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Lawsuits over 2016 raid at Holman prison allege guards beat handcuffed prisoners

Eddie Burkhalter

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At 6:35 A.M. on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, approximately 39 correctional officers wearing riot gear, some carrying firearms, entered the Bravo dormitory at the Holman Correctional facility near Atmore. 

What happened in the moments that followed resulted in 16 civil lawsuits filed by incarcerated men who say officers used batons and fists on already-handcuffed men, refused medical care for some and warned men not to discuss what happened with prison medical staff. Hospital records indicate a collapsed lung, multiple broken ribs, cuts and bruises among the incarcerated men’s injuries. 

Correctional officers and prison administrators say officers used only enough force to get the men in handcuffs that morning, that no one was beaten after being secured and everyone was given proper medical care, according to multiple affidavits by officers, administrators and prison medical staff in court records. 

Those records show that correctional officers say an event at Holman prison two days prior left officers fearful for their lives, and that the raid was needed to collect contraband weapons and arrest suspects in that previous incident. 

The raid and lawsuits that followed come as the ADOC continues to struggle with prison overcrowding, too few correctional officers and a culture of violence. It’s a recipe that’s resulted in a prison homicide rate of more than nine times the national average and all-too-common suspected drug overdoses of incarcerated men. 

In February, five of those lawsuits will head into settlement conferences in front of federal judges in Mobile, where the plaintiffs and attorneys for Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) will make their cases before possible jury trials. 

A man serving in an Alabama prison who was in the Holman dormitory for both of those incidents in November 2016, told APR by phone from prison that the incarcerated men believe the raid was payback, meant to establish fear by assaulting those considered to be the most vocal. The man asked not to be identified because he said he fears prison staff may retaliate for speaking to a reporter. APR has confirmed the man’s identity and that he was in Holman at the time of the Nov. 7 and Nov. 9 incidents. 

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“A few inmates did get a little rowdy,” the man said, speaking of the incident on Nov 7, 2016.“Mainly about the tents around the dorm, but it got settled…the officers were in the right. The inmates were wrong.” 

Court records show that on Nov. 7, 2016, Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) officers entered the prison and began removing clotheslines that had been strung around beds, which the men used as makeshift “tents.” One officer broke a man’s broom handle in the process, which caused a reaction from the men. 

“When the approximately 114 inmates inside B-Dorm observed this they all rose up off their beds and began shouting obscenities and threatening us,” said ADOC Sergeant Jesse Wilson in an affidavit. “Numerous inmates made death threats to us and were making statements such as “We run this bitch!”…Several inmates were observed with knives and broomsticks in their hands to be utilized as weapons.” 

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Wilson said that officers were in the dorm for about five minutes “attempting to talk our way out. We were outnumbered with approximately 1l4 inmates and only approximately 10 officers. I have never been so afraid for my life like I was during this uprising. Thankfully, we were able to exit the dorm safely.” 

“There had been increasingly less control over B-dormitory due to the lack of staff and manpower and the very real concern about confronting the dangerous inmates concentrated in that area,” said ADOC Sergeant Harry Finklea in an affidavit. 

Two days later, around 39 officers with the North Central, South Central and Southern Region CERT teams entered Holman with a list of 19 names, men who had been identified as having been “armed and aggressive” in the Nov. 7 incident. 

An internal investigation of the Nov. 9 incident by ADOC Investigations and Intelligence Division investigator David Jones found that officers “acted in accordance with the policies and procedures of the Alabama Department of Corrections” because the “apparent threat was visible to the South CERT team with inmates possessing knives and ice picks seen on Nov. 7.” 

“The injuries sustained by the inmates were minimal based on the Medical Assessment completed by the Health Care Staff on Nov. 9, 2016,” Jones wrote in his report. According to court records 30 prison-made knives were recovered during the Nov. 9 incident. 

“They came in swinging sticks and screaming and hollering. It felt like war,” the man serving at Holman prison told APR. “They were screaming ‘everybody lay down’ and as they were saying this they were just beating people. They were just swinging their sticks hitting people.” 

