Federal lawsuit alleges Alabama prison is dangerous and out of control

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Equal Justice Initiative, known for advocating for the civil and constitutional rights of prisoners, filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday that makes claims of violence and lack of institutional control inside St. Clair Correctional Facility.

EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson said he's not interested in solving problems through litigation, but the Alabama Department of Corrections left him no choice.

"Too many serious problems have gone on for too long to continue to talk and talk," Stevenson said.

Those problems are outlined in detail in a 46-page complaint filed in federal court on behalf of nine inmates whose abuse resulted in surgeries, hearing loss and hospitalization. Stevenson felt this was the only recourse to spark needed change.

"We think there is no defense or excuse for the really violent or horrific behavior that has increased at St. Clair's prison," Stevenson said. "What's happening at St. Clair is nothing short of shocking. The level of abuse and level of violence. St. Clair now has some of the highest homicide rates in the country, weekly violent assaults, stabbings. Correctional officers are involved in smuggling drugs and contraband into the prison, which is often the source of a lot of this violence," Stevenson said.

According to the complaint, six homicides have been reported in 36 months -- half of those occurred in 2014. It goes into further detail, alleging the warden punched a handcuffed prisoner in the face.

Other accounts detailed in the complaint include:

  • “In July 2014, Correctional Officers Donald Lukima and Christopher Smith beat a prisoner. Officers Lukima and Smith ordered a prisoner out of his cell in the middle of the night, took him into the hallway outside his block, handcuffed him and then hit him in the back of the head with handcuffs wrapped around their knuckles, causing injuries requiring staples."
  • “In May 2014, Lt. Carter put his hands around an inmate's neck and applied pressure until he lost consciousness. The inmate had to be taken to UAB Hospital due to his injuries."
  • “January 20, 2012, inmate Joseph Shank was beaten by Sgt. John Mason and suffered hearing loss as a result. Mr. Shack was handcuffed and shackled during the beating."

Stevenson says prisoners fear for their lives due to cell assignments. The lawsuit claims the prison did not consider a prisoner's need for security based on their offense, mental illness, age or disability. When inmates voiced concern about their safety, Stevenson says violence was encouraged.

"We had one person tell us that when a prisoner complained about security, a high ranking person pulled out a box cutters and knives and said pick your weapon. Kill or be killed," Stevenson said.

The lawsuit says St. Clair Correctional Facility relies on locks on cell doors as the only means to secure the facility. Except, those locks are easily, "tricked" by inmate's ID cards, or the locks malfunction altogether.

"One of the murders took place because an inmate went into another inmate's cell and stabbed him to death," Stevenson said.

Stevenson and his team from EJI have been meeting with DOC, advocating for new leadership inside St. Clair for some time. Stevenson says he will make the same recommendation for Commissioner Kim Thomas, if Thomas can't implement swift and immediate change within the department,

"We called on DOC to replace the warden at St. Clair several months ago. We had very clear, documented reasons for that. They refused to do that and problems got worse," Stevenson said.

Stevenson is asking for the court to require DOC to comply with the Constitution and conduct an independent investigation. He also suspects the complaint will result in criminal prosecution.

WSFA 12 News requested an interview with Thomas about the allegations made in the complaint. Thomas made the following statement,

"Inmate and staff safety is a top priority for the Alabama Department of Corrections, and we do not tolerate inmate abuse in any of our facilities. Whenever allegations are reported against both inmates and officers and backed by credible evidence, ADOC takes appropriate action to hold people accountable. St. Clair Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison housing dangerous people who have committed serious acts of violence like murder, rape, robbery and burglary. However, the department has undertaken a number of measures to improve safety. Thanks to funding this fiscal year, the ADOC was recently able to begin replacing doors, locks and controlling mechanisms at the facility.

The department has been meeting routinely with members of the Equal Justice Initiative to discuss concerns about St. Clair, and regrets that they have chosen to file a lawsuit instead of continuing to work together to make the facility better. There are many hard working correctional employees at St. Clair who are committed to maintaining order and peace inside the prison. We will continue our efforts to make improvements to St. Clair to better serve the inmates and correctional staff at the facility."

When asked further about repairs to the locks at the prison, Stevenson said he's received no evidence the repairs are being done.

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