Alabama prison conditions have been deemed unconstitutional after a Justice Department investigation. The investigation found conditions in Alabama’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Alabama Department of Corrections, and a federal judge is forcing the prison system to make changes. Officials in Alabama now have until next week to make changes to the state’s problematic and unsettling prison system.
Awful and horrifying conditions are very apparent in the 2,600 photographs that were taken inside Alabama’s prisons for the investigation.
“The Alabama prison system killed my only son,” Betty Head said. Her 31-year-old son died after trying to hang himself in a dilapidated Alabama jail cell block. Billy Thornton, Betty Head’s son, was only months away from finishing his six-year sentence. Billy was mentally ill, and according to other inmates who spoke with Betty Head, he would cry for help but was consistently ignored.
Billy’s suicide while imprisoned isn’t entirely shocking, considering Alabama prisons have the highest suicide rate in the country. It’s three times the national average.
Maria Morris, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that “things are really out of control and need to be reined in.”
Morris also said that mentally ill inmates, even inmates on suicide watch, were being held in solitary confinement, with very little contact with officers. “What that basically means is they’re warehousing them. They’re sticking them into segregation units and letting them suffer.”
And it’s not just those suffering from mental illness that are suffering, either. The Justice Department investigation, that lasted two years, found conditions that are unconstitutional throughout the entire Alabama prison system, and an “excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths” happen on a regular basis. The detailed report outlines cases of inmate deaths, rapes, extortion of prisoners’ families, and a lot of contraband drugs and weapons.
The investigation also revealed evidence that officials are deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm. The state has apparently been aware of these issues dating back to the 1970’s, and not much of anything has changed.
One Alabama prison worker, who has asked to remain anonymous out of fear of being fired, said the situation is dismal. “We need more mental health workers. We need more officers,” this worker said. “More people are going to die.”
Prison officials said that there are about 1,400 officers to oversee the prison population of 16,000. That’s half of what’s needed. But Jeff Dunn, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, said that $125 million has already been allocated to increase staffing levels, curb violence, and increase attention to inmates’ mental health. According to Dunn, “In the last couple of years, we’ve seen, first of all, the coming together of several partners who are committed to fixing this.”