The man said that before officers entered there was “nothing going on” in the dormitory,  the men were sleeping, he said, and the area was under control of the guards. Numerous statements by ADOC officers in court records say they were responding that morning to an ‘active disturbance.” 

“They were just mad. They were dealing with pride, so they went and got their whole group,” he said. “I was looking around and they were hitting old people, young people. It didn’t matter. They hit a guy in a wheelchair.” 

Below is information on a few of the 16 lawsuits, ten of which remain active. 

(One plaintiff dropped his lawsuit after becoming a Christian and wanting to forgive, he wrote to the court. Another case was dismissed after the man was released and the court was unable to reach him. 

Moses Robinson, who filed suit on Feb. 7, 2017, died on Dec. 30, 2019, after being assaulted by another incarcerated man at Holman. Three lawsuits were dismissed for failure to pay filing fees, which ranged from $1.50 to $400 in each case.)  

 Jimmy Stanton

Among the men who filed lawsuits after the Nov. 9, 2016, incident is Jimmy Stanton, who is serving life without parole at Holman for murder. 

In his complaint Stanton said that when officers entered he was almost immediately handcuffed with plastic cuffs behind his back and “made to stand beside to C.E.R.T. members and slapped by a third, who was told by another officer to do so and to throw me on the floor, in front of my bed with numerous other inmates bunched together tightly.” 

“They then actually stepped on and walked back as though we were a carpet rug…Then after a long length of time I was picked up and placed on top of another inmate in a homosexual position as C.E.R.T. members watched a laughed…we refrained from saying anything about it, afraid we would be beat further.” 

Stanton said in his complaint that he was then taken to the showers because he had urinated on himself in his wheelchair and that “it was one of the most scariest days of my confinement; cause I was unable to walk, and at the complete mercy of the C.E.R.T. team.” 

Medical records show that not long before the Nov. 9 incident Stanton had surgery on his back and his neck and was given a wheelchair. 

Correctional officers in affidavits told the court that no one used force on Stanton on the morning of Nov. 9 and that he was not listed as a suspect in the Nov. 7 incident. 

“Furthermore, due to inmate Stanton’s physical condition, (which was the result of recent surgery on the nerves in his neck) it was determined that Stanton was not an immediate threat to the CERT team’s operation on November 9, 2016,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote to the court in an Oct. 11, 2017, filing. 

Stanton, who is representing himself, told the court in a Jan. 8, 2020 filing that it was correctional officer David Dennis who hit Stanton in the face on Nov. 9 and that Lieutenant Dominic Whitley was present when he was hit and afterward Whitley lifted Stanton up to turn him over and place handcuffs on him. 

Correctional officer Dennis and Lieutenant Whitley in signed affidavits both wrote that  on the morning of Nov. 9 both saw an “unknown inmate” standing up and both used force to get the inmate to lay on the bed and into handcuffs. 

Although Stanton is not listed as one of the 19 men on a “duty officer report” filed on Nov. 9, which states those men failed to comply with officers’ orders that morning and that “The CERT Teams used force on the above mentioned inmates to get them to comply with the orders given,” Stanton’s name does show up on a separate document. 

An “incident report” later completed by warden William Streeter does list Stanton as one of a total of 33 men whom officers used force on that morning, but Streeter later told the court that Stanton’s inclusion on that second list was due to “poor proofing.” 

Warden William Streeter in his affidavit wrote that on Nov. 9 he saw Stanton seated in his wheelchair.

“Inmate Jimmy Stanton refused the orders given and remained seated in his wheelchair. Inmate Stanton, in fact, made no effort to move from his wheelchair to his bed. Therefore, inmate Stanton, along with others who refused to obey those direct orders, were written up. That is the only reason inmate Stanton’s name was included in the incident report, which I prepared,” Streeter said in the court filing. “As noted, no physical force of any kind was used on inmate Stanton. Any indication whatsoever to the contrary was merely inadvertent and poor proofing on my part. Disciplinary action was later initiated against inmate Stanton for Failure to obey a direct order of an ADOC employee.” 

Leon Carmichael Jr.

