‘No One Feels Safe Here’: Life in Alabama’s Prisons

Four men inside diagnose a hellscape the Department of Justice called cruel and unusual.

In handwritten letters, four men who together have served more than 100 years told us what it’s like inside.
On April 2, the Department of Justice issued a horrifying report on Alabama’s prisons, with graphic accounts of prisoners who were tortured, burned, raped, sodomized, stabbed and murdered in largely unsupervised dorms. (In hundreds of reports of sexual abuse, for example, the investigators did not find a single instance of a guard intervening. Officers are so outnumbered, the report said, that they stay in a secure area rather than patrol.)

The report underscored the conditions depicted in more than 2,000 photographs, sent to The New York Times, of violent incidents and contraband inside St. Clair prison northeast of Birmingham.

Not only are the prisons bad, the Department of Justice report said, but Alabama has known for years that they are bad, and has made only marginal attempts to improve them. It is not that the prisoners are particularly violent, but that the prisons are understaffed and overcrowded, with some holding two or three times the number of people they were designed for. They are also, the report said, lousy with corruption and rife with drugs, cellphones and large, sharp knives, which many prisoners consider necessary for self-protection. In 2017, inspectors found that not a single building had a working fire alarm.

[Read more about the Department of Justice’s findings of “flagrant disregard” for the rights of people in Alabama prisons.]

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In a matter of days, the Alabama Department of Corrections, now under threat of a federal lawsuit, plans to unveil a new strategic plan. Since the report was issued, three correction officers have been attacked and at least one prisoner has been stabbed.

We asked three men sentenced to life without parole — two for murder and one for robbery — and one serving a 28-year sentence for murder to tell us what it was like inside. Together they have served more than 100 years. They asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. In their letters, which were handwritten because in Alabama, prisoners do not have access to email, they focused on the root causes of the mayhem and expressed skepticism that the department could restore a culture of integrity on its own.

Here are excerpts, condensed for length and clarity:

While it’s easy to understand and champion the Alabama Department of Corrections’ mandate to protect the public from us, it seems people have a harder time accepting that they have an equally important mandate to protect us from each other. And when they habitually fail to do so because of a fatal combination of indifference and incompetence, that becomes criminal.

No one feels safe here. Not the inmates, nor the officers. No one feels safe here when supervisors up to the warden level stand behind the fence of the barricaded, secure area and tell inmates who have fled there looking for protection that they need to go get a knife. No one feels safe here when there are hundreds of inmates roaming around and not an officer in sight. No one can or will answer the uncomfortable questions of why all the veteran officers quit or why the new ones don’t stay.

There are many assumptions you could make about who is the least safe here. Young white men are at extreme risk for sexual assault, and white men of all ages are targets to be assaulted and robbed or to have their property stolen. But when it comes to who is least safe, the facts speak for themselves. Time and time again, young black men are the victims of the most violent assaults. Young black men are the most likely to die. The prevailing attitude seems to be that, as they say in the South, when young black men kill young black men it’s just the trash taking out the trash.

A raid on Feb. 28 at the St. Clair prison found 167 makeshift weapons.

I’ve never seen so many guys on drugs — I mean cheap drugs that have them falling out and throwing up everywhere, stealing everything they can get their hands on and selling everything they own, and in too many cases it’s their body. Officers allow other inmates to deal with those that wig out because it happens far too often.

This has always been the case in prison, it’s only now that people are beginning to pay attention. We didn’t just start dying and getting hurt in prison, there were far, far more rapes 20, 30 and 40 years ago, and the prison administration was well aware of it and society didn’t care. Prison graveyards are filled with bodies buried on top of bodies of men that have been murdered or died of old age or lack of proper medical care since the late 1800s. This is Alabama.

Too often you would have to stab, beat down or kill someone to get the point across that you’re not to be [expletive] with, sometimes more than once.

The reason I’ve avoided getting stabbed or raped was God, because I wasn’t a killer, not all that smart, and I’ve never been so lucky. Somebody must have really prayed for me, because I didn’t have sense enough to pray for myself as much as I should’ve.

Pick out your friends slowly and wisely. Seek out educational programs. Borrow nothing from no one. Don’t make the officers your friends nor enemies. Never overspend on the commissary.

