Alabama's Prisons Are So Bad Trump's DOJ Thinks They Are Bad
When we send people to prison, we are punishing them by taking away their freedom. We don't sentence people who have been caught with drugs or caught robbing a convenience store to death. We don't sentence anyone to being raped or otherwise assaulted. And yet that is what happens in prisons across America.
Alabama is the worst, and has been for a while. With 27 homicides in the last two and a half years and a mortality rate more than double the national average for incarcerated people, the overcrowded Alabama prison system is the most lethal in the country. Sexual assault is rampant. The mental health care is so inadequate that the state, following a 2017 lawsuit, is currently under court orders to increase mental health staff and security.
After an investigation that began in 2016, the Department of Justice has determined the conditions in Alabama's men's prison are are so bad that they likely violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The DOJ found that the state had not been doing enough to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual assault and otherwise unsafe conditions. This follows a 2014 finding that conditions at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women violated the Eighth amendment by failing to protect inmates from sexual assault by staff members.
There is reasonable cause to believe that the Alabama Department of Corrections ("ADOC") has violated and is continuing to violate the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners housed in men's prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions, and that such violations are pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights secured by the Eighth Amendment. The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision; overcrowding; ineffective housing and classification protocols; inadequate incident reporting; inability to control the flow of contraband into and within the prisons, including illegal drugs and weapons; ineffective prison management and training.
The report is long and it is horrifying. It details multiple incidents of sexual assaults and the prison's refusal to do anything about them, often punishing those who report rather than their assailants, and considering rape and sexual assault to be a form of payment for debts owed.
Sexual abuse of prisoners is often connected to the drug trade and other contraband problems that result from inadequate supervision and corruption in Alabama's prisons. Our experts' on site interviews of captains and lieutenants revealed that many ADOC staff appear to accept the high level of violence and sexual abuse in ADOC as a normal course of business, including acquiescence to the idea that prisoners will be subjected to sexual abuse as a way to pay debts accrued to other prisoners. Many prisoners report that they were sexually assaulted because of debts they owed (or that the assailants said they owed), often related to drugs or other contraband.
In other words, "Well, you owed that guy money and didn't pay, so he took his payment in the form of rape, and we, the prison staff, are fine with that."
In 2017, "the ADOC reported 227 incidents of "Inmate on Inmate Sexual Victimization," with two reports substantiated, 95 unsubstantiated, 20 unfounded, and 46 open at the time of reporting." However, the DOJ suspects that the actual rates are much, much higher due to victims not reporting or to staff writing off sexual assaults as "homosexual activity."
Victims of sexual assault are also often put in segregated units while their assailants are allowed to stay in gen pop.
In January 2018, a prisoner at Bullock resorted to cutting his wrist after an attempted sexual assault and physical assault "because he feared being in population and needed to be placed in a single cell." He reported that two nights prior, two prisoners had attempted to rape him but were unable to penetrate him because he defecated during the assault. The prisoners then poured hot water on him, causing burn marks to his buttocks and the back of his head. ADOC placed the victim in segregation and allowed the perpetrators to remain in general population. The incident report notes that the perpetrators would receive "disciplinary actions for assault," and that no further action would be taken.
That is not even the worst thing in this report.
In addition to the assaults on prisoners, the DOJ also highlighted the decrepit state of many of these prisons.
Prisoners with whom we spoke throughout ADOC consistently told us about the poor state of the facilities. Some mentioned that spiders and other bugs would regularly fall from the ceilings. More than one prisoner discussed seeing rats and bugs in the kitchen and food storage areas. Prisoners in segregation described especially poor conditions. One prisoner described large cockroaches in segregation. Several told us that a plate covered the only window in their unit, so that they could never see out and there was little ventilation. Numerous prisoners described having no light in their cell. Some mentioned broken toilets and sinks, as well as leaky roofs, and a lack of heat.
The DOJ has given the state a list of immediate reforms with which they must comply within 49 days, or they'll be subject to a lawsuit.
The Alabama Department of Corrections says these things are happening because the prisons are overcrowded and they don't have enough corrections officers. They're not wrong! In 2017, the prisons were found to be operating at 164% beyond their design capacity. Even if the corrections officers were not rape-ignoring sociopaths who were actually good at their jobs, they would not be able to effectively monitor inmates in a situation like that.
Republican Governor Kay Ivey is seeking to address the issue by asking the legislature for $40 million, most of which would go to hiring more corrections officers. The state also wants to build three new men's prison facilities, which would cost about $900 million in total.
The new prisons are needed, the DOJ's recommended reforms are needed, and it's clear that more and better trained staff -- ideally of the kind that won't shrug off sexual assault as some kind of payment plan -- are needed as well. But these things will be a hell of a lot more effective if the state doesn't have such a high prison population in the first place. The Alabama prison population has more than quadrupled since 1980, largely because of people going to prison for non-violent drug offenses. In 2017, 34% of new prisoners were incarcerated for such offenses.
Call me crazy, but it seems that if you want to reduce crime, sending non-violent drug offenders to these hellmouth prisons where they will be brutalized and raped, and then sending them out in the world damaged and traumatized, is not your best plan.
The ACLU has laid out a blueprint for how Alabama could cut its prison population by half by 2025 and also save themselves $469,391,583. Rather than simply building more prisons, the ACLU recommends reforms such as cutting sentences, not charging juveniles as adults, and directing non-violent offenders to rehabilitation centers rather than actual prison.
It's easier to make "don't drop the soap" jokes than it is to have empathy for the incarcerated. But what's happening here is horrific, and it should not be considered an acceptable form of punishment in this country.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse