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Routine Beatings of Inmates in Alabama Prisons Go Ignored, U.S. Says

2020-07-24 09:00:40

One prisoner who died had intracranial bleeding, nose and eye socket fractures and six teeth knocked out. Corrections officers who had brutalized him said he fell from a bunk bed.

Another inmate defecated on himself after a guard struck him 19 times with a baton, even though he was handcuffed.

And then there was a prisoner who begged for a corrections officer to kill him after he was also beaten with a baton while handcuffed.

Those atrocities were detailed in a 28-page report on the Alabama prison system that was released on Thursday by the Justice Department, which said that corrections officers frequently used excessive force. The cycle of violence infringes on prisoners’ constitutional right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment, the report said.

The report is the latest disturbing glimpse at what life is like in the state’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons, which for several years have drawn scrutiny from civil rights investigators at the Justice Department and prison reform advocates.

Investigators said that they had reason to believe that episodes of excessive force had been underreported or not reported at all.

“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 said.

Alabama officials have 49 days to address the concerns raised by the report, or the office of Attorney General William P. Barr could sue the state, according to the report.

“Systemic constitutional violations such as these cannot be ignored and require a comprehensive approach to addressing these problems,” Lloyd Peeples, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, said in a statement on Thursday.

The office of Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday, but the Republican governor issued a statement to the local news media characterizing the report as an “expected follow-up” to the previous findings of federal investigators.

“I am 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,” Ms. Ivey said.

A spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said on Thursday that she could not immediately comment on the report’s findings.

Last year, federal investigators uncovered a pattern of homicide and rape in the Alabama system and warned that the federal government could sue if the state did not take steps to improve conditions for prisoners.

It was not immediately clear whether federal officials had taken any further steps based on those findings, and a request for additional comment went unanswered.

About 16,000 male prisoners are housed at 13 prisons in the Alabama system, according to the Justice Department, which did not review conditions at women’s prisons. The system has faced a number of civil rights lawsuits over the years, including litigation filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group based in Montgomery.

Ebony Howard, a senior supervising attorney for the center, said in an interview Thursday that the report’s findings were a continuing confirmation of the horrific conditions that prisoners, their families and advocates have grown accustomed to.

“People will say, ‘Well, they are in prison, and that’s what happens when you are in prison,’” Ms. Howard said. “I would vigorously push back on that. When people are in prison, they are not given a sentence of going to hell. Being incarcerated does not mean that your Eighth Amendment rights are overridden.”

At least one Alabama official pushed back after the report’s release on Thursday. Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement that state officials had been “ambushed” and had not been given advanced notice of the report’s findings.

“To be clear, the State of Alabama has never denied the challenges that the Alabama Department of Corrections is facing,” Mr. Marshall said. “At the same time, I have made it absolutely clear from the beginning that the State will not, under any circumstances, enter into a consent decree with the federal government to avoid a lawsuit.”


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