Alabama prisons agency says federal suit ignores progress

Published 10:27 am Friday, December 11, 2020

A Justice Department lawsuit over conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men ignores progress the state has made to improve the lockups, the Department of Corrections said.

The agency said it disagrees with Trump administration allegations that the men’s prisons violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The complaint filed by the DOJ plainly ignores the years’ worth of information provided by the ADOC regarding the substantial and impactful reforms it continues to undertake,” said a state prison system statement released Thursday night.

The Justice Department lawsuit, filed on the heels of two scathing reports, said Alabama prisons are plagued with inmate-on-inmate violence, a pattern of excessive force by staff and an indifference by state officials to address the problems.

The prisons agency acknowledged past problems, but said the Justice Department “continues to mischaracterize these limited instances as sweeping patterns. ”
“The piecemeal anecdotes outlined in the Complaint do not reflect the hard work and important service provided by our correctional staff,” the agency’s statement said.

Alabama said it had been negotiating with federal officials to settle their concerns, but the Justice Department filed the suit without warning.

“Further, the tone and tenor utilized in the Complaint and in the DOJ’s press release run counter to the DOJ’s approach throughout our ongoing negotiations, implying a certain level of inappropriate public posturing,” the state agency said.

A Justice Department report released last year described a culture of violence in state prisons for men, with frequent rapes, beatings and fatal stabbings at the hands of fellow prisoners, and a management system that undercounts homicides and fails to protect prisoners even when warned. A second report issued in July said Alabama had a pattern of staff using excessive force on inmates.

The Justice Department investigation was launched in 2016 in the closing days of the Obama administration. The lawsuit filed Wednesday was signed by Attorney General William Barr.

The department has blamed inadequate staffing and dilapidated prison conditions for many of the problems and said it has made “real strides” to recruit more prison workers. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey administration is negotiating with companies to build three, 3,000-inmate prisons that would be leased by the state.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday maintains that since 2016, prisons have become more crowded, rates of violence and sexual abuse remain “unacceptably and dangerously high” and prisons are “still dangerously and critically understaffed.”

“Defendants have been aware of the dangerous conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men for many years, but have not seriously addressed the problems,” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified improvements. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said Wednesday that the Justice Department demands go “beyond what federal law requires” and are thus unenforceable. His office declined to specify the changes that the Justice Department is seeking, saying that will be listed in the state’s response to the lawsuit in court.