Leon Charmichael Jr. is serving life without the possibility of parole for a 2009 capital murder conviction. Carmichael’s lawsuit is set for a settlement conference on Feb. 11 in U.S. Magistrate Judge Sonja Bivens’s courtroom.

“All I could hear was inmates being jumped on and screaming. After about ten (10) minutes a riot team (CERT team) officer said “The Cert team will not be disrespected!,” Carmichael wrote in his complaint. “…After that the riot team (cert team) officers started singling out inmates throughout the dorm and jumping on them….Warden/cert team officer Streeter was calling out names and every inmates name that he called out the riot team (cert team) officers unmercifully jumped on them.” 

Carmichael said an officer came to his bed and ordered him to put his hands behind his back, which he did, and was handcuffed with plastic ties. Streeter continued to call out names and officers continued to “jump on” those men for another 10 minutes or so, Carmichael said in the court filing. 

Carmichael said his name was called and “a white officer grabbed me by the arm,  pulled me off the bed and slammed me on the floor. I was immediately punched in the face, stomped, kicked and poked in my back and the back of my leg with a riot baton.” 

He was then walked to the front of the dorm where he says CERT officer Nathan McQuirter asked another officer to hold Carmichael up, he said in his complaint.

“The white riot team officer (cert team) officer hooked both of his arms (sic) threw mine from behind and picked me up on my tip toes and officer McQuieter speared me in my chest, my ribs with his riot baton. I was again slammed to the floor, punched, slapped, kicked, and poked in the back and leg with riot batons.Again someone said “Alright!! Alright!! That’s enough!,” Carmichael wrote, adding that he was then taken to a bathroom area where other inmates who had been beaten had been placed by guards. 

“About 20 minutes later I was taken to the infirmary. On the way there a riot team (cert team) officer told me, “Don’t say shit unless asked a question. Keep your (expletive) mouth shut. Answer the nurse and that’s it. Say anything and that’s your ass!,” Charmichael wrote. 

Carmichael said that the nurse asked for his name and inmate number, took his blood pressure and temperature and “Without even looking at me or examining me she said ‘Okay. He can go.’ I started to tell her that I couldn’t breathe and the riot team (Cert team) officer slapped me in the mouth, busted my lip and said ‘(Expletive) Didn’t I tell you to shut the (expletive) up? The nurse said you can go. Say something else and I’m going to (expletive) you up.’ I was taken from the infirmary and never examined for injuries.” 

A body chart form filled out by a nurse at 9 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, notes Charmichael made “no statement” and the nurse noted “no markings” on his body. He was then placed in a segregation cell, Carmichael said in the filing. 

“I also told them that I could not breathe, I could barely walk or stand up and that I was in pain,” he wrote.  

Carmichael said each day he filled at a sick call slip, but was never taken to the infirmary, despite telling the nurse, officers and warden Terry Raybon that he couldn’t breathe. 

The day before Thanksgiving an officer asked him if he wanted to go to sick call, and Carmichael said yes, writing that once there, two nurses “saw the extent of my injuries and asked me how did it happen. I told them and they asked me had I been in the condition I was in since Nov. 9 and I said yes.” 

Carmichael wrote that he was immediately sent to the infirmary, where a doctor asked if he’d been in that condition since Nov. 9, and that he said “yes.” 

The doctor had x-rays done of Charmichael’s legs and ribs and after reviewing the results called his supervisor and told him to take Carmichael to an emergency room at a hospital outside of the prison immediately, Charmichael wrote in his complaint. 

Medical records show that Carmichael arrived at Atmore Community Hospital on Nov. 23 at 7:37 p.m. and examined by Dr. Elizabeth Bataglia. According to his complaint Carmichael said two correctional officers took him to the hospital. 

Dr. Bataglia diagnosed Charmichael with bruising on the lower leg and multiple rib fractures. 

In those medical records Dr. Bataglia notes Carmichael as the possible victim of a sexual assault, and that his history was provided to her by the patient “and other. The history is limited by other.” 

“The incident occurred more than 1 week ago. Sexual partner: Hit in jail by a guard. Context: ln Prison hit with a baton,” Dr. Bataglia notes in the medical records. 

