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Stabbings, gang rapes, and rats: DOJ gives Alabama 49 days to fix "cruel and unusual" prisons

The DOJ released a scathing 56-page report on Wednesday that details the "deplorable conditions" in 16 Alabama prisons.

by Tess Owen
Apr 3 2019, 5:00pm

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Routine stabbings with homemade knives, gang rapes, overdose deaths, fatal beatings, and rats are all parts of daily life inside Alabama’s "deplorable" prison system, according to a scathing 56-page report released by the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday.

The report summarizes a years-long investigation spearheaded by the DOJ that concluded conditions in the state’s 16 prisons are so bad that they constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” and violate inmates’ constitutional rights. Alabama now has 49 days to take steps to remedy the problems in its prisons or risk being sued by the DOJ.

In just one week in September 2017, for example, investigators documented:

  • multiple stabbings
  • a prisoner being beaten in his sleep with a sock full of metal locks
  • a prisoner being forced at knifepoint to perform oral sex
  • a prisoner who died from an overdose on synthetic cannabinoids
  • a prisoner walking around with an unreported stab wound
  • a prisoner setting fire to another prisoner’s blanket while he was sleeping
  • a prisoner threatening a correctional officer with a seven-inch knife

In one instance, a prisoner bled to death after he was stabbed in a dormitory with no supervision. He screamed for help, and other prisoners banged on the locked doors to get attention from security staff. When officers finally responded, it was too late.

Investigators also documented numerous other sexual assaults, beatings, stabbings, and drugs including methamphetamine and a hallucinogen called “cookie dough,” a brown or white crystalline powder made of poisonous chemicals that’s mixed with tobacco and smoked. It’s known to cause “extreme paranoia, severe hallucinations, and violent nausea,” according to the report.

The violence and sexual abuse was so excessive, investigators found, that it was also impacting staff at Alabama’s Department of Corrections.

“Alabama is deliberately indifferent to that harm or serious risk of harm, and it has failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence,” the report states. “The deplorable conditions within Alabama’s prisons lead to heightened tensions among prisoners.”

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In this June 18, 2015, file photo, prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. Major issues facing lawmakers include increased funding for prisons after a federal judge declared conditions unconstitutional and the continuation of the Children's Health Insurance Program.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

In September 2016, inmates at William C. Holman Correctional Facility — a maximum-security prison near Mobile, Alabama, known as the “Slaughterhouse” because of its reputation for unchecked violence — launched a strike to protest poor conditions and forced labor. Holman soon became the epicenter of the largest coordinated inmate strike in U.S. history. The movement spread to at least 50 facilities across 12 states.

One month later, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division announced its investigation into Alabama’s mens’ prisons.

U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin Sr. called the results of the investigation “disturbing” in a statement.

“The problems are real and need to be addressed immediately,” he said. “We are committed to working with State officials to ensure that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”

Read more: Stabbing and suicide reported at troubled prison at the center of inmate strike

The Justice Department provided a list of minimum remedial measures to correct the prison conditions, which they recommend Alabama’s Department of Corrections implement immediately. Recommendations include revising the discipinary code, which currently subjects sexual assault victims to disciplinary actions when they seek protection from officials because of sexual abuse.

The DOJ also suggests implementing a system to ensure every allegation of sexual abuse is documented, boost staffing and resources to monitor the perimeters of the prisons, and hire a nationally recognized expert with experience finding alternative solutions to overcrowding, including transferring low-risk inmates into county jails or work programs.

“The failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection on those of us who live and work in Alabama,” U.S. Attorney Richard Moore said in a statement. “We are better than this. We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our State further embarrassment.”

Cover image: In this June 18, 2015 file photo, prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)