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Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

Chip Brownlee

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Back in February 2017, an inmate was eating his evening meal when other inmates sexually assaulted him inside his dormitory at Fountain Correction Facility, a medium-security Alabama men’s prison opened in 1955 near Atmore.

The prison is designed for 831 inmates, but it currently holds more than 1,200 prisoners at 150 percent its intended capacity, according to an Alabama Department of Correction report released in December.

The victim in this instance was forced to perform oral sex and raped by two other inmates, who held him down while they assaulted him. He was transported to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner’s Center for further treatment, and the Department of Corrections was able to substantiate the incident.

Despite the evidence, no ADOC staff reported the assault.

“Either ADOC staff responsible for monitoring the dormitory did not observe the incident, or they observed it but did not report it,” a report from the U.S. Department of Justice released Wednesday found.

This incident is just one of several inside of Alabama’s highly overcrowded and understaffed men’s prisons highlighted in the Department of Justice’s report, which found that conditions in the state’s 13 men’s correctional facilities are so bad that they amount to a potential violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The report, nearly 60 pages long, found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama’s Department of Correction regularly failed to protect inmates from sexual and physical violence perpetrated by other inmates.

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“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,” the report, which highlights the “severe” and potentially unconstitutional conditions in Alabama prisons, reads.

The “theme” of sexual abuse as a consequence of debt to other prisoners is so common, according to the report, that some incident logs specifically highlight a prisoner’s debt history.

Other examples, some among the dozens of violent assaults cataloged in the DOJ report, found that inmates were also sexually abused as retaliation for having previously reported abuse.

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The assaults, the report found, showed a “flagrant disregard” for the inmates’ rights to safe conditions.

The DOJ’s wide-ranging investigation found not only that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.

Another inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility was strangled to death in 2016, and when officers finally found his body, he had been lying down face-first in his bed for so long that his face was “flattened.”

At some point, the assailants urinated on the victim and carved “1636” into his ribcage — indicating the deceased victim was a gang member who committed the “cardinal sin” of being a traitor or snitch.

Officials had prior warning, and less than two weeks before his death, he had been assaulted over debt and placed in segregation for protection, the report found. He was released only hours before he was killed.

“The Constitution guarantees all prisoners the right to be housed in safe conditions and not be subjected to violence and sexual abuse,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result. The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns.”

The DOJ’s investigation — pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act — started in October 2016 in the final months of the Obama administration.

For more than two years, DOJ investigators — under the leadership of former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — interviewed hundreds of inmates, correctional staff and ADOC officials, combed through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and made site visits to four male prisons.

“This massive undertaking alleges constitutional troubles in the Alabama Department of Corrections, which are serious, systemic and in need of fundamental and comprehensive change,” U.S. Attorney Jay Town stated.

Inmates in Alabama’s aged and dilapidated prisons endure some of the highest rates of homicide, suicide and rape in the country, the report found.

“An extraordinary amount of time and effort was expended to investigate this matter,” said U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin, Sr. “Although the results of this investigation are disturbing, I look at this as an opportunity to acknowledge that the problems are real and need to be addressed immediately. We are committed to working with State officials to ensure that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”

DOJ officials have notified Alabama prison administrators that it could sue in less than two months if ADOC officials do not “satisfactorily address” the concerns raised in the report, including major overcrowding, rampant contraband and severe understaffing.

The violence is made worse by “serious deficiencies” in staffing. Some facilities have fewer than a fifth of their assigned correctional positions filled.

“That being said, I have great confidence in the State of Alabama’s resolve to correct the prison system’s problems,” Town said. “The commitment by Gov. Ivey, Commissioner Dunn and so many others in the State’s leadership to affirmatively address these inherited issues offers great promise of our development of a meaningful remedy.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the issues are the subject of ongoing litigation and the target of “significant reforms” by state officials. Since taking office, Ivey has pushed for a plan to build new prisons and hire additional correctional officers.

“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,” Ivey said in a statement.

The DOJ did acknowledge that remedies are already being sought for many of the issues listed in the report.

