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DOJ sues Alabama over violence, “unconstitutional” conditions in state prisons

The Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections


The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards. 

Filed in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Alabama, the complaint states that the DOJ on April 2, 2019, notified the state that, in violation of the Constitution, inmates in Alabama prisons for men “are at serious risk of death, physical violence, sexual abuse and death at the hands of other prisoners.” 

Despite “multiple rounds of negotiations” with the state beginning in the spring of 2019, the DOJ states in the complaint that “the state of Alabama has failed or refused to correct the unconstitutional conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men.” 

The Department of Justice in July released a report that details why the federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. 

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama found systemic problems of unreported or underreported excessive use of force incidents, a failure to properly investigate them and attempts by correctional officers and their supervisors to cover them up. 

“Specifically, the department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that prisoners are subjected to excessive force at the hands of prison staff,” the Justice Department said in a press release.

The report was expected at the time of its release and followed a 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.

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In its complaint filed Wednesday, the DOJ writes that the state is “deliberately indifferent to the serious and systematic Constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prisons for men.”  

JaTaune Bosby, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, in a statement, said for years currently and formerly incarcerated people have been sounding the alarm on the abuse and conditions that they experienced within ADOC facilities. 

“And they have been rallying, protesting, writing and calling elected leaders at every level to demand change. The US Department of Justice has issued two reports detailing excessive and unconstitutional treatment of incarcerated people, and yet ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has been either unable or unwilling to address these issues in any meaningful way,” Bosby said. “It has been past time for reform, and it is shameful that our state leaders are once again being forced through litigation to do the right thing for the people of Alabama.”

“But while this lawsuit will hopefully bring relief to the thousands of people incarcerated in state facilities, we must continue holding our representatives accountable for their role in Alabama’s mass incarceration crisis,” Bosby continued. “When the Legislative Session begins in February, it is imperative that we see bold reforms supported by leaders across the board like repealing the outdated Habitual Felony Offender Act.”

Gov. Kay Ivey in a statement said the lawsuit was “disappointing news, as the state has actively been negotiating in good faith with the Department of Justice following the release of its findings letters.”

“Out of respect for the legal process, we, unfortunately, cannot provide additional comment at this time,” Ivey said, adding that she will continue with her plan to lease three new mega-prisons from private companies, which she said will go a long way in addressing the longstanding issues facing ADOC. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a statement to the AP said the lawsuit disregards the “immense progress that the state has made in improving our prisons.”

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“The state will not yield to this brazen federal overreach. We look forward to our day in court,” Marshall told the AP.

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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