Alabama’s prisons are so rife with bloodshed and sexual abuse that President Trump’s Department of Justice concluded that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is grossly violating inmates’ constitutional rights. “The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the DOJ’s investigative report reads.
The scathing 56-page audit paints a disturbing picture of rampant physical and sexual violence, which has reached critical levels. The result, according to the DOJ, is the frequent violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantee of “basic human needs,” including “reasonable safety.” Given the gravity of the DOJ’s findings, the Legislature must immediately solve these issues to ensure that the ADOC can properly accomplish its mission.
The root of many of these problems stems from insufficient staffing, corrections workers’ shocking indifference to prisoner mistreatment, inadequate funding levels, and prison overcrowding. In fact, Alabama has one of the most bloated prison populations in the country. As of 2013, it had the fourth highest incarceration rate per capita, which its current facilities simply cannot handle. Indeed, the state prison system is at 165 percent occupancy capacity.
What’s more, the ADOC is dangerously understaffed. Earlier this year, the department admitted that it needs to hire over 2,000 more corrections officers just to manage the current prison population. This isn’t a new problem, either. State officials have tried to get creative to address staffing issues in the past, but its experiments have been unsatisfactory. Large areas in prisons are not supervised for extended periods of time, and many corrections officers are overworked. Some are even forced to participate in what is called “voluntary mandatory overtime” to keep up with the workload.
An overcrowded prison population is prone to illicit activity, but when correctional staffing is inadequate, there’s little that guards can do to combat many of the problems. And these problems are serious and pervasive. Alabama’s prison homicide rate is the highest in the country, and prisoner violence is worsening with each passing year. The level of sexual violence is also disturbing. Though it is impossible to quantify the exact number of such incidents due to underreporting, the DOJ found many hundreds of instances of sexual abuse, including gang rapes. But the agency shockingly couldn’t find a single example in which corrections staff intervened. Rather, the abuse has continued unabated.
The combination of insufficient corrections funding and prison overcrowding has reared its ugly head in other ways, too. The facilities themselves are in a state of disrepair. The plumbing systems cannot handle the large volume, the utilities are degrading, and achieving and maintaining basic sanitation is a constant struggle in certain prisons. For example, in Draper Correctional Facility, sewage water covers the floors, toilets often don’t work properly, and some claim to have found rats and maggots in the kitchen.
While some will certainly attempt to justify these conditions by repeating pithy tough-on-crime platitudes, this is wholly unacceptable. Yes, the people in question are inmates who have lost many rights and privileges. But they, like all Americans, still enjoy the protection of the Eighth Amendment.
To ensure that inmates are treated properly, or at least on par with prisoners in other states, the Legislature needs to continue its noble work on criminal justice reform, apply it retroactively, and search for other ways to reduce overincarceration. However, this alone won’t be enough. The Legislature must also adequately staff and fund the prison system.
Considering that around 95 percent of prisoners will be released back into society, Alabamans would be well-served to guarantee that the incarcerated are managed with dignity. They should live in an environment that encourages rehabilitation and reduces recidivism, rather than an environment that inflicts lasting trauma.
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