It’s unclear from those records records who the “other” is who provided information to the doctor about Carmichael having allegedly been sexually assaulted and injured as a result, but the medical records show no such signs of a sexual assault, only multiple broken ribs and injuries to his legs, and Charmichael told a nurse hadn’t been sexually assaulted. 

On a separate patient screening form under a listing titled “patient observations” nurse Wanda Riley noted “abuse denied by patient” and initialed that entry “WR”. 

According to his complaint Carmichael had been kept in solitary confinement from just after the Nov. 9 incident until he was taken to Atmore Community Hospital. 

Assistant Attorney General Betty Carmack on Sept. 21, 2017, asked the court to release Carmichael’s medical records from the Atmore hospital, and in the filing Carmack alleges that Carmichael’s injuries were the result of a sexual assault, and not related to the Nov. 9 incident with correctional officers. 

“Upon a preliminary review of the plaintiff’s medical records from the Alabama Department of Corrections, counsel was alerted to a hospital visit by the plaintiff on November 23, 2016 for assault. Said assault was by a sexual partner and may explain any injuries the plaintiff alleges were caused by the defendants,” Carmack wrote. 

In a court filing on Nov. 15, 2019, Assistant Attorney General Bettie Carmack told the court that an x-ray taken at the prison on Nov. 23, 2016, indicates that Carmichael’s ribs were normal, and that “it would seem that Inmate Carmichael may have incurred his injuries after being raped by another prison inmate sometime during the month of November of 2016.” 

However, X-rays taken later that same day, Nov. 23, 2016, at the Atmore Community Hospital show Charmichael had multiple rib fractures, according to the medical records. 

A ADOC spokeswoman cited the ongoing litigation when declining to answer APR’s questions about the discrepancies between the X-ray taken at the prison and the x-ray done by hospital staff that same day. 

“I NEVER did anything for this to happen to me. I was also given two (2) disciplinaries and never taken to disciplinary court on either of them. I asked Warden Rayborn why I was assaulted when he came to segregation with the segregation review board and he told me that sometimes it’s just best for me to keep my mouth closed…I was assaulted, denied medical treatment for 2 weeks and placed in segregation for no reason what so ever,” Charmichael wrote. 

Assistant Attorney General Bettie Carmack in the Nov 15, 2019, court filing wrote that on Nov. 9 “Inmate Carmichael became combative” and force was used to “maintain order or restore discipline.”  

Charmichael was charged with having a weapon, gathering in a threatening manner and disobeying an order, charges he was later found not guilty of because he didn’t receive a hearing within ADOC’s prescribed time frame, records show. 

None of the incarcerated men who were charged with those same infractions connected to the Nov. 7 and Nov. 9 incidents and who filed lawsuits against ADOC were allowed hearings in which witnesses could have been called to clear them of those charges. 

Instead, prison administrators held many of them in segregation cells, waited beyond the required 10-day time limit to hold those heartings and found them “not guilty” court records show.  

A “duty officer report” filed on Nov. 9, 2016, lists 19 incarcerated men as having failed to obey orders, having weapons and threatening officers. 

An “incident report” filed on Dec. 12, 2016, however, lists 33 men who were arrested during the Nov. 9 incident, and states that “The CERT Teams used force to include impact weapons and physical force on the above mentioned inmates to get them to comply with the orders given.” 

Quandarian Faulkner 

Quandarian Faulkner alleges in his complaint that on the morning of Nov. 9 four or five CERT team officers came to his bed and “hit me with a stick and told me to get out of bed and don’t look at them. I was beaten all the way to the bathroom, and was told to 1ay down on the floor face down in handcuffs where other inmates were being beaten and hollering.” 

Faulkner alleges that he was taken to the healthcare unit in the prison but was refused medical treatment, “and the riot team members took me back to B-dorm and continued to beat me and call me derogatory names, I was asking other officers that was standing around for help, and heard some of them say (expletive) you, you didn’t ask for help Monday.”