Living in prison is expensive. The contracted companies control the phone prices, shoe prices, hygiene and food package prices, medical co-pay and the supply of goods sold at the prison stores and canteens. Most of those prices range from inflated to ridiculous. There is no competition, no other options, no consumer protection. Montgomery is responsible for all economic policy decisions.

Bill requires jails to provide menstrual products to inmates

 

Bill requires jails to provide menstrual products to inmates
Julia Tutwiler Prison for women in Wetumpka. (Source: WBRC file photo)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A bill would require jails and prisons to provide female inmates with tampons or sanitary pads.

The Alabama House of Representatives voted 101-0 Tuesday for the legislation that now moves to the Alabama Senate.

The bill by Rep. Rolanda Hollis of Birmingham would write into law that jails and prisons are required to provide the items.

Hollis says she has heard stories of inmates resorting to fashioning their own hygiene items when they could not obtain them.

Department of Corrections Bob Horton says feminine hygiene items are readily available in bathrooms at Alabama’s only prison for women.

The state prison system in 2015 agreed to make the products available and free as part of a wide-ranging settlement agreement with the Department of Justice to improve conditions at the prison.

Originally published here

New Images From an Alabama Prison Reveal Horrific Conditions and Abuse

By David Fathi, Director, National Prison Project and published here
Prisoners

A trove of photographs depicting brutalized and murdered prisoners in Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility has thrust the treatment of our nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated people into public view. The first horror is what these people have endured in prison. The second horror is that while shocking, it is not a surprise.

As a lawyer who has represented prisoners for more than two decades, I have come to expect such violence and degradation of human beings held in appalling conditions like those seen in these photos. The only thing that’s unusual is that, for a brief moment at least, the curtain has been pulled aside and the everyday brutality of our prisons laid bare for all to see.

Transparency is like daylight — applied directly, it can be a disinfectant. And to protect the health and lives of incarcerated people across our country we need full transparency of how they are treated.

That is not the case currently. Prisons are closed institutions, literally walled off from public view. To some extent, this is unavoidable and understandable. While journalists and members of the public can freely wander into the Department of Motor Vehicles, in prisons safety and security considerations preclude similarly unfettered access. Those same considerations require some monitoring and control of communications between prisoners and the outside world.

But to a large extent, the hidden nature of U.S. prisons represents a deliberate policy choice — one that is unique among the democracies we think of as our peer nations.

Many countries have an independent national agency that monitors prison conditions and enforces minimal standards of health, safety, and humane treatment. In Great Britain, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons has the power to conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons; a similar agency operates in Canada. In countries that have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture(OPCAT), prison monitoring by a national oversight body is supplemented by periodic visits by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

By contrast, the United States has no independent national agency that monitors prison conditions. The U.S. also has not ratified OPCAT or any other treaty that would provide for outside monitoring. The bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons concluded that “[f]ew [U.S.] states have monitoring systems that operate outside state and local departments of corrections, and the few systems that do exist are generally underresourced and lacking in real power.”

Perhaps for this reason, the main vehicle for oversight of conditions in U.S. prisons has been the federal courts. Litigation can permeate prison walls and allow us into the housing units and the solitary confinement cells where prisoners live and die. It allows us to review videos and records otherwise shielded from public view. It allows us to compel prison officials to testify publicly and under oath.

But the federal courts’ oversight role has been sharply limited by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA subjects lawsuits brought by prisoners in the federal courts to a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no other litigants. Consequently, there has been a significant decline in judicial oversight of prison conditions. Between 1995 and 2000 alone, the number of states with fewer than 10 percent of their prison populations under court supervision more than doubled, from 12 to 28.

The lack of public knowledge about our prisons has real costs. Most obviously, a lack of oversight facilitates neglect and mistreatment of prisoners and prevents accountability when such misconduct occurs. But there are other consequences as well. Prisons represent the ultimate in big, coercive government — in many states, they represent one of the largest line items in the state budget. They are empowered to confine thousands of people against their will for years or decades and, in some circumstances, to use lethal force against them.

Given these high stakes and the potential for abuse, prisons should be subject to the most exacting scrutiny and public oversight. The reality, though, is just the opposite. Prisons are among the least transparent and accountable government agencies.

