Justice Department sues Alabama over men’s prison conditions

Updated: Dec. 9, 2020 at 5:37 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The complaint alleges that the conditions at Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Constitution. The department says Alabama does not provide adequate protection against prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse. Prosecutors also say ADOC is not providing safe and sanitary conditions, and prisoners are subjected to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

“The United States Constitution requires Alabama to make sure that its prisons are safe and humane,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “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.”

The lawsuit is the result of a multiyear investigation into allegations of constitutional violations within Alabama’s prisons for men conducted by the department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney’s offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama.

The complaint contains allegations of unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

The department says they provided the state with written notice of the supporting facts for these alleged conditions, in accordance with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, and the minimum remedial measures necessary to address them. These reports were issued on April 2, 2019 and July 23.

According to the Justice Department, they have negotiated with the state for over 20 months without reaching a settlement that would correct the alleged deficiencies identified in the investigation.

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to address the alleged deficient conditions identified in the investigation. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages.

“Our office is committed to ensuring that all citizens’ constitutional rights are respected” said acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama William R. Chambers Jr. “We will continue to work tirelessly to correct the constitutional deficiencies identified by our investigation into the state prison system.”

“­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The results of the investigation into safety and excessive force issues within Alabama’s prisons are distressing and continue to require real and immediate attention,” said Louis V. Franklin Sr., U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. “We hope the filing of this complaint conveys the Department’s continued commitment to ensuring that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that one of the primary responsibilities of government is to keep our citizens safe,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Richard W. Moore. “That responsibility extends to citizens incarcerated within Alabama prisons. 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 DOJ 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.”

Gov. Kay Ivey called the lawsuit disappointing.

“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 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.”

ACLU of Alabama Executive Director JaTaune Bosby is hopeful the lawsuit will bring reform.

“For years, currently and formerly incarcerated people have been sounding the alarm on the abuse and conditions that they experienced within Alabama Department of Corrections facilities, and they have been rallying, protesting, writing, and calling elected leaders at every level to demand change. The US Department of Justice has issued two reports detailing excessive and unconstitutional treatment of incarcerated people, and yet ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has been either unable or unwilling to address these issues in any meaningful way,” Bosby said in a statement. “It has been past time for reform, and it is shameful that our state leaders are once again being forced through litigation to do the right thing for the people of Alabama. But while this lawsuit will hopefully bring relief to the thousands of people incarcerated in state facilities, we must continue holding our representatives accountable for their role in Alabama’s mass incarceration crisis. When the Legislative Session begins in February, it is imperative that we see bold reforms supported by leaders across the board like repealing the outdated Habitual Felony Offender Act.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a statement saying the lawsuit is “long overdue.”

“The Department of Justice filing this lawsuit signals what incarcerated people, their families, and advocates have long been waiting for - a clear and unequivocal signal that the failures of the State and Alabama prison system are abhorrent. The inaction with regard to protecting the humanity of incarcerated people is illegal and immoral,” SPLC senior supervising attorney Ebony Howard said in the statement. “The same questions arise again for Alabama leaders: What are you going to do? Now that the State is a defendant in another federal lawsuit and again linked to civil and human rights abuses, will leaders remain silent in the face of this crisis? History will judge the actions of the people who were entrusted with leadership and whether or not they abide by true principles. Will Alabama finally do what it should have done in 2014, or will the state continue to ignore the crisis of conscience that threatens the state’s moral fiber.”

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