Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice, released today, found horrific levels of violence in Alabama prisons, according to NPR. The report comes after a two year civil rights investigation into conditions in the state’s notoriously overcrowded and understaffed corrections facilities.

The report found that Alabama was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners by allowing uncontrolled violence among incarcerated people, as well as widespread sexual assault.

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The DOJ report says that “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,” Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband and the three U.S. Attorney wrote in a letter sent to Republican Governor Kay Ivey.

The findings in the 62-page report are grim, including descriptions of rape, murder, torture, and extortion of incarcerated people’s families.

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From the New York Times:

Investigators visited four prisons and interviewed more than 270 prisoners. To “provide a window into a broken system,” the report detailed a single week’s worth of injuries and attacks, including days that saw multiple incidents including stabbings, a sleeping man attacked with socks filled with metal locks and another man being forced to perform oral sex on two men at knife point.“The violations are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision,” the report said. [...]

The report said the state failed to track violent deaths or adequately investigate sex abuse. At least three homicide victims — including one who was stabbed and another who was beaten — were classified as having died from natural causes, the report said. The report listed nine killings in which the victims had been previously attacked or officials had received other warnings that they were in danger.

Sexual assaults occur in “dormitories, cells, recreation areas, the infirmary, bathrooms, and showers at all hours of the day and night,” the report said. Prisons must screen inmates and separate sexually abusive prisoners from those at risk of sexual abuse, particularly gay and transgender people; the report said Alabama does not do so.

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Much of the problem results from the severe overcrowding and understaffing of Alabama’s prisons. The report found that the state’s biggest prisons were at 182 percent capacity. Holman prison, where the state’s death row is located, has a mere 11 security staff on each shift to patrol a population of 800 inmates.

Even worse, the DOJ alleges that the state has been aware of these issues since the 1970s, and done almost nothing to fix them.

“I wish I could say it’s surprising but it’s not,” Republican State Senator Cam Ward, who chairs Alabama’s prison oversight committee, told NPR. “[The report] highlights some very serious concerns with regard to inmate-on-inmate violence, the conditions of the facilities, and ... what DOJ expects from us, which is, within 49 days, to come up with a plan of action on how to deal with some of these problems.”

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“It’s such a damning portrait of a system in crisis,” Lisa Graybill, a lawyer who works on criminal justice reform at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who have participated in litigation against Alabama’s prison system, told NPR. “The state has refused to accept responsibility for bringing its population down to a manageable level or bringing its conditions up to a constitutional level.”

In light of the DOJ report, the federal government is threatening to sue the state if they do not formulate a plan to improve conditions in prisons within 49 days. If the government does sue, it’s possible that they will take control of the state’s prison system.

“In response to DOJ’s findings, it is important to understand all the current efforts [Alabama Department of Corrections] 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.

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“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,”he continued.

Governor Ivey said in a statement that she is working with the DOJ “to ensure that our mutual concerns are addressed,” to make sure “this Alabama problem has an Alabama solution.”

But fixing the prison system has apparently been low on the state’s to-do list.

“They’re not fixing them,” Maria Morris, the lead attorney in SPLC’s case against the state’s prisons, told the Times. “They’re giving a lot of lip service to the need to fix them, but the lip service always comes back to we just need a billion dollars to build new prisons and, as the Department of Justice found, that’s not going to solve the problem.”

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“It’s not something that your constituents call and say ‘Hey let’s fix the prisons’ so it has to be a last priority behind schools, your health care system, etc.,” Ward told NPR. “I think this is pretty much in line with other states, we’ve just let it go for so long we’ve got to finally you know call to action.”