“We recognize ADOC has begun to make some positive changes in recent years,” the report found.

But some of the most severe issues could take years to fix, and lawmakers have shown an unwillingness to invest in new prisons or a substantial transformation of Alabama’s prison system. The governor’s administration can only do so much without funding from the state Legislature.

The ADOC plan to build new prisons, the governor’s office said, would allow for enhanced security through updated structures and the implementation of current technology resources. It would also help to improve medical and mental health services by consolidating more than a dozen men’s prisons into just three so-called “mega prisons.”

“The failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection on those of us who live and work in Alabama,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Moore. “We are better than this. We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our State further embarrassment. The task is daunting, but one we must embrace now without reservation. I am confident that Governor Ivey and the Legislative leadership in the State of Alabama understand the nature of this inherited problem and that they are committed to sustainable solutions.”

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn, who has pushed the Legislature to invest more in new prisons and more personnel, said ADOC voluntarily assisted the DOJ during its investigation.

“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,” Dunn said.

The Legislature has taken some steps, providing $86 million in additional appropriations in 2018 and 2019 for hiring additional correctional and health services staff.

Ivey has asked for $31 million to help the department hire 500 new correctional officers and increase the pay scale for all security personnel in an effort to bolster correctional officer retention levels.

But the report said the state was “deliberately indifferent” to the issues prisoners face while incarcerated, and it has “failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence.”

The Legislature has also taken aim in recent years at Alabama’s high incarceration rates, engaging in efforts to reform the state’s sentencing laws. The sentencing guideline changes have reduced overcrowding to a degree, but the report found that they were not retroactive and had a “minimal effect” on the issues raised in the investigation.

“There is no excuse for Gov. Ivey and Commissioner Dunn’s knowing disregard of and failure to address the horrors cataloged in DOJ’s letter,” said SPLC attorney Ebony Howard. “As DOJ’s letter makes clear, and as advocates have said for years, Alabama cannot simply build its way out of this crisis. While acknowledging the few modest remedial steps ADOC has taken, the letter clearly demands a complete overhaul of Alabama’s prison system, starting today.”

Ivey warned of the “horrendous conditions” and impending federal involvement in her State of the State speech earlier this year. During her first year in office, Ivey considered calling a special session over the state’s deteriorating prison system.

The report comes after several lawsuits have challenged the conditions in the state’s prisons. U.S. Federal Judge Myron Thompson found conditions to be “horrendously inadequate” in his ruling on a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center over the prison system’s mental health care, which largely focused on the state’s high suicide rate among the imprisoned.

Federal court rules Alabama treatment of prisoners in isolation unconstitutional

There have been at least 15 suicides in the past 15 months — more than double the national average.

More lawsuits are still pending.

“The Department of Justice is not exaggerating when its findings letter characterizes the current staffing levels at the Alabama Department of Corrections as ‘at a crisis level,’ ‘egregious’ and ‘dangerous,'” said SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Maria Morris.

“Alabama’s leadership has repeatedly failed to responsibly address inadequate staffing levels,” she said. “This is contributing to horrific incidents of violence and suicide among prisoners that are completely preventable but for the incompetence of the ADOC leadership.”

The DOJ’s investigators interviewed more than 270 prisoners, made four site visits, sent two DOJ investigators to interview prisoners in seven Alabama prisons and provided prisoners access a toll-free number with direct access to DOJ personnel.

The report found that inadequate training, failure to classify and supervise inmates and high contraband levels — including drugs and weapons — contributed to the violence and sexual abuse so prevalent in the prison system.

The problems could extend to state staff members, too. Another investigation by the DOJ is still ongoing concerning excessive force and sexual abuse on the part of the correctional staff.

Overall, the department conducted more than 500 interviews with prisoners and family members by phone, reviewed more than 400 letters from ADOC prisoners and received hundreds of emails from prisoners and family members to a special email address established specifically for this investigation.

They requested and reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and data from 2015 to 2018. The investigation provides just a “window” into the broken state penal system.

