DOJ launches probe into Alabama prison system over inmate abuse

© Enrique Castro-Mendivil
The US Department of Justice has launched a statewide investigation into the conditions of Alabama’s prisons for men. The probe will look at whether prisoners are protected from other prisoners and correctional officers, and into the living conditions.

The DOJ will focus on claims of physical and sexual violence by inmates on each other and accusations of excessive force and sexual abuse by prison guards and other staff members. On top of that, the agency will look into whether the prisons are sanitary, secure and safe, the Justice Department said in a statement.

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“Our obligation is to protect the civil rights of all citizens, including those who are incarcerated,” said US Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District of Alabama.  “This investigation provides us with an opportunity to work collaboratively with the state of Alabama to assess current conditions and ensure constitutionally sufficient conditions exist for all prisoners.”

The DOJ Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section and the three US Attorney’s Offices in Alabama will conduct the investigation.

Over the past year, the state’s two largest men’s prisons have been plagued by riots and stabbings, the Birmingham News reported.

At one of those prisons, William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, corrections officers have been calling in sick and missing shifts. On Sunday, six officers called in sick for the third shift. On September 24, nine officers assigned to the one shift didn’t show up for, and three officers resigned, according to AP.

A corrections officer at Holman died after being stabbed by an inmate last month.

A fight broke out at the other prison, St. Clair Correctional Facility, Sunday evening, and five inmates were sent to an undisclosed hospital, the Birmingham News reported.

The DOJ’s authority to investigate Alabama’s prisons comes from the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which it will use to see whether any violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights result from  a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.”

Prison facilities in Alabama are operating at 200 percent capacity. In May, inmates at several Alabama prisons went on strike and forced lockdowns to protest terrible conditions, overcrowding and exploitative labor. Prisoners claimed that, in response to the strikes, corrections officers refused to take out garbage or to clean dorms and showers. Inmates also reported being fed small portions of food that were inadequate for their health.

Prisoners asked for a repeal of the state’s habitual offender statute, which would make some 8,000 prisoners eligible for parole and ease the issue of overcrowding. They also demanded an end to unpaid labor, and sought monetary damages for the free labor they were forced to provide.