“After they finished beating the inmates me and several other inmates that was beaten unconscious were taken to segregation, where I laid up in a cell beggin for help, I felt like I was dying I was in so much pain, I could not breathe,” Faulkner said in his complaint. 

“I wrote letters to the Warden, captain asking for help. The I.C.S. officer came back there and I begged him to please get me some help because I could not breathe, finally two cert team members came and took me to health care where I was told by the nurses that my body was not breathing on the left side, the doctor told me that I needed free world help immediately that they couldn’t determine what was going on inside of me, I was taken to the free world hospital where they immediately stuck a chest tube inside me” 

According to a “review of segregation inmates” form in court records, Faulkner was placed in segregation on Nov. 9, 2016, and was still there until at least March 9, 2017. 

A nurse at the prison completed a body chart for Faulkner on Nov. 9 at 8:30 a.m. and noted no injuries and that his lungs were “clear, bilateral” and that Faulkner stated “my ass hurts.” 

On Nov. 10, 2016, a nurse at the prison noted that Faulkner complained of chest pain and told her “I got whooped,” according to medical records. 

That same day he was sent to Atmore Community Hospital then transferred to the Mobile Infirmary and diagnosed with a collapsed lung, according to medical records. A nurse noted that Faulkner complained of chest pain and said it happened “following an altercation on 11/9/16.” 

In an affidavit Holman prison warden William Streeter wrote that Faulkner was one of the men who on Nov. 7 had communicated “intent to inflict harm to staff with a weapon” and “was armed with a knife and part of the group that circled CERT team members in a threatening manner on November 7, 2016”

“He also appeared to take a leadership role in inciting other inmates to act out against the CERT team that day,” Streeter said of Faulkner. 

Brandon Washington 

Brandon Washington says when officers entered the dormitory on Nov. 9 he watched as they began using batons on men who were lying in their beds, according to his complaint

Washington, who is serving a life sentence for a 2006 murder conviction, said when officers got to him he was struck in the back with a baton while laying on his bed and then handcuffed. 

Officers then began calling out the names, and he watched as CERT officers went to those men and began attacking them, Washington’s complaint states. 

“The CERT members weren’t wildly swinging the sticks, it’s like they were trying to push the butt end of the sticks into the sides, back, legs (anywhere soft) being careful to avoid the heads of inmates,” Washington said in the court filing. 

When his name was called Washington said he didn’t respond, but that an officer located him. 

“The sticks began to crash and slam into my body, pain erupted from my ribs, spine, legs, and arms,” Washington wrote, adding that one officer noticed he was having a hard time breathing and dumped a nearby ice chest filled with ice-water onto Washington. 

“My body was hot and in pain and his attempt to make me suffer more, actually brought a welcomed relief to my body,” he wrote. 

Washington said he was soon taken to the restroom where he saw “multiple inmates laying on the floor in the bathroom, arms tied and their bodies (sic) throwed across each other …Suddenly I was kicked in the back and fell forward only to fall on top of the other inmates.” 

“I laid there trying to find a comfortable position on top of all the bodies only to be kicked in the mouth by a CERT member and told to be still,” Washington said in the complaint. 

On a body chart form filled out on Nov. 9, 2016, at 9 a.m. a nurse noted that Washington told her “ribs sore” and recorded a 2 centimeter cut to his rib area. 

Records show Washington wasn’t charged with possessing a weapon in the Nov. 9 incident until April 18, 2017, more than two months after he filed his lawsuit, on Feb. 9, 2017. Washington was found not guilty of that charge on April 26, 2017, according to those records, because “the disciplinary was not served in the prescribed time frame.” 

ADOC declined to answer questions about why some were not charged with possessing weapons in the Nov. 9 incident until much later, in some cases even after lawsuits were filed. 

Phillip Hill

Phillip Hill, 34, of Anniston is serving 15 years for 2016 convictions on domestic violence, breaking and entering a vehicle and receiving stolen property, according to court records. 

Hill’s complaint states that he was asleep when officers entered the dorm on Nov. 9 and was awakened by a CERT officer slapping him in the face. 