Many states ban in-person interviews with prisoners, and prison officials have barred specific journalists whose reporting they considered too critical. Some states have amended their freedom of information laws to limit their application to prisons, even barring prisoners from submitting requests. The federal prison system enacted a rule banning prisoners from publishing their writings under a byline; the rule was later invalidated by a federal court. Arizona went so far as to pass a law making it a crime for prisoners to post information on the internet; that statute, too, was overturned as a violation of the First Amendment.

As long as the public is kept in the dark, horrors like those at the St. Clair Correctional Facility will continue unseen. Increased transparency and oversight are just first steps in correcting the dreadful conditions in our prisons, but make no mistake — the need for them is as immediate as it is urgent.

Inside America’s Black Box: A Rare Look at the Violence of Incarceration

Would we fix our prisons if we could see what happens inside them?

Prisoners at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama made knives out of fan blades and other materials.

March 30th 2019 By Shaila Dewan and published here

The contraband is scary enough: Homemade knives with grips whittled to fit particular hands. Homemade machetes. And homemade armor, with books and magazines for padding.

Then there is the blood: In puddles. In toilets. Scrawled on the wall in desperate messages. Bloody scalps, bloody footprints, blood streaming down a cheek like tears.

And the dead: a man kneeling like a supplicant, hands bound behind his back with white fabric strips and black laces. Another, hanging from a twisted sheet in the dark, virtually naked, illuminated by a flashlight beam.

These were ugly scenes from inside an American prison, apparently taken as official documentation of violence and rule violations.

Prisons are the black boxes of our society. With their vast complexes and razor wire barriers, everyone knows where they are, but few know what goes on inside. Prisoner communication is sharply curtailed — it is monitored, censored and costly. Visitation rules are strict. Office inspections are often announced in advance.

So when prisoners go on hunger strikes or work strikes, or engage in deadly riots, the public rarely understands exactly why. How could they? Many people harbor a vague belief that whatever treatment prisoners get, they surely must deserve. It is a view perpetuated by a lack of detail.

But some weeks ago, The New York Times received more than 2,000 photographs that evidence suggests were taken inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama. Some show inmates as they are being treated in a cramped, cluttered examination room. Others are clinical: frontal portraits, close-ups of wounds.

[The Department of Justice found a “flagrant disregard” for Alabama prisoners’ right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.]

It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore. It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.St. Clair is the most violent prison in Alabama, which has the country’s highest prison homicide rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

St. Clair is the most violent prison in Alabama, which has the country’s highest prison homicide rate, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

As I scrolled through them, shock rose from my gut to my sternum. Was I looking at a prison, or a 19th-century battlefield? Those pictured betrayed little emotion and certainly none of the bravado broadcast by their tattoos: South Side Hot Boy, Something Serious, $elfmade.

After considering the inmates’ privacy, audience sensibilities and our inability to provide more context for the specific incidents depicted, The Times determined that few of these photos could be published. But they could be described.

St. Clair is known to be a deeply troubled institution in a state with an overcrowded, understaffed, antiquated prison system. Alabama has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates and, as measured by the most recent counts of homicides available, its deadliest prisons, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery. Suicide is epidemic as well — there have been 15 in the past 15 months

For years there have been complaints that St. Clair inmates are heavily armed — some for self-protection — and allowed to move freely about the compound. In fact, St. Clair is more deadly now than it was in 2014, when the Equal Justice Initiative brought suit against it for failing to protect prisoners. There have been four stabbing deathsthere in seven months.

Last June, the group said the prison was failing to comply with a settlement agreement.

Prison officials dispute that, saying the Alabama Department of Corrections is committed to improving safety and security. The department has requested money to raise salaries and increase the number of officers. Multiple law enforcement agencies recently teamed up to conduct a contraband search at St. Clair that recovered 167 makeshift weapons, said Bob Horton, a department spokesman. 

But as of October, the prison was still severely short staffed, with more vacancies than actual officers. 

A second lawsuit, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group in Montgomery, says the prisons have failed to provide adequate mental health care. (The photos show a message painted on the wall in blood, with letters about the height of a cinder block. “I ask everyone for help,” it read in part. “Mental Health won’t help.”)

An inmate held in solitary testified that his monthly mental health sessions lasted only five to 10 minutes.
He cut himself with razor blades and used his blood to write a plea for help.

The photos were given to The Times by the S.P.L.C., which said it had received them on a thumb drive. 

Bob Horton, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the department could not authenticate the photos. 

