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Alabama Department of Corrections investigating possible suicide

The Alabama Department of Corrections is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice over the state’s deadly prisons.


The death of a 67-year-old man serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility is being investigated as a possible suicide. 

Jerry Purnell was found unresponsive in his cell on May 7, and life-saving attempts were unsuccessful, an Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman said in a response to APR on Monday. Purnell was not on suicide watch at the time, and foul play isn’t suspected, the spokeswoman said. The exact cause of death is pending a full autopsy. 

Purnell’s death comes after 23-year-old Ian Rettig was stabbed to death at Fountain Correctional Facility, the day before his birthday when he was also set to be released. APR was also working Monday to confirm whether a man serving at Limestone Correctional Facility may have also been killed recently. Incarcerated people and their families have contacted APR this week about the possible death, and two additional separate assaults between incarcerated people here. 

Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons have long been some of the deadliest in the nation. The U.S. Department of Justice in an April report noted that Alabama prisons have the fifth-highest average annual rate of mortality per 100,000 incarcerated persons from 2001 to 2018. Alabama also tied with California and Mississippi for the fifth-highest average annual homicide rate during those years. 

Deaths in Alabama prisons skyrocketed between 2008 and 2018. The mortality rate in Alabama prisons during those years increased more than any other prison system in the country. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in December 2020 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.” 

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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.

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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