Judge: Alabama prison staffing levels will remain issue in federal lawsuit

Published 5:47 am Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A federal judge said prison staffing levels can remain an issue in the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Alabama, but said federal officials must provide more details behind some of their allegations.

U.S. District Judge David Proctor, in a mixed ruling for the state Friday, agreed with state lawyers that the Justice Department’s allegations of unsafe and unsanitary conditions were overly broad. But the judge refused Alabama’s request to dismiss staffing issues from the litigation.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year sued Alabama saying state prisons violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment because of high levels of inmate-on-inmate violence, excessive use of force by correctional staff, and unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

The Friday ruling came after lawyers for Alabama sought to dismiss the claims related to “unsafe and unsanitary conditions and correctional staffing.”

Alabama had sought to dismiss the staffing issue because the state faces a separate court order in another lawsuit to increase the number of guards working in state prisons. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, in an ongoing lawsuit over inmate mental health care, ordered Alabama to increase prison staffing. “These correctional staffing concerns duplicate issues that the Braggs Court (mental health case) already addressed and will soon fully and finally address in its final remedial order,” lawyers for the state wrote in a court filing.

Proctor wrote the mental health case does not have a “preclusive effect.” He said the Justice Department can continue to allege that understaffing is a “contributing factor” to the problems in state prisons.

However, the judge ruled the Justice Department’s earlier filing was an overly broad “shotgun pleading” and asked federal officials to provide additional details within 45 days.

He directed the Justice Department to separate allegations by facility, such as asserting which facilities, “fail to provide safe and sanitary conditions” such as having defective locks or inadequate camera surveillance. He said the Justice Department must file the amended complaint within 45 days.

The state is embarking on a massive prison construction project. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers recently approved a plan to build two new 4,000-bed prisons and a new women’s prison and renovate other facilities. Six current facilities would close. The $1.3 billion plan will use $400 million of state funds from the federal COVID-19 relief bill called the American Rescue Plan.

The Justice Department noted in an earlier report that dilapidated facilities were a contributing factor to the unconstitutional conditions but wrote “new facilities alone will not resolve” the matter because of problems in culture, management deficiencies, corruption, violence and other problems.