But Maria Morris, a staff lawyer at the S.P.L.C., said the environment shown looked like St. Clair, and some photos had identifying information that corresponded to known inmates or showed men that the S.P.L.C. recognized as its clients (S.P.L.C. removed the identifying information before giving the images to The Times).

The man who painted the blood on the wall, referred to in the lawsuit as M.P., had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and repeatedly tried to kill himself. He testified that he had been held in solitary confinement for six years, allowed to exercise one hour a day in ankle shackles.

Ms. Morris has specialized in prisoner’s rights litigation for more than a decade. She hears accounts of rape, beating or stabbing on a daily basis. I asked what it was like for her to see the photographs. 

They made it impossible, she explained, to retreat into that small, self-protective corner of her mind — the place where it was possible to imagine that her clients’ stories might not be as bad as they sounded. 

“Seeing what had been done to those people’s bodies — it just stripped away all of the numbing,” she said. “It was very painful to see that all of the suffering that I’ve been hearing about and trying to relate to the court — how deep it goes.”

The thumb drive included a document titled “READ ME FIRST” and claiming to be from a corrections officer. It said the photos represented only a “small portion of the injuries from inmate-on-inmate violence in the past three years.”

The writer said that the current legal agreements governing the prison stood no chance of working: “The day-to-day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair. Until major fundamental changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men it will only continue to get worse. I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated day after day and year after year.”Testimony shows that fires in solitary confinement are common, and are sometimes used to get attention in a medical emergency.

Testimony shows that fires in solitary confinement are common, and are sometimes used to get attention in a medical emergency.

The photos show dozens of wounded men. One had been stabbed at least 10 times. Another had a hole in his lip you could stick a pencil through. A pair of handcuffed wrists displayed 15 precise slashes. There was a recurring palette of pale red and sickly, Mercurochrome yellow. One man’s back had a shiv at least an inch wide still buried in it, right between the shoulder blades.

There were three individuals pictured in a folder called “Dead men” and seven in a folder called “Murders,” all of whom could be identified through news reports, press releases and booking photographs. 

But most disturbing were the images that seemed to echo the most painful aspects of African-American history. 

Many convincing arguments have been made that our penal system was at least partly designed to extend control of black people and their labor, particularly in the South, where after slavery ended black men were conscripted into chain gangs for offenses like vagrancy and “selling cotton after sunset.”

Amid the St. Clair pictures were 19 taken of a black man who was completely naked but for a pair of handcuffs, photographed from the front, back, left and right. In one frame two white officers, standing guard inches away from him, avert their eyes.

Another image brought to mind the photos of the monstrously disfigured face of Emmett Till, the teenage victim of a 1955 lynching in Mississippi, which galvanized the civil rights movement when they were published by Jet magazine.

Though separated by more than half a century and by a wide gulf in circumstances, the St. Clair photos showed another mutilated, African-American face, this time belonging to Emory Cook, a 54-year-old prisoner killed in a cell three years ago. Under Alabama’s harsh version of a three-strikes law, Mr. Cook had been serving a life sentence for third-degree burglary. 

As a prisoner, he was entitled to be protected from harm. He looked like he had been hit with a plank. 

Correction: April 1, 2019 An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization. It is in Montgomery, Ala., not Birmingham.

Shaila Dewan is a national reporter and editor covering criminal justice issues including prosecution, policing and incarceration. @shailadewan

Alabama’s Gruesome Prisons: Report Finds Rape and Murder at All Hours

April 3rd 2019 and published here By Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan

The segregation unit at Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility houses inmates in solitary confinement. Many have come to see the unit as a haven from the prison’s general population.CreditCreditWilliam Widmer 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.

Those were some of the gruesome details in a 56-page report on the Alabama prison system that was issued by the Justice Department on Wednesday. The report, one of the first major civil rights investigations by the department to be released under President Trump, uncovered shocking conditions in the state’s massively overcrowded and understaffed facilities.

Prisoners in the Alabama system endured some of the highest rates of homicide and rape in the country, the Justice Department found, and officials showed a “flagrant disregard” for their right to be free from excessive and cruel punishment. The investigation began in the waning days of the Obama administration and continued for more than two years after Mr. Trump took office. 

The department notified the prison system that it could sue in 49 days “if State officials have not satisfactorily addressed our concerns.”

[The New York Times received more than 2,000 photos taken inside an Alabama prison. This is what they showed.]

