By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama prisons have a pattern of using excessive force against male inmates, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in an investigation released Thursday, as it again accused the state of keeping prisoners in unconstitutional conditions.
In its report, the Justice Department detailed a chilling litany of incidents, including a prison guard beating a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” as the prisoner begged the officer to kill him. It is the second time within 18 months that the Justice Department has accused Alabama of housing male inmates in unconstitutional conditions in a prison system considered one of the most understaffed and violent in the country.
“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of using excessive force against prisoners in Alabama’s prisons for men,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement. Dreiband said the Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the department’s concerns.
In findings sent to the state, federal investigators wrote that officers have beaten handcuffed or restrained prisoners, excessive force is sometimes used as retribution, the state prison system fails to investigate incidents and the violence is so common that some officers consider it normal.
“Ultimately, Alabama does not properly prevent and address unconstitutional uses of force in its prisons, fostering a culture where unlawful uses of force are common,” the report read.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement that her administration remains hopeful that they will reach a resolution to all of the department’s allegations.
“I am as committed as ever to improving prison safety through necessary infrastructure investment, increased correctional staffing, comprehensive mental-health care services, and effective rehabilitation programs, among other items,” the Republican governor said.
The report noted that at least two inmates died at the end of 2019 after use of force by officers.
Steven Davis died in October 2019 after an altercation with corrections officers at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility. The department said at the time that Davis rushed the officers with a makeshift weapon.
In an apparent reference to the incident, the report said other inmates said “correctional officers continued to strike the prisoner after he dropped any weapons and posed no threat.” The report said an autopsy listed 16 distinct injuries to the prisoner’s head and neck — including multiple skull fractures— in addition to multiple fractured ribs and bleeding around a kidney
Davis’ mother last year showed a state task force a photograph of her son’s battered face.
“This is my son,” Sandy Ray said as she held his photo. “He is beaten beyond recognition. I had to have a closed casket because of what they had done to him. No one, not even a dog, deserves this.”
The 28-page Justice Department report listed other examples of violence by staff after reviewing files and visiting several state prisons. The Justice Department said those included:
— In December 2018, a correctional officer brutally punched, kicked and struck a handcuffed prisoner with an expandable baton in the Ventress medical unit. During the beating, four nurses heard the officer yell something to the effect of, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” and the prisoner begged to die.
— In September 2019, a lieutenant at Ventress prison lifted a handcuffed inmate off the ground and slammed him on a concrete floor several times, knocking him unconscious.
— In February 2019, a sergeant at Elmore prison beat two handcuffed prisoners, suspected of retrieving contraband, striking one prisoner with a collapsible baton approximately 19 times on his head, legs, arms, back and body. The sergeant who assaulted the prisoners later filed a false report about the incident. The sergeant and two correctional officers pleaded guilty in federal court.
The announcement comes more than a year after the Justice Department released a scathing report that said male inmates face excessive inmate-on-inmate violence and sexual abuse in facilities that are not sanitary, safe or secure. The department is in negotiations with the state in an attempt to reach an agreement.
The findings released Thursday were the continuation of the investigation first launched in 2016.
“What does it take to get fired?” said Rep. Chris England, a Tuscaloosa lawmaker who has called for the new leadership at the state Department of Corrections. “Our whole system of corrections and pardons and paroles has got to be the worst in the country.”
Advocacy groups said the findings reflect concerns they have been expressing for years. Charlotte Morrison of the Equal Justice Initiative said they hear “every week” from inmates, parents and sometimes staff concerned about abuses.
“We’ve been asserting that the prisons need serious reform, and most of the time the state responds with cosmetic changes, but these problems are much deeper than that and that is what this report details,” Morrison said.
Attorney General Steve Marshall said his office had been “ambushed” by the DOJ report and that he would resist efforts to put the state into a consent decree, arguing they are “bludgeon” to settle litigation.
“…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,” Marshall said in a response to the DOJ report.
“In short, a consent decree is unacceptable and nonnegotiable. The State of Alabama shall retain her sovereignty.”
This story has been updated by Alabama Daily News staff with Attorney General Steve Marshall’s response.