DOJ Says Cruel And Unusual Punishment Is Alive And Well In Alabama Prisons
from the criminals-supervising-criminals dept
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has wrapped up an Obama-era probe into the Alabama prison system. Initiated in 2016, the investigation covers 13 prisons in the state, containing nearly 17,000 prisoners. What the DOJ found was widespread deployment of excessive force and a resolute lack of concern for inmates’ well-being. (via Huffington Post)
The report [PDF] notes that the Constitution (indirectly) gives inmates the right to be free from violence from other prisoners. The correctional facilities investigated here did almost nothing to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence.
After carefully reviewing the evidence, the Department concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that conditions at Alabama’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and that these violations are pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights protected by the Eighth Amendment. In particular, the Department informed Alabama that it had reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe and sanitary conditions. The serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision, and overcrowding, contribute to and exacerbate these constitutional violations.
Inmates also have the right to be free from excessive force. The pattern of excessive force deployment in Alabama correctional facilities continued right up to the DOJ’s closing of its investigation.
In October 2019, correctional officers at Donaldson used force against a prisoner, resulting in his death. As part of the autopsy, an ADOC investigator informed a coroner that, after an officer opened his cell, the prisoner rushed toward another prisoner carrying two prison-made weapons. […] The prisoner eventually went to the ground face down and officers reported that the prisoner concealed a knife between his upper torso and the floor. Numerous prisoner-witnesses, however, reported that correctional officers continued to strike the prisoner after he dropped any weapons and posed no threat. The prisoner was airlifted to a hospital due to the extent of his injuries. […] The level of force used caused the prisoner to sustain multiple fractures to his skull, including near his nose, both eye sockets, left ear, left cheekbone, and the base of his skull, many of which caused extensive bleeding in multiple parts of his brain. The autopsy listed 16 separate and distinct injuries to the prisoner’s head and neck, in addition to multiple fractured ribs and bleeding around a kidney.
Two months later, in December 2019, a prisoner at Ventress died after the use of force by staff. The autopsy revealed that the prisoner died from blunt force trauma to the head. He sustained multiple areas of intracranial bleeding, fractures of his nose and left eye socket, and had at least six teeth knocked out. ADOC personnel informed hospital medical personnel that the injuries occurred after the prisoner fell from a bunk bed. Two correctional officers were placed on mandatory leave while ADOC investigated the circumstances surrounding the death.
The DOJ says Alabama’s Department of Corrections documented 1,800 uses of force in 2017 alone. Hardly any of those were investigated. Those that did result in investigations almost never resulted in corrective action or further institutional review. Half of the prisons reviewed either referred one or zero uses of force for further investigation. And despite the fact that one prison (Bullock) had more than half the referrals (55%) despite making up only 6% of the total referred, no further investigation of the prison itself was ever initiated.
There’s a distressingly long section in the report that lists documented uses of excessive force by correctional officers. Here’s some brief lowlights from the DOJ’s investigation:
In September 2019, a lieutenant at Ventress lifted a handcuffed prisoner up off the ground and slammed him on a concrete floor several times, knocking him unconscious. The prisoner was unable to breathe on his own, was intubated, and taken to an outside hospital, where medical personnel administered CPR several times to keep the prisoner alive.
In December 2018, a correctional officer brutally hit, kicked, and struck a handcuffed prisoner with an expandable baton in the Ventress medical unit. Two nurses saw the officer beat the prisoner, and two other nurses could hear the beating from adjacent rooms. The prisoner did not antagonize the officer before the beating and his hands were handcuffed behind his back. During the beating, all four of the nurses heard the officer yell something to the effect of, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” and the prisoner begged the officer to kill him. At one point, a nurse observed the officer place his palms against the wall and his right foot on the side of the prisoner’s face to grind the prisoner’s head into the floor…
The prisoner was then taken into the medical unit where he continued to thrash and gyrate his hips. The nurse believed the prisoner was unable to control his actions because he was under the influence of an illicit substance. The prisoner then fell from the examination table to the floor as the nurse tried to obtain his vital signs. The first sergeant threatened to kill the prisoner if he did not control his movements. While thrashing, the prisoner struck the sergeant’s boot. In response, the sergeant kicked the prisoner several times in the stomach and chest. Another sergeant then took a shoe and hit the prisoner multiple times in the genitals.
This goes on for nearly five pages. The DOJ points out the prisons are doing nothing to control this excessive force deployment and appear to be wholly uninterested in any form of accountability. This impression holds up under scrutiny. The DOJ investigators were stonewalled by uncooperative Departments of Corrections officials and officers nearly every step of the way.
For the June 2017 through April 2018 period, ADOC refused to produce any attachments to the incident reports, even though the attachments include critical information, including the initial, institution-level use of force investigations completed by captains or wardens, photographs documenting the aftermath of uses of force, and witness statements. ADOC also produced only I&I investigative files for closed investigations. Throughout the investigation, ADOC also prohibited us from interviewing non-supervisory correctional officers and severely restricted our access to individuals working in prison health care units.
The list of corrective actions recommended is almost longer than the list of atrocities carried out by corrections officers. The DOJ says immediate change is needed, starting with the installation of cameras anywhere corrections officers might interact with inmates, strict controls over access to this recorded footage, an influx of internal investigators, and extensive documentation for every deployment of force. Without this in place, any long-term fixes will be impossible. But given the state’s corrections department’s unwillingness to cooperate with this investigation, it seems unlikely a bunch of strong words from the federal government will result in immediate — or lasting — change.