Alabama is not alone in having troubled, violent prisons. But the state has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates and its correctional system is notoriously antiquated, dangerous and short-staffed. The major prisons are at 182 percent of their capacity, the report found, contraband is rampant and prisoners sleep in dorms they are not assigned to in order to escape violence.

“The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report said, noting that some facilities had fewer than 20 percent of their allotted positions filled. It also cited the use of solitary confinement as a protective measure for vulnerable inmates, and “a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive.”

State officials said the report addressed issues that Alabama was already aware of and working to fix.

“For more than two years, the D.O.J. pursued an investigation of issues that have been the subject of ongoing litigation and the target of significant reforms by the state,” a statement from the office of Gov. Kay Ivey said. “Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with D.O.J. to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”

But the report called the state “deliberately indifferent” to the risks prisoners face, and said, “It has failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence.” Legislative efforts to reduce overcrowding through measures such as reducing sentences were not made retroactive and have had “minimal effect,” the report said.

Alabama’s prisons have for years been the subject of civil rights litigation by the Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center, nonprofit legal advocacy groups based in Montgomery. Maria Morris, the lead lawyer for the center’s lawsuit, also disputed the assertion that the problems were being fixed.

“They’re not fixing them,” Ms. Morris said. “They’re giving a lot of lip service to the need to fix them, but the lip service always comes back to we just need a billion dollars to build new prisons and, as the Department of Justice found, that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Alabama inmates continue to die in high numbers. There have been 15 suicides in the past 15 months, and the homicide rate vastly exceeds the national average for prisons.

The Justice Department report focused on the failure to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence because of what it said was inadequate training, failure to properly classify and supervise inmates, and failure to stem the flow of contraband including weapons and drugs, among other problems.

The department is still investigating excessive force and sexual abuse by prison staff members, an investigation that former federal prosecutors say could lead to criminal indictments.

[Our reporter went inside St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala. He found it was “virtually ungoverned” and the inmates were armed.]

Investigators visited four prisons and interviewed more than 270 prisoners. To “provide a window into a broken system,” the report detailed a single week’s worth of injuries and attacks, including days that saw multiple incidents including stabbings, a sleeping man attacked with socks filled with metal locks and another man being forced to perform oral sex on two men at knife point.

The department also concluded that the system does not provide “safe and sanitary” living conditions. Open sewage ran by the pathway that government lawyers used to access one facility, which the state closed soon after the visit. One investigator grew ill from the toxic fumes of cleaning fluids while inspecting the kitchen, the report said.

The report said the state failed to track violent deaths or adequately investigate sex abuse. At least three homicide victims — including one who was stabbed and another who was beaten — were classified as having died from natural causes, the report said. The report listed nine killings in which the victims had been previously attacked or officials had received other warnings that they were in danger.

Sexual assaults occur in “dormitories, cells, recreation areas, the infirmary, bathrooms, and showers at all hours of the day and night,” the report said. Prisons must screen inmates and separate sexually abusive prisoners from those at risk of sexual abuse, particularly gay and transgender people; the report said Alabama does not do so.

Inmates are raped to pay off debts, and one mother told the Justice Department that a prisoner had texted her to say he would “chop her son into pieces and rape him if she did not send him $800,” the report said.

Last month, Governor Ivey warned of “horrendous conditions” in the prisons and an impending federal intervention in her State of the State speech.

Ms. Ivey said the department had increased the prison budget in recent years, given raises to corrections officers and requested $31 million to hire 500 more correctional officers and increase pay in the coming fiscal year.

But Mac McArthur, the executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, which includes state corrections workers, said attrition was still outpacing recruitment, in part because starting salaries were still below $30,000 a year for some officers, and in part because the job was so dangerous.

The federal investigation was opened during the Obama administration, after the lawsuits over prison abuses and published accounts of endemic brutality, violence and torture. The investigation continued under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had also served as a longtime senator from Alabama.

The report included a series of measures necessary to remedy the constitutional and other violations that regularly occur in the Alabama prison system, including additional screening for those entering the prisons, moving low-risk inmates, hiring 500 additional corrections officers and overhauling disciplinary processes around violence and sexual assault.

Similar federal civil rights investigations have resulted in consent decrees — court-approved deals that include a road map of changes that institutions such as police departments and state correction departments must adhere to in order to avoid being sued.

