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Alabama's Prison Are Unsafe And Unconstitutional, Justice Department Says


The U.S. Department of Justice has put the state of Alabama on notice to fix its prisons. A report today from the civil rights division documents dangerous and unconstitutional conditions. The findings are the result of a more-than-two-year federal probe prompted by deadly violence in Alabama lockups. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The Justice Department finds that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of its male prisoners by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner attacks and sexual abuse. It cites a high level of violence that is, quote, "too common, cruel of an unusual nature and pervasive." The detailed report outlines cases of inmate deaths, rapes, extortion of the families of prisoners and a lot of contraband weapons and drugs.

CAM WARD: I wish I could say it was surprising, but it's not. It's a problem that I've been talking about for a while that I think we need to address.

ELLIOTT: Republican State Senator Cam Ward chairs Alabama's prison oversight committee.

WARD: I think it highlights some very serious concerns with regard to inmate-on-inmate violence, the conditions of the facilities and kind of what DOJ expects from us, which is, within 49 days, to come up with a plan of action on how to deal with some of these problems.

ELLIOTT: Alabama's prison system is in crisis due to chronic overcrowding and severe understaffing. For example, the warden at Alabama's death row prison reported to investigators that she has 11 security staff per shift for a prison population of 800.

The Justice Department also found evidence that officials at the Alabama Department of Corrections are deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm. It says the state has been aware of these issues dating to the 1970s, yet little has changed.

LISA GRAYBILL: There is such a damning portrait of a systemic crisis.

ELLIOTT: Lisa Graybill is deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sued on behalf of inmates over the lack of medical and mental health care in prisons. A federal judge has found, quote, "horrendously inadequate mental health care" and is holding hearings to force the state to stop a rash of inmate suicides. Graybill says today's report from the Justice Department corroborates what civil rights groups have argued for years.

GRAYBILL: The state has refused to accept responsibility for bringing its population down to a manageable level or bringing its conditions up to a constitutional level.

ELLIOTT: Now the Federal Government is threatening to sue if Alabama doesn't comply with specific remedies set out in today's report. The state is already operating its women's prison system under an agreement with the federal government to protect female inmates from staff sexual abuse.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn was unavailable for an interview but in a statement said the department is making efforts to improve prison conditions. The legislature has passed some sentencing reforms in recent years and allocated more money for prison guards. State Senator Cam Ward says lawmakers are considering even more this year, but he says it's not politically popular.

WARD: It's not something that your constituents call and say, hey, let's fix the prisons. So it tends to be a last priority, behind schools, your health care system, et cetera. So that's the - I think this is pretty much in line with other states. We've just let it go on for so long. We've got to finally, you know, call to action.

ELLIOTT: Ward says the worst-case scenario would be a lawsuit that could result in a federal takeover of Alabama prisons. Republican Governor Kay Ivey said in a statement that her administration will be working to make certain that, quote, "this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution." Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULI SONG, "ZERRISSEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.