Alabama Has the Deadliest Prisons in the Country. It Says It’s Looking for Reforms.

Governor’s panel to release suggested fixes; lawmakers to consider bills addressing corrections system

Sandy Ray held photos of her son, Steven Davis, during a press conference at the Alabama State House in Montgomery on Dec. 4, 2019. PHOTO: KIM CHANDLER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

MONTGOMERY, Ala.—One afternoon in October, the warden at the prison where Sandy Ray’s son was serving time called to say he was hospitalized in critical condition, she recalled. He had fought with correctional officers who accused him of rushing at them with handmade weapons, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

When Ms. Ray arrived, her 35-year-old son, Steven Davis, lay in bed unconscious, his face swollen and disfigured, photos she took show. “He was unrecognizable,” Ms. Ray said in an interview after a demonstration for prison reform where she spoke publicly. “He looked like a monster.”

Mr. Davis died the following morning, and a medical examiner ruled his death a homicide by blunt-force injuries to his head. The state corrections department said the matter remains under internal investigation and has been referred to a district attorney, who will decide whether charges should be filed.

 

The case illustrates the challenges Alabama officials face as they seek to overhaul the state’s violent, overcrowded and understaffed prison system. Pressured by a Justice Department investigation and a federal lawsuit, Alabama has made some strides adding correctional and mental-health staff in recent years. But inmate homicides and the prison population are rising.

Other states are grappling with troubled prison systems as well. Recent rioting and fights in Mississippi’s correctional institutions have left seven inmates killed since late December and triggered a lawsuit backed by rap artists Jay-Z and Yo Gotti over prison conditions. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday the state would implement several measures to address the problems, including screening for gang affiliations. Florida lawmakers also are weighing criminal-justice proposals to address staffing shortages, inmate assaults and other issues.

Pushed to the Brink

Though Alabama’s in-house prison population declined for years, it recently has crept up again, while assaults in correctional institutions continue generally to climb.

Graph showing the the capacity of Alabama's prisons designed for 12,000 and now housing over 27,000 and the rate at which assaults of every kind have increased significantly
Graph showing the the capacity of Alabama’s prisons designed for 12,000 and now housing over 27,000 and the rate at which assaults of every kind have increased significantly

When the Alabama legislature convenes on Feb. 4, addressing the prison crisis is expected to be one of its priorities. Lawmakers say they plan to consider a number of bills and seek additional funding, guided in part by recommendations due to be released soon by a criminal-justice panel formed by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.

“We’ve done a great job of identifying the issues,” said Democratic state Rep. Chris England, a member of the panel. “But if we can’t muster up the political will to actually invest in the system, then all this is meaningless.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center and others sued Alabama in federal court in 2014 over alleged failures to address the medical and mental-health needs of prisoners. Three years later, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found the correctional system’s handling of those needs “horrendously inadequate” and criticized severe staff shortages. He later ordered the state to hire more than 2,000 additional correctional staff by 2022.

Separately, the Justice Department last year issued the results of its investigation of Alabama’s men’s prisons, saying conditions there likely violated inmates’ constitutional rights. “An excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama’s prisons on a regular basis,” the report said.

This undated image released by the Alabama Department of Corrections last April shows illegal contraband from the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The homicide rate in Alabama’s prisons—already the highest in the U.S., according to the Justice Department—is increasing. In the fiscal year that ended in September, 11 inmates were killed—more than in any year on record in the corrections department’s available data, which goes back two decades. In October, another three inmates were killed.

Faced with the possibility of a Justice Department lawsuit, the state is in continued discussions with the agency over how to address the problems cited, said a spokeswoman for Ms. Ivey. The Justice Department declined to comment.

The governor’s criminal-justice panel is expected to release its recommendations this week. They are likely to include proposals such as expanding pretrial intervention programs to keep people from entering the system and bolstering training programs for inmates due for release, said Republican state Sen. Cam Ward, a member of the panel.

Ms. Ivey also is pursuing a plan to build three new prisons that would replace around a dozen old facilities and allow for improved mental-health, vocational and other services. The arrangement calls for a private contractor to build the prisons and lease them to the state. Proposals by four developer teams are expected by spring.

“Our infrastructure was not designed to rehabilitate. It was designed to warehouse,” said Jefferson Dunn, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. “We’re trying to update that.”

The state has made gains in prison mental-health staffing, increasing the number of contracted positions to 263 in September 2019 from 212 in December 2017.

Yet the number of correctional officers and supervisors only began increasing notably in the third quarter of last year. As of September, the tally reached 1,659, still far short of the target number of 3,826 under the federal judge’s order.

The state’s record-low unemployment rate of 2.7% makes it challenging to lure applicants.

Though changes to sentencing guidelines in the past decade helped reduce the prison population, it has been climbing for more than a year. In October, the most recent reporting period, Alabama’s inmate population in prisons operated by the corrections department was 21,081, at 170% of facilities’ capacity.