But in a break with past practice, Mr. Sessions placed three key restrictions on consent decrees. He said that a top political appointee must sign off on any deal. Department lawyers must show proof of violations that go beyond unconstitutional behavior. And the deals must have a sunset date, meaning they can expire before violations have been remedied. The current attorney general, William P. Barr, has not changed Mr. Sessions’s policy.

Mr. Sessions said that the consent decrees interfered with states’ rights, a position echoed by Ms. Ivey in her statement insisting on an “Alabama solution.”

But Vanita Gupta, a head of the civil rights division in the Obama administration and one of the officials who opened the investigation, said that given the pervasive problems and the history of inaction, “nothing short of a comprehensive consent decree will adequately address these constitutional violations.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on whether it would seek a consent decree.

Ms. Ivey is hardly the first governor to reckon with the prison system and its decrepit conditions. Her immediate predecessor, Robert Bentley, pushed a plan for $800 million in bonds to build four new prisons and to close some existing facilities.

But governors have only so much influence in Alabama, and the Legislature balked, especially as a scandal left Mr. Bentley weakened. This year, Ms. Ivey proposed a similar plan for new prisons that state officials hoped would be ready by 2022.

Alan Blinder contributed reporting.

Follow Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan on Twitter: @ktbenner and @shailadewan.

After Inmate Suicides, Alabama Prisons On Trial

By Richard Gonzales and published here

A fence stands at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., seen in 2015. A federal judge ruled that mental health care for inmates is "horrendously inadequate."
A fence stands at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., seen in 2015. A federal judge ruled that mental health care for inmates is “horrendously inadequate.”
Brynn Anderson/AP

A federal judge in Montgomery is again hearing arguments over efforts to stop a wave on inmate suicides in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prison system

U.S District Judge Myron Thompson is hearing testimony on whether the state has adequately responded to 15 suicide deaths in the past 15 months.

The state’s liability for those suicides and others has been the subject of a protracted legal battle dating back to June 2014. A lawsuit challenging the conditions and treatment of mentally ill inmates was initially filed against Alabama prison authorities by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. It has since been amended.

Attorneys for Alabama said prison officials have a plan for reducing inmate suicides. Inmates’ lawyers argued that the steady pace of suicides indicates that the state’s proposed reforms need monitoring.

The trial is expected to last several days, according to The Associated Press.

“Prisoners with serious mental illnesses were routinely housed in solitary confinement and provided with little to no mental health care,” according to a case summary on the SPLC’s website. “The Alabama Department of Corrections has the highest suicide rate in the nation, with most such deaths occurring in solitary confinement and solitary-like units. In ADOC prisons, there have been over 200 suicide attempts requiring hospitalization between the filing of the case and January 2019, and there have been 31 completed suicides.”

In June 2017, Judge Thompson ruled that Alabama’s prison system had violated inmates’ constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 302-page ruling, Thompson found that persistent staff shortages and chronic inmate overcrowding permeated the system. Among other systemic deficiencies, the judge found that the Alabama Department of Corrections:

  • Failed to identify prisoners with serious mental health needs and properly classify their needs;
  • Failed to set up individualized treatment plans;
  • Failed to provide qualified and properly supervised mental-health staff;
  • Failed to identify and treat inmates at risk of suicide;
  • Placed seriously mentally ill inmates in seclusion without considering the impact of those circumstances.

“Simply put, ADOC’s mental-health care is horrendously inadequate,” Thompson concluded.

In an editorial, ADOC Commissioner Jefferson Dunn said overcrowding and understaffing are a “two-headed monster” that hinders reform. He also said Alabama will borrow $800 million to build four new prison facilities.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced today that her administration will seek bids for building three regional prisons for men, at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion – part of a larger effort to address the state’s dangerous and overcrowded prison system

Southern Poverty Law Center responds to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison construction plan

We greet Gov. Ivey’s announcement about her plans for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) with hope mitigated by concern. We agree with many of the governor’s observations and are encouraged by her acknowledgment of the crisisAlabama is facing. She’s right that any solution to Alabama’s prison crisis will require increased correctional staffing, which has been mandated by a federal judge.

At least some of the existing prisons should eventually be replaced with facilities that promote constitutional conditions and provide prisoners with access to rehabilitative programming. Gov. Ivey is correct that 95 percent of the people in ADOC custody will eventually return to their communities, and providing them with more opportunities while incarcerated to become productive citizens upon release is in both their interest and that of the taxpayers.

