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

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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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.

 

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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Lilly Ledbetter speaks about her friendship with Ginsburg

Micah Danney

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Lilly Ledbetter spoke during a virtual campaign event with Sen. Doug Jones on Sept. 21.

When anti-pay-discrimination icon and activist Lilly Ledbetter started receiving mail from late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ledbetter’s attorney told her to save the envelopes. That’s how unusual it is to get personal mail from a member of the nation’s highest court.

Ledbetter, 82, of Jacksonville, Alabama, shared her memories of her contact with Ginsburg over the last decade during a Facebook live event hosted by Sen. Doug Jones on Monday.

Ginsburg famously read her dissent from the bench, a rare occurrence, in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decision in 2007. The court ruled 5-4 to affirm a lower court’s decision that Ledbetter was not owed damages for pay discrimination because her suit was not filed within 180 days of the setting of the policy that led to her paychecks being less than those of her male colleagues. 

Ledbetter said that Ginsburg “gave me the dignity” of publicly affirming the righteousness of Ledbetter’s case, demonstrating an attention to the details of the suit.

Ginsburg challenged Congress to take action to prevent similar plaintiffs from being denied compensation due to a statute of limitations that can run out before an employee discovers they are being discriminated against. 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It resets the statute of limitation’s clock with each paycheck that is reduced by a discriminatory policy.

Ledbetter said that her heart was heavy when she learned of Ginsburg’s death on Friday. The women kept in touch after they met in 2010. That was shortly after the death of Ginsburg’s husband, tax attorney Marty Ginsburg. She spoke about her pain to Ledbetter, whose husband Charles had died two years before.

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“So we both shared that, and we shared a tear,” said Ledbetter.

Ginsburg invited her to her Supreme Court chambers to see a framed copy of the act, next to which hung a pen that Obama used to sign it.

Ginsburg later sent Ledbetter a signed copy of a cookbook honoring her husband that was published by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Included with it was a personal note, as was the case with other pieces of correspondence from the justice that Ledbetter received at her home in Alabama. They were often brochures and other written materials that Ginsburg received that featured photos of both women.

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Ledbetter expressed her support for Jones in his race against GOP challenger Tommy Tuberville. The filling of Ginsburg’s seat is a major factor in that, she said.

“I do have to talk from my heart, because I am scared to death for the few years that I have yet to live because this country is not headed in the right direction,” she said.

She noted that Ginsburg was 60 when she was appointed to the court. Ledbetter said that she opposes any nominee who is younger than 55 because they would not have the experience and breadth of legal knowledge required to properly serve on the Supreme Court.

She said that issues like hers have long-term consequences that are made even more evident by the financial strains resulting from the pandemic, as she would have more retirement savings had she been paid what her male colleagues were.

Jones called Ledbetter a friend and hero of his.

“I’ve been saying to folks lately, if those folks at Goodyear had only done the right thing by Lilly Ledbetter and the women that worked there, maybe they’d still be operating in Gadsden these days,” he said.

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Justice Ginsburg’s death will supercharge a heated 2020 campaign

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

Brandon Moseley

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President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, are running for president in 2020. (STAFF SGT. TONY HARP/AIR NATIONAL GUARD AND GAGE SKIDMORE/FLIKR)

Just hours after the death of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, conservatives, including the Alabama-based Foundation for Moral Law, said Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to reverse the ideological trend of the nation’s highest court.

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

The controversy over when and how to confirm a new justice will likely supercharge an already heated 2020 election campaign. Trump was at a campaign rally on Friday night when he learned about the justice’s death from reporters.

“Just died? Wow, I did not know that,” Trump said. “She was an amazing woman. Whether you agreed or not she led an amazing life. She was an amazing woman. I am sad to hear that.”

Ginsburg, since her appointment by President Bill Clinton, has been bastion of the court’s more liberal wing. The court was divided with four “liberal” justices led by Ginsburg and four “conservative” justices led by Samuel Alito.

Chief Justice John Roberts, though appointed by President George W. Bush, has been the swing vote on a number of major issues since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018. Her death gives Trump the opportunity to appoint her replacement and potentially shape the direction of the court for decades to come.

Conservatives want Trump to select the nominee and the current GOP-controlled Senate to confirm the Trump appointee.

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The Foundation for Moral Law — a conservative legal group founded by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — released a statement saying that Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to move the court in a more conservative direction.