Leesha Thomas, who has a husband and three brothers in Alabama prisons and regularly speaks with them, said the atmosphere inside is volatile. Clashes erupt constantly, she said, and inmates equip themselves with handmade weapons to defend themselves.

“It’s either fight and defend yourself, or they’re going to jump on you, rape you and take all your food,” Ms. Thomas said.

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com

Article originally published here 

 

Governor Ivey needs to hear from you

This week, the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice released a new report regarding the dramatic drop in paroles. Since Governor Ivey appointed a new director at the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, the board has denied release to 92 percent of all scheduled hearings.

Meanwhile, the number of scheduled hearings has also dropped dramatically from over 600 per month in 2018 to approximately 150 scheduled for January 2020.

For individuals trying to survive inside Alabama’s violent and overcrowded prisons, the board’s actions can truly be a life or death decision. And if this trend continues, the prison population that is already over capacity will explode in 2020, leading to even more violence against the incarcerated population and correctional officers.

That’s why we’ve been asking them to release their policies on how they schedule parole hearings, but they haven’t answered.

Send an email to Governor Ivey and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, and demand they release their policies NOW. Lives depend on it.

Thanks for sticking with us,

ACLU of Alabama

Alabama’s Prisons Are Deadliest in the Nation

Data drawn from Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) statistical reports and the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.



On Monday December 3rd, Vaquerro Kinjuan Armstrong, was murdered at Holman Correctional Facility.  It follows the stabbing death of James Lewis Kennedy at Elmore Correctional Facility on November 18, 2018.  This violence reflects new findings which show that Alabama’s prisons are the most lethal in the nation.  With 19 homicides in the last two years, and nine homicides in 2018, Alabama’s rate of over 34 homicides per 100,000 people incarcerated is more than 600 percent greater than the national average from 2001 to 2014.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the level of violence in Alabama state prisons.  Serious understaffing, systemic classification failures, and official misconduct and corruption have left thousands of prisoners vulnerable to abuse, assaults and uncontrolled violence.  

St. Clair Correctional Facility witnessed three homicides this year alone. In 2018, the homicide rate at St. Clair is set to exceed 300 homicides per 100,000 incarcerated people.  

Thirty-five prisoners have been murdered in ADOC facilities in the past five years.  Nine of the homicides occurred at St. Clair.  Twenty-one of the homicides occurred at medium security facilities: seven at Elmore, four at Bullock, four at Bibb, and four at Staton, one at Ventress and one at Kilby. This week’s violence at Holman along with violent incidents at Elmore and St.Clair have created an unprecedented crisis in Alabama prisons with regard to the safety of prisoners and staff.  

The mortality rate within Alabama prisons is at a record level. The number of deaths in Alabama prison, many of which are from non-natural causes including homicide, suicide, and drug overdoses greatly exceed what other states are seeing. The mortality rate in Alabama’s prisons has more than doubled over the past 10 years. Between 2008 and 2014, Alabama’s prison population decreased by 2 percent from 25,303 to 24,816 while mortality in Alabama prisons nearly doubled, going from 61 deaths in 2008 (241 per 100,000 people incarcerated) to 111 in 2014 (447 per 100,000 incarcerated). This trend continued in 2017 as the prison population fell 14 percent to 21,213 even as 120 people died in ADOC facilities, for a mortality rate of over 565 per 100,000 incarcerated people. This is more than double the national mortality rate of 275 deaths per 100,000 incarcerated people in 2014 (the most recent year in which data is available) and makes Alabama an outlier among its neighboring Southern states of Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Data drawn from Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) statistical reports and the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Documented instances of abuse by correctional staff have aggravated the culture of violence within state prisons. EJI filed a complaint with the Department of Justice in 2013 after an investigation revealed a pattern of excessive physical violence at Elmore, where correctional staff at the highest levels have been found to have engaged in extreme and excessive violence against inmates. In multiple incidents, correctional officers at Elmore illegally stripped and beat inmates while they were handcuffed and shackled, and have punched, kicked, and struck them with batons and other objects.

“The conditions are getting worse, and state officials must act now,” said EJI Attorney Charlotte Morrison. “This epidemic of violence has once again created a crisis that requires a more committed and effective response from state leaders.”

EJI re-initiated its investigation at Elmore this year after receiving dozens of reports of stabbings, assaults, extortion and excessive use of force. Inadequate staffing has created serious security conditions where prisoners are at risk of unprecedented levels of violence. According to multiple sources, a single officer is typically assigned to a dorm of 198 prisoners and there are periods at the prison where a total of eight officers are responsible for managing the entire prison with a population of over 1200 men. As a result of the freedom of movement and absence of staff, stabbings, assaults, and extortion are regular features of daily life.

The data on violence in Alabama’s prisons makes clear that the security crisis in state correctional facilities is worsening and needs an urgent and immediate response from elected officials.

Article originally published here