Alabama Prisons Accused of “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” – Rolling Stone
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Alabama Prisons Accused of Turning a Blind Eye to Stabbings, Gang Rapes

A new DOJ report sheds light on the horrific conditions of prisoners in the state

Prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. Alabama is trying to stave off federal intervention in its overcrowded prison system with a reform package approved this spring that includes a bond issue for additional prison space and a new law making sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standardsAlabama Prison Crowding, Elmore, USA

Prisoners stand in in line for lunch at Elmore Correctional Facility in Alabama.

Brynn Anderson/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A Department of Justice report released today contains harrowing details about human rights violations in Alabama state prisons, including multiple stabbings, knifepoint gang rapes, and a prisoner setting fire to someone else’s blanket while they were sleeping.

In a letter to Alabama governor Kay Ivey, the DOJ writes that “there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions at Alabama’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution,” otherwise known as the “cruel and unusual punishment” amendment. The letter criticizes the state for failing to protect prisoners from “prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse,” attributing their poor living conditions to a lack of sufficient staffing and overcrowding in the state prison system.

Conducted over the course of multiple years, the DOJ investigation documented a number of terrifying incidents in Alabama’s 16 prisons. The report says that one week in September 2017 saw several stabbings, beatings and sexual assaults in Alabama prisons, as well as a prisoner’s fatal overdose on synthetic cannabinoids. The report even includes an incident in which a prisoner’s blanket was set on fire while he was sleeping. One prison inspected in 2017 was also found to have deplorable living conditions, including “open sewage running by the pathway we used to access the facility,” “reports of rats and maggots in the kitchen,” and “toxic fumes” from chemicals in the kitchen. (The prison was later closed.)

The report also found that the homicide rate for Alabama state prisons is the highest in the country. In 2017, there were nine reported homicides in Alabama prisons, or approximately four times the national prison homicide rate as of 2014. The report found that an alarming number of these murders were due to the presence of homemade knives in the prison, and that prison authorities “took no meaningful efforts to protect these prisoners from serious harm” — even, in some cases, when the prisoners directly approached prison guards to report that they feared for their lives. There were also a number of drugs found in the prison, including “cookie dough,” a powerful hallucinogen made with poisonous chemicals that has been linked to “extreme paranoia, severe hallucinations, and violent nausea.”

The report concludes with a number of guidelines for how to improve living conditions, such as implementing a system of reporting prisoner sexual abuse and providing remedial training to security staff members to reduce violence. The DOJ has given Alabama state prison authorities 49 days to improve living conditions, or else run the risk of being sued.

In response to the report, the Alabama Department of Corrections and Governor Ivey issued the following statement: “We appreciate the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to ensure open lines of communication with the State of Alabama. DOJ has identified many of the same areas of concern that we have discussed publicly for some time. Over the coming months, my Administration will be working closely with DOJ to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed, that we remain steadfast in our commitment to public safety, making certain that this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”

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