It’s Been 8 Months Since the Department of Justice Found the Alabama Prison System Violates The Constitution

A Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation launched during the Obama administration and concluded under the Trump administration revealed the nightmarish conditions of the Alabama Prison System. The report was provided to Governor Kay Ivey in April of 2019. It concluded that the conditions of the Alabama Prison System were so horrific that they were a violation of the inmates’ Constitutional right to avoid suffering cruel and unusual punishment. The question is now whether conditions have improved in the subsequent months.

The Scope Of The Problem

Alabama ranks 5th out of the 50 states in terms of its incarceration rate: 946 out of every 100,000 Alabamans are incarcerated, almost 1% of the total population. This rate has risen steadily in both prisons and jails since the late 1970s onward. While the United States as a whole is infamous for its high incarceration rates, Alabama passes the national average by nearly 250 people per 100,000.

Many of those incarcerated in Alabama are serving time for drug charges. In Alabama, possession of a controlled substance such as heroin, meth, cocaine, and prescription meds constitutes a class C felony, which carries a charge of 1-10 years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000. Possession of marijuana is considered a misdemeanor, but can still result in a hefty fine and a year in jail.

The opioid epidemic has hit Alabama especially hard. As of 2017, for every 100 Alabamans, there are 107 opioid prescriptions. This availability, more than double the national average, puts people at risk for developing habits that lead them toward a decade in jail.

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Drugs In The Alabama Prison System

One of the greatest ironies of the Alabama prison system is the wide availability of drugs. Many of these inmates find themselves incarcerated precisely because of their past interactions with illicit substances. Once in prison, they often have easier access to drugs than in the free world.

I don’t believe Chicago and New York has as many drugs there as in this prison. There’s any kind of drugs you want here.

- Wendell Roberts, Alabama Prison Inmate

Some facilities provide dorms specifically for drug use rehabilitation, but inmate testimony alleges those are often the most riddled with drugs. Committing violence while high is a relatively common occurrence in the dorms. Abusive inmates have been found drugging others in order to tie them up and abuse them physically if they’re seen as weak or if they owe money.

Drugs are a major driver behind the hostile atmosphere in Alabama prisons. There’s not enough money or staff to support a rehabilitation program for inmates, so substance dependence only becomes more desperate after incarceration. Drug dealers will foist drugs onto other inmates in order to build up their drug debt. They can then use this debt as a means of manipulating people into working for them, giving up their possessions, or providing sexual favors.

Overcrowding In The Alabama Prison System

Alabama’s voracious incarceration rate renders their corrections facilities under-sized and under-staffed. Prisons like St. Clair Correctional Facility force hundreds of prisoners into dorm halls where they can be monitored, or ignored, by insufficient staff. Multiple inmates report only having 1 or 2 guards per 400 prisoners.

The close proximity and lack of serious supervision lead to extreme bouts of violence, rampant drug use, and brutal sexual assaults. First-hand accounts describe the constant anxiety of living in such close quarters, never knowing when you’re safe. Sleeping becomes a risk when some inmates have been attacked and killed while trying to sleep in their own bunk. The person to your left may be having a bad trip on flakka while the person to your right may be trying to hang themself.

Social Dynamics In The Alabama Prison System

Prisoners interviewed by local outlets relay horrifying accounts of the social dynamics within the prison walls. The extremely hostile environment creates a “predator vs prey” relationship between inmates, providing a dangerous culture shock to the newly incarcerated. New arrivals are usually confronted and tested to see if they’re easy to push around, and if so, can spend the majority of their time in prison under threat of physical violence.

The age of an inmate often doesn’t matter. Elderly inmates make easy targets for groups of people to jump and mug. Reports of wheelchair-bound people losing everything they have because they can’t defend themselves are commonplace. Other inmates dare not defend them for fear of their own safety.

