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Justice Department Launches Investigation into Alabama Prison System

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Thursday, October 6, 2016, the US Justice Department opened an investigation into Alabama’s overcrowded and underfunded Department of Corrections. Governor Robert Bentley said that he welcomed the investigation.

Gov. Bentley said in a statement, “I welcome an investigation by the Department of Justice into Alabama’s prisons. We both share a common goal of wanting to improve the safety of the officers and inmates within the facilities. I have personally met with representatives from the Department of Justice, and following those meetings the Alabama Department of Corrections made several critical changes to Tutwiler Prison for Women. I have also had the opportunity to personally meet in Washington DC with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and discuss the issue of overcrowding in Alabama and across the country. I shared with Attorney General Lynch the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative announced earlier this year. This plan includes modern prisons that will reduce overcrowding and improve safety conditions for inmates and corrections officers.”

In February, Gov. Bentley proposed borrowing $850 million to build four massive prisons in one, unbid contract, to a construction company chosen by the Governor. The controversial plan died in the Legislature.

Gov. Bentley said, “I welcome the opportunity to continue to work with the Department of Justice and continue the efforts to make Alabama prisons better. This issue of overcrowding is a decade’s old issue that must be addressed. I am looking forward to again working with the Alabama Legislature to permanently solve this problem.”

The Alabama Corrections System has operated at well over 180 percent capacity for years. Recent Efforts to reduce lengthy incarcerations and recidivism, however, are providing some help in cutting the number of Alabamians the State has locked up and is reducing the overcrowding.

According to numbers provided to the Alabama Political Reporter by State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), the Alabama prison population peaked at 25,874 in 2008. When Alabama passed prison reform in June 2015, the prison population was 25,706. By June 2016, that had dropped to 24,380. Without doing anything drastic, it is projected that the prison population will be down to 21,786 by 2020. Meanwhile, the State has spent an additional $42.6 million on supervision, treatment, and victim notification in fiscal year’s 2016 and 2017.

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None of that progress, however, stopped the Obama Administration from launching this investigation on their way out of office.

The investigation will be headed by the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

The head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta said, “The Constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement.”

US Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District, Joyce White Vance said, “Our obligation is to protect the civil rights of all citizens, including those who are incarcerated. This investigation provides us with an opportunity to work collaboratively with the State of Alabama to assess current conditions and ensure constitutionally sufficient conditions exist for all prisoners.”

US Attorney for Alabama’s Middle District, George L. Beck Jr. said, “The vulnerability of a prisoner makes it even more important that basic hygiene and safe accommodations are afforded the inmates.”

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) President Richard Cohen said in a statement, “Alabama’s prisons are out of control because the state incarcerates too many people and the prisons are poorly managed.”

The SPLC is suing the State over its prison conditions.

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Cohen said, “Governor Bentley thinks the answer is to spend $1.5 billion on building new prisons, but the problems facing the Alabama Department of Corrections cannot be solved by construction. If we embark on a costly and ill-planned massive prison construction plan without carefully calibrating it to coincide with continued, significant decreases in the State’s prison population, we’re likely to end up where we started, with too many prisons and an unnecessarily high prison population that uses State resources that could be better spent on increasing public safety and improving the lives of all Alabamians.”

Gupta said, “We hope to work cooperatively with the State of Alabama in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that the State’s facilities keep prisoners safe from harm.”

The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the US Attorney’s Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama, are conducting this investigation. Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the department via phone at (205) 244-2001 or by email at [email protected].

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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