The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but houses approximately 25% of the world’s prisoners. The confinement of such a vast number of citizens would raise important moral, legal, and social questions even if these people were held in conditions that are safe, provide needed treatment for addiction and other medical concerns, are rehabilitative in nature, and provide strong preparation for reentry into society. But a recent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice demonstrates how horrifically opposite is the case.
On April 2nd The U.S. Department of Justice sent a 56 page letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey detailing their finding that Alabama’s prisons are so rife with violence and sexual abuse that prisoners are subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the state is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. You can read a summary (and the whole report) on this page from NPR.
Scope of the Problems
Just the report’s chapter titles give a sense of the problems. Section C- The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) does not reasonably protect prisoners from rampant violence. C2- Excessive deaths due to violent, deadly assaults. C6- Unchecked extortion presents a risk of serious harm. E1- Sexual abuse is highly prevalent. These are just a few.
Murders and Assaults
The first incident detailed in the report explains how in September 2017 two inmates stood watch at the entrance to an open dormitory in which inmates are housed in bunk beds. In the back of the room two prisoners began stabbing a victim. He screamed for help, but no guards came, and another prisoner who tried to save him was also stabbed. The initial victim eventually crawled to the front door, where other prisoners had to bang to get the attention of security staff. The stabbed prisoner bled to death.
That same day another prisoner was stabbed multiple times and had to be evacuated by helicopter to a hospital. Later that week was another beating, and then a prisoner was beaten by two other prisoners wielding socks filled with metal locks. He was joined in the hospital by another injured in the eye by a fist, and another prisoner was stabbed with homemade knives. A second prisoner was injured by fists, then a correction officer was threatened with a 7 inch homemade knife.
Highlights from later in the week include prisoners setting fire to the blanket of another prisoner who was sleeping, a prisoner taken to hospital due to a stab wound to the shoulder, and a prisoner found unresponsive on the floor who died. He had overdosed on a synthetic cannabinoid. Meanwhile searches turned up 12 plastic bags of an unknown substance, 79 cigarettes laced with drugs, two bags of cookie dough (a powder made of poisonous chemicals that is mixed with tobacco and smoked), and a bag of methamphetamine. Remember, this is all in one week!
Staffing levels are so inadequate there is no way the guards can ensure safety. One Warden, at Alabama’s Holman prison, said she often has ‘probably 11’ staff for a shift to maintain order at her facility that houses 800 inmates. An anonymous warden calls the staffing levels ‘barbaric’ and says that they result in both the inmates and corrections officers being in extreme danger.
Danger to Correction Officers
In 2016 a corrections officer (CO) was stabbed in the head and killed by an inmate angry about not being given a second serving of food. In March 2018 a CO was attacked by 7 inmates with homemade knives and cut in the stomach. That same month a CO was punched and kicked by an inmate, who upon being searched was found to have on him a five inch box cutter with a razor blade. Attacks by prisoners wielding metal, homemade knives, and prison made ice picks were regular occurrences.
Guards Smuggle in Drugs
But correction officers themselves are also part of the problem. The report acknowledges that drugs get into the prisons in a variety of ways- staff, prisoners arriving from other locations, visitors, and people throwing bags over the fences. But the report concludes that the #1 way drugs are brought in is by correction officer smuggling. At one prison eleven officers were caught dealing drugs to inmates. One staff member made $75,000 doing this, while his prisoner accomplice made $100,000.
Prison Policy Insures Crimes Are Vastly Underreported
Prison assaults and rapes are also very likely tremendously undercounted. This is because the prison authorities require an inmate reporting these crimes to name the assailant. An inmate who does this will likely be targetted for violent retribution from the assailant and his allies. If the inmate refuses he’ll be put in solitary confinement. So most often the safest choice for an inmate is to not report anything but instead to make weapons and form alliances to provide for his own defence.
2500 photos anonymously delivered to media
Should any question about Alabama prison conditions remain, in early April a correction officer at St Clair Prison in Springville, AL anonymously delivered a jump drive containing 2500 photos from inside the prison to the local television news. The station showed the photos to two former CO’s to confirm their authenticity.
Reporter Beth Shelburne summed up the photos by saying they depict ‘bodies torn open by wounds, crude and jagged. Splattered blood, gushing red streams flowing from ripped skin, a panicked triage underway. . . Alabama prisons are a slaughterhouse, where rape, stabbings, murder and extortion happen around the clock.’
The pictures were determined to be too graphic to publish in a single story, but you can view many of them online here.
This same anonymous CO also delivered these photos to the New York Times, which published an article subtitled ‘Would we fix our prisons if we could see what happens inside them?’ In it Times reporter Shaila Dewan remarks, ‘It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore. It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.’
Must Advocate at Home in order to have moral standing abroad
Here is a clearly defined and indisputable human rights abuse taking place on U.S. soil. National Public Radio quotes Alabama State Senator Cam Ward explaining, “It’s not something that your constituents call and say ‘Hey let’s fix the prisons’ so it has to be a last priority behind schools, your health care system, etc.” In order for human rights activists in this country to have moral standing to advocate for changes abroad, we have to make sure that’s no longer the case.
Nelson Mandela stated, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Right now we’re failing that test.
Top photo: Weapons confiscated from inmates at an Alabama prison