“For many years United States Supreme Court has been a bastion for liberal anti-God ideology,” Moore said. “The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be an opportunity to reverse this trend. I’m hopeful that President Trump will immediately nominate a true conservative who understands that our rights come from God and no authority in this country can take those rights from us.”

“This is a very critical time for our country and our future and the future of our posterity depends upon our vigilance and direction,” Moore said.

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Judicial Watch, another conservative legal group, echoed Moore’s statement.

“Judicial Watch sends it condolences to the family of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had a wonderful judicial temperament that will always be remembered,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “President Trump now has a historic opportunity to nominate yet another constitutional conservative who will honor the Constitution and the rule of law across the full spectrum of constitutional issues.”

“And the U.S. Senate should move quickly to work with President Trump to consider and approve a new justice who will faithfully apply the U.S. Constitution,” Fitton said. “There is no reason we cannot have a new justice by Election Day.”

Trump is expected to put forth a nominee to fill Ginsburg’s seat in the coming days, according to ABC News.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, wrote in a statement that, “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

But Democratic senators and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, disagree.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” Schumer wrote on social media Friday, parroting a similar quote McConnell used in 2016 when he refused to give then-President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, hearings and a vote for confirmation to the court. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Republicans in the Senate blocked Obama from selecting Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement. Scalia was the most conservative jurist on the court.

Ginsburg was a staunch supporter of abortion rights and voter protections, and she played a major role in upholding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights. She also voted in favor of same-sex marriage and to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Most political observers expect Trump to appoint a woman to fill Ginsburg’s spot. Political insiders have suggested that Trump believes that appointing a woman to the court could help him with woman, a key swing demographic that will likely decide the next election.

Will the Senate confirm Trump’s appointment before the election or wait until after the public votes? If Republicans lose control of the Senate, could a lame duck GOP majority select the direction of the court on their way out?

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones has been widely criticized for his vote against the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. If the vote comes before the Nov. 3 election, Jones’s decision on whether to confirm Trump’s appointee will be heavily scrutinized.

The questions about the Supreme Court is likely to only further inflame passions on both sides this election cycle.

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Judge dismisses former Drummond exec’s lawsuit against Balch and Bingham

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Balch & Bingham law firm filed by a former coal executive who claimed the law firm’s poor legal advice resulted in his conviction on federal bribery charges. 

Judge Tamara Harris Johnson ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on former Drummond Coal vice president David Roberson’s $50 million lawsuit against Balch and his former employer, Drummond.

The suit claimed that Balch attorneys, primarily Joel Gilbert, who was also convicted of federal bribery charges, assured Roberson that a plan to recruit then-State Rep. Oliver Robinson to use his office to thwart efforts by the EPA to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in North Birmingham was legal.

Johnson’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit against Balch didn’t dispute Roberson’s claims but said that under the Alabama Legal Service Liability Action statute, Roberson should have filed his claim no later than November 2018. He filed it in March 2019. 

“All claims against defendant Balch & Bingham are barred by the statute of limitations,” Johnson wrote. 

Johnson said a motion to dismiss filed by Drummond will be addressed separately at a later date. 

Roberson and Gilbert were the only two executives found guilty by a jury in October 2018 in the well-publicized federal case that saw Robinson plead guilty and go to prison for accepting bribes. 

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Roberson maintained his innocence throughout, saying he relied on the advice and counsel of Gilbert and others at Balch. During the sentencing phase, U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon said he was moved by Roberson’s history and the character witnesses who testified on his behalf, and the judge said he found Roberson to be less culpable than Gilbert because he relied on Gilbert’s legal advice. 

Gilbert was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Robinson was sentenced to two and a half years.

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Trial begins in lawsuit challenging state’s COVID-19 election rules

Micah Danney

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(ALABAMAVOTES.GOV/APR GRAPHIC)

A virtual trial opened on Tuesday in a lawsuit charging that Alabama’s requirements of witnesses and photo ID for absentee ballots and a “de facto ban” on curbside voting are unconstitutional.

The suit, People First v. Merrill, was filed on May 1 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the American Civil Liberties Union against Secretary of State John Merrill.

Merrill has touted the rules for the election in November as guaranteeing “a higher degree of credibility than ever before in the history of the state.”

The SPLC said that while Merrill did permit any eligible voter to apply for an absentee ballot by claiming “physical illness or infirmity,” the witness and ID absentee requirements should be waived and the curbside voting ban lifted because they present unfair obstacles to plaintiffs’ ability to vote.

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