“…I was repeatedly hit with sticks in the ribs and back then I was drugged up the floor and thrown on top of inmate Timothy Maulet where I kicked in the ear causing a busted ear drum which I still have hearing damage because of,” Hill wrote in his complaint. 

Hill states he was then taken to receive medical attention, and that after officers realized Hill wasn’t the person they were looking for he was uncufed and sent back to the dormitory. 

Prison medical records written by a nurse at 9:05 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, notes Hill had “no comment” and had abrasions on his right shoulder, neck and back, a small cut under his left eye, and an injury to his left ear.  

On Nov. 10, 2016, a sick call request form notes that Hill told medical staff “was assaulted my members of ADOC cert team. Ear drum is busted. No hearing out of left ear and it continues to leak blood. Ribs are sore and was told by medical personnel that at least two are broken.” 

In a statement to APR on Thursday morning ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Banks described steps the department has taken to curb use of force incidents in recent years.

“While this alleged incident occurred many years ago, significantly reducing use of force incidents within the ADOC continues to be a top priority for the Department,” the statement reads. “In December 2019, Commissioner Jeff Dunn announced the formation of a new internal task force, “Tactics and Techniques” reinforcement training programs, health and wellness interventions for correctional officers and staff, additional inmate rehabilitation programs and resources assisted by a Community Support Network, and the reexamination of enhanced surveillance measures such as the possible use of body cameras by on-duty correctional officers. Due to ongoing litigation, ADOC is unable to provide comment on the specifics of this matter.”

Speaking to APR from prison, the man who asked not to be identified said that, contrary to statements by CERT officers and prison officials, the incarcerated men on the morning of Nov. 9 weren’t defying orders. 

“No inmate is going to be rowdy when you come in with guns,” he said. 

“I did something in my life to come here. I did, but I didn’t think people are like this. How can you not see what your doing to us?,” he said. “They are creating monsters. Not only are they creating monsters in inmates. They’re creating monsters in guards. I don’t trust none of them now.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Alabama Department of Corrections investigating death of 28-year-old inmate

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of a 28-year-old inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility as a possible suicide. 

Charles Labarron Braggs was found unresponsive by prison officials in his cell on Monday, and life-saving attempts were unsuccessful, the department said in a message to APR on Thursday.

Braggs was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, and the department said in the statement that there’s “no evidence of a use-of-force incident” and that the investigation into his death is ongoing. 

“Use-of-force” refers to instances when correctional officers use physical force with an inmate. 

Braggs’ death is at least the sixth suspected suicide among those serving in Alabama prisons so far this year, according to the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

The U.S. Justice Department in April 2019, released a report detailing what federal investigators found were systemic problems of violence, sexual assaults, drugs, high levels of homicides and suicides and corruption in Alabama prisons.

ADOC continues to defend the department in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over mental health care and treatment of inmates in state prisons, arguing in the complaint that the department was indifferent to the health of those inmates, who were dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.

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The U.S. Department of Justice last week released a scathing report detailing systemic excessive use-of-force by Alabama correctional officers against inmates in the state’s prisons for men. The federal government believes the acts of violence against inmates violates the Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

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Four Alabama correctional officers indicted on federal charges connected to 2018 inmate beating

The indictments come five days after the DOJ released a report detailing systemic violence against inmates at the hands of Alabama Department of Corrections officers.

Eddie Burkhalter

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A federal grand jury on Tuesday charged four Alabama correctional officers with federal civil rights and obstruction of justice charges connected to the beating of an inmate in 2018. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in a press release Tuesday said that a grand jury indicted Sergeant Keith Finch and corrections officers Jordan Thomas and Kevin Blaylock with deprivation of rights under color of law. Thomas and Sergeant Orlanda Walker are also charged with obstruction of justice. 

According to the press release, the indictment alleges that on Sept. 12, 2018, at the Bibb Correctional Facility, Thomas and Blaylock kicked and hit an inmate, who was on the ground and in a fetal position, with their batons after he ran out of his cell. 

“As a result of this unjustified use of force, the prisoner sustained bodily injury. Thomas and his supervisor, Walker, then obstructed justice by filing false reports that claimed ‘all force ceased’ once the prisoner was on the ground,” the DOJ said in the release. 

