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Justice Department may sue Alabama over 'severe' prison problems

The Justice Department says Alabama's prison system has been violating the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse.

Posted: Apr 3, 2019 9:02 AM
Updated: Apr 3, 2019 9:44 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Justice Department says Alabama's prison system has been violating the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse.

The federal government's findings were disclosed in a scathing letter reviewed Wednesday by The Associated Press. The letter described the problems as "severe" and "systemic."

The Justice Department also warned that it may sue the state within the next two months if Alabama doesn't fix the problems.

The findings are the result of an investigation opened in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration.

The report is the latest blow to the troubled Alabama prison system, which has been criticized for overcrowding, violence, and a high suicide rate.

A federal judge ruled in 2017 that the state has provided "horrendously inadequate" care to mentally ill inmates.

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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