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Nation & World

Justice Dept. Sues Alabama Over Prison Conditions

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections over poor conditions within men's prisons.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections over poor conditions within men's prisons.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Alabama Wednesday, saying unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the state's men's prisons violate the Constitution.

The DOJ says Alabama's prison system fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse, and excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

Alabama's 13 major correctional facilities have become notorious over the years for its reported unsafe conditions, violence, and inadequacies regarding medical treatment of prisoners. The federal lawsuit is the government's last resort to get the state to improve prison conditions.

The government's complaint says, "The State of Alabama is deliberately indifferent to the serious and systemic constitutional problems present in Alabama's prisons for men."

A representative for the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment; however, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statement to AL.com saying news of the lawsuit was "disappointing."

"The state has actively been negotiating in good faith with the Department of Justice following the release of its findings letters," Ivey said. "Out of respect for the legal process, we unfortunately cannot provide additional comment at this time."

She went on to say that the state is moving forward on plans to "reimagine and rebuild" the state's correctional system with the construction of three new regional men's prisons.

Since spring 2019, U.S. attorneys had been in negotiations with Alabama officials to get the state to address several long-standing issues in its prisons.Yet, ADOC failed to agree to changes to improve conditions, Justice Department attorneys said in Wednesday's filing.

"The United States has determined that constitutional compliance cannot be secured by voluntary means," according to the lawsuit.

The complaint says that instead of resolving the problems, prisoner-on-prisoner homicides in Alabama have actually increased, and sexual abuse in prisons remains "unabated." Prison facilities remain "inadequate," and staffing levels are critically low, it adds.

"Alabama's prisons for men are now more overcrowded than in 2016, when the United States initiated its investigation," the lawsuit alleges.

The problems in Alabama's correctional facilities have been well-documented in recent years.

The state's department of corrections reported nine men were killed by other prisoners in the state's prisons in the first six months of 2020, according to the complaint.

The state corrections system has dealt with an outbreak of coronavirus throughout several facilities with 43 inmates dying from the disease this year, according to AL.com.

Tension leading to violence among inmates is exacerbated by overcrowding, broken toilets and showers that create an unsanitary environment within many of the prisons, the Justice Department alleges.

Mental health treatment for prisoners is also reportedly woefully inadequate.A federal judge determined last May that the risk of suicide among Alabama prisoners was "so severe and imminent" that he ordered the ADOC to immediately implement permanent mental health remedies to address "severe and systematic inadequacies." This decision came after 15 prisoners killed themselves in the span of 15 months.

In July, the federal government put the state on notice for its "unconstitutional" prison conditions when the Justice Department and U.S. attorneys for Alabama released a report detailing widespread excessive force used against male prisoners.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Richard W. Moore said in a statement, "Our investigation has demonstrated that constitutionally required standards have not been met in Alabama prisons and this must be corrected. I am disappointed that the efforts of both Alabama officials and Department of Justice officials to find appropriate solutions have not resulted in a mutually agreed upon resolution. Our oath as public officials now requires us to follow the Constitution and to pursue justice in the courts."

The DOJ is pursuing its case against Alabama under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which authorizes the department to act when it has reasonable cause to believe there is a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of prisoners in correctional facilities operated by or on behalf of a state or local government.

The DOJ's lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to address deficient conditions identified by the department's investigation.

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