Dept. of Justice sues Alabama for constitutional violations in men’s prisons

Dept. of Justice sues Alabama for constitutional violations in men’s prisons

By Todd Stacy, Mary Sell and Caroline Beck, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections saying that failing to prevent violence in men’s prisons violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of inmates.

This lawsuit is the result of a multi-year investigation into allegations of Alabama prisons failing to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse, failing to provide sanitary conditions and prison staff using excessive uses of force on prisoners.

“The United States Constitution requires Alabama to make sure that its prisons are safe and humane,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice conducted a thorough investigation of Alabama’s prisons for men and determined that Alabama violated and is continuing to violate the Constitution because its prisons are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence. The violations have led to homicides, rapes, and serious injuries. The Department of Justice looks forward to proving its case in an Alabama federal courtroom.”

In July, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division issued findings of excessive force in Alabama’s men’s prisons, listing numerous incidents of violence on ADOC facilities and calling for the state to address the systemic issue.

In a suit filed Wednesday in the Northern District of Alabama, DOJ says the state is “deliberately indifferent to the serious and systemic constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prisons for men.

“The United States has determined that constitutional compliance cannot be secured by voluntary means,” the suit continues. “Judicial action is, therefore, necessary to remedy the violations of law identified in the United States’ Notices and to vindicate the rights of the individuals incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons for men.”

The lawsuit could result in the federal government taking the state’s prisons into receivership and mandating changes, an outcome most state leaders have wanted to avoid.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the DOJ’s decision to file a suit against the state now is “illogical at best.”

“This move both discounts the hundreds of hours that have gone into settlement negotiations thus far and disregards the immense progress that the state has made in improving our prisons since DOJ first released its findings in early 2019,” Marshall said. “Much of what the DOJ is still demanding, as its lawyers well know, goes beyond what federal law requires—in other words, these demands are unenforceable. The State will not yield to this brazen federal overreach. We look forward to our day in court.”

Gov. Kay Ivey called the news “disappointing” and pointed to ADOC’s plans to build three new men’s prisons as proof that the state is trying to mitigate prison problems.

“This is disappointing news, as the state has actively been negotiating in good faith with the Department of Justice following the release of its findings letters,” Ivey said in a written statement. “Out of respect for the legal process, we unfortunately cannot provide additional comment at this time. We will, however, push forward with our plan to reimagine and rebuild Alabama’s correctional system from the ground up through the construction of three new regional men’s prisons. The comprehensive efforts underway will go a long way in addressing the long-standing challenges faced by the Alabama Department of Corrections.”

Former Sen. Cam Ward, who this month took over leadership of the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, previously chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and warned for years that federal action could be coming.

“It didn’t take a psychic to see that coming,” Ward told Alabama Daily News. “For years we have been told as a state to get a handle on our criminal justice system and the problems that plague it. All of the state has work to do, but I’m confident the executive and legislative branches of government see how dire the situation now is and are ready to step up to the challenge.”

State Sen. Greg Albritton is on the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairs the General Fund budget committee. He called the state prison situation and DOJ lawsuit “frustrating” for lawmakers. Since 2010, lawmakers have more than doubled ADOC’s General Fund appropriation to more than $500 million a year.

Albritton said lawmakers have tried to remedy in recent years some of the prison issues through additional funding, including for more correctional officers. 

“We’ve got the agency that needs many changes,” Albritton said. “We’ve been trying to hire people for years and we can’t, that hasn’t worked. …We haven’t seemed to make any progress in that regard.”

Albritton said he expects another major funding request from ADOC in the 2022 fiscal budget. The appropriation for the current year is $544 million.

Carla Crowder, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said the state had been warned repeatedly that it is operating unconstitutional prisons.

“But instead of taking positive steps to address the horrific levels of violence, overcrowding, understaffing, and internal corruption, Gov. Ivey and the DOC cooked up a plan to double down on this failed system and build more gigantic prisons in two or three years,” Crowder said. “(This) lawsuit shows that the Department of Justice is not satisfied with this ‘Alabama Solution.’
What this lawsuit makes abundantly clear is that the Alabama Department of Corrections cannot be trusted to operate massive new prisons that cost Alabama taxpayers $2.6 billion,” Crowder said. “Page after page of the federal complaint documents failures by ADOC leadership, supervisors, and staff to prevent violence, sexual abuse, and overdose deaths within the prisons. Just one example is that drugs continue to pour into the prisons even with family visits banned because of COVID. Who does that leave as drug couriers? Not the families who ADOC has tried to blame.”
Crowder said she hopes that when lawmakers convene for their regular session in February, they’ll enact significant criminal justice reform.
“That starts with addressing Alabama’s draconian three-strikes law, bringing our drug policy out of the 1980s, and funding diversion, re-entry and mental health instead of handing the ADOC $90 million more dollars per year for new prisons to break,” Crowder said.

 

READ: USA v State of Alabama and ADOC (2020)