However, we are concerned that the governor’s plan fails to address the roots of Alabama’s prison crisis. Alabama continues to incarcerate its people at among the highest rates in the nation, and has drastically overcrowded prisons as a result.

Alabama passed sentencing reforms in 2015 but left multiple opportunities to safely reduce the prison population on the table. Neighboring Southern states have moved forward with reforms like minimizing criminalization of marijuana related offenses and increasing threshold amounts for property related offenses that Alabama could consider during the forthcoming session.

Implementing these reforms could help reduce Alabama’s prison population from the 160 percent of capacity it is at now to levels that will be safer, more manageable, and less costly to the state. The governor and Legislature should investigate these cost-saving, public safety-improving measures with at least as much zeal as they are pursuing a costly prison construction plan.

We are also gravely concerned that the governor’s budget proposal to fund 500 correctional officers falls terribly short of the steps necessary to comply with the federal court’s order that ADOC hire approximately 2,000 correctional officers by 2022, nor does there appear to be a concrete plan for compliance with the court’s order.

Most pressing of all is the staggering loss of life happening within ADOC prisons right now that a multi-year prison construction plan will not solve. Gov. Ivey’s request for proposals does nothing to address the suicide epidemic or the pervasive violence that endangers both officers and incarcerated people daily and is currently under active investigation by the Department of Justice.

To end Alabama’s prison crisis, Gov. Ivey and Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn must engage with advocates to negotiate a comprehensive solution that addresses all of the factors contributing to this crisis by adopting sentencing reform, increasing staffing and decreasing violence, and providing medical and mental health care – in addition to brick and mortar construction.  We stand at the ready to work with the governor and the commissioner, and extend an invitation to them to collaborate with us on this endeavor to craft meaningful Alabama solutions.

Inmates’ attorneys say Alabama has prison suicide emergency

Betty Head, choked with emotion, talks about her son, Billy Thornton, who took his own life at Holman Correctional Facility last year. Jerri Ford, whose husband took his own life at Kilby Correctional Facility in January, comforts Head as she tries to speak. (Mike Cason | mcason@al.com
)

Lawyers representing state inmates said today the suicide rate in Alabama prisons has risen to a level that constitutes an emergency and that it shows the state is not fixing what a federal judge ruled in 2017 was an unconstitutional lack of mental health care for inmates.

Lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center held a news conference this morning in front of the Alabama State House and were joined by grieving family members of inmates who took their own lives in prison in the last year.

The SPLC said 13 inmates have committed suicide in Alabama prisons since December 2017. The latest is Daniel Scott Gentry, 31, who was found hanging in his cell at William Donaldson Correctional Facility on Wednesday.

Those numbers place the suicide rate at four times the national average for prisons, SPLC attorney Maria Morris said. The SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program represent inmates in the federal case.

Last month, they asked U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson for an emergency order to block the placement of inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness in segregation, or individual cells, because the isolation causes their conditions to worsen and increases the risk of suicide. Thompson cited the risk of isolating mentally ill inmates in his 2017 ruling that mental health care was “horrendously inadequate.”

But Morris said the practice persists and that ADOC needs to immediately take steps to stop it.

“They need to step up and treat this like what it is, a life and death emergency,” Morris said. “ADOC needs to act now to stop this extraordinary loss of life.”

Alabama’s prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years.

SPLC President Richard Cohen said Gov. Kay Ivey and ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn have not confronted the problems and criticized the plan under consideration by the Ivey administration to build three new prisons at an expected cost of about $1 billion. 

Former Gov. Robert Bentley also proposed building new prisons in 2016 and 2017, but the Legislature would not grant its approval.

“Now, the governor and her staff behind closed doors are creating a new scheme to get around the wisdom of the people,” Cohen said.

During her inaugural address last month, Ivey said she would make an announcement soon on prison construction.

Today, Cohen called on the Legislature to tackle the prison problems with mental health care, medical care and violence.

“Everyone knows we can’t build our way out of these problems,” Cohen said. “Everyone knows we need to address the acute problems with mental health care, medical care, prison violence and we’re not going to be doing by simply building new prisons that may open sometime in the distant future.”

The governor’s office declined comment on the remarks from the SPLC officials today.

