Alabama violates the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” because state corrections officers frequently use excessive force on prisoners and aren’t held accountable for their actions, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found.
Alabama prison guards working in severely overcrowded and understaffed facilities frequently used excessive force, leading to significant injures and even death, according to the investigation by the department’s Civil Rights Division, working in conjunction with Alabama’s three top federal prosecutors. Two Alabama prisoners died from excessive force incidents in the last months of 2019 alone.
A previous federal probe released last year found that Alabama failed to maintain sanitary and safe facilities and violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights by failing to protect them from violence and sexual abuse from other prisoners. But the new investigation found that Alabama violated prisoners’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them from the state’s own employees.
The department’s 30-page report highlighted several instances of excessive force inside Alabama prisons, which hold more than 16,000 male prisoners in 13 facilities. The report found that corrections officers all too often used force when there was no physical threat to their safety and also routinely “use force as a form of retribution and for the sole purpose of inflicting pain.”
In one instance, a correctional officer at the Ventress Correctional Facility “brutally hit, kicked and struck a handcuffed prisoner” inside a medical unit while yelling “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” as the prisoner “begged the officer to kill him.” Four nurses witnessed parts of the incident, and the guard ― covered in the prisoner’s blood ― told them to say they hadn’t seen anything, according to the investigation.
Prison investigators questioned whether the corrections officer was fit for duty because he claimed to have post-traumatic stress disorder, but there was no indication that they referred his case for criminal prosecution or imposed discipline internally.
In another case, a prison sergeant at the Stanton Correctional Facility punched a handcuffed prisoner in the face with a closed fist because the prisoner stuck out his tongue.
In yet another instance, at least six corrections officers at the St. Clair Correctional Facility rushed a prisoner who was handcuffed after stabbing a corrections officer with a prison-made knife. When a sergeant told them, “It’s over; the inmate is in handcuffs,” the officers pepper-sprayed the sergeant in the eye so they could beat the prisoner. During the beating, they used a baton to hit a lieutenant who tried to intervene and pushed him back so the beating could continue. There’s no indication the officers were disciplined.
Given the low staffing rates and overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons, staff members are often forced to work overtime, which leads them to become “tired, stressed, overworked and angry,” the report said. That led to a situation in which excessive force was so commonplace that “officers, even supervisors, watch other officers brutally beating prisoners and do not intervene,” often “standing by and watching serious uses of excessive force occur and never speaking up or physically intervening.”
“Uses of force happen so regularly in Alabama’s prisons that some officers appear accustomed to that level of violence and consider it normal,” the report said. “In short, in Alabama’s prisons, cruel treatment of prisoners by staff is common and de-escalation techniques are regularly ignored.”
The Alabama investigation was one of the department’s only “pattern-or-practice” investigations to move forward under President Donald Trump’s administration. Such investigations focus not on individual so-called “bad apples” who violate the rights of their fellow American citizens in extreme cases, but rather more broadly on law enforcement institutions that breed cultures in which constitutional violations become routine.
Under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and current Attorney General William Barr, the department has been reluctant to conduct broader investigations into patterns of unconstitutional conduct in law enforcement organizations in part based on the belief that such investigations hurt officers’ feelings.
Sessions later conceded he hadn’t actual read the department’s investigations of patterns of unconstitutional conduct. But he said during his 2017 confirmation hearing that it was “a difficult thing” for officers when their department was sued by the federal government.
Under Trump, the department even effectively killed a cooperation-based federal program in which law enforcement organizations that wished to improve their operations could volunteer to subject themselves to scrutiny from law enforcement experts.
Earlier this month, the only “pattern-or-practice” probe of a police department conducted during the Trump administration found that narcotics officers in Springfield, Massachusetts, routinely punched individuals in the face unnecessarily and used “excessive force without accountability.”
More than three years after the federal government began extracting itself from the police reform business and largely abandoned its lawfully mandated mission to examine patterns of criminal conduct in local police departments, the police killing of George Floyd drew new attention to the need for police reform.
Even some Republican politicians have conceded there’s a need for police reform led by the federal government. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) last month urged Barr to use his authority “to root out misconduct in local police departments and to help restore trust between these departments and the communities they serve.” Three Republicans in the Minnesota Senate, meanwhile, called for a “pattern-or-practice” investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Read the Department of Justice’s report on the unconstitutional conditions in Alabama state prisons below.