“Alabama must stop wasting time and money on litigation and start investing in solutions,” Morris said.

The state has 49 days to “satisfactorily address” the issues, or new Attorney General William Barr may begin a lawsuit to correct the problems.

“We hope, however, to resolve this matter through a more cooperative approach and look forward to working with you to address the alleged violations of law we have identified,” DOJ officials said in a letter to Ivey.

 

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Alabama Democratic Party lawsuit was back in court on Thursday

Josh Moon

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The dispute goes on forever and the lawsuit never ends. 

A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge on Thursday delayed a decision on whether he has the standing to settle an internal dispute within the Alabama Democratic Party but indicated that he’s leaning towards ruling that he does. 

Judge Greg Griffin said he would rule soon on the matter, but made no promise that the decision would come before Alabama’s primary elections on March 3. 

Thursday’s hearing was the latest in the seemingly endless fight over control of the ADP and was the next step in a lawsuit brought by former ADP chairwoman Nancy Worley. Worley and her supporters, which have proven to be a decided minority of the State Democratic Executive Committee, filed the lawsuit late last year after the Democratic National Committee invalidated her re-election as chair and forced the party to change its bylaws and hold new elections. 

Those new elections resulted in Rep. Chris England being elected as party chairman and former Rep. Patricia Todd being elected vice-chair. The new party leadership has the backing of the national party, which pulled funding from ADP because Worley and others refused to rewrite the state party’s bylaws to be more inclusive. 

Worley filed her initial lawsuit prior to the elections in which she was booted out of her position, and Griffin, who was widely criticized for his handling of the case, granted a temporary restraining order that prevented the Reform Caucus of the ADP from meeting. That decision by Griffin was immediately overturned by the Alabama Supreme Court, in a rare, late-Friday evening emergency ruling. 

However, the ALSC did not rule on whether Griffin had standing to settle a dispute within the state party. The court left that question up to Griffin, which was why Thursday’s hearing was held. 

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The entire thing seems to be an exercise in futility at this point. 

The ADP has moved on, with England certifying candidates and DNC officials clearly recognizing him as the rightful party chair. The DNC has no desire to work with Worley, who was stripped of her credentials for failing to follow directives and bylaws of the party. 

Even if Griffin creates a reason to invalidate England’s election, it doesn’t seem to matter much. The DNC has validated it, and it accepted the ADP’s new bylaws and changes to leadership structure. 

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If Worley were to prevail in court, it’s unclear exactly what she would win.

 

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Legislation would limit death penalty appeals

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Tuesday discussed legislation that would reduce the length of some death penalty appeals. 

“Over the last 13 month, seven Alabama law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty by violent criminals, which is a new record and obviously not one the state of Alabama is proud of,” Ainsworth said during the press conference at the Alabama State House on Tuesday. “Back the blue has got to be more than just a slogan. Actions must follow words.” 

Ainsworth said that death row inmates in Alabama serve approximately 14 years on average before executions are carried out, and that there needs to be a “fair but expedited process in Alabama.” 

The proposed legislation would prevent the Alabama Supreme Court from hearing death row appeals in capital murder cases, and would stop all such appeals at the state Court of Criminal Appeals level. 

The bills would also require the criminal appeals court to expedite death row appeals when possible, and would reduce the amount of time a person has to appeal such convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ainsworth said. 

“This legislation still affords a thorough appeals process, and all the protections guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution,” Ainsworth said. “It has been designed to provide both equal justice to inmates, and swifter justice to their victims.” 

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court and sponsor of the senate’s version of the bill, said during the press conference that while overall crime rates have been declining, murders in Alabama have increased 25 percent over the last three years. 

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“I’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform, but let me tell you something, public safety is first and foremost, Ward said. “…I think this is a reasonable bill. It still provides for due process.” 

State Rep. Connie Row,R-Jasper, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said that as a former police chief she recognizes the value of the lives of those who serve the public. She also worked with crime victims in capital cases, she said, and in “capital cases it’s seeing if you can live long enough to see justice served in a death penalty case.” 

