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Prison reform advocates praising Department of Justice's investigation into Alabama's prison system

The DOJ's investigation says they believe Alabama is violating inmates' constitutional rights by failing to protect prisons from violence, sexual abuse and unsafe conditions.

Posted: Apr 3, 2019 7:56 PM
Updated: Apr 4, 2019 5:19 PM

Prison reform advocates are praising the Department of Justice's investigation into the Alabama prison system.

The DOJ's investigation says they believe Alabama is violating inmates' constitutional rights by failing to protect prisons from violence, sexual abuse and unsafe conditions.

Prison reform advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Southern Poverty Law Center say these issues within the prison system have been going on for years, but they are pleased that these issues are being exposed.

A 52-page report from the DOJ goes into detail about how inmates in Alabama prisons are raped, die of drug overdoses, are stabbed, beat up and killed while in the state's 13 prisons. The DOJ's report says a lot of this violence all relates back to low-staffing levels within the prison system.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said Alabama leadership has failed to address the staffing issues, even though the Department of Corrections is currently trying to hire hundreds of new correctional officers and the state is building three new prisons.

Randall Marshall with the American Civil Liberties Union in Alabama said this should be a wake-up call for the state.

"It would be our hope that officials would sit down and really give a hard look at the reality of the situation that the prisons are in and come up with meaningful fixes beyond just building more capacity and putting more people in them," Marshall said.

The state now has two to six months to fix things immediately in the areas of contraband, violence, sexual abuse, under-staffing and overcrowding.

The DOJ's report says they interviewed hundreds of prisoners and DOC staff members over three years during their investigation. Governor Kay Ivey says the state is putting over $100 million into the DOC to fix problems within the prison system. 

One former warden was even quoted in the report saying the low-staffing levels were barbaric and put inmates and correctional officers in extremely dangerous situations.

Ivey has said in the past and said again on Wednesday that she knows about the problems within the prison system, and prior to this report, they were already working on fixing the prison system. Ivey said lawmakers already delegated $86 million in funding to the DOC and plan to add another $31 million to its 2020 budget to hire more than 500 new correctional officers.

WAAY 31 spoke with Jay Town, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

"The issues we identified are very troubling, but they are also systemic," Town said. "They have been inherited by this leadership. They're decades old. I personally have great confidence in the leadership of this state that we can resolve these issues fairly and fundamentally."

State officials have 49 days to fix problems within the DOC. If they don't, the United States Attorney General can hit Alabama with a lawsuit and the federal government will fix the problems for Alabama. 

Gov. Kay Ivey's response:

Governor Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections responded today to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) findings letter that reports the results of the DOJ’s investigation into inmate-on-inmate violence, sexual assault, and the conditions of confinement within the Alabama Department of Corrections’ (ADOC) male correctional facilities.

The DOJ investigation, pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), was initiated on October 6, 2016, and involved site inspections at four male prisons and the interviewing of hundreds of inmates, correctional staff, and ADOC officials. For more than two years, the DOJ pursued an investigation of issues that have been the subject of on-going litigation and the target of significant reforms by the state.

“We appreciate the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to ensure open lines of communication with the State of Alabama. DOJ has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time,” Governor Ivey said. “Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with DOJ 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.”

The Department of Corrections already acknowledged many of the issues in the DOJ’s findings letter and has been actively working to remedy these concerns by improving correctional officer hiring and retention; developing effective prison management, including efforts to curtail the entry of contraband; and replacing an outdated prison system with state-of-the-art correctional facilities designed to safely, effectively, and humanely manage and meet the needs of a diverse inmate population.

As DOJ stated in its finding letter, “We recognize ADOC has begun to make some positive changes in recent years.”

Alabama Department of Corrections plan to build new prisons will allow for enhanced security through updated structures and the implementation of current technology resources. Such facilities will also allow for the integration of medical and mental health services and provide safer environments for inmates and staff.

“ADOC voluntarily assisted the DOJ in every reasonable way with the investigation,” Commissioner Jeff Dunn said. “Our primary objective is to ensure each facility provides a humane, secure, and safe environment for inmates, and that reforms already in place and proposed bring about positive, tangible changes throughout the prison system.” Efforts for the improved hiring and retention of correctional staff have been bolstered with the Legislature’s $86 million funding appropriations in 2018 and 2019 for hiring additional correctional and health services staff. These efforts continue with a $31 million request for ADOC’s proposed 2020 budget, which would help the department hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay scale for all security personnel.

Continued multi-agency law enforcement security operations, like one recently conducted at the St. Clair Correctional Facility on February 28, utilized drug detection canines and drone technology to confiscate contraband at prison facilities to improve safety among inmates and correctional staff.

ADOC has expanded its increased oversight of mental health service delivery, with the creation and addition of multiple mental health oversight staff positions and staff-wide training. Additionally, with assistance from nationally recognized clinical mental health experts, ADOC developed a comprehensive mental health program for standard mental health screening, crisis and suicide intervention, prevention, and specialized mental health treatment.

In 2014, ADOC partnered with a consulting group to aid the department in complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards and improving conditions within the prison system. DOJ and ADOC jointly selected an independent monitor who provided technical assistance to ADOC in addition to assessing the department’s compliance. In 2017, all ADOC facilities reached full PREA compliance with DOJ’s validation.

To combat recidivism and in the interest of public safety, ADOC uses evidence-based principles and programs by matching inmates with rehabilitative, vocational, and educational programs they need to reenter society successfully upon their release.

“In response to DOJ’s findings, it is important to understand all the current efforts ADOC has taken and will continue to take to improve the conditions of confinement within the male prison system,” Dunn said. “Governor’s Ivey’s commitment to working closely with the Legislature to resolve this generational problem will ultimately lead to a 21st Century prison system.”

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