DOJ: Alabama inmates are subjected to excessive force

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that it believes Alabama’s prisons for men are unconstitutional because inmates are subjected to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

In its report, the Justice Department detailed a chilling litany of incidents, including a prison guard beating a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” as the prisoner begged the officer to kill him. It is the second time within 18 months that the Justice Department has accused Alabama of housing male inmates in unconstitutional conditions in a prison system considered one of the most understaffed and violent in the country.

“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of using excessive force against prisoners in Alabama’s prisons for men," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement. Dreiband said the Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the department’s concerns.

In findings sent to the state, federal investigators wrote that “uses of excessive force in Alabama’s prisons are common” and that severe overcrowding and understaffing plays a role in the violence.

“The severe and pervasive overcrowding increases tensions and escalates episodes of violence between prisoners, which lead to uses of force. At the same time, the understaffing tends to generate a need for more frequent uses of force than would otherwise occur if officers operated at full strength,” federal investigators wrote.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement that her administration remains hopeful that they will reach a resolution to all of the department’s allegations.

“I am as committed as ever to improving prison safety through necessary infrastructure investment, increased correctional staffing, comprehensive mental-health care services, and effective rehabilitation programs, among other items. We all desire an effective, Alabama solution to this Alabama problem, and my administration will put in the hard work and long hours necessary to achieve that result,” the Republican governor said.

The Justice Department noted that correctional officers in multiple prisons have pleaded guilty or been convicted of using excessive force against prisoners, including one incident when at least four officers beat a prisoner to death.

The 28-page Justice Department report listed multiple examples of violence by prison staff after reviewing files and visiting several state prisons. The Justice Department said:

— In December 2018, a correctional officer brutally hit, kicked, and struck a handcuffed prisoner with an expandable baton in the Ventress medical unit. During the beating, all four of the nurses heard the officer yell something to the effect of, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” and the prisoner begged the officer to kill him.

— In September 2019, a lieutenant at Ventress prison lifted a handcuffed inmate off the ground and slammed him on a concrete floor several times, knocking him unconscious. The prisoner was unable to breathe on his own, was intubated, and taken to an outside hospital, where medical personnel administered CPR several times to keep the prisoner alive.

— In February 2019, a sergeant at Elmore prison beat two handcuffed prisoners, suspected of retrieving contraband, striking one prisoner with a collapsible baton approximately 19 times on his head, legs, arms, back, and body. The sergeant who assaulted the prisoners later filed a false report about the incident. The sergeant and two correctional officers pleaded guilty in federal court.

“The results of the investigation into excessive force issues within Alabama’s prisons is distressing and continues to require real and immediate attention,” said Louis Franklin, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama.

The announcement comes more than a year after the Justice Department released a scathing report that said male inmates face excessive inmate-on-inmate violence and sexual abuse in facilities that are not sanitary, safe, or secure. The department is in negotiations with the state in an attempt to reach an agreement.

The finding released Thursday were the continuation of the investigation first launched in 2016.

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