Alabama's notoriously inhumane and overcrowded prisons are to be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, in an unusual move the agency announced late Thursday.
"Only the most egregious of conditions would prompt the federal government to open a major investigation into the state's prison system," said Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) president Richard Cohen, which is currently suing the state of Alabama for its treatment of prisoners. "We welcome the investigation."
"It's a giant investigation. This is rare," Lisa Graybill, a staff attorney for the SPLC, told the Guardian. The newspaper noted that previously "Graybill worked for the federal unit that will investigate Alabama, and said the closest comparison in memory was an examination of Puerto Rico's juvenile jails."
"Taking on a whole state is unusual and possibly unprecedented," Graybill said.
Alabama's prisons, currently operating at 183 percent of capacity, are the most overcrowded in the country and some of the most unsafe and violent.
"The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is profoundly overcrowded, dangerously understaffed and simply incapable of running safe and secure prisons that protect the physical and mental health of the people in custody," said Eldon Vail, a former corrections administrator, in a report (pdf) on Alabama's prison system that was published in July. "It is a system in a state of perpetual collapse."
"[M]ost Alabama prisons use large dormitories that house between 90 and 150 prisoners. Underneath large incandescent lights and large fans, single beds and bunks are just 2 feet apart, while rival gangs occupy different corners of the rooms that more or less resemble large barns," explained local news outlet AL.com. "Adding to that, lack of space, bathroom facilities, and almost non-existent recreational time has increased tensions inside the dorms."
"At Kilby, a prison just outside of Montgomery, the occupancy rate is 266 percent over capacity with a 50 percent shortfall in guards," AL.com noted.
The Justice Department investigation was reportedly prompted by a series of violent incidents and strikes, most notably the strike last month that saw prisoners protesting dire work conditions that they compared to slavery. Prisons in Alabama, particularly the notoriously violent Holman prison, were at the forefront of the strike—many guards at Holman even joined the striking prisoners. Months prior to the strike, the same maximum-security prison was the site of two deadly riots.
In the Justice Department's letter (pdf) announcing the investigation, the department wrote to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley that "we will investigate whether Alabama: (1) adequately protects prisoners from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; (2) adequately protects prisoners from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and (3) provides prisoners with sanitary, secure, and safe living conditions."
"The Constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement," said principal deputy assistant attorney general Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "We hope to work cooperatively with the state of Alabama in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that the state's facilities keep prisoners safe from harm."
However, "Alabama's prisons are out of control because the state incarcerates too many people and the prisons are poorly managed," SPLC's Cohen argued in response to the governor's plan. "Governor Bentley thinks the answer is to spend $1.5 billion on building new prisons, but the problems facing the Alabama Department of Corrections cannot be solved by construction."
"If we embark on a costly and ill-planned massive prison construction plan without carefully calibrating it to coincide with continued, significant decreases in the state's prison population," Cohen added, "we're likely to end up where we started—with too many prisons and an unnecessarily high prison population that uses state resources that could be better spent on increasing public safety and improving the lives of all Alabamians."