Alabama prisons are horrible. There is no way to gloss over it. They are cruel and inhumane.
So bad that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) spent almost two years investigating them.
So bad that U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson has ruled that the treatment inmates receive in them is “unconstitutional.”
On April 29, The New York Times reported on the DOJ inquiry stating, "On April 2, the Department of Justice issued a horrifying report on Alabama’s prisons with graphic accounts of prisoners who were tortured, burned, raped, sodomized, stabbed and murdered in largely unsupervised dorms." (In hundreds of reports of sexual abuse, for example, investigators did not find a single instance of a guard intervening. Officers are so outnumbered, the report said, that they stay in a secure area, rather than patrol.)
USA Today, another national publication, led its story on the DOJ report like this: “Prison inmates in Alabama are routinely subjected to horrifying violence and sexual abuse within ‘a broken system’ where people are murdered ‘on a regular basis,’ according to a Justice Department review.”
Badly needed mental health care is lacking. State prisons have had 15 suicides in 15 months, many of which reportedly resulted from rapes and/or fear of sexual abuse. Thompson has ordered the state to come up with a plan to reduce the sky-high suicide rate.
The Birmingham News is running a series on Sundays about the prisons. One story described a system of extortion in the prisons under which an inmate will contact the mother of another inmate and tell her that her son will be subjected to violence if she does not send money. One relative told the news person that she has reported the extortion to prison and other state officials, but still, the activity continued. Often, for fear of their son’s safety, families send the money.
Alabama’s prison facilities are worn out and dilapidated and much too small for a bulging prison population.
Gov. Kay Ivey has been negotiating with a company to build three new energy-efficient facilities to lease to the state in the place of three or four outdated facilities.
The Justice Department has asked Thompson to order the state to hire 2,200 more prison guards. The state says it cannot locate and train that many guards in a period of months. Next year’s General Fund budget has in it funds to employ 500 additional guards and improve pay of ones already on board.
Prisoners do not get much sympathy from the public. After all, if they would not have been convicted of a crime, they would not be in prison. But the kind of inhumane treatment inmates receive in Alabama needs to stop.
I have confidence that Gov. Ivey and the Legislature will do the right thing. If they do not, Thompson, who is on senior status now, will hold them in contempt before they comply and Alabama would be subjected to still more negative headlines. And we don’t need that, but most of all, we do not need to subject people — and they are people if they are in prison — to the cruel conditions they must endure in our state penal facilities.
Retired Auburn attorney Don Eddins is publisher of The Auburn Villager newspaper and the online publication, auburnvillager.com. He is a former state Capitol reporter for The Huntsville Times and former state editor for The Columbus Ledger. Email him your comments about the newspaper to email@example.com.