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

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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

Alabama leaders temporarily stop $10M prison contract

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Alabama legislators have put a temporary hold on a $10 million contract between the state Department of Corrections and a company that could analyze prison needs and design new facilities.

Al.com reports the Legislature’s contract committee paused the plan Thursday amid questions about its reliability, considering construction plans for new prisons failed in 2016 and 2017. Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn says planning for new prisons is a better use of tax dollars than putting more money into older prisons that need to be replaced.

He says it would cost about $1 billion to build three new regional prisons, including one that can accommodate inmates with high-need mental health issues.

One committee member said the Legislature is unlikely to pass a $1 billion prison plan.

Article originally posted here

This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall

We are living in boom times for the private prison industry. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest owner of private prisons, has seen its revenue climb by more than 500 percent in the last two decades. And CCA wants to get much, much bigger: Last year, the company made an offer to 48 governors to buy and operate their state-funded prisons. But what made CCA’s pitch to those governors so audacious and shocking was that it included a so-called occupancy requirement, a clause demanding the state keep those newly privatized prisons at least 90 percent full at all times, regardless of whether crime was rising or falling.

Occupancy requirements, as it turns out, are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full. (The report was funded by grants from the Open Society Institute and Public Welfare, according to a spokesman.)

All the big private prison companies—CCA, GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation—try to include occupancy requirements in their contracts, according to the report. States with the highest occupancy requirements include Arizona (three prison contracts with 100 percent occupancy guarantees), Oklahoma (three contracts with 98 percent occupancy guarantees), and Virginia (one contract with a 95 percent occupancy guarantee). At the same time, private prison companies have supported and helped write “three-strike” and “truth-in-sentencing” laws that drive up prison populations. Their livelihoods depend on towns, cities, and states sending more people to prison and keeping them there.

You might be wondering: What happens when crime drops and prison populations dwindle in states that agreed to keep their private prisons 80 percent or 90 percent full? Consider Colorado. The state’s crime rate has sunk by a third in the past decade, and since 2009, five state-run prisons have shuttered because they weren’t needed. Many more prison beds remain empty in other state facilities. Yet the state chose not to fill those beds because Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and CCA cut a deal to instead send 3,330 prisoners to CCA’s three Colorado prisons. Colorado taxpayers foot the bill for leaving those state-run prisons underused. In March, Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, estimated that the state wasted at least $2 million in taxpayer money using CCA’s prisons instead of its own.

That’s just one example of how private prison companies keep the dollars rolling in, whether crime is rising or waning. Not surprisingly, In the Public Interest’s report calls on local and state governments to refuse to include occupancy requirements and even ban such requirements with new legislation. “With governmental priorities pulling public funds in so many different directions, it makes no financial sense for taxpayers to fund empty prison beds,” the report says. Read the full report below:

Originally published by Andy Kroll here

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