An inmate in St. Clair Correctional Facility. All photos courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center
On the 3rd of June, Jodey Waldrop, a 36-year-old inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in rural Springville, Alabama, was lying in his bed when somebody entered his cell and stabbed him in the neck with a shank. Prison officials say they got Waldrop, who was bleeding profusely, to a hospital 19 miles away within minutes, but nothing could be done. He was pronounced dead approximately an hour after the attack.
Waldrop's death marked the third time a prisoner has been murdered in St. Clair’s walls during the past ten months (the other two victims were also stabbed to death with shanks), and the fifth time in the last 30 months. To put that in perspective, state prisons nationwide – which are home to 1.35 million inmates – saw an average of 52 homicides between 2001 and 2010, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. St. Clair, meanwhile, has fewer than 1,500 inmates but has seen three killings in under a year.
So how does a small prison in northeast Alabama become one of the dangerous lockups in the country?
According to Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a prison reform nonprofit in Alabama, St. Clair’s problems stem from a toxic mix of factors: overcrowding, a warden who doesn't care what prisoners do to one another, and drug-dealing guards who sometimes order hits on inmates.
“There is a lot of illegal activity by correctional staff – they’re smuggling in drugs, cell phones, and other contraband,” Stevenson told me. “These officers bring the stuff in and have inmates collect the money. And when people refuse to pay, oftentimes violence is ordered by the officers to make sure that they recover what they’re supposed to get.”
Inmates are vulnerable to attacks, Stevenson claims, because the cells are far too easy to break into.
“There are a lot of cells where prisoners are high-risk and are supposed to be locked in – but most of these cell doors don’t work,” Stevenson said. “Any inmate can ‘trick’ a cell door and let themselves out or in. And as a result of that, a lot of these [attacks] are taking place while prisoners are sleeping at night. That’s what happened to Mr. Waldrop two weeks ago. He was stabbed while sleeping on his cot. We’ve had other instances like that, where people trick the doors and get in or out.”
Melvin Ray, a prisoner at St. Clair who leads the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), a group of inmates that works to bring awareness to the problems in the state's prisons, told me that the violence escalated after St. Clair’s warden, Carter Davenport, began eliminating programmes, including Conflicts Against Violence, that used mediation to seek peaceful resolutions between inmates.
"It takes a pretty brave person to get in between two convicts having a problem," Ray said. "But we would do that, sit them down, talk it out, and sometimes get them into programmes that would help change their thought process."
Ray added that resources for those sorts of programmes have been cut drastically and that prisoners lack a chance to get rehabilitated.
"Many people in here come from the streets, where violence is how problems are dealt with because the cops don't care," he said. "The programmes could help change that thought process."
Another reason for the increase in violence is segregation. "Almost all the assaults and rapes and every one of the murders have happened in cell blocks L, M, P, Q, and lockup," Ray told me. These cell blocks house mostly black prisoners and are devoid of any books, newspapers, televisions, or other entertainment options. Other blocks – where there are more white prisoners – have more amenities, according to Ray.
A dormitory in Kilby Correctional Facility in Mount Meigs, Alabama.
No one at the Alabama Department of Corrections would talk to me for this story, but according to Stevenson, Davenport is aware of these problems – he just doesn't care very much.
“The warden knows these doors don’t function properly but has taken no action to secure the locks on these cell doors,” Stevenson said. “[Guards] allow prisoners to sleep in areas where they’re not authorised, and oftentimes that’s a precondition to some acts of violence being carried out. You get somebody with a knife or shank or weapon to sleep in your bed, close to the intended victim, and then carry out the incident. You come back and you can legitimately say you didn’t do it.”
The omnipresent threat of getting attacked has created a sense of tension at St. Clair that begets more violence. If you're always worried about getting shanked, you're going to be a bit on edge.
“It’s a pretty miserable place – the level of anxiety is very high,” Stevenson said. “People are being brought to the infirmary each day from some kind of stabbing injury, sometimes life-threatening. That keeps tension high. When there’s a lot of violence like that, everybody feels that they have to arm themselves, so then you do more than get a knife or a shank or some type of weapon. People don’t interact in a way that allows for conflicts to be resolved amicably, because you fear that somebody is gonna come back after you, so it just creates a very, very bad environment.”
