected that 2020 would be a record year for Alabama’s prison homicides.

Akiesha Anderson, the center’s policy director, cited the fact that Black inmates account for 56 percent of Alabama’s prison population despite African-Americans representing about 27 percent of the state’s overall make up.

“I can say that people are definitely shocked and outraged,” she told Atlanta Black Star. “Because the reality is that we as a state are basically breaking the law with regard to the way that we treat people who break the law. The fact that we are not honoring people’s constitutional rights is something that I don’t think the average Alabamian knows before they’re presented with that information from us or other advocates who are really trying to sound the alarm right now.”

The killings underscored an alarming rate of prisoner-on-prisoner violence that the Justice Department deemed “serious and systemic.” That included a total of 825 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults between September 2019 through June 2020. Between September 2018 and September 2019, 280 prisoners sustained serious enough injuries to warrant them being treated at hospitals outside prison walls. The state stopped reporting those numbers publicly in October 2019.

One inmate with serious burn wounds had to be rushed to an outside hospital in August after another prisoner microwaved a mixture of baby oil, shaving powder and coffee grounds and poured it over the man’s face and body as he was sleeping.

DOJ attributed the level of violence to overcrowding and “dangerously low” staffing levels to supervise inmates. According to lawsuit, Alabama’s prison system was designed to house 9,882 men. But Department of Corrections reported 15,297 male inmates in September.

Compounding the problem, just over 1,400 of an authorized 3,326 correctional officer positions were filled last year.

The Justice Department investigation revealed the lack of a centralized database to track prison mortalities. A pattern also surfaced of state prison officials falsifying or omitting death reports, classifying some of the prisoner-on-prisoner homicides as natural deaths.

“Things that should have been classified as homicides were classified as other by ADOC,” Anderson said. “So we definitely do not have the clearest picture of how bad the situation really is.”

The lawsuit went on to allege Department of Corrections failed to protect several prisoners even when officers had fair warning that those prisoners faced the threat of death from fellow inmates. Corrections officers also failed to keep drugs and weapons out of the prisons, and routinely retaliated against prisoners who reported threats and violence.

The lawsuit even cited multiple instances where corrections officers did nothing to intervene when prisoners “kidnapped” other detainees and held them captive for days to extort their families and friends.

Department of Corrections documented 600 cases of sexual abuse that were reported between late 2016 and April 2019. One man who was sexually assaulted by two prisoners in June had been raped at three other prisons before. The DOJ lawsuit indicated the prevalence of drugs helped foster a climate where the sexual predators could flourish.

The violence was not only carried out by prisoners, DOJ noted. Correctional officers frequently use excessive force against prisoners in all but one — an infirmary for injured inmates — of the state’s Department of Corrections facilities for men.

Two men at different prisons were killed by officers in 2019. That same year, a corrections supervisor beat two handcuffed prisoners with a baton stick. In July, four COs at the Bibb County prison were indicted by a federal grand jury for using excessive force against an inmate and filing false reports to conceal the misconduct.

The Justice Department complaint indicates Alabama state officials have done little to stem the widespread culture of abuse.

Federal prosecutors began a series of settlement negotiations with the state in April 2019. But since then, Alabama has failed or refused to rectify the dangerous conditions that, according to the DOJ lawsuit, violate the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, both of which are provisions to protect against cruel and unusual punishment.

In April 2019, special civil rights litigators from the Department of Justice and three U.S. Attorneys sent Alabama officials a notice letter of the findings of its investigation.

Since then, according to the lawsuit, overcrowding increased and staffing levels of prison guards remained critically low. In fact, the number of supervisors decreased from 2019 to 2020. On top of that, rates of prisoner-on-prisoner violence rose, including inmate homicides and sexual abuse claims.

On July 23, federal agents alerted Alabama that the state was in violation of the constitution.

Anderson pointed to the fact that both of DOJ’s scathing reports about Alabama’s prisons came during President Donald Trump’s term, an administration that was notoriously criticized for its own treatment of detainees in immigration detention camps.

“This is coming from a conservative Department of Justice, a conservative president’s appointees,” she said. “This also came out after the Department of Justice had so much pushback and so much negative publicity about the way that they were mistreating, particularly immigrants. … So the fact that these are the same people that came to Alabama said, ‘You guys are going too far,’ that is shocking.”

Department of Corrections, in its statement, disputed the allegations in the lawsuits. The agency said it’s cooperated fully with the DOJ process and given federal prosecutors complete access to staff and materials. The corrections department addressed the staffing concerns laid out by the Justice Department, saying it’s one of the well-known issues the prisons have tried to correct for years.

Prison officials acknowledged “limited examples” of abuse, misconduct where it indicated protocols were ignored. But they claimed the problems raised in the lawsuit were overblown and “plainly ignores the years’ worth of” effort the Alabama Department of Corrections has made.

“The DOJ, however, continues to mischaracterize these limited instances as sweeping patterns,” the statement read, noting that the Corrections Department intended to fight the lawsuit. “The piecemeal anecdotes outlined in the complaint do not reflect the hard work and important service provided by our correctional staff. As such, this complaint – by intentionally omitting any reference to those efforts – stands as a true disservice to the many dedicated correctional professionals who provide safety and security within Alabama’s prisons.”

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