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.”
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.
“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.