DOJ files lawsuit against Alabama for unconstitutional prison conditions

“The United States Constitution requires Alabama to make sure that its prisons are safe and humane.”

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Accused of routinely violating the constitutional rights of inmates serving time in state prisons, the State of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections have recently been named in a Justice Department lawsuit against them. According to the DOJ, Alabama fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

On Wednesday, the DOJ filed a lawsuit against Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by failing to protect prisoners from violence, sexual abuse, and safe conditions. According to the complaint, the “State of Alabama is deliberately indifferent to the serious and systemic constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prisons for men.”

In addition to overcrowding prisoner populations that continue to increase, the complaint notes that “use of excessive force by security staff is common, and staffing rates remain critically and dangerously low.” The Justice Department also accused the Alabama Department of Corrections of failing to accurately classify the causes of death of many prisoners by falsely classifying the deaths as “natural causes” instead of homicide.

The complaint goes on to enumerate multiple incidents where guards failed to prevent prisoner-on-prisoner murders and rapes. While documenting the excessive use of force employed by correctional officers against prisoners, the complaint lists several assaults against prisoners, including at least two inmate deaths as a result of force by security staff.

“The United States Constitution requires Alabama to make sure that its prisons are safe and humane,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division in a press release. “The Department of Justice conducted a thorough investigation of Alabama’s prisons for men and determined that Alabama violated and is continuing to violate the Constitution because its prisons are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence. The violations have led to homicides, rapes, and serious injuries. The Department of Justice looks forward to proving its case in an Alabama federal courtroom.”

“­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The results of the investigation into safety and excessive force issues within Alabama’s prisons are distressing and continue to require real and immediate attention,” stated U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama Louis Franklin Sr. “We hope the filing of this complaint conveys the department’s continued commitment to ensuring that the Department of Corrections abides by its constitutional obligations.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that one of the primary responsibilities of government is to keep our citizens safe,” noted U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Richard Moore. “That responsibility extends to citizens incarcerated within Alabama prisons. Our investigation has demonstrated that constitutionally required standards have not been met in Alabama prisons and this must be corrected. I am disappointed that the efforts of both Alabama officials and Department of Justice officials to find appropriate solutions have not resulted in a mutually agreed upon resolution. Our oath as public officials now requires us to follow the Constitution and to pursue justice in the courts.”

For over 20 months, the Justice Department has engaged in negotiations with Alabama state officials without achieving a settlement that would correct the deficiencies identified by the department’s investigation. Due to these failed negotiations, the DOJ filed the lawsuit against Alabama on Wednesday for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

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