The bills also add language that would allow the Alabama Department of Corrections to conduct executions at facilities other than the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, where the state’s death chamber is currently located. 

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ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in January that all death row inmates were being moved to Holman, while the majority of the prison’s areas for other incarcerated men was being closed due to concerns over maintenance problems in a tunnel that carries utilities to those portions of the prison. The death row section of Holman was to remain open, Dunn said. 

There are 175 people serving on the state’s death row, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics

Attempts Tuesday to reach staff at the Equal Justice Initiative for comment on the legislation were unsuccessful. The Montgomery legal aid nonprofit works to exonerate death row inmates, among its other initiatives. 

According to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center 167 incarcerated people on death row in the U.S. have been exonerated and released from prison since 1973. Among those formerly on death row, six were scheduled to die by execution in Alabama. 

The last Alabama death row inmate exonerated was Anthony Hinton, freed in April 2015 after spending 30 years on death row for the 1985 murders of two fast food supervisors in Birmingham. 

The only evidence presented at Hinton’s trial was ballistics testing state prosecutors said proved the bullets that killed the two men came from a gun Hinton’s mother owned. 

Hinton lost appeals for a decade before the Equal Justice Initiative took up his case. Subsequent ballistics testing by the nonprofit in 2002 proved that the bullets weren’t a match for the firearm, but the state declined to re-examine the case. 

It took another 12 years for Hinton’s appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and granted a new trial. 

The judge in his new trial dismissed the charges after the state’s prosecutors determined through additional testing that the bullets could not have come from Hinton’s mother’s gun. 

A 2009 study by professors at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88 percent of the leading criminologists in the U.S. polled did not believe the death penalty effectively deters crime.

Of the leading criminologists polled in the study, 87 percent said that speeding up executions would not add a deterrent effect on crime.

 

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Alabamians for Fair Justice urges lawmakers to repeal habitual offender law

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Tuesday in Montgomery, over a hundred advocates for criminal justice reform will urge Alabama lawmakers to adopt reforms to help alleviate Alabama’s prison crisis. Alabamians from across the state will push for major changes that would help make prison sentences proportionate to the crimes committed, prevent people convicted of minor offenses from going to prison, and provide needed supports for people re-entering communities.  Today, Alabama’s prison are roughly 170 percent over capacity with staffing levels at 30 percent. 

In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) warned Alabama that the conditions in the male prisons likely violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.  The DOJ letter found Alabama’s prisons do not protect people from violence, sexual abuse, and fail to provide safe living conditions.  Alabama’s prison system was also found to have “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff, combined with chronic and significant overcrowding,” in in 2017 state-wide ruling in Braggs v. Dunn

“It is important for Alabama to see the people behind the prison walls,” said  LaTonya Tate, executive director and founder, Alabama Justice Initiative.  “These are real fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, wives and husbands behind every excessive prison sentence. Lawmakers need to understand that incarcerated Alabamians, their families, and their supporters are constituents too. Their voices matter.”

The lobby day is organized by the Alabamians for Fair Justice (AFJ) coalition.   

AFJ’s legislative priorities includes:

  • Repealing Alabama’s “three strikes” law, also called the Habitual Felony Offender Act, or HFOA.  About 6,000 people in Alabama are serving escalated sentences based on prior offenses, often committed as teenagers. The law permits a Life Without Parole sentence for a single Class A felony if someone has a prior minor drug or property conviction.  About 500 Alabamians are sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide crimes under this law.
  • Reducing sentences for marijuana possession.  Each year, nearly 1,000 people face felony convictions for marijuana possession, a “crime” that is legal for nearly half of the population in the United States.  Alabama spends roughly $22 million tax dollars per year to enforce possession laws.     
  • Making the 2013 sentencing guidelines retroactive.  The 2013 presumptive sentencing guidelines were a major contributor to Alabama’s prison population declining.  Now, hundreds of people sentenced before 2013 still serve longer sentences than they would face if sentenced now – and for nonviolent crimes. AFJ asks for the Legislature to apply the same guidelines to people convicted prior to the new guidelines.
  • Overhaul the state’s community corrections, diversion, and alternative court programs to make them more accessible, especially to people without money, and more accountable to the taxpayers of Alabama.  Currently, these programs have no uniform standards, lack necessary oversight, and are funded by the participants.  
  • Reform the state’s parole system.  Roughly nine out of every 10 people up for parole were denied since Governor Kay Ivey appointed Charles Graddick as the director of Alabama’s Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.  If this rate continues, ACLU of Alabama estimates the state prison population will increase by 3,700 people due to the dramatic drop in paroles being granted. 