The indictments come five days after the DOJ released a report detailing systemic violence against inmates at the hands of Alabama Department of Corrections officers. The federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. 

The report details explicit, serious assaults of inmates, cover-ups by officers and their superiors, and ineffective, substandard investigations by ADOC’s investigative arm, the Investigations and Intelligence Division.

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Alabama Department of Corrections “disappointed” by “surprise” DOJ report on excessive force

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday responded to a scathing report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice detailing correctional officers’ violence against incarcerated men in state prisons, saying the department was “disappointed in the surprise manner” in which the DOJ released the report. 

The DOJ’s report details numerous instances of unprovoked and illegal violence against inmates by correctional officers, cover-ups of those crimes by officers and supervisors, and shoddy investigations that often resulted in no disciplinary action. 

The federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. The report was expected, although it was unclear when DOJ would release it, and follows the DOJ’s previous report, released in April 2019, that found that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm. 

“We are disappointed in the surprise manner in which the DOJ orchestrated the release of this letter, which hinders the progress made by our Department to address the long-standing challenges facing our correctional system,” ADOC said in a statement Friday. “This substantive progress includes targeted efforts to reduce instances of violence within our facilities.” 

ADOC in the statement said the department stands behind previous statements by Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

Ivey responded to the DOJ report by saying it was an “expected follow-up” to the April 2019 report, completing the DOJ’s investigation into the state’s men’s prisons that began in 2016.  

“We will be carefully reviewing these serious allegations in the coming weeks. My Administration remains hopeful that with the completion of this investigation, the state and federal governments can finally reach a resolution to all of the Department’s allegations,” Ivey’s statement reads. 

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We all desire an effective, Alabama solution to this Alabama problem, and my Administration will put in the hard work and long hours necessary to achieve that result,” Ivey continued. 

Marshall, however, took a much harder stance, claiming Alabama was “ambushed” by the DOJ report, and said the state “will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit.” 

Among the many serious instances of excessive use of force against inmates in the report, the DOJ detailed the death of Michael Smith, 55, at Ventress prison in December 2019, in which “ADOC personnel informed hospital medical personnel that the injuries occurred after the prisoner fell from a bunk bed.” 

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“The autopsy revealed that the prisoner died from blunt force trauma to the head. He sustained multiple areas of intracranial bleeding, fractures of his nose and left eye socket, and had at least six teeth knocked out,” federal investigators wrote in the report.

Federal investigators found that ADOC’s investigative arm, the Intelligence & Investigations Division, did substandard investigations into use of force incidents, failed to collect necessary information on allegations and came to improper findings in numerous incidents. 

ADOC in the statement Friday said the department has been proactive in dealing with the DOJ’s concerns, and that Commissioner Jeff Dunn formed a Violence Reduction Task Force in December 2019. 

The recommendations of the Task Force include refresher protocol and procedure training; health and wellness interventions for correctional officers and staff; an emphasis on inmate rehabilitation programs and resources; and the reexamination of enhanced surveillance measures such as facility cameras and the use of body cameras for on-duty correctional officers,” ADOC’s statement reads. 

DOJ’s report also notes that chronic understaffing in the overcrowded prisons is contributing to the use of violence among correctional officers, which has resulted in the serious injury and deaths of inmates. 

“The DOJ’s claim that the ‘ADOC …  has not taken meaning[ful] steps or other emergency measures to address the understaffing’ is simply false,” ADOC said in the statement, adding that in 2018 a federal judge accepted the department’s plan to hire additional staff. 

It has been more than two years since U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the ADOC to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.

We are disappointed in the surprise manner in which the DOJ orchestrated the release of this letter, which hinders the progress made by our Department to address the long-standing challenges facing our correctional system."

“Since then, they have increased correctional staff by only 147 officers,” said attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit in a filing on June 24. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, the plaintiffs, filed the 2014 suit arguing the state was indifferent to the health of inmates dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers. 

Both Ivey and ADOC in their statements mentioned infrastructure investment as important steps to addressing the DOJ’s concerns. Ivey’s plan to build three new mega-prisons through a build-lease proposal continues to move forward. 