In a statement today, the ADOC said the spike in suicides is an ongoing concern that it will address. Experts retained by the ADOC and the SPLC are scheduled to issue a joint report on suicide prevention recommendations in March, the ADOC said.

Dunn has said replacement of aging, outdated facilities is one component of fixing the state’s prisons, including medical care and mental health care. The ADOC is also asking the Legislature for a $42 million increase in its General Fund appropriation next year, with most of the increase intended to hire 500 additional correctional officers and boost correctional officer pay by 20 percent to help in recruitment and retention.

But the ADOC needs to add more than 2,000 additional officers over the next few years according to the ADOC analysis submitted to the court, the SPLC said.

Dunn said in the statement today that the ADOC is committed to providing appropriate mental health care. 

“In addition to increasing our mental health staff, we also are developing a prison revitalization plan that will consolidate the delivery of mental and medical health care in a new state-of-the-art health care facility,” Dunn said. “More information about the plan will be made public in the coming days. I am focused on solving this problem.”

Jerri Ford joined the lawyers at today’s press conference. Ford’s husband, Paul Ford, hung himself at the Kilby Correctional Facility in January. Ford was in a segregation cell and had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, according to the SPLC. He was serving a sentence of life without parole for a 1995 murder conviction in Talladega County. Ford’s sister, nephew and granddaughter also appeared today.

“He was a very good person,” Jerri Ford said. “He thought a lot of other people. He was not selfish, by no means.”

She said the segregation and limited visitation opportunities took a toll on her husband, as well as she and the rest of the family.

“He got us through as much as we got him through, the situations that we were in,” Jerri Ford said. “Without each other, that’s just how it goes.”

Morris said the state cannot ignore the problem of prison suicides.

“These are our brothers and our sisters, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters,” Morris said. “They’re in our prisons and they suffer hopelessness and desperation and many of them suffer from mental illness. Alabama needs to address this problem and it needs to do it now.”

By Mike Cason | mcason@al.com

The killing fields inside Alabama’s prisons

Holman Correctional Facility just north of Atmore.Photo by Phillip Tutor/The Anniston Star

How a state treats the less fortunate, the infirm, the young and the imprisoned says a great deal about its value of human life.
Alabama hasn’t expanded Medicaid — a deplorable missed opportunity rooted in a heartless political stance — despite the federal government’s offer to pay nearly all of the added costs for several years.
Alabama hasn’t committed to the fiscal and administrative changes required to propel its public schools into the nation’s upper tier.

And the latest example: Alabama has allowed its overcrowded and underfunded prison system to become a killing field on par with Third World countries.
That isn’t hyperbole.
It’s truth.

In December, 29-year-old Vaquerro Kinjuan Armstrong, an inmate at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, was murdered by an inmate. Two weeks before, inmate James Lewis Kennedy was murdered by an inmate at Elmore Correctional Facility. Those killings raise the homicide total at Alabama’s prisons to 19 in the last two years, including nine this year, and 35 at Alabama Department of Corrections facilities in the past five years. The St. Clair facility has been the site of nine homicides. Twenty-one have happened at medium-security facilities. The location doesn’t seem to matter.
For perspective, let’s turn to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, a renowned advocate for equality in the criminal-justice system:
“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 … (Last) 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.”
This is our fault — the fault of our politicians, the fault of our justice system, the fault of our voters who have not used the ballot to force sweeping reforms in this inhumane situation.

Understand that we are not naive about prisons. They are compounds of steep personal restrictions, a place to house the convicted, a way to protect the populace from those who rob, steal, rape and kill. They are not, and should not be, compounds of comfort.
But the imprisoned are humans, and they deserve basic protections given to all Alabamians. On this, our prison system is failing.
The incremental improvements in the size of Alabama’s inmate population have failed to prevent this appalling number of homicides.
The Legislature’s efforts to ward off federal intervention in our prisons have failed to radically change the reality inside the Department of Corrections.
And Alabamians — including us — have failed to fully understand how profound this problem is.
No state has a prison system more lethal than Alabama’s, where, the EJI writes, “thousands of prisoners (are) vulnerable to abuse, assaults and uncontrolled violence.” Our prisons exist for a reason. They shouldn’t be Marriotts for the convicted. But they shouldn’t be killing fields, either. And that’s on us.

Published By the editorial board of The Anniston Star here