The Department of Justice issued a press release on October 6, 2016, stating that it is conducting an investigation into conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men. This investigation comes after years of severe overcrowding, chronic under-staffing, strikes and riots. The recent murder of a Holman correctional officer shone a spotlight on the intolerable conditions faced by both the inmates and the staff.
In its press release, the DOJ announced the federal investigation into the Alabama State Prisons will focus on three specific issues:
- Whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners;
- Whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and
- Whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.
Overcrowding is cited as the root cause of the issues within the system. Currently, the system is operating at 183% of capacity, with large dormitories housing between 90 and 150 men. These spaces offer no privacy or security and the sanitation facilities are inadequate to meet the reasonable needs of the prisoners. The overcrowding also results in extremely limited recreational time, which increases prisoner tensions.
The issue of over-staffing is exacerbated by chronic under-staffing within the prison system. In a recent statement, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn explained, “The major issue, to use a military term, is boots on the ground. We need more boots on the ground.” There are too few officers overseeing too many prisoners and the officers’ focus shifts to protecting themselves rather than the men in their charge.
The DOJ will investigate the allegations under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) and hopes to work with state to address any issues it identifies. If the state refuses to cooperate, it could be the subject of a federal lawsuit.
While the allegations are investigated, the prisons remain dangerously overcrowded and understaffed. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley states he looks forward to working with the DOJ and believes it will support his $800 million initiative to build four new prisons that passed the was approved by the Alabama legislature earlier this year.