Eighth Amendment

Alabama men's prisons are so unsafe they likely violate the Eighth Amendment, DOJ says

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Understaffed and overcrowded men’s prisons in Alabama fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse and violence and fail to provide safe and sanitary conditions, according to a Department of Justice report.

There is reasonable cause to think the conditions in men’s prisons in the state violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, according to the report. A press release is here; the New York Times, Courthouse News Service and AL.com have coverage.

The report was released this week by the DOJ’s civil rights division and U.S. attorney’s offices in Alabama. It is one of the first major civil rights investigations to be released during the Trump administration, according to the New York Times.

Alabama prisons have the highest homicide rate in the country, and there is reason to think homicides are being undercounted, the report says.

The Alabama Department of Corrections reported 24 inmate homicides between January 2015 and June 2018. But investigators identified three additional homicides that had been listed as deaths from natural causes.

Violence happens weekly in some prisons and daily in others, the report says. Often, violence happens out of sight of correctional officers.

One prisoner was taken to the health care unit after he reported that he was “tied up, burned and tortured for two days” in retaliation for his previous report of a sexual assault. Another prisoner walking toward the gate of his housing unit with blood on his clothes was found to have been stabbed 22 times.

Corrections staff also are at risk. One correctional officer was stabbed to death shortly before the DOJ indicated that it would begin the investigation.

Incident reports indicate that, since 2017, correctional officers “have been stabbed, punched, kicked, threatened with broken broomsticks or knives, and had their heads stomped on.” One officer was quoted as saying, “Walking out of these gates, knowing you’re still alive, that’s a successful day.”

Safety problems include defective locks, insufficient or ineffective cameras, and a lack of mirrors.

Sanitation is also an issue. At one prison that has since been closed, open sewage ran across the floor, and there were reports of rats and maggots in the kitchen. Throughout the prisons, overcrowding stresses deteriorating plumbing and electrical systems. Prisoners told of clogged toilets, showers covered in mold, and a lack of hot water for showers.

The DOJ has notified Alabama officials that it could sue if corrective action isn’t taken.

The Alabama legislature increased funding for prisons after a federal judge ruled in 2017 that mental health care for state inmates was “horrendously inadequate,” according to AL.com. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey is asking for an additional $40 million next year, partly to recruit 500 more correction officers.

Ivey also has announced a plan to build three new men’s prisons and to close most of the existing facilities. An initial estimate said the cost is about $900 million.

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