Alabama spends about $500 million in tax dollars each year for over 20,000 people in custody, yet the state’s prisons remain dangerous, overcrowded, and understaffed. 

Governor Ivey’s main solution to Alabama’s unsafe prisons is to spend $2.6 billion taxpayer dollars “lease” three new mega-prisons that would be built by a private, for-profit corporation.

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“When you have the worst prisons in the country, the solution is not to build more. The solution is to enact smart, commonsense reforms to provide treatment, services, and alternatives in communities and keep people out of prison,”  said Tate.

 

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U.S. Attorney Jay Town to serve as working group co-chair on presidential commission

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via WHNT

U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town will serve as a Co-Chair of the Criminal Justice System Personnel Intersection Working Group on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.  The working group will examine how police, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and correctional authorities intersect so that the system of criminal justice can enhance its ability to prevent and control crime and serve the victims of crime.

“I am humbled and honored to serve as working group Co-Chair on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice,” Town said.  “The Criminal Justice System Personnel Intersection Working Group will address a multitude of issues seeking to broaden the relationships between every layer of law enforcement, improve relations between the community and the justice system, and find innovative ways to reduce crime as a result.  I look forward to joining my colleagues in this incredibly important and collective effort to help this Administration identify effective and systemic criminal justice reforms that will reduce and prevent crime in America.”

On October 28, 2019, President Donald J. Trump signed Executive Order No. 13896, authorizing and designating the Attorney General to create such a Commission that would explore modern issues affecting law enforcement that most impact the ability of American policing to reduce crime.  Attorney General William P. Barr announced the establishment of the Commission on January 22, 2020.

The Executive Order instructs the Commission to conduct its study by focusing on the law enforcement officers who are tasked with reducing crime on a daily basis. It also directs the Commission to research “important current issues facing law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” and recommends a variety of subjects for study, such as, but not limited to:

  • The challenges to law enforcement associated with mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, and other social factors that influence crime and strain criminal justice resources;
  • The recruitment, hiring, training, and retention of law enforcement officers, including in rural and tribal communities;
  • Refusals by State and local prosecutors to enforce laws or prosecute categories of crimes;
  • The need to promote public confidence and respect for the law and law enforcement officers; and
  • The effects of technological innovations on law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including the challenges and opportunities presented by such innovations.

In studying these issues, the Commission will be assisted by “working groups.”  These working groups will consist of subject matter experts across the federal and state government and have a particularized focus on distinct issues the Commission will review (e.g. “Technology”).  They will assist and facilitate the Commission’s study of these issues, and provide advice and counsel on their specific subject.  The working groups, which will include our federal partners from the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Interior, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and other federal agencies, will provide much needed expertise and insight on the important issues affecting law enforcement.  This Commission requires a team effort.  Such a rich variety of federal and state government participation is essential to the work at hand.  Once the Commission completes its study, it will recommend the best measures to empower American law enforcement to combat the criminal threats of our time, and to restore the utmost public confidence in our law enforcement to protect and serve.

In forming the Commission, the Department of Justice has marshaled together the expertise and experiences of all sectors of the law enforcement community—urban police departments, county sheriffs, state attorneys general and prosecutors, elected officials, United States Attorneys, and federal law enforcement agencies.  They come from distinct states, cities, counties, and towns across the country but share a common mission of safeguarding their respective communities from a variety of threats.

The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice.  Learn more about the history of our agency at www.Justice.gov/Celebrating150Years

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