• Brandon Colvin

Department of Justice files lawsuit against Alabama over inhumane prison conditions

Following the July release of a damning report chronicling rampant abuses in state-run correctional facilities, the United States Department of Justice has filed a federal lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections and the state of Alabama.

The Wednesday filing alleges numerous violations by the State and the Alabama Department of Corrections. Under the United States Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, incarcerated individuals have the right to protection from excessive force, protection from sexual abuse, and protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence. According to the DOJ complaint, inmates in the state’s prisons have not been adequately afforded such protections.

“The Department of Justice conducted a thorough investigation of Alabama’s prisons for men and determined that Alabama violated and is continuing to violate the constitution because its prisons are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence. The violations have led to homicides, rapes, and serious injuries,” said Eric Dreiband, the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division.

The lawsuit describes the state as being “deliberately indifferent to the serious and systematic constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prisons for men.”

In a separate, 2019 complaint, the Justice Department described Alabama’s male inmate population as being “at serious risk of death, physical violence, sexual abuse and death at the hands of other prisoners.”

Between January and June of this year, the Alabama Department of Corrections reported that nine male inmates were murdered by other male inmates while locked up in the state’s prison facilities.

Alabama’s prison system has been under federal investigation for several years. Since 2016, the Justice Department has been engaged in ongoing negotiations with ADOC to adequately address issues involving prison overcrowding, inmate access to adequate healthcare, sanitary living conditions, rampant violence in correctional facilities, and efforts to cover-up alleged violations of prisoners’ rights.

In July, the DOJ released a report outlining additional Constitutional violations in Alabama’s prisons and defending the assertion that state-run prisons have been depriving inmates of their Constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment, which protects incarcerated individuals from “cruel and unusual punishment.”

High rates of suicide have also plagued the state’s prison systems. After a series of 15 prisoner suicides in as many months, Judge Myron Thompson, the first African-American Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alabama and the second African-American federal judge in the state, issued a 210-page ruling describing "severe and systematic inadequacies" in mental health care for state prisoners. The 2019 report also called for the tracking of prison reform progress through the development and deployment of an internal monitoring system.

Some state officials, including Governor Kay Ivey and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, have pushed back against the Justice Department’s characterization of the yellowhammer state’s carceral system.

In response to the lawsuit, Governor Ivey expressed dismay. “This is disappointing news, as the state has actively been negotiating in good faith with the DOJ following the release of its findings letters. Out of respect for the legal process, we unfortunately cannot provide additional comment at this time,” said Ivey.

State Attorney General Marshall echoed the governor’s sentiments in his own statement, saying,“The state will not yield to this brazen federal overreach. We look forward to our day in court.” Marshall offered further analysis of the DOJ’s suit, noting its failure to acknowledge the “immense progress that the state has made in improving our prisons.”

Alabama is home to 13 major correctional facilities for men, many of which are severely overcrowded. The state made major news headlines in early September when Governor Kay Ivey announced a controversial plan to help alleviate inmate overcrowding by partnering with private developers to construct mega prisons in Bibb, Elmore, and Escambia counties. The new facilities, slated to begin construction in 2021, will hold roughly 10,000 inmates with over 3,000 inmates in each facility. The state will not own any of the prisons, opting instead for lease agreements that are estimated to cost Alabama more than $2 billion over the proposed 30 year lease. The deal would close or repurpose 11 existing prisons.

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