In a nearly unprecedented move, the Department of Justice is launching an investigation into whether prisoners at Alabama state prisons are protected from sexual and physical abuse from guards and other inmates, as well as whether living conditions are safe and sanitary. “The constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DoJ’s civil rights division, said.
“It’s a giant investigation. This is rare,” Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director with the anti-hate legal group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is also looking into Alabama prisons, told the Guardian. "Taking on a whole state is unusual and possibly unprecedented,” she said.
Alabama's prison system has been the site of riots and strikes for months, due to its overcrowding and underfunding. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) "is profoundly overcrowded, dangerously understaffed and simply incapable of running safe and secure prisons that protect the physical and mental health of the people in custody," an SPLC attorney who investigated the ADOC as part of a lawsuit earlier this year found.
Prisoners at Holman Correctional Facility started the nationwide prison strike earlier this year, protesting prison and work conditions. Guards joined in soon after, as they are also directly impacted by overcrowding and understaffing. According to state figures, the prison system is at a little over 50 percent employment capacity.
The state has tried to stave off the federal investigation, commissioning reports finding that its "facilities are doing a stellar job of enacting policies aimed at reducing sexual violence," according to AL.com.
This post has been updated to properly reflect Lisa Graybill's position at the SPLC.
Sam Stecklow is the Weekend Editor for Fusion.