Across the globe, there’s a common meme about how the American prison system in the deep south is especially cruel to its own people. In a recent investigation conducted by the Department of Justice (DOJ), where their lengthy 56-page report examines the state of Alabama’s correctional institutions, there’s new scathing evidence to confirm the horror stories of imprisonment is just the brutal reality of America.
The report, one of the first major criminal justice investigations undertaken by the DOJ, showcases the government’s “flagrant disregard” for prisoner rights since the case was originally opened three years ago. These findings, analyzing four prisons alongside interviews from 270-plus inmates, were paired with a direct open letter to the state’s Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL) citing significant violations of the constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.” It cautioned government officials that while the cited incidents are staggering alone, this report also serves as a glimpse into the untouched story of horrific incarceration.
The authors make specific note of conduct which happened during September 2017, where prisoners were routinely subject to beatings, sexual assault, rape, torture, sleeping beds being lit aflame, drug overdoses and stabbings (one of which resulting in a murder). These incidents all took place within the span of a week in Alabama’s custody. “It is likely that many other serious incidents also occurred during this week, but were not reported by either prisoners or staff,” highlighted a summary from The New York Times, citing how several cases were left ignored by correctional staff despite inmates crying for assistance.
The DOJ concluded failure to protect inmates from such prison-on-prisoner violence — either through malice or negligence — is an unconstitutional practice which requires reform. “The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing, overcrowding, and supervision,” the report concludes. “[There’s a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive,” noting questionable practice like solitary confinement was used “both to punish and protect victims of violence.”
These conclusions were followed up with an interesting threat from the DOJ, informing the state government officials the department would be forced to sue if these unconstitutional behaviors aren’t corrected within a 49-day span. “In particular, we have reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them… and by failing to provide safe conditions,” the DOJ officials wrote. “The Attorney General may also move to intervene with related private suits 15 days after issuance of this letter.”
The governor was soon forced to acknowledge the issue. “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 Gov. Ivey’s office reads. “Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with the 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 how mutual are these concerns exactly? As noted by the NYT’s journalists Katie Benner and Shaila Dewan, the report is specific about how the state government was “deliberately indifferent” to the treatment of their own prisoners. This means when the report says the state “failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence,” it was done so “with the knowledge and disregarding of [the] excessive risk to prisoner health or safety”.
No policies reducing these factors, such as reduced sentencing measures, had “minimal effect” due to it only applying for future prisoners, not prisoners currently held in captivity. This is unacceptable when, as discovered by the DOJ, these prisons such as Alabama’s Holman institution have just 11 security staff per shift to watch over a population of 800 on death row alone. To also assume the understaffed crew are honest actors, despite the DOJ finding “a tendency to dismiss claims of sexual abuse by gay prisoners as consensual ‘homosexual activity’ without further investigation,”
According to data from the World Prison Brief, the U.S. prison system is actually the 113th most overcrowded worldwide with the occupancy level standing at 103.9 percent nationwide, meanwhile, the DOJ notes staffing levels in Alabama have fallen to below 20 percent. The problem won’t be solved by building more prisons and locking up more criminals under the same conditions — it’s to reduce the prison population and to increase the good faith watchdogs looking over them.
“They’re not fixing them. 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,” argued Maria Morris, lead civil rights lawyer for an Alabama lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), speaking with the Times. “It’s such a damning portrait of a system in crisis,” also added Lisa Graybill, the deputy legal director for criminal justice reform at the SPLC, providing a statement to NPR. “The state has refused to accept responsibility for bringing its population down to a manageable level or bringing its conditions up to a constitutional level.”
Thanks for reading! This article was originally published for TrigTent.com, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary, truly diverse viewpoints and facts that don’t kowtow to political correctness.
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