Inmate And Guard Relations

With such a cartoonishly unbalanced number of guards to prisoners, not much can be done to quell riots, incidences of violence, or drug use. While it’s true, 2 guards cannot adequately keep a hall of hundreds of men in order, it doesn’t even seem like they’re trying. Inmates report cold apathy and open hostility from the guards. There seems to be little to no good-faith effort to keep the peace or improve conditions.

During their rounds for roll call, guards have been reported ignoring:

  • Visibly sick/injured inmates.
  • Inmates dangerously high on meth, heroin, or flakka.
  • Inmates who have been hog-tied and attacked.
  • Inmates with no bunk that have to sleep on the floor.

The failure of Alabama prison staff often extends beyond apathetic ignorance into complicit behavior. Prisoners begging to be moved because their lives are in danger are often ridiculed and denied, or worse yet, declared a snitch by the guards as they’re thrown into a different dorm. The label of snitch often leads to drastically increased targeting from gangs.

When disputes arise between prisoners living in separate dorm halls, violence may have to wait for time in the mess hall or showers. Luckily, some guards will allow inmates to visit other dorms and attack people for the price of a pack of cigarettes or two.

Violence And Sexual Violence

Inmate on inmate violence is commonplace in Alabama. From 2015 to 2017, Alabama reported 25 prison homicides. This rate dwarfs most other states. Texas has over 5 times as many people incarcerated but experienced less than half as many homicides in the same timeframe. No shared space in the prison is safe from an attack. The dorm hall, showers, mess hall, and more all act as backdrops to egregious acts of violence.

One of the more gruesome aspects of prison violence is the prevalence of rape. The power dynamic and twisted sexual gratification often drives inmates to attack weaker peers or gang up to overpower someone. Oftentimes sexual violence and other forms of physical violence go hand in hand leading to horrible acts meant to humiliate and disable someone. When an inmate has been raped, it can flag them as weak and that sexual abuse may continue from other inmates and gangs.

In order to escape the violence in dorm halls, people may attempt suicide. One of the few stimuli guards seem to acknowledge is an inmate trying to end their own life. If caught in time, the inmate can be taken to medical care and then to solitary confinement until they’re deemed healthy enough to be reintroduced into the general population.

Women’s Prisons

While the level of inmate on inmate violence is lower in Alabama women’s prisons, they are still subject to horrifying conditions by the guards. Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama is rife with sexual assault. Guards routinely attack and rape inmates, which has led to the firing of over 20 staff for “illegal sexual contact with prisoners.” Women here have alleged that some of them will be raped, become pregnant, and deliver the baby all within the walls of the prison while serving their sentences. Prisoners who file civil suits against their attackers often have their case dismissed with little consideration.

Alabama Department Of Corrections (ADOC)

The ADOC is the state level governmental body responsible for creating and enforcing prison policies, and it seems to be apathetic toward the growing issues in its prisons. The initiation of the DOJ investigation in 2016 didn’t cause the concerted effort for improvement that some expected. Prison conditions, homicide, and suicide rates all continued to worsen, even under federal scrutiny.

The federal government isn’t even sure that the ADOC records and collects data correctly. This clerical issue seems to run from top levels down to guards, who have repeatedly been found reporting inmate murders as “dying of natural causes.” Homicide numbers, suicide numbers, reports of attacks and rapes all seem unreliable as the DOJ dug deeper. Closer examination has found most of their estimates to be lower than the actual incidence rates of these terrible events. This kind of carelessness is a demonstration of the lax grip Alabama has on its corrections system.

Avoiding These Places

Drugs are a common theme throughout the story of Alabama prisons. If you live in Alabama or another state with extremely poor prison quality, then getting help for developing drug dependencies is vital.  Contact a treatment provider to learn more about treatment options. Don’t wait if you or a loved one are in need of help.

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Michael Muldoon

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  • Michael Muldoon earned a B.A. in Media Studies from Penn State University, but instead of shifting into an academic career in social science, he has decided to put his skills to work in the pursuit of helping those struggling with addiction. He enjoys spending his free time at the climbing gym with friends.

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