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Death and Violence Mount in Overcrowded Alabama Prisons

On February 5, 2022, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a nine-year sentence had been handed down to the last of four Alabama prison guards convicted of beating state prisoners they suspected of smuggling contraband at Elmore Correctional Facility (ECF)

Three days later, on February 8, 2022, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) signed a $15 million contract to buy an old 700-bed prison that it plans to renovate and use to keep parole violators out of the general population in state prisons, on top of a controversial prison construction program previously announced.

What’s the common thread connecting these events?

They are the latest fallout from a prison system perpetually marred by unsafe and violent conditions that have been the subject of two federal lawsuits.

One of those suits, filed by DOJ in December 2020, alleges that Alabama is “deliberately indifferent” to unconstitutional overcrowding persisting at its state prisons, facilities that “are riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence,” like that inflicted by the four ECF guards on the smuggling suspects. [See: PLN, Apr. 2021, p.34.]

In the other suit, a federal judge also took DOC to task for the pernicious effect that its chronic short-staffing has on mentally ill prisoners, who filed a class-action lawsuit over being left locked in their cells most of the day to keep them from self-harm. Even then almost 30 found a way to kill themselves over the past two years.

But the guards who manage to show up for work can’t always be counted on not to make matters worse. Willie M. Burks III, 41, was the last of the four ECF guards to be sentenced in the 2019 beatings of two handcuffed prisoners, Cortney Rolley and Christopher Hampton. [See: PLN, Jan. 2021, p.62.] After Rolley was mauled by another guard, Sgt. Ulysses Oliver, Jr., Burks then “stood and watched as Oliver pulled the second inmate [Hampton] from an observation room, threw him on the floor and beat the inmate with his feet and collapsible baton,” according to the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case. Two more guards, Bryanna Mosley and Leon Williams, were also convicted of failing to intervene in the attacks

Critics say it’s all symptomatic of a prison system in which overcrowding and short staffing have spiraled out of control. In the year after DOJ filed its suit over DOC’s severe overcrowding, the reported prison population in the state jumped more than 7.4% to 18,773 prisoners, all crowded into facilities designed for just 12,115—an occupancy rate of 155%.

But just before that news arrived in December 2021, there was another grim headline in June 2021, when DOC admitted that its vacancy rate for guard positions had climbed from 50% to 52% over the preceding year.

It was to that toxic combination of too many prisoners and too little staff that DOJ attributed “a high rate of prisoner-on-prisoner violence that is serious and systematic” in a letter sent on April 2, 2019, warning DOC that “overcrowding and understaffing” had resulted “in prisons that are inadequately supervised with inappropriate and unsafe housing designations, creating an environment rife with violence, extortion, drugs, and weapons.’’

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