DOJ Says Alabama Has Yet to Fix Its Prisons Where 33 Inmates Have Died in Last 3 Years

The U.S. Department of Justice said Alabama prisons have remained unimproved after 33 inmates have died in the last three years due to overcrowding and understaffing, the Associated Press reported.

The Justice Department notified Alabama over two years ago that the state's prison conditions were so bad they were unconstitutional. The department recently updated its complaint last Friday after a federal judge told them to be more specific about their accusations.

According to the filing, at least 33 inmates were killed in the prison between 2018 and 2020. The Justice Department said seven prisoners were killed in 2021 and were either stabbed, smothered or choked to death.

Officials wrote that violence in prisons remains high and the facilities are "overcrowded and dangerously understaffed." Alabama has acknowledged issues with state prisons but is fighting the allegations that the conditions are unconstitutional in court.

"In the two and a half years following the United States' original notification to the State of Alabama of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, prisoners at Alabama's Prisons for Men have continued daily to endure a high risk of death, physical violence, and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners," the Justice Department wrote in the complaint.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Alabama Prison, Inmate, Help
FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2019, file photo, a sign reads, "HELP," in the window of an inmate cell seen during a tour by state officials at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, to vote on a $1.3 billion prison construction plan proponents say will help address the state’s longstanding problems in corrections, but critics argue the troubles go much deeper and won’t be remedied with brick, mortar and bars. Kim Chandler/AP Photo

The lawsuit accused the state of operating prisons where conditions are so poor they violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and accuses state officials of being deliberately indifferent to the situation.

While the department reported no 2021 homicides in monthly reports, at least 10 prisoner-on-prisoner homicides "have been reported by the media and advocates in calendar year 2021," officials wrote. The prison system does not include in its numbers deaths that are still under investigation.

In one case, a 53-year-old prisoner at Donaldson died after being strangled and a note was found on the prisoner indicating he feared for his life because another prisoner had ordered a "hit" on him, officials wrote.

The Associated Press in September sent a records request asking for the number of inmate deaths under investigation as a potential homicide. The department responded on November 2 that it did "not label any death investigation as a 'potential homicide' so we cannot provide that information."

The Justice Department wrote there is a pattern of excessive force by prison guards that is fueled by a dangerous mix of overcrowded prisons and too few officers.

"Overworked security staff in the overcrowded prisons lack sufficient backup and support to manage prison security, which results officers' increased fear of prisoner threats and excessive force," the department wrote.

The department said, "most of Alabama's prisons had correctional staff vacancy rates of over 50%" in the first quarter of 2021. The Justice Department also described a litany of safety and sanitation problems with buildings, including that "not one of the 13 Alabama's prisons for men has a functional fire alarm system."

A state lawmaker, who has called for the firing of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, said Wednesday that the prison system is in crisis.

"I've said it a million times. There is no leadership over there," said Representative Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey this fall signed into law a plan to use $400 million in pandemic relief funds to help build two 4,000-bed prisons and a new prison for women and renovate other facilities.

Ivey and GOP legislative leaders touted the construction plan as a partial solution to the state's longstanding problems in corrections. Critics argued buildings alone will not remedy the prison problems and said the state has needs in health care and education that could be helped by the $400 million

Gov. Kay Ivey
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey this fall signed into law a plan to use $400 million in pandemic relief funds to help build two 4,000-bed prisons and a new prison for women and renovate other facilities, but critics argue the troubles go much deeper and won’t be remedied with brick, mortar and bars. Above, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey speaks during a news conference in Montgomery, Alabama, July 29, 2020. Kim Chandler, File/AP Photo