The drug trade and faulty locks aren’t the only institutional problems in the prison. For one thing, the correction officers and the inmates aren't from the same world: Prisoners are mostly sent to St. Clair from cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile, while the guards are from the rural area surrounding Springville (population 2,521). This can cause misunderstandings and hostility, Stevenson said, because the corrections officers are “culturally unprepared for dealing with this population.”
In addition, many of St. Clair's prisoners are serving long sentences, and many of them committed violent crimes; the three men killed in the past ten months, including Waldrop, were convicted of murder. But many are doing long sentences for drug and property crimes, like Robert Earl Phillips, who was given 70 years in prison for an armed robbery he committed when he was 16 because he had a gun.
A room full of files in Donaldson Correctional Facility
Prison populations consisting predominantly of people serving drastic sentences can be difficult to manage because inmates have a sense of hopelessness that can lead to reckless behavior. One way to mitigate that is through programmes that offer incentives to those who participate, whether that means extra privileges or just activities that give a sense of accomplishment. Louisiana's Angola prison – once known for being one of the worst detention facilities in the country – is now seen as a model for inmates doing life sentences in part thanks to such programmes.
“Angola used to be a horrific place,” Stevenson said. “Things changed, and now it's dramatically less violent. And that's a prison where almost everybody is serving life with no chance of parole. But you see probably the best prison-run newspaper in the country. They have a prison-run radio station; they have a prison-run TV station; they have horticulture. And because of this sort of different approach to facilitating people with very long sentences, you have dramatically less violence in a prison that is still four times the size of St. Clair.”
Ray agrees with Stevenson that more programmes would help the St. Clair inmates. "These people have no activities to engage in and nothing to stimulate them," he said. "It's like a black hole – there's no outlet for the violence."
Stevenson has called for Davenport's removal as warden, and the local media has looked into his spotty record, in the process uncovering a 2012 incident in which he punched a handcuffed prisoner in the head for mouthing off. But in Alabama prisons, unlike many other places, hitting a handcuffed man isn’t a crime; Davenport merely got a two-day suspension, reported AL.com.
In addition, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently filed a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections for not providing inmates with adequate health care, with St. Clair prisoners among the plaintiffs.
In a press release, the SPLC claimed that “prisoners, including those with disabilities and serious physical and mental illnesses, are confined to prisons where discrimination and dangerous – sometimes life-threatening – conditions are the norm.” And a report the organisation released this month described a situation at St. Clair where an inmate was repeatedly slashing his own arms. But instead of getting mental health treatment, he was ignored – and on one occasion, the guards even beat him.
“Why don't you just go ahead and kill yourself?” a corrections officer reportedly told the self-harming prisoner.
The problems in Alabama's prisons got some nationwide media exposure in April, when members of FAM went on strike to get wages for the work they do. (The state uses unpaid prison labour for everything from making license plates to assembling furniture.) According to Alabama Prison Watch, Ray was then placed in solitary for his activities, which have included bringing attention to unjust sentences, as he does in this video interview with Robert Earl Phillips:
“In Alabama, they take every opportunity they can to take your life as a young black man and sterilise you – not by castrating you, but by separating you from society,” Ray says in the video.
So far, the concerted efforts of the FAM, the SPLC, and advocates like Stevenson haven't resulted in systemic change. Although improving Alabama prisons has been a topic of concern in the state since the Department of Justice investigated the chronic sexual-abuse problem at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women earlier this year, reforming the state’s lockups has been an uphill battle. There are few votes to be had in making conditions less horrible for the state’s inmates, so there’s no reason for Alabaman politicians to campaign on the issue. The state Department of Corrections could institute some changes on its own – but if prison authorities aren’t interested in fixing St. Clair's locks or penalising a warden for punching a handcuffed inmate in the head, it’s hard to imagine they’ll make reducing violence in their facilities a priority.
Ray doesn't believe the problems can be changed by the current leadership.
"They don't care. They think this is how prison is supposed to be," he told me. "Us prisoners will have to do it ourselves."
Follow Ray Downs on Twitter.