The Department of Justice’s latest report on its investigation into Alabama’s prisons is yet another scathing indictment of the state of Alabama prisons. It’s past time for Alabama leaders to begin making changes to a system and culture that brutalizes and murders inmates, has little accountability and has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in lawsuits.
The problems in Alabama prisons are not new. The Department of Justice has been investigating the conditions inside our prisons for years. The governor and legislature have passed legislation and proposed plans to address some of the issues. Most of these plans address the overcrowding and under-staffing of the prisons, which the DOJ points to as a major issue in the prisons and a contributing factor to the violence in the prisons. Inmates are in crowded situations, creating volatile and hostile environments. Guards are out numbered and don’t feel safe and are more likely to resort to force - and excessive use of force - more quickly.
However, the problem in the prisons goes beyond infrastructure needs. There is an embedded culture within the Alabama Department of Corrections that also needs to be addressed.
The latest DOJ report investigated 13 state prisons and found excessive force problems in 12 of them. While it may appear to be good news that they didn’t find evidence is all 13, that’s only because they lacked sufficient documentation from Hamilton Aged & Infirmed to make that determination and the DOC blocked investigators from talking to officers there about training standards. The footnotes of the report include other examples of ADOC’s failure to produce documents or allow investigators to interview prison staff.
Here’s what investigators found in those 12 prisons:
Officers used excessive force on inmates who were restrained or compliant
Officers used excessive force as a punishment or retribution
Officers used chemical spray inappropriately
The report cites examples of excessive force that are gut-wrenching to read. It’s even more alarming that many of these incidents are covered up or minimized; that when they are reported, few are investigated.
According to investigators, “Given the identified pervasiveness of the uses of excessive force and the statewide application of ADOC’s use of force policies and procedures, we have reasonable cause to believe that the uses of excessive force occurring within Alabama’s prisons give rise to systemic unconstitutional conditions. “
It says a lot about the culture of the prison system that in a two year period, nearly half of the 97 disciplinary actions were for officers not showing up to work or being late for work. Only one disciplinary action in that two year period related to use of force. That’s not an infrastructure problem, that’s a cultural problem.
And cultural problems start at the top. Throughout the report, DOJ investigators note where they were blocked from getting information or conducting interviews with prison officials; where limited information was provided on disciplinary actions; and where wardens choose to impose “corrective actions” when excessive force was used without specifying what “corrective actions” means.
As the DOJ report notes, “And because the wardens’ decisions to take corrective action are not reviewed, ADOC’s system enables any warden who wants to avoid leadership scrutiny to do so by refusing to refer incidents to I&I. [The investigative unit] This lack of accountability ultimately results in a failure to correct underlying problems that contribute to the continued uses of excessive force. We therefore have good reason to believe that the disciplinary system within ADOC is ineffective at combatting uses of excessive force.”
ADOC says it’s addressing the issues brought up in this report and previous DOJ investigations. Namely, it’s adding training for staff, body cameras, and a special investigator position. Those are all good steps - as is building new prisons to ease over crowding - but they do not address they systematic problems of accountability.
What good is training if officers are going to be held accountable for their actions? What difference does body camera video make when the culture is to deny and cover up? What does an added investigator do if the standard for sending excessive use of force cases to a prosecutor is “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” a high standard used by juries in determining guilt in criminal cases?
It’s going to take years for new prisons to be built and for physical improvements to be made to Alabama’s prisons. But changing the culture, demanding accountability, needs to begin now. And it needs to start from the top down.