Inside the nightmarish world of Alabama prisons and the DOJ’s attempt to fix them

iStock(MONTGOMERY, Ala.) -- The Department of Justice blasted Alabama's men's prisons on Wednesday, saying in a report that the system fails to protect inmates from violence and sexual assault, and detailing a litany of nightmarish incidents.

"Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result. The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the department’s concerns," Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said in a letter released Wednesday.

The investigation, dated April 2, said "the violations are severe, systemic and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision; overcrowding; ineffective housing and classification protocols; inadequate incident reporting."

"Our investigation revealed that an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama’s prisons on a regular basis," the report states.

In one incident, in September 2017, the report describes a prisoner being stabbed to death as prisoners stood guard watching for "rarely seen correctional officers."

"One Hot Bay resident told us that he could still hear the prisoner’s screams in his sleep," the report added, referring to a disciplinary ward at one of the prisons.

During that week, the investigation describes a series of violent attacks and sexual assaults, including a prisoner who "was so severely assaulted by four other prisoners that he had to be transported to an outside hospital for treatment."

U.S. Attorney Richard Moore said in the statement that speedy changes need to be made "to spare our state further embarrassment."

"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. We are better than this," Moore said in the statement.

The DOJ investigation started in October 2016; involved inspections of four male prisons; and included hundreds of interviews of inmates, staff and correctional workers.

"Over the coming months, my administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed and that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution," Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement, issued jointly with the state’s Department of Corrections.

Charlotte Morrison, the senior attorney at the Montgomery-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, said the Department of Justice’s letter “corroborated” the concerns that advocates have been sharing for months and years.

“What we’ve seen is that even though the [Alabama] Department of Corrections [ADOC] has been repeatedly made aware of these violent conditions, little has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse since the Department of Justice opened their investigation,” Morrison told ABC News.

According to the investigation, there were 24 homicides reported from 2015 to 2017. By comparison, there were six prison homicides in Tennessee during that same time period, and Texas -- a state with a much larger prison population -- had 10 prison homicides in the same time period, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

And the DOJ said the homicide rate in Alabama prisons might be underreported.

"We definitively identified three additional homicides -- two in 2017 and one in the first half of 2018. These unreported homicides provide reasonable cause to believe that ADOC’s homicide rate is higher than what ADOC has publicly reported," the report said.

"There are numerous instances where ADOC incident reports classified deaths as due to 'natural' causes when, in actuality, the deaths were likely caused by prisoner-on-prisoner violence."

The investigation also found that the system discourages the reporting of sexual assaults.

While the DOJ found that the prison system has "begun to make some positive changes in recent years," such as hiring an inspector general and making some changes in response to the department's investigation, such as closing the Bibb prison Hot Bay, "these efforts have been inadequate, as evidenced by the serious issues that continue to plague the prisons," the document said.

The DOJ suggested a slew of short- and long-term measures to address the deficiencies.

Alabama prisons have made headlines in recent weeks, with The New York Times reporting about a trove of 2,000 pictures that they were sent from inside Alabama's St. Clair prison. Many of the pictures, which the newspaper described as being "full of nudity, indignity and gore," were not published, but the article detailed how they showed homemade weapons and wounds sustained by prisoners.

Morrison explained that the DOJ’s letter gives the ADOC “a period for coming up with corrective action” but warned that if insufficient steps are taken during that time period, “then litigation may be required as a next step.”

Morrison said that while the larger issues of understaffed and overcrowded prisons need to be addressed comprehensively, there are some immediate fixes that could help improve conditions immediately, like installing cameras that are able to record video and therefore help monitor where problems arise, or installing mirrors that will help guards have a better view of larger rooms.

Additionally, she said the DOJ letter sends an important message to the incarcerated community and their families.

“We have been receiving reports from family members from the incarcerated men, and from the men themselves -- hundreds of reports, and reports on almost a daily basis. And I think that the feeling is that because of the sort of silence and the lack of any response from state leadership to the pleas of families and incarcerated men who are begging for protection in the face of lethal violence ... that silence conveys either that we don’t believe you … or that your life doesn’t matter,” she said.

“This is saying, ‘No, we hear you. You matter. And we will hold people accountable for this,’” she said.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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