By Christopher Zoukis
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched a statewide probe on whether conditions in Alabama's 14 prisons for men violate the rights of inmates. The investigation is under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which allows action against jails or prisons that show patterns or practices of resisting inmates' civil rights.
The new probe will center on whether inmates have safe and sanitary living conditions, particularly whether they have adequate protection against physical injury or sexual abuse by fellow prisoners or corrections officers. Spearheading the probe with the Civil Rights Division are all three U.S. Attorneys in the state.
The state's prison system has long been beset by severe overcrowding and understaffing. As of July, the state prison system had 22,254 male prisoners -- 178 percent more than its design capacity, but down from 193 percent two years ago. Even after recently adopting new sentencing guidelines to ease overcrowding, state officials concede that consolidating old facilities and building new ones will be necessary to address the problem.
At the same time, state prisons now have staffing levels as low as 60 percent of the recommended levels. The Alabama prison system has also been targeted in numerous lawsuits claiming denial of inmate rights. One recent settlement compelled the state raise itself to long-established accessibility standards for disabled inmates.
Alabama's system also has a troubled history of abuse and violence. In 2014, DOJ launched a probe of Alabama's lone women's prison, after an initial finding dozen of incidents of sexual abuse by prison staff, and later discovering numerous other deficiencies. Last year, DOJ ended the probe after the state agreed to make a number of changes. A local prison reform advocacy group also claims correctional officers at two state prisons threatened to bring disciplinary charges against male inmates if they refused to perform sex acts.
This year alone, violent incidents include an inmate fatally stabbing a corrections officer at a morning mess hall at the Holman Correctional Institute -- the troubled maximum-security prison that has seen multiple strikes, riots and disturbances. And a corrections officer at another prison was arrested and charged with assault for threatening an inmate, then punching, choking him and beating him with a baton.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who unsuccessfully sought funds in this year's legislative session to build several new prisons, said he welcomed the chance to work with the DOJ to improve the state's prison system. He also pledged to try again in the new legislative session in February for a permanent solution to what he termed a "decades-old issue."
Some Alabama legislators argue that if they are unable to come up with a solution that satisfies the DOJ probers, the state could face a DOJ lawsuit seeking to take over control of Alabama's prisons for men -- a step the agency took in Alabama during the 1970s and has taken elsewhere, notably in California. The commissioner of the state's department of corrections says he understands "the seriousness of the DOJ investigation" and pledges full cooperation.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com