Last week, the New York Times ran a story based on a cache of more than 2,000 gruesome photos taken inside a notoriously violent Alabama prison. The Times declined to publish almost all of the photos. Today, we are publishing a much larger selection of those photos, which illustrate the utter brutality of prison life.
The photos—some showing confiscated prison contraband, and a much larger number showing the bloody results of prison violence, including graphic documentation of inmate injuries and even murders—were provided to the Times by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has spent years on lawsuits alleging that the conditions of the Alabama prison system constitute cruel and unusual punishment. This week, the Department of Justice agreed, issuing a 58-page report condemning the state’s prison system and finding that “Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions.”
There can be no more shocking illustration of those dynamics than these photos. They were taken inside St. Clair Correctional Facility, a state prison in Springville, AL, that has long been infamous for violence and despair. There have reportedly been four homicides inside St. Clair in the past six months. In 2003, the SPLC sued St. Clair for having dangerously inadequate health care. Multiple incidents of violence at the prison are cited in this week’s scathing new Justice Department report, including knife fights, stabbings, beatings, and murders of inmates by stabbing and strangling.
The Times concluded that “few of the photos could be published,” citing inmate privacy concerns and “audience sensibilities.” The SPLC has provided us access to the same set of photos. They say the photos were taken inside St. Clair between 2011 and 2018, most likely by prison investigative authorities, although the exact provenance cannot be determined. (The Times referenced an accompanying letter that claimed to be from a corrections officer whistleblower, but the SPLC is not releasing that letter.) The pictures constitute a rare inside look at the horrific toll of prison violence on the men locked up in the deadliest state prison system in America.
Maria Morris, an SPLC senior staff attorney who has been working on Alabama prison issues since 2012, says that conditions have actually gotten worse during that time, in part because prison staffing in the state has declined significantly, exacerbating the underlying problems. She hopes that the DOJ report and the release of these photos will have an impact on the public’s consciousness, and notes that many state prisoners placed themselves at great personal risk by speaking to investigators. “There is a great deal of retaliation that goes on [inside prisons],” she says. “Those people that came forward, they really want the public to know.”
It is one thing to read a report on the appalling conditions inside St. Clair; it is another to lay eyes on the bloody results of a prison system that is overcrowded and under-supervised. This collection of photos is both repulsive and newsworthy. As with war, it is impossible for the public to truly grasp the hideousness of what is happening without being able to see it. “The Alabama prison system is an arm of our government. It is something we are all responsible for. We should be aware of what is being done in our name,” Morris says. “When you look at these photos, you have to say: these people are being treated like animals.”
We have pulled out several dozen of the more than the 2,000 photos for publication here. They are a representative sample of the entire photo set, though we are not publishing any of the photos of murder victims; nor are we publishing the most grisly photos. Although what we are publishing includes extremely graphic depictions of violence and injuries, there were photos that were even worse.
We have broken our selections into two separate sets. The first slideshow depicts samples contraband and weapons confiscated in the prison. The second set includes the photos of prison violence and its aftermath—what those weapons have wrought.
The second set of photos is extremely graphic and disturbing.