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, is a member of Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, which was formed in 2019 to study the state’s failing prison system and suggest legislative fixes. The group in January made a series of recommendations but COVID-19 brought an end to this year’s Legislative session without the bills that those suggestions produced coming up for votes.

England in a Tweet Friday expressed concern about spending billions on new prisons, and reiterated his previous calls for Ivey to call a special session to address the state’s prison crisis.

“After two DOJ reports detailing how bad our prisons are, are we really going to give the same @ALCorrections that is failing miserably to manage our current prisons over 2 billion dollars to build new ones? Seriously? We need a special session @GovernorKayIvey.”

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Alabama attorney general says state was “ambushed” with DOJ report on mens’ prisons

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Reaction to the U.S. Department of Justice’s latest scathing report on Alabama’s broken prisons for men came swiftly on Thursday, and the state’s top law enforcement officer claims Alabama was “ambushed.”

The Justice Department report published Thursday details numerous instances of unprovoked and illegal violence against inmates by correctional officers, cover-ups of those crimes by officers and supervisors and shoddy investigations that often resulted in no disciplinary action.

The federal government in the report alleges that Alabama violates inmates’ Constitutional protections. 

DOJ’s previous report, released in April 2019, found that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm. The latest report was expected, but it was unclear when the department would release it. 

DOJ attorneys in a letter Thursday to Gov. Kay Ivey wrote that the U.S. attorney general can file a lawsuit against the state if Alabama fails to “satisfactorily address conditions in the prisons within 49 days,” although the department hopes to resolve the problems “through a more cooperative approach.” 

“Though the State has been diligently working toward a settlement agreement with the DOJ based on its previous findings, we were ambushed with today’s report, issued in the form of a public press release only moments after we received it,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement Thursday. 

Marshall said the state has never denied the challenges facing the Alabama Department of Corrections, and as evidence of such, the state plans to build three new men’s prisons “that we believe—and the DOJ has conceded—will have a significant positive impact on many of the areas of concern that the DOJ has identified.” 

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It should be noted, however, that the April 2019 Justice Department report noted that new prisons alone won’t solve ADOC’s systemic problems, a sentiment shared by numerous criminal justice reform groups and advocates working in Alabama. 

“At the same time, I have made it absolutely clear from the beginning that the State will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit,” Marshall continued. “On November 7, 2018, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the use of civil consent decrees in a DOJ memorandum, acknowledging the sovereignty of state governments and urging special caution before using this bludgeon to settle litigation against the states. I share General Sessions’ concerns with consent decrees and will not submit our state to judicial oversight of our prisons, with the DOJ as the hall monitor, that will last well beyond my tenure as Attorney General—and indeed, if history is any indication, could last well beyond my lifetime.

“Along with the release of its newest findings today, DOJ officials also communicated to my Office that the State has forty-nine days to agree upon the terms of a consent decree. Presumably, if we do not, the federal government will file suit. My response to that is simple: the State of Alabama has worked, and will continue to work, both to improve our prison facilities to meet the standards of the U.S. Constitution and to negotiate with the federal government in good faith. But Alabama will not be bullied into a perpetual consent decree to govern our prison system, nor will we be pressured to reach such an agreement with federal bureaucrats, conspicuously, fifty-three days before a presidential election.

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“In short, a consent decree is unacceptable and nonnegotiable. The State of Alabama shall retain her sovereignty.”

Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement on Thursday said Alabama’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and understaffed by correctional officers who undergo little training. 

“It comes as no surprise to us that the Department of Justice has found frequent use of excessive force by correctional officers against incarcerated men in Alabama’s prison system,” Howard said. “The violent conditions and circumstances outlined in the DOJ’s latest report are at the hands of prison personnel and demonstrate failures of the Alabama Department of Corrections’ leadership to ensure people in their custody are safe. This unconstitutional behavior will not be solved by building newer, larger prisons.”

“People in Alabama prisons are human beings with constitutional rights. They deserve to be treated humanely, with respect, and dignity,” Howard continued.

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