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Justice Dept. Finds Violence In Alabama Prisons 'Common, Cruel, Pervasive'

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Prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. A Department of Justice report finds violence in Alabama's overcrowded prisons is 'cruel' and 'pervasive.'
Brynn Anderson, AP

Prisoners stand in a crowded lunch line during a prison tour at Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. A Department of Justice report finds violence in Alabama's overcrowded prisons is 'cruel' and 'pervasive.'

The U.S. Department of Justice says conditions in Alabama prisons are unsafe and unconstitutional. The findings are the result of a more than two year civil rights investigation prompted by spiraling violence in Alabama lockups that has resulted in deadly harm.

The Justice Department report finds that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse. It notes "a high level of violence that is too common, cruel, of an unusual nature, and pervasive."

"Our investigation revealed that an excessive amount of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths occur within Alabama's prisons on a regular basis," wrote Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband, and the three U.S. Attorneys in Alabama in a letter accompanying the report sent to Republican Governor Kay Ivey.

The detailed report outlines cases of inmate deaths, rapes, extortion of the families of prisoners, and rampant contraband weapons and drugs. It says facilities violate the constitution, by not providing "adequate humane conditions of confinement."

Alabama's prison system is in crisis due to chronic overcrowding and severe understaffing. For example, the warden at Alabama's Holman prison, that houses death row, reported to DOJ investigators that she estimates that she has 11 security staff per shift for a prison population of 800.

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The Justice Department also found evidence that some officials at the Alabama Department of Corrections (ALDOC) are "deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm." It says the state has been aware of these issues dating to the 1970s, "yet little has changed."

State officials say they are aware of the problems and are working on reforms. "In response to DOJ's findings, it is important to understand all the current efforts ADOC has taken and will continue to take to improve the conditions of confinement within the male prison system," Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement, citing plans to build new prisons and secure additional funding from the state legislature.

"Our primary objective is to ensure each facility provides a humane, secure, and safe environment for inmates, and that reforms already in place and proposed bring about positive, tangible changes throughout the prison system," Dunn said.

The Department of Justice set out specific remedies, and says if the state has not satisfactorily corrected deficiencies after 49 days, the federal government will sue Alabama. The state already faces ongoing litigation brought by inmates and civil rights groups.

In 2017, a federal judge found "horrendously inadequate" mental health care in state lockups and is now holding hearings now to force the state to stop a rash of inmate suicides.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said in a statement that her administration will be working closely with DOJ "to